“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father, his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”
Who wants to sign up??
We long for the grace that comforts, rescues, and consoles us; grace that inspires and lifts us up. But, intentionally taking on a mission that brings conflict and death?? Who among us wants to sign up for that?
Imagine, for a moment, if Jesus himself was coming into one of our American cities over the last two weeks and saw the crowds. Like us, he’d probably feel pretty overwhelmed by what he was seeing. We are told in the scripture we just heard that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.”
Let’s pause there for a moment. Jesus looks upon the crowds and had compassion.
The word for “had compassion” in Greek derives from another word that means a deep down, earthly, visceral pouring out. This is a compassion that springs from the deepest part of one’s being.
Most of us have seen the images of crowds across the US and around the world since the protests began. What do you feel when you see those images? What do you think when you see the crowds? Be honest with yourself. This is important. Because our feelings, our assessment, about what we are seeing has consequences. If we look at the crowds, and see “other” or feel “fear” we are likely to stay right where we are, unmoved, out of a desire to protect ourselves. But, if we look at the crowds and feel compassion, we may be moved to action.
When Jesus looks at the crowds, his heart is moved. And from the depth of his compassion, he takes loving action. I worry that in our media-saturated society, where the images of destruction grab our attention, we will lose sight of the individual people who have suffered because of the color of their skin; that we will lose sight of the larger story of peaceful protests for justice.
In order to take action that is rooted in Jesus’ command in today’s scripture to us, especially knowing that there may be a personal cost, it is essential that we begin with compassion. When we actually feel compassion, it is a sign that God’s spirit is alive within us. As our Buddhist friends teach, when we allow our hearts to open to the suffering of other people, compassion naturally arises. To make a lasting difference in how we relate to people who are struggling, Jesus shows us the way. Begin with open-hearted compassion.
On Thursday, someone asked me, “Do you think this is the moment that the black community will finally succeed in being heard?” Perhaps you have heard or wondered this yourself.
From where I sit, this is a good question – but it begs a more essential question: “Is this the moment that the white community will listen, feel and act with the compassion of Jesus to heal what’s broken in our country?” Will white people be willing to risk conflict, hatred, and even death in the name of Jesus to join the work of justice with and for black people?
At the core, racism is a disease of the heart. And if we are going to finally have a country that has liberty and justice for all, we need to start with our own hearts. Because unless our hearts are engaged, unless we root and ground our actions in love, we can not make the kind of changes that will take hold. We can make all the laws and statutes we want – the Minneapolis Police Department had many statutes meant to guide their officers in doing the right thing – but if our hearts don’t appreciate the presence of God in every person,
we will inevitably fall short in creating the beloved community where all are welcome, protected and share fully in abundant life.
When our hearts are engaged, our vision becomes clearer and our desire to take action emerges from a loving place within us. What’s amazing is that Jesus tells us that from a place of compassion, we can do exactly the same things he did. Let that sink in. We can do exactly the same things he did. We can be the power of God’s love in the world. Jesus tells us that the same grace that animated his mission will animate us.
If we are honest about the history of Christianity, we have to admit that we have fallen far short of continuing Jesus’ mission, of doing the things he did. Why? Could it be that we have not cultivated the state of our hearts? That we have again and again fundamentally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and have been more preoccupied with what we want God to do for us than with what God asks us to do for the world?? Could it be that at certain points in Christian history, including this one, we’ve allowed Christian symbols and stories to be co-opted by the powerful for their own ends?
When we are consumed by fear – especially when we are worried about ourselves, our families, our tribe (however we identify the group where we feel a sense of belonging) –
we are less likely to feel compassion for others in their struggles. When we are consumed with taking care of our own interests, we are unlikely to follow Jesus’ direction that we be people who go where the need is greatest – among the sick, the dying, the grieving, those who are seen as lepers or struggling with demons. Of course there are times in our lives when all we can do is try to keep ourselves and our families together. But, there are other times in our lives, when that’s not the case – when we might have the time and the opportunity to reach beyond to people who could benefit from our care.
Writing about the Gospel of Matthew, New Testament professor Craig Keener suggests that to truly follow Jesus means that Christians ought to be less concerned about going to church and more concerned about being the church, being the presence of God’s compassion in the world.
The summer after I graduated from the University of Vermont, I was making plans to move to Seattle to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and work with folks who were homeless. Shortly before I left Burlington, a friend and I went to a local arthouse movie theatre to see a film that had just opened about homeless runaways in Seattle. I had never laid eyes on Seattle, so I thought seeing the film might be a helpful introduction. Well… It portrayed Seattle as an edgy, dangerous place with an out-of-control homelessness problem. It scared the heck out of me. I remember sitting in the theatre when the film was over, not able to move or speak for minutes. These feelings haunted me for days. But, I felt strongly called to Seattle, and I was 22, so I went anyway.
When I arrived at the St. Martin de Porres Shelter, a shelter that housed 200 men over the age of 50 in an old government warehouse in an industrial section of the waterfront, my fears began to subside as I first met the staff – Margaret, Joan, Kevin, Rita, Doug, and Otto; and the volunteers – Dick who managed the Clothing Pantry and George, who came every week to cut the men’s hair. Then I met the residents – Calvin, Kelly, Jo Jo, TJ, Tai, Rusty, Howard, Gene, Eddie and so many more. It was sitting with them and hearing their stories that moved my heart from fear to compassion, from overwhelm to love.
When we look at any major social issues – racism, homelessness, gun violence – to name just a few – we often don’t know how to begin to address them. It can feel like we can’t make a real difference. And so, many times we don’t do anything. But, when we can overcome our paralysis and actually begin to take steps, we discover that racism and homelessness and gun violence aren’t just social problems, they have consequences for individuals – for people with names like Calvin and Louise and Greg. If we can understand how a social problem affects real people and we encounter those people face to face, something inside us can shift and we are more likely to take action.
Today as Jesus looks at the crowds, he doesn’t say to us, “I know it’s too much. There’s nothing you can do .” He says, “Go. I am sending YOU.” Remember, he has already told us that he has gone ahead to prepare the way for us; that he accompanies us and is within us. Jesus reminds us that we don’t even need to know exactly what we are doing; we don’t have to have a grand, strategic plan – we just have to get out there and begin, trusting that God will give us the words and the direction to share in the mission.
On the journey of life, it is our human tendency to long for peace and comfort. All too often we equate the presence of peace and comfort with the presence of God; and the absence of peace and comfort as the absence of God. Today Jesus teaches us that even deeper than peace or comfort is love, is compassion. And sometimes for the sake of love, we are called to give up both peace and comfort.
There is much about these present days that is neither peaceful nor comfortable. The challenge is to keep our hearts open and soft enough that we can become God’s compassion in the midst of the brokenness of the world. Sent by Christ, right here and now, we can embody God’s faithful grace and love that endures through joys and challenges, through ease and discomfort.
Imagine, again, that you are standing with Jesus looking at one of the crowds gathering in an American city.
Can you feel compassion for a six year old who lost her father? For Gianna who lost George?
Can you feel compassion for a mother whose daughter died while sleeping in bed?
For Tamika who lost Breonna?
Can you feel compassion for a mother whose son was chased down and shot while out jogging? For Wanda who lost Ahmaud?
Now what will you do? What will we do? Amen.