St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Compassion Compels Us

 

Sermon preached on Sunday, October 1, 2017 at St. Mary Orthodox Church

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

That seems such a huge thing to ask of us: to be as merciful, kind, and compassionate as God himself.

Notice that Jesus does not mention being obedient to any law or religion or even a code of morality. He asks only that we be merciful. Why? Because it is not about religion or law or morality, it is about a new way of life governed only by love.

It has been said that the most perfect name of God is Compassion. I believe it. The whole life and teaching of our Lord revolve around compassion. His mercy is so great that no one and nothing is excluded. He took upon himself matter and human nature and thereby deified all matter and all humanity. Everything is enfolded in his incarnate and resurrected divine flesh.

Today Jesus specifically invites us to embrace what he, his Father, and the Holy Spirit have embraced, that is, everyone and everything he has made. The book of Wisdom tells us this, “Wisdom loves everything that exists and despises nothing that she has made.” (11:34) How do we even begin to do this? Here are two of the obstacles we must overcome.

First, we must open our eyes and ears to see and hear the suffering of the world.

John Philip Newell, tells a story about his father who went around the world giving aid to suffering people. During his trips he would record a tape about what he was doing to send back to his wife and children, so that they could learn from his experience. Once, he took a trip to work among the Cambodian refugees from Pol Pot’s Killing Fields and after listening to the stories of parents who had lost their children and children who had lost parents, he started to make his tape. 

As he began to record he was overcome by strong emotions and as he wept he left the tape running. He wanted his children to hear his tears, to know the suffering of the people he had met through his own intense sorrow.

The problem is that we are far too willing turn off the tape. We are afraid of suffering. We don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to know about it. We don’t want to feel. It hurts too much. It is easier to ignore it than to stay open and share it. This is as true of the suffering inside of us as it is for the suffering outside of us.

We can ignore the suffering parts of us even easier than we can ignore the homeless woman on our doorstep. If we ignore the one, then be sure that we will ignore the other. God calls us to embrace both.

The instruction is to “weep with those who weep,” to allow the tape to keep recording, to play it fearlessly, and to act with courage and generosity to comfort the afflicted.

We must learn how to stay open to the world’s suffering. Perhaps this is what St. Silouan meant when he said, “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.”

So, first, we must let go of our fear of feeling and plunge right into it remembering all the while that as we do, God is there with us. That is The Lord spent his whole life doing this from the beginning until the end and beyond. “Lo, I am with you always!”

Second, we must admit that it is not only our fear of feeling that stops us from being merciful, it is also our greed. We are afraid of what it might cost us to actually do something.

About this Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan who did not count the cost of what it would take to help the poor man he found lying in the road. Compassion compelled him to take care of him no matter what the cost even giving the innkeeper what amounted to a blank check to care for his needs until his return from his trip. Notice that the Lord does not say that the priest and Levite who passed by without stopping to help did not notice or care. He simply says that they did nothing. “Faith without works is dead,” and more than that, it is cruel.

Both fear and greed are powerful things, I know, and yet there is something in us far more powerful than they. Newell tells us that the Lord’s command to be merciful is really an invitation to a new, deeper way of life:

"The invitation,” he writes, “is to let go to the flow of the One deep within us, this mighty subterranean river of God that courses through all things."

We have been created with God at our very center and we can, if we wish, touch that divine center and allow it to be our guide and because that divine center is God himself the result will be as courageous and compassionate as God is. Fear and greed are no match for this great river than flows in us and through us.

The river is there and it is flowing and yet we do not see it or feel it because so often our spiritual senses are blocked by the cares of life. So, we must let go of the anxious desire to make sure we are safe, sound, and secure at all times and enter into a life, not of selfish concern, but of faithfulness to God. We are not here for ourselves, but to love and serve others.

Let me end today with this remarkable poem by Naomi Shihab Nye entitled:

Kindness

Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

“Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.” We are not here for ourselves. We are here for the sake of others.