“Compassionate Community” – a sermon prepared for First Church Orlando, for our series, “Christ Centered Community”

“12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. 23 The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. 24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-26, CEB)

Throughout Lent, we’re talking about the Church as a “Cross-shaped” community. Saying we are “Cross-shaped” means there are things that make our kind of community unique, different, distinctive from other communities – most specifically, the way the person and presence, teachings and example of Jesus Christ shape and influence who we are together, for each other, and for the world.  Obviously the Church is different than a sports team, or a professional association, or a worker’s union, or a military unit, or a biker gang, or others.  Obviously.

But, there are also differences between different Church groups.  There are differences from church to church, depending upon, size, location, theology, style, membership, etc.  Some churches are more progressive, and some more conservative.  Some are more traditional, and some are more contemporary.  Some are more diverse than others.  Some emphasize salvation, and others emphasize service.  Obviously, our own location, history, traditions, ministries and theological stance give us a particular set off distinctives.

A joke I’ve heard about Methodists is, “Roman Catholics are known for carrying their rosaries.  Southern Baptists are known for carrying their Bibles.  Methodists are known for carrying their casserole dishes.”  In many ways, that’s what Methodists ARE known for – kind, compassionate, caring – often expressed via warm gestures like casseroles in times of need.

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My point: a casserole dish, filled with a delicious meal, made with love and care, and delivered to a family in need – a grieving family, someone sick, a homebound person, the family of a newborn, etc. – is a visible symbol of a “Compassionate Community.”  Methodists certainly don’t own the exclusive patent on casseroles or compassion, but that kind of compassionate work has always been an important Methodist distinctive!  Methodists are known for putting our faith in tangible service to those in need.

And this is thoroughly biblical.

You may recall Jesus saying, that his followers would be separated before him like sheep and goats.  Jesus will say to his sheep, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)   And, those compassionate Christians will ask, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, etc.”  And, Jesus will reply, “When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”  (Matthew 25:40)

In today’s Scripture reading, Paul compares the Church to a human body, saying that each of us is like a different body part, each with different abilities, purposes and functions.  Just as each of us are needed in the Christian community; just as each of us have a role to play and a gift to offer; so, the body typically needs and mutually depends on every other part.

But, these lines strike me as particularly significant, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.  You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. (1 Corinthians 12:22-27)

“When one part suffers, all parts of suffer with it.”  In the human body, that’s very true.  When one part of the body is weak, or infected, or in pain, or not functioning properly, or broken, or missing, it can affect everything.  Ever had a migraine, a toothache, stomach cramps?  Ever had a charley horse?  Ever stubbed your toe?

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I recall a few basketball seasons when Shaquille O’Neal was sidelined because of a hurt toe.  Imagine that.  Shaq is over seven feet tall, and was a mountain of muscle.  He was paid, just in salary, over $200,000 per game – not including endorsements!  But, a little toe pain kept him off the court.  “When one part suffers, all parts of suffer with it.”

Of course, Paul is talking about the Church community, not the human body.  He’s saying when one of us suffers, we all suffer.  When one of us is struggling, we all struggle.  When one of us is in pain, we all share that pain.

That’s what it means to be a compassionate community.  It’s not only about the kindness we share in things like casseroles.  It’s about sharing in one another’s pain, just as Christ shares in ours.  That requires knowing each other, sharing our lives with each other, loving each other.

The word “compassion” is generally used to mean something like feelings of concern or pity for the sufferings of others, as well the desire to alleviate their suffering.  For Christians, the meaning of the word goes even deeper.  The word “compassion” literally means to redemptively participate in the suffering of others.  “Com” means “with.” “Passion” means “suffering,” as in when we talk about the Passion of Jesus, referring to his redemptive suffering and death on the cross. On the cross, Jesus suffered for and with the sin and brokenness of humanity.  As the prophet said, “By his wounds we are healed.”  When we suffer, especially for our faith, we participate in the suffering of Christ.

And, the cross is the symbol of a compassionate God, who suffers with humanity.

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To be a “Compassionate Community” is not simply being kind, or generous, or to be outraged by injustice, or to be do-gooders – though, those are all good things.  To be a “Compassionate Community” means that we care so deeply about others – both within our Christian community, and without – that we hurt when they hurt, and we suffer when they suffer.  Compassionate Christians feel the pain of others.  Compassionate Christians have broken hearts for the brokenness we see in others.  And, in compassion, we enter their pain with them, in effort to bring comfort, care, support, and encouragement – and hopefully relief.  Compassion is love moved to action!

