OS 16 Jeremiah 23: 1-6, Ephesians 2: 11-22, Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
Compassion has been called the bridge between sympathy and action. Sympathy involves our feelings and it is about how we identify with the situation of someone else. Sympathy is certainly not a bad thing and we can feel sympathetic about lots of situations from people we know, things we hear about in the media, world conflicts, and climate change for example. Sympathy is the seedbed of compassion. It is from our sympathies that our compassion will arise. Prayer nourishes this development.
You’ve heard me say that our vocation is where the deep joy of our heart meets the deep need of the world. In this sense, vocation is a synonym for compassion. It defines where we are called to be. Jesus revealed that the nature of God is compassion. Abraham Heschel called the prophetic tradition of Israel, ‘divine pathos’. He wrote, “God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. God is moved and affected by what happens in the world… God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: His willingness to be intimately involved in the history of man.”
At Easter we particularly call to mind the passion of Christ which is simply the incarnation, or the making present among us, of the passion of God.
The word compassion has been somewhat cheapened in our language through being linked to pity. The critical thing about compassion that separates it from both sympathy and pity is that you can’t do it from afar. Compassion means suffering with. As Douglas Hall says, “You do not have compassion, really, unless you suffer with those to whom you refer. The precondition for compassion is unconditional solidarity with the ones for whom you feel it.”
Compassion comes from the depths of our being, our guts and the motivating force of anger can often be in the emotional mix. We ask, “How can this be?”
After the first earthquake our Bishop surprised many in the diocese by calling us to donate $200,000 to the people of Haiti. They had suffered the same level of earthquake as us, but had suffered loss of life and property on a far greater level than we had with much less help for recovery. Bishop Victoria’s action was compassion. Some years before she had spent time in Haiti serving among the poor, and it had changed her whole life direction. She wanted us to know how by helping them we could learn about compassion: action borne of suffering in solidarity with another.
Jesus and his disciples were heading off for a weekend retreat until they were interrupted by a great and needy crowd. Not something you would want to happen on the parish away day.
Jesus saw this great crowd as he went ashore and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They lacked leadership and focus. Jeremiah indicates the poverty that has come on his people through leaders who have put their own interests ahead of their people. Today we call it corruption. The people are scattered, he says; they are driven away; they are not attended to.
In our own time, in this society, people are very much like sheep without a shepherd. In fact the very definition of a post-modern society could be ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. Some of this is the mood of the age we live in. However, we also must acknowledge that the shepherding of the church has not always been good. The church has often been too caught up in its own interests and even arrogant. We have often failed to listen well enough, and not met the urgent and real hunger of people who came to us for help, let alone gone out and sought the hungry. We are now also allowing hostilities within our own body to deflect our compassion rather than trusting the peace that was gained for us on the cross by Christ. We need to repent of these things.
Jesus didn’t say to this crowd, I am your shepherd, your leader, come and follow me. He began to teach them many things. When it grew late and the disciples wanted to send the people away to find food, Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” And that is one thing that is at the heart of the teaching. You give them something to eat. (We’ll be developing that in the next few weeks) And after the great feeding the disciples journeyed back across the sea. They got into a real pickle and were very scared. Jesus saved them in their terror. He said, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” That’s another thing that is at the heart of the teaching. And then on the other side many people rushed about bringing sick people to Jesus. They were beginning to learn about compassion. And even those who touched the fringe of his cloak were healed, and that was another thing at the heart of his teaching. Jesus showed compassion for this crowd by teaching, by feeding, by saving and by healing them. That is the mark of the Good Shepherd who knows the sheep by name and lays down his life for them.
We know that Jesus would face other crowds who were following another leadership. Their hostility would lead him to the cross where he lay down his life for us and for our salvation; his ultimate act of compassion. In this Mass we participate in Jesus’ act of compassion. As we share bread and wine together, his body and his blood, we receive his teaching, feeding, saving and healing in our need. My prayer is that as a result of this sacrament, that the amount of compassion in this congregation, in this city, in this world will grow to the glory of God.