Sermon: Spiritual Practices: Compassion

“Spiritual Practices: Compassion”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 15, 2017

Isaiah 63:9 – adapted from The Message translation

In all their troubles, God was troubled, too. God didn’t send someone else to help them; God’s own self did it, in person. Out of God’s own love and compassion God redeemed them. God rescued them and carried them for a long, long time.

Matthew 20:29-34

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Jesus. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’  Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

What does the word “compassion” mean to you?

The Latin roots of the word compassion give a somewhat unexpected definition – passion means “suffering” – as in the Mel Gibson movie from several years ago, the Passion of the Christ – and com means “with.” So compassion becomes literally “suffering with.”

At first this sounds rather dire – in order to be compassionate we actually have to suffer along with others who are suffering? No thanks, we might think, we already have enough suffering in our own lives!

But if you think about it, we can’t actually feel someone else’s pain caused by a scraped knee; we can’t really even feel someone else’s particular heartbreak over the loss of a loved one.  We can only allow our own feelings to be roused, in solidarity, we might say, with someone else’s injury or their grief.

So a better concept of compassion, of “suffering with,” might be “to allow ourselves to be moved by someone else’s pain,” “to allow our hearts to be touched by someone else’s loss or difficulty.”  To live not with the hardened heart so frequently decried in the scriptures, but with a softened heart, capable of feeling.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus demonstrates this softened heart, open to feeling another’s pain. Hearing two blind men cry out to him to be healed, Jesus realizes how difficult their lives must be in a culture where those with a disability who could not earn their own living were cast off to become beggars, how much they have struggled.  Matthew writes that he “is moved by compassion,” and heals them.

Jesus is constantly having compassion for people all over the Gospels. But as mere mortals, it sometimes doesn’t seem so easy for us to be “moved by compassion” – to be touched by someone else’s experience. As we said earlier, we have our own pain and suffering; we don’t necessarily want to make emotional room for more, even by proxy.  It takes time, and energy, to allow someone else’s experience to affect us.

But I’ve noticed that when I don’t allow myself to be moved by other people’s suffering – when I don’t allow myself to experience compassion – I become less able to feel in other parts of my life. I become less loving with myself and with those around me.  I start to skate along on the surface of life, no longer able to go deep.

Feeling compassion on a regular basis, it turns out, functions as a flush to the system – it makes sure everything is functioning right, it keeps our hearts in good working order and allows us to connect with what really matters.

If we continue with this image of a flush to the system, we might build on our initial understanding of compassion to say: compassion is not just being moved by someone else’s suffering, it’s being moved in such a way that love flows through us to the other.  Compassion isn’t just a feeling – it moves, it goes somewhere, it actively does something.


Think of the last time you gave to a non-profit organization – you likely heard or read about the suffering of those the non-profit serves, and you didn’t simply feel – you were moved to give.  Have you ever seen those ASPCA commercials with a slideshow of shelter dogs set to Sarah McLachlan’s singing? Those commercials are so dang effective that in their first two years on the air they raised over $30 million (The New York Times).  It’s the most successful fundraising campaign the ASPCA has ever done, because it was good at rousing our compassion and helping us do something with it.

Or think of the last time you prayed for someone. You heard about what was happening in the life of a friend or a stranger, you let yourself connect with that person’s suffering, and your heart welled up with a prayer that they might be healed, strengthened, or comforted.

But what happens when that system of feeling and flow gets blocked? Maybe, like me, you’ve experienced what’s called “compassion fatigue” – as disasters have ripped through the US recently, it’s been hard for me to connect emotionally. I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened; my entire adult life has been lived in the age of global terrorism and 24/7 news coverage of tragedies and disasters. Sometimes it seems easier not to scroll through the pictures, read the stories, or watch the news. For people who work in helping professions or those who have been deeply hurt, it can be particularly difficult to feel truly compassionate towards others. It takes a lot out of us; it reopens old wounds; sometimes it even feels impossible.

