Sunday, January 31, 2021 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Author of compassion, Open us—heart, mind, body and soul—to your way. Amen.
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church—a compassionate community led and transformed by the Spirit…that is our vision, our goal, who we strive to be. A Compassionate community—a group of compassionate people—a vital part of becoming Beloved Community. I would argue that ALL churches should hold this goal, this vision, as core to their identity—to be a compassionate community. But what exactly is compassion? What does it look like in action? If you Google it, the internet defines compassion as being able to ‘recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help. Compassion embodies tangible expressions of love for those who are suffering.’ Amen! That is a pretty good definition—tangible expressions of love for those who are suffering…TANGIBLE. Not some ambiguous or ‘pie-in-the-sky’ forms of love, but concrete, real, practical, touchable acts of love. Yet…, of course… Jesus takes it even further.
As we have explored in other sermons in the past, the compassion that Jesus exemplifies in the Gospel accounts—where we translate that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’—is defined by the Greek word used, “splochnon.” This word we translate as ‘moved with compassion,’ is so much deeper and more profound than our translation could possibly capture. Splochnon is a word derived from the root for ‘guts.’ It is a compassion that ‘rends the guts.’ Splochnon is compassion that kicks us in the center of our being and we cannot do otherwise than to respond, to alleviate the need we see before us. This is the compassion that our scriptures call us to, a compassion that cuts us to the core.
Of course, this is the compassion we wish to embody, the compassion we want to be known for, right? We want to be like Jesus, to follow Jesus’ way—to be Followers of the Way—and to be a compassionate community truly led and transformed by the Spirit. We have dedicated ourselves to care for our community, such as supporting the ministries I mentioned in our children’s time: Kitchen Cupboard, the homeless ministries through St. John’s Community Services, Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance for refugees and immigrants, Loaves and Fishes hot meal program, Catholic Charities, and so many more. These are good and wonderful agencies and ministries, who deeply appreciate our financial support and the work of our volunteers.
However, the call to follow Jesus, the call to be a compassionate community that follows the lead of the Spirit, challenges us to go further and to go deeper. Embodying compassion challenges us to get ‘up close and personal’ with those in need. Embodying compassion challenges us to acknowledge that it is easier to tangibly love those in need from a distance, to write a check. It is also easier to respond to need when people are friendly and grateful… and fairly agreeable in nature. Compassion requires so much more of us when we truly encounter the chaos and mess of people’s lives—when we see their struggle with addiction or mental illness or trauma, or all of thee above and more. And, Compassion becomes an uphill climb when we come face-to-face with hatred and bitterness and hostility. How do respond to need when it is disguised as anger and violence? How do we respond to needs without sanctioning behaviors of anger or violence? And most importantly, how do we overcome the things that block our sense of compassion and therefore our actions, especially when we are unaware of these blocks?
I’m pretty sure Peter saw himself as a fairly compassionate guy as we encounter him in our Acts reading today. This is an older Peter, a more experienced Peter. This is no longer the blundering disciple of our gospel accounts. This is the great apostle, the rock of the church, considered by many to be the first bishop in our faith. Simon Peter spent three intensive years literally following in the footsteps of Jesus, witnessing splochnon-compassion firsthand. As we encounter Peter in our reading today, he has just raised a sister-follower named Tabitha from the dead. Peter is the first apostle to accomplish such a feat. Peter is successful. He is a leader of this new Jesus movement. He goes to the rooftop, basking in his success…but then the Spirit decides to do some more leading and interrupts him.
In this wild vision of Peter’s that we just heard read, Peter is confronted in no uncertain terms with a blockade to compassion of which he was not even aware. The Laws governing dietary restrictions and social distancing with non-Jewish neighbors was ancient even in Peter’s day. These holiness codes were gifted to the people through Moses on Mt. Sinai in the wilderness days of the Israelites. When in the vision Peter is confronted with the meat blanket of no-no foods, he doesn’t see an issue…he sees a test. Would Peter break the law, violate the codes, and partake of these forbidden foods? No! Of course Peter would NOT. Peter went through his bar mitzvah and learned all the practices of a good and righteous person. He would never knowingly and willingly violate one of the most basic of codes. Nothing impure or unclean has crossed his lips. He does not see this as a problem to be overcome or as any type of obstacle to his ministry. Therefore, this vision and God’s declaration that these foods are NOT unclean leaves Peter reeling.
Peter learns as the story continues that this vision was not, in the long run, about food and dietary laws, not really. This vision was about tearing down the walls that prevented Peter from witnessing the needs of his neighbors who were not of the people Israel. This scripture passage is not about the kosher dietary laws of our beloved Jewish neighbors—and we do not pass judgment on ancient codes of faith well lived. This passage is about the obstacles in OUR way, those things that prevent us from truly seeing and acting with compassion. This vision serves to unsettle us, to leave us brooding for a moment, considering our own biases and prejudices and lack of vision.
A few years ago, when I was serving a different congregation, I was confronted by three very conservative and extremist individuals, who came by my church office to correct me on my beliefs and practices, to set me ‘right.’ Needless to say, it was an intense time and we all left the encounter upset and frustrated. A few weeks later, I was volunteering with the hot meal program that served the community from the church building where I was pastor. I was assigned to wait on the a group of tables in one corner of the dining room. As I approached one of my tables to greet our guests and see what I might bring for them, I encountered one of the extremist individuals from the encounter weeks before. He and I were both horrified to see one another. Immediately, he was angry, hostile and defensive. He whipped his red MAGA hat out of his bag and placed it firmly on his head, glaring at me and challenging me to make him remove it for hats were not to be worn during the meal. I did not ask him to remove it
I served him with as much grace as I could muster, but I must confess that it was a real struggle. I remember chanting to myself in my head; don’t react, just keep serving…don’t react, just keep serving—over and over again. Finally, he finished eating, and he and the others at his table made their way out of the dining room. As I watched him leave with no small amount of relief, the director of the hot meal program, a member of the congregation I served, came and stood beside me. She saw where I was looking and commented, “It took a lot for him to come in here today. He is a proud man. His wife was just placed in a nursing home, suffering with Alzheimer’s, and the cost of the facility is leaving him with little to live on. It took his friends weeks to convince him to come. Today was his first time here. I am so glad he came.”
In that moment, I understood splochnon, I was cut to the core. In that moment I was deeply and profoundly aware of what stands in the way of my compassion; a true, Jesus-like compassion. My beloved family, we are called to be a compassionate community, a compassionate people, led and transformed by the Spirit. What gets in the way? What prevents us from seeing like Jesus, loving like Jesus? What prevents us from seeing Jesus in each person we meet? Let us deepen and broaden our splochnon-compassion together. Let us begin by declaring aloud the core value of embodying compassion, acting with compassion. It is printed in the bulletin, please join your voice with mine:
Acting with Compassion:
Jesus taught his followers in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, that when they minister to the ‘least of these’ -the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned, the naked and the stranger- they minister to Jesus. Following the leading of the Spirit, we at St. Paul’s strive to see Jesus Christ in each person and come together from a variety of places within the mystery of compassion to serve those most in need in our world, often in partnership with community agencies and groups, and with other faith communities. Through our beloved community and sacred connections, we open ourselves to the world, discerning where joy, peace and compassion are most needed.