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Sunday, July 18, 2021

"He had compassion for them"


St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast live on Facebook Sirach 26:10


This is a sermon about compassion. It is a sermon about learning that “It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” (Richard Rohr)


It seems an important characteristic to talk about, especially at this time in our lives when simple human kindness and Christian compassion seems to be in short supply.


Recently, United States citizens have been arrested for offering water, food, and other kinds of help to migrants at the southern border. There are now laws in Florida and Georgia that make it illegal to provide snacks and water to a person standing in line to vote.  I could go on, but I’m sure you can think of very recent examples yourselves.


If Jesus were to come to America this morning, I suspect we would see him respond similarly as we hear him do in this morning’s Gospel. When he got out of the boat with his disciples and saw the great crowd had followed them on foot from one shore to the next, Mark’s gospel reports that Jesus, “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

Compassion. The original word is a very remarkable one. It is not found in classic Greek. It is not found in the ancient Hebrew texts. Many scholars believe it to be a word coined by the evangelists themselves. It is expressive of the deepest emotion; a striving deep within the body – a yearning of the innermost nature (some translate it “in the bowels” – or deep in your gut) with empathy and kindness that leads to some corrective action.

In this case it was not the sicknesses of the people that moved Jesus, but rather their ignorance and their lack of someone to guide and teach them in the knowledge of God. That they were hungry – famished! – for the Word of God was evident in their following Jesus in the boat to the other side of the shore.


Scripture reports that they were like shepherdless sheep. A sheep without a shepherd will wander around aimlessly, ignorant and clueless, and eventually it will starve to death or be attacked and devoured by predators.


It wasn’t that the Jewish people did not have leaders at all. In fact, there were Rabbis and instructors in the Scriptures throughout all of Israel. Even most of the smaller villages had a synagogue with a “ruler of the synagogue.” They would meet there and be instructed in the writings of Moses and in the prophets every Sabbath day.

But their teachers and leaders were as clueless as the people they taught. They were the blind leading the blind, and the result was ignorance, and an inability to know the ways of their God. This situation touched Jesus. He was deeply stirred by the spiritual darkness that engulfed the chosen people of God. The result of Jesus’ compassion for them can be found in the line that followed this description: “So He began to teach them many things.”

One of the things that has always struck me about the Little Red Cupboard ministry here at St. Paul’s, is that ¾ of the shelves are filled with food – and often something to drink – but there is another section where socks and, in the winter, mittens are stored. And, there is a shelf where books are placed to feed the mind as well as the body.


If you are visiting today and do not know what I’m talking about, when you make your way to the Parish Hall for Coffee Hour, stop at the door leading past the office and look outside to your right. The Little Red Cupboard is right there. You should also know that the entire enterprise is anonymous. No forms are required to be filled out. People are encouraged to take what they need. And, if you happen to be able to and want to give, you can do that, too.


Those in need and those who satisfy a need remain anonymous, preserving dignity for one and providing humility for the other. That, for me, is a mark of true compassion. It is important, when we are moved with compassion for the suffering or the deprivation of someone, to maintain their sense of dignity; it is also important not to be motivated by honor or recognition for our deeds.


There are two women in my life who have taught me very important lessons about compassion. The first, of course, was my grandmother; although I confess, at first I thought she was being mean and not at all kind, much less compassionate.


She had been getting some of her and her children and grandchildren’s clothes ready to donate to the local charity – darning socks and repairing tears – when she inspected a fine winter coat.

I recognized it immediately. It had been my cousin Jenny’s coat, which had been passed down to my cousin Judith, who had passed it down to me, which had then been passed down to my sister Madeline and now, finally, my youngest sister Diane had had her winter season in that same coat.


It still had several good winter seasons left in it and would now warm the young body of some young girl whose parents either couldn’t afford a new one or didn’t have family members to provide hand-me-downs. That part was not unexpected. It’s what my grandmother did next that shocked me.


She took out a pair of scissors and began, one by one, to snip off the buttons on the coat. When she had gotten half way through and I saw that she was intending to remove them all, I gasped and demanded, “What are you doing?”


