Second Sunday after Pentecost June 14th 2020
(Sermon begins at the 11:46th minute or you can read it below.)
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
As we enter Matthew’s story today, let’s remember where we are in the larger story of the gospel. The sermon on the Mount has ended. Matthew tells us that after the sermon “great crowds followed Jesus.” The first person to approach Jesus from that crowd was a leper asking for healing, and Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and made him clean. Story after story then unfolds as Jesus travels the countryside. Jesus heals a Centurion’s servant and a paralyzed man brought to him on a mat. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, two blind men who call out to him as he is walking along a road, a demoniac in the country of the Gadarenes, a little girl whose mother is bereft, and there’s more. Whole towns were coming to see him, Matthew tells us several time. They were Coming to be healed, Coming to see if everything they’d heard was true. And some were coming to tell him to leave because they were afraid of all that Jesus could do.
Today’s reading begins with a summary: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.”
When I go back and read all the healing stories, well, I’m pretty exhausted. No wonder Jesus tells his disciples— The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
What he’s saying is: “the size of the work, is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.”
Personally, I think Jesus was wiped out—not just plain tired, but drained, zapped. We know this because it sounds like he starts talking to himself, “Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.” In other words, “Please God, it is time, send out more people.”
The next thing we know, Jesus gathers his disciples and sends them out with authority to heal, raise the dead, proclaim the good news.
Exhaustion, however, has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’ summoning and sending out his disciples. Jesus’ compassion for the people is what propels him to commission these disciples: Jesus was not motivated by ambition or fatigue; he was moved by empathy. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
In exegeting this passage, some preachers cannot resist highlighting the Greek word Matthew wrote—the word translated “compassion.” I’m one of those preachers too, because the word means so much more than our everyday understanding of compassion. Splagchnizomai— splawnk-NITZ-oh-my. Jesus had splagchnizomai for the crowds. The word means literally, “moved as to one’s bowels,” for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity. Today we might say, Jesus cared so deeply for these people that he felt it in the pit of his stomach.
Luke uses the same word, splagchnizomai, in the story of the prodigal son. The father in this well-known story feels an intense compassion when he sees his son walking down the road, returning home. The father’s compassion is marked by deep joy and forgiving love—a love that embraces without question.
All the crowds come looking for Jesus, in every town he is sought out by people—they are looking for someone to help them. They have no king to represent them, they are Jews living under Roman rule and kept in check by this repressive regime. Rome policed them and taxed them so that there was never any getting ahead. Many of the people’s own leaders had fallen into league with the Romans in order to keep their wealth—there seemed no way out. Jesus sees a hopelessness in these people, and he is moved with profound compassion.
Of all of the things that may motivate us to act, perhaps compassion is the best instigator.
When I was younger, I was sure God had given me a liberal portion of compassion. Like maybe some of it had stuck to God’s finger when he was creating and he wiped the extra bit on me. My brothers and sister would surely tell the truth, that my empathy was nothing special, even lacking in plenty of circumstances, but you couldn’t convince me that I wasn’t among the most empathetic persons I knew.
You know can take a test on this if you like—just go on the internet, search for self-compassion quiz, answer a series of questions, and get your compassion score. Neat huh, although I’m not sure who’s making up the questions or setting the scale. The version I remember as a teen was in magazines like “Sixteen”—take this quiz and find out how confident you really are or how genuinely poised you are or how truly compassionate.
I took the quizzes. I was average. Nobody believes those things anyway.
I hope now I understand this compassion thing more clearly.It is not merely sympathy or empathy and certainly not only pity.
To have the kind of compassion we know from Jesus, is to be opened up, to feel towards others like a father feels when he sees the son he thought he’d lost coming home, or a poor mother feels when she holds her hungry child, or a son feels when mourning his father. Jesus’ compassion toward the people opens him up.
Yesterday here at St. Luke’s we celebrated and gave thanks to God for the life of Henry Cannon. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this. I met Henry only last fall, when he and Kathy came back home to Scottsboro after a summer of travels. Henry popped into my office one day at the church and we sat down to get acquainted. Another new priest, I supposed Henry was thinking; St. Luke’s has had many. But from the start of our conversation, and throughout the short time we knew one another, Henry never made me feel tested or new or irrelevant to his faith life. We talked about what it’s like to be a PK, finding that we both grew up as preacher’s kids. We talked about Sewanee and we shared some of our life stories—I wish we’d talked bicycling, but I didn’t know he cycled until I read his wonderful obituary.
When we talked Henry told me about John. How he loved sharing John’s music and traveling with him. Henry told me about Brevy, his namesake, and how smart Brevy is and how strong he’s been all his life. He told me about Kathy, how they’d come to Scottsboro and made a home here together, and how dear his and Kathy’s friends are to them.
Henry and I talked quite a few times in the last few months of his life. Unfortunately for him, many of these were in one hospital or another.
When I went to Nashville to see Henry before his surgery this winter, he asked me how things were going at St. Luke’s. I told him about the joyous baptism we’d just celebrated, and how moving it was for me to stand there at the font, where many children and adults had received this sacrament over the years, and baptize for the first time. With a smile, I also told Henry how this newly baptized boy was so nervous as he came to receive his first communion, but that his godfather tenderly showed him how. I looked up at Henry, thinking he might also smile at this, and I saw tears running down his face. I stopped, surprised, and just waited. Henry swallowed and then quietly said how he worried about all those who didn’t have this faith, this baptism, this boy’s chance. Henry’s compassion was flowing out of him—beautifully, and boldly–for people he didn’t even know.
This is the kind of compassion Jesus models for us.
Freely you have received, he says, freely give.
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, friends.
May we feel it in the pit of our stomachs and share it with people we don’t even know.