The Gospel lesson for this past Sunday was a couple small chunks of text which skipped over some big events: the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus calming the storm (we’ll be reading those this week). It felt a little disjointed, like having bookends with no books in the middle. So I decided to latch onto one detail: Jesus having compassion for the crowds. If you want to read the Gospel from Mark and Epistle from Ephesians, the sermon will make more sense.
(Also, some of my inspiration for this sermon came from a West Wing episode where presidential candidate Matt Santos gives a speech to a church after a police shooting and talks about compassion. You can watch a clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFbomB2nZTY)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever heard the term “compassion fatigue”? It’s something that was first observed among nurses and caregivers at veterans’ long-term care facilities following World War II. Their jobs asked them to give of themselves, of their compassion, daily, and after long stretches of time, they would get rundown. They would feel as though they didn’t have anything left to give.
It’s sometimes called care-giver syndrome. It’s often associated with helping professions: nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, EMTs, pastors. But it doesn’t only affect those people. Those who are the primary caregiver for a parent or partner. For a child who needs a lot of attention and help. They know this fatigue, too. Sometimes, it’s simply called burnout. It’s when our stores of compassion and care are simply running on empty.
I wonder if this is what’s at stake in our Gospel reading. There is a massive amount of need. People, crowds are coming out of the villages to find and follow Jesus. They’re even running ahead of him in some cases, bringing out their sick and needy, laying them in the streets, so that Jesus might heal them. The need is open, raw. The need is so immense that it says the disciples “had no leisure, even to eat.” Jesus tries to get them to go apart, away, that they might have a chance to refresh and restore themselves, but it doesn’t work. The crowds, and the need, find them.
But instead of sending them away, instead of retreating even further, it says that Jesus had compassion for them. He had compassion. I’m using that word compassion a lot, it’s worth taking some to talk about it. It comes into the English from Latin, and literally means “passion with.” Feeling compassion for someone means you’re feeling what they’re feeling. You’re sharing their pain and hurt.
But it’s more than that. The Hebrew word for compassion, racham, comes from the Hebrew word for womb. The Greek word, the word actually used to describe what Jesus is feeling is splagchnizomai. That’s a word for you. We translate it compassion, but it’s more than that. It literally means to having a yearning in your gut. Compassion isn’t something we do with our heads, with our thoughts. Compassion is a feeling that takes over our physical body. You know the feeling.
Here is Jesus, hounded by thirsty crowds. He looks upon them as sheep without a shepherd, sheep with no one tending to them, no sense of orientation or protection. Had he ever felt this way himself? Probably. So Jesus had compassion on them. He understood them. He felt care, empathy, and love for them at the very core, the womb of his being.
Compassion is not an emotion you can have from a distance. Pity, condolence, sympathy—all these things you can offer from a nice safe, removed point. But compassion is that visceral pull in your stomach that forces you to engage with someone, to be drawn in to another’s situation. Compassion is not a feeling so much as it is an action—being drawn into another person.
We need more compassion in the world today maybe than we’ve needed before. And it often feels as though we have less than we used to. We have less compassion nowadays for each other. We’re quicker to judge than to empathize. We’re quicker to condemn than to love. We’re quicker to assume than to draw near and learn.
I know I’ve felt that in myself—I’ve felt that my stores of compassion are not as great as they used to be. And I know I’ve seen it reflected in the world around me. Our compassion struggles to extend beyond those who are like us, beyond those we already understand. It struggles to extend to those of different races and economic backgrounds, to those from different countries, to those with different educational opportunities. It seems our compassion struggles most of all to extend to those with different political affiliations than ours. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue. Maybe we’re feeling depleted, I don’t know. But compassion seems to be in short supply lately.
In the letter Helene read, written to the Ephesians, the Apostle is urging compassion. There are divisions in this community—divisions along lines of class, of ethnic background, of religious background. The author urges them to remember that Christ came not to deepen divisions, but for the work of reconciliation. “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two…and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.”
I’m not suggesting brushing issues and division under the rug for the appearance of peace and unity—all that creates is a false peace. But when we consider the things that divide us, we need to try to start from a place of compassion. We need to start by seeing those different from us as fellow members of the household of God, not as someone wholly other to ourselves.
A Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
Compassion. Jesus came to teach us compassion. Not just for our families and our friends and our neighbors. That’s all just practice. Jesus calls us to have compassion for our enemies. To have compassion for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the sick, those unlike us.
But God does not just teach us compassion, or expect compassion from us, God showers us with compassion daily. God felt the pull of compassion so strongly for humanity, right in God’s womb, that God gave birth to Jesus—compassion incarnate. God with us, in the midst of our need.
God doesn’t get compassion fatigue. When we cry out, like those crowds, that we too are in need of healing, are in need of reconciliation, are in need of hope and guidance, the depths of God’s compassion are never exhausted. God sees our needs. God sees your need, whatever it is on this day. And with compassion, God is drawn in to you and to me. And God draws us in, to be reconciled together in the household of God. Amen, and thanks be to God.