Preaching: Pastor Rebecca A. Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, September 18, 2016
Scripture Reference: Philippians 2:1-11
Sermon: Imagine the People of God: Compassion
One of the activities we have done in youth group is to give the youth a handful of supplies like raw spaghetti, marshmallows and gumdrops and ask them to imagine what they could with it, how high of a structure they can make. It’s pretty amazing to see what they are able to do with the things they are given and how different each structure is.
In a way, this is what we are experiencing in our reading today. It is as if we hear Paul saying, “You are strong; you have love; you have fellowship with the Holy Spirit; you have kindness; you have compassion.” You have everything that is at the core of being the people of God. You have what is essential. You have the gifts, the qualities that are needed to be God’s people. It was their kindness, their compassion that enabled the Hebrew people to leave gleanings of their harvest for the poor to come and gather for themselves. It was their own experience of vulnerability and wandering that drew out the Israelites’ compassion to be welcoming of strangers and foreigners. Now, Paul says, you have these same gifts, these same qualities so let’s see what you can do with it. And then Paul goes on to describe for us, to name for us, the fruits of compassion, love, kindness’ to imagine what it looks like. He says because you have these things you can be humble, not selfish but concerned for others, always looking out for each other, being one community rather than divided. Indeed, here in this moment Paul is reminding us we are made in the image of Jesus Christ. We, like Jesus, are loving, kind, compassionate, and so we can live as Jesus lived. Paul is our cheerleader, encouraging us, helping us to see what we are capable of.
And yet, the truth is we struggle to be compassionate, especially those we are close with. We hold people to high standards. We worry about our own well-being.
This week I came across this video that I want to share with you. [show clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyXJNfWd8J4] I love this clip, and not just because it touches the heart, because it is sweet. I like it because it tells a greater story about us. In this little girl we see the struggle we all experience to be compassionate. Her natural inclination, her first instinct in seeing this man is to offer him her breakfast. She is heading out to do just that, but then all of a sudden she turns around and comes back to the table. She suddenly becomes hesitant, afraid of what might happen, unsure of herself, not wanting to do this. But just as we hear Paul encouraging us in this letter, we hear her father encouraging her, saying, “You got this. Go on.” I can just imagine God being like the father when God sees us acting with compassion; “Those are my children. I am so proud of them. They are so incredible.” I have no doubt of God’s feelings of love and pride when we are living at our best.
And then there is the girl’s own response, the huge smile, the glow she has because of what she has done. When her dad asks her how she feels she says, “I like it.” That’s how we all feel, not so much because we do something good, but when we live out our true identity. When we live how God intended for us it does feel good; it is a feeling and place of deep joy.
Only I think there is one other thing this video helps us to see and understanding. This video isn’t so much about the homeless man, but the girl. So often when we think of compassion we focus on the other person. There is a sense of pity, of thinking how great we are, what we have to offer. Only, as this video reminds us, it is as much about us, and what we have to learn about ourselves, what we are given in these moments of compassion.
As I have been reflecting on compassion this week I find myself thinking it is a lot like love. In our society we primarily think of love as an emotion, something we feel for another person. Only in our Christian tradition, especially as we read I Corinthians 13, we understand love to be something we do. Love is forgiving; lifting up the other person, being patient.
Well, I think the same can be said for compassion. In our society we think of compassion as feeling sorry for a person in bad circumstances, feeling pity for them. And yet, if we listen to Paul’s words it isn’t about being full of compassion any more than it is being in love. Again, it is something we do: put others’ needs first, look out for another’s interests. When we truly let compassion sink in, as journalist Krista Tippett said on a TED Talk, it changes us. Compassion changes how we live, how we live with one another. She says it doesn’t change circumstances; it isn’t a solution. It is, though, as sign. It is a sign of a deeper reality, a deeper connection we have with one another as one body, one people of God, a sign of the possibilities for humanity.
I think we see the truth of this in the Gospel of John. John says there are seven signs that point to who Jesus is and the presence or nature of God’s Kingdom. The first is at the wedding of Cana, but then there is the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath, feeding 5,000, raising Lazarus from the dead. As I thought about each of these signs I realized they were compelled by Jesus’ compassion. He had compassion for the bridegroom’s potential embarrassment, for the crowd that was hungry, for the grief of Mary and Martha. In each moment Jesus’s compassion for someone, what he did in response, became a sign not only of who he was but the Kingdom of God. Yes, we think of them as miracles, but it was as simple as Jesus noticing someone and responding by doing something.
I believe the same can be said for us. When we act with compassion, when we respond to people we encounter with love and kindness, it too is a sign – of who we are as the people of God and a deeper reality of how God calls us to live in connection. It doesn’t have to be any big, heroic act. Compassion is as simple as being present with someone, listening. Compassion is forgiveness, empathy, everyday acts of kindness. It is as my grandmother would say, “Eyes to see what is needed, and hearts, hands, ears to do what is needed.”
Several years ago my mom sent me an e-mail telling me about a high school football game in Texas in which the coach did just that. It was a game between Grapevine Faith Academy and Gainesville State School Grapevine had a team of 70 players, several coaches, and a winning record, whereas Gainesville State only had 14 players and they had never won a game. Gainesville State was located in a maximum security prison. These youth were in jail for having been convicted of drugs, assault, robbery, but if they were showing good behavior they could be on the football team. It was their only connection with the outside world as many of their families had disowned them.
Knowing this, the head coach at Faith Academy had an idea. He sent out an e-mail to the student body, parents, faculty saying, “Here’s the message I want you to send, ‘You’re just as valuable as anyone else.’” He wanted people to sit in the visitor’s bleachers, to cheer for Gainesville.
At first there was resistance. People wanted to cheer for their own children, for their friends. But then the coach said, “Imagine you don’t have a home life, people who love you, who believe in you. Now imagine what it would feel like and mean to you for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”
People started to imagine that, and then they started to imagine what they could do. They became invest in those players. They not only sat in the visitors’ bleachers and cheered; they got to know their names and numbers. They made a banner for the boys to run through as they took the field. They fed them after the game. One of the players, Isaiah, said, “I never in my life thought I would hear parents cheering to tackle and hit their kid. Most of the time people are afraid of us. You can see it, but these people were cheering for us.” These boys experienced compassion and it became a sign of another, deeper reality. See for yourselves. [Show clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52AOPQvCTv4]. Every moment we are in the presence of someone there is opportunity to offer compassion.
We may not find ourselves in the same situation, but every moment offers us opportunity to extend compassion to seeing God in one another. It is being present with one another as God called us to be, to feel for one another, to live out of our deep connection. As Paul once again says, “You have it. You have love, kindness, compassion. Now see what you can do with it,” and experience the joy of being the people of God.