Compassion is exhausting when we go about it as if we ourselves have to generate enough love to connect us to all the suffering around us. But here is some good news, friends – that’s looking at compassion the wrong way around.

Because the love that flows through us doesn’t originate with us.

Think of a fast flowing river that powers a mill like the Old Schwamb Mill here in Arlington.  The mill wheel doesn’t have to turn itself – it merely rests its paddles in the water and lets itself be turned by the current. Simply by coming into contact with the water, with the current, the mill is effortlessly able to generate enough energy to power a whole operation – be it grinding flour that feeds hungry people, or sawing boards to build shelters for those without a roof, or making electricity so that there might light and industry in the darkness.

In our faith tradition, the source of that flow – the source of the love coming through us, turning our wheel as it were – is God. The Psalms repeat, over and over and over again, that God’s love is infinite – that God’s steadfast love flows forever. And that means that compassion isn’t a matter of efforting our way into connecting with someone else’s suffering, but of letting the everflowing stream of God’s love move through us toward the person in pain.

In this morning’s Hebrew scripture passage, the prophet Isaiah is reminding his audience of the source of the flow – reminding the Israelites of God’s never-ending compassion for them. “In all your troubles, God was troubled, too. God didn’t send someone else to help you; God’s own self did it, in person. Out of God’s own love and compassion God redeemed you. God rescued you and carried you for a long, long time.”

Let’s soak that in for a moment. When we are troubled, when we feel pain, the creator of the universe is troubled with us, feels our pain with us. In our darkest, most difficult times, God isn’t majestically distant but rather infinitely near, helping us personally and carrying us through the roughest parts.  Mmm.

Feeling, really feeling, God’s compassion for us in our suffering, God’s love towards our own tender spots, is healing and transformative.  It unblocks the flow, so to speak, and allows us to then feel love and compassion for those around us.

There is a great scene in the movie Ratatouille where an icily superior food critic, aptly named Anton Ego, tastes some ratatouille and is transported, like Proust and his madeleine, back to a childhood memory of a bicycle accident and skinned knees. He vividly re-lives standing on the threshold of his boyhood home, lower lip quivering and eyes filling with tears; in his mind’s eye his mother turns toward him, and when she sees his disheveled face and scraped knees, her face melts with tenderness. She gently ushers him to the table, gives him a hug, and comforts him with a steaming bowl of ratatouille.  Back in the present, something is unlocked inside Anton Ego, and his smugness and judgmental disdain suddenly give way to joy, curiosity, and enthusiasm. His entire being is transformed because he remembers what it feels like to be compassionately cared for in a moment of suffering.

Think for a moment about a time when you were showed compassion.

I love this scene because it reminds me that feeling cared for when I am in pain is as easy as remembering previous times when I’ve been met with compassion. And I love it because it reminds me that I do not have to be Mother Theresa to practice compassion. Responding to someone else’s experience doesn’t have to be earth-shattering; we don’t have to wait for a news-making opportunity. It can be as simple as sharing a hug or a meal with someone in distress.

The Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation, also known as compassion meditation, is rooted in these ideas: that we can start small, by accessing that flow of love for ourselves, and that is why it begins with embracing compassion for us, followed by expressing compassion for those we love, then working up to compassion for a stranger, and finally compassion for our enemies.

Which brings me to perhaps the most difficult aspect of compassion – allowing ourselves to be moved by the suffering of those we hate (or at least really, really dislike).  In some ways this is the golden standard of humanity – being able to feel love toward those who have harmed us.  It is by no means easy; we often, and understandably, would rather do anything but.

As we learned in Bible study last week, that is the story of Jonah. The first image that comes to mind for most of us when we talk about Jonah is probably Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish. (There’s no whale in the story – who knew?) Maybe we think of it as a cautionary tale – if you disobey God, you’ll live to regret it. But Jonah is actually a satire, meant to help us see ourselves in the reluctant prophet and to learn compassion for our enemies.