Dorothy Day, the founder and leader of the Catholic Worker movement, who lived and worked side by side with the poor, said, “Love must be tried and tested and proved. It must be tried as though by fire.  And fire burns.”

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Fred Rogers said, “When your heart can cry for another’s sadness, then your heart is full of love.”

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That’s compassion.  Love, that suffers with.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 

We comfort others with the comfort we’ve received.  Have you ever received comfort, encouragement, compassion, or support from the Church?  Has anyone ever brought you a casserole in a time of need?  Anyone ever sent you a note of encouragement?  Anyone ever listened supportively, or offered a shoulder to cry on?  Anyone ever watched your kids in an emergency?  Anyone ever visited you in the hospital?  Anyone ever attended a funeral of one of your loved ones?  Anyone ever shed a tear for you?  Anyone ever prayed for you?  Ever confided in someone?

Ever done any of that for someone else?  We comfort others with the comfort we have received.  That’s compassion. Compassion means entering into the suffering of another, allowing yourself to feel their pain and struggle, to be moved by it emotionally, and to be moved to action on their behalf.

John Pavlovitz writes, “Seeing suffering requires us to step into the broken, jagged chaos of people’s lives to be agents of healing and change.”

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When has someone stepped into the broken, jagged chaos of your life?  When have you stepped into the broken, jagged chaos of someone else’s life?

Of course, it’s one thing to offer compassion to those whom we know and love.  That typically happens in church.  But, what about those we don’t know?  Do we feel the same compassion for the suffering of strangers – or just pity, from a safe distance?

Matthew 9:35-38 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus is asking, will we feel the same compassion for others that he feels, and will we respond?

As we all know, Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). But, on one occasion, Jesus was pressed to define who exactly he meant by “neighbor.”  After all, he couldn’t possibly mean people I don’t know.  He couldn’t possibly mean “those” people.  He couldn’t possibly mean my enemies, or strangers, or people who frighten me, or threaten me.  He couldn’t mean THEM, could he?  He must mean the people I already know, and like, and am comfortable with, and socialize with, and agree with politically, and who don’t have the coronavirus.  Right?

To answer, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which I won’t tell now.  Suffice it to say, Jews hated Samaritans, and vice-a-versa, and Jesus was talking to Jews, and Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the story, after saying he showed kindness and compassion toward a Jew in need.  In Jesus’ mind, even Jews and Samaritans were neighbors!

Who are my neighbors?  To whom does a “Compassionate Community” offer compassion?  Jesus doesn’t draw lines.  In fact, he erases them.  Jesus doesn’t build walls.  He tears them down.  Jesus doesn’t exclude – anyone, ever.  He opens the circle of care and compassion wider, and wider, and wider.  Who is my neighbor?  I suspect Jesus would ask, “Who isn’t it?”  The question is whether or not our hearts are large enough to feel compassion even for those whom we may not know, or like, or have a vested interest in helping.

I’ll admit, one of the hardest things about working downtown is how frequently I’m approached by a homeless person asking me for money, with a story I don’t believe, or who is obviously is mentally ill.  It’s not easy for me.  I tire of it.  I frequently lack the compassion I’m describing today.

Image result for homeless person digging in trash

But, then, on more than one occasion I’ve watched a homeless person digging through the trash, searching for food.  There is something about the indignity of digging in the trash for food that breaks my heart.  I know there’s at least three good meals a day for the homeless, available downtown.  But, for some reason – either mental illness, or the shame of standing in a line at a soup kitchen, or a fear of people, or something I don’t understand – they dig in the trash instead.  That breaks my heart.  It’s not the need for food.  It’s the indignity of it.  That breaks my heart.  And, I’ll be honest, I haven’t figured out what to do about that yet.

Thankfully, I’m not entirely hard hearted.  God has broken my heart about other things, that I have acted on.  My heart is broken for the people of Central America, especially Guatemala, many of whom live in poverty and danger you and I can’t imagine, who just want to care for and protect their families.  My heart is broken for the LGBTQ community, and the terrible way queer people have been treated by the Church.  My heart is broken for people suffering with anxiety and depression, because I’ve known those dark clouds personally.  My heart is broken for the victims of sexual abuse.  My heart is broken for men and women who don’t know their value and worth in God’s eyes.  Those are all issues that have, and will define my ministry.  I’m working on others.

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What moves you to compassion?  What kind of Compassionate Community will be together – for each other, and for our world?

 

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