“Watch,” said my grandmother, not lifting her eyes from her task. 


She then gathered up all the buttons and placed them in the middle of a piece of cloth. Then, she took a small spool of thread and put a needle into it. Then, she wrapped the whole thing up in cloth, tied it securely with a piece of ribbon, and put it into the side pocket.


When my grandmother looked up from her task and saw the puzzled look on my face, she smiled and said, “Now, you see, I am not just giving this child a coat. I am giving her a sense of ownership and dignity. I will say a little prayer that her mother teaches her how to sew on a button, just as I have taught you how to do, and the coat will not only become hers, it will have been something through which she learned how to take care of herself in some small way.”


I thought about what my grandmother said, as I saw the kindness reflected in her face, and asked, “Just as your mother taught you, before she died when you were a little girl?” 


My grandmother smiled and said, “Yes, child, just as my mother did for me. So, when someone gave me a coat or a dress, I would snip off all the buttons and sew them on again. And, with each stitch, I would thank my mother for what she had taught me, and then, instead of resenting the fact that I had no mother or that I was poor and in need, the donated clothing would become mine as well as a prayer of gratitude for my mother. Gratitude and Compassion always walk hand-in-hand.”


I recently read something written by Richard Rohr, “It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” I think that’s because it is from the place where we have fallen down that we find true compassion. It is from the depths – the bowels – of our suffering and deprivation that we recognize and are moved by the suffering and deprivation of others.


The most surprising lesson in compassion came to me from a woman in Ghana, West Africa. I was there as a requirement of ‘cultural immersion’ for my work with Drew University. We began our journey in Accra, the capitol city, traveled up to Kumasi in the middle of the country, and then up to Tamale in the North, which was very poor and, not coincidentally, very Muslim.


We went to one village outside of Tamale where the women made pottery and sold it as one way of making the money they needed to survive. They were very excited to show us their newest acquisition – a gift from one of the churches in America. The women placed empty 5 and 10 gallon cans on the top of their heads and led us on the one mile walk to the village well.


The object of their excitement was a pump that sat on top of the well. Instead of dropping a bucket into the well and pulling it up to dump into their cans, now they could simply pump the water directly into the containers. Even though they had been doing this for several months, they still laughed and squealed with delight and joy as they pumped the water directly into their canisters.


As I watched the process, one woman came to me and said, “Do you have a pump in your well?” I smiled at her and tried to explain the concept of a sink with a faucet that delivered not only cold water but hot water as well. And, not only in the sink, but in the bathtub, shower, and toilet.


She looked at me, astounded. I was suddenly filled with shame, thinking I had crossed the line from simply answering her question to bragging about the conveniences of my modern life. I tried to say something but the look of sadness on her face and in her eyes was unmistakable.


Before I could speak, the woman said to me, “So, you do not go to the well with the other women?” “No,” I said. “Everyone has water in their own home.” “Ah,” she said, with great sadness and sincere compassion, “but then, how do you tell your stories?”


She was genuinely sad and authentically compassionate.


Then, the woman reached into her carry sack and fished out her drinking bowl. “Here,” she said, “Please take this. I can always make another. You take this and remember to share your water and your stories with others.”


That pottery bowl broke a long time ago, but that woman’s compassion changed my life. I realized the poverty of my own soul and how impoverished we are in our superior modernity. It was then that I committed myself to sharing stories. Stories are the water of life, the atoms that hold us together, like buttons stitched on the front of a coat that make it our own and give us dignity.


This is a sermon about compassion, a word coined by the evangelists to lead us deep within ourselves, past the deepest depth of human emotions, deep into the spirit of Jesus and deeper still into the Christ-like calling to take action to change the suffering or the deprivation of others.


I have come to know that compassion preserves dignity for the recipient and provides humility for the donor. This is because it is from the place where we have fallen down – our own suffering and deprivation, and our own gratitude for having been helped back up again – that we find true compassion.


“It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” Go to that place, my friends, and drink deeply from the well of compassion.



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