You see, God asks Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh that they need to change their evil ways so God doesn’t wipe them out. Jonah is reluctant to carry out God’s commission – so reluctant that he charters an entire ship bound for the farthest known corner of the world, so reluctant that he’d rather let the ship’s crew throw him overboard and spend three days inside a giant fish than do what God asked – because Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians are the mortal enemies of Jonah’s people, the Israelites.  At the time the book of Jonah was written, Assyria had invaded Israel, laid siege to its cities and burned them down, and deported its population, most of whom would never return to their homes. There was a lot of killing, pillaging, and rape involved; the Israelites, understandably, hated the Assyrians.  So when God asks Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh – to give them a chance to get back into God’s good graces – Jonah is not on board. As Rob Bell says, “You want me to go where to preach what to those people? No thanks.”

After the whole swallowed-by-a-fish incident, Jonah reluctantly does as God asks – but only the bare minimum. I love this scene – Jonah walks into this huge city filled with people, says one, five-word sentence warning Nineveh of its imminent destruction – most prophets in the Bible go on for chapters and chapters – with no information about who’s mad at them or what to do to change their ways, and yet somehow the entire city instantly repents and converts, worshiping God, fasting, and mourning, even down to putting sackcloth on the animals. I would like to know what exactly animals need to repent of, but I guess Nineveh decided to go big or go home on this whole repentance thing.

Jonah is ticked off because God has shown compassion to his enemies. This was what he feared all along would happen – he actually says to God, “Isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled…at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

Wait…Jonah would rather die than watch God respond in love to the Ninevites? He’d rather jump ship than be part of helping his enemies mend their ways and find healing and wholeness?  That’s a little over the top.  How does God reply? “Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ That line cracks me up – let’s not forget the animals. God is reminding Jonah that God’s love extends even to those Jonah most fears and hates, even to their livestock.

We may chuckle at Jonah’s single-minded, stubborn refusal to see his enemies as worthy of compassion, but as the Latin orator Horace wrote about satires like this one, “Why do you laugh? Change the name, and the story is about you.”

We may not have mortal enemies, but we all have someone in our lives whom we’d rather not think of as worthy of compassion. Author and meditation teacher Susan Piver writes that compassion means being “open, even to what and whom you dislike. This doesn’t [necessarily] mean forgiving or liking anyone — it simply means taking them in as flesh-and-blood human beings, not as cardboard cut-outs who have no reality beyond [y]our judgment. …Compassion arises,” she writes, “when you allow someone else’s pain into your own heart without a personal agenda,” without a sense of whether they deserve it or how we expect them to change if we send them love.

This is admittedly a tall order. But something I love about the flow image we talked about earlier is the reminder that we don’t have to do the hard work here; in a sense, we don’t even have to do the loving.  When it’s someone or something we truly despise, all we need to do is remind ourselves that God loves that person or thing even when we can’t, and open ourselves to God’s love flowing through us.

Will you join me in a brief compassion prayer, adapted from a prayer by John van de Laar?

If we’re honest, God
compassion does not come easy to us;
We see others who struggle;
those without homes, or food;
those who have lost loved ones through death or circumstance,
and long for human companionship;
those who are persecuted and judged because of their difference;
those who are facing the awful consequences of bad choices they have made;
those who must live with negative effects of systems that benefit us;
those who have hurt us.
It all just feels like it’s too much, and there’s nothing we can do.
But, we know that’s not true –
we know that compassion is enough;
that when we allow ourselves to feel, compassion will lead us to do what we can,
and that this will make a difference.
And so, we pray first for ourselves:
that you would soften our hearts,
and still our fears,
remind us of your compassion for us,
and lead us into those acts of compassion
that we are capable of doing.
And then we pray for all of these others
whose lives can be changed
through small, simple acts of care;
that you would keep nudging us
until we step up and play our part
in the healing of your world;
and that we would answer your call,
that the needs of your hurting ones
may be met.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.