Mark 6.30–34, 53–56
Our call to serve others is grounded in the fact that God in Jesus Christ has first served us and loved us. Jesus extends grace, compassion, healing, and hospitality to us and therefore we are called to extend grace, compassion, healing, and welcome to others.Robert W Brewer, Feasting on the Gospels, Year B
If the church today is unrecognisable as a place of healing, then we need to reflect on what our mission and purpose in the world are and how we communicate the good news of God’s healing grace in this time and place.Karen Marie Yust, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3
We began our service today with these words from Psalm 145:
The Lord is gracious and compassionate,Psalm 145.8–9, REB
long-suffering and ever faithful.
The Lord is good to all;
his compassion rests upon all his creatures.
You see something similar in my very favourite book of the Bible, Jonah. Although Jonah wishes God weren’t so compassionate. Once the people of Nineveh repent, people Jonah hates with every fibre of his being, Jonah complains to God:
I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, long-suffering, ever constant, always ready to relent and not inflict punishment!Jonah 4.2, REB
And one more:
you are a forgiving God,Nehemiah 9.17
gracious and compassionate,
long-suffering and ever constant …
This formula is repeated with minor variations all over the Hebrew Scriptures, the ‘Old Testament’.
The compassionate God emerges as the God Israel worships. And not the God of Israel alone; the God of the earth, of the universe.
The compassionate One is God of ‘all that is, seen and unseen’. And then — in our midst! — God’s compassion is seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus
had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.Mark 6.34
The Compassionate One is revealed but not as law, or rules. The Compassionate One is revealed as one of us. The compassion of God takes human form in Jesus Christ.
So: what are we talking about? Just what is compassion? Is there a difference between pity and compassion? There is.
We may feel pity when we see someone homeless. Or a child in a wheelchair. Pity is a human feeling, a good feeling, a sharing of humanity with another.
Compassion is pity in action. Compassion is talking to the homeless man, sharing food with him, seeking to advocate for him. Compassion is pity in motion.
Let’s have a first-century biology lesson. I might say to my wife ‘I love you with all my heart’. But do I really? Is there in fact a chamber in my heart that is devoted to her? No. There’s not.
Of course, we use language about our hearts as a metaphor. We know that. There was a time, though, when people used it literally. For them, the heart really was the seat of love.
In the first century, the bowels were the home of compassion. Mark says Jesus ‘had compassion for them’. That’s a pretty bland translation of the original Greek. Mark says Jesus esplanchnísthē (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) towards them. That means his bowels churned up when he saw them.
That’s an intense feeling, and much more than that; it’s a feeling that you need to do something about. Compassion cannot be content with saying ‘Poor thing!’ and walking away. It is a gut feeling that leads to a response.
That’s a bit of first-century biology. Another kind of biology is also quite different from ours. It’s the biology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the ‘Old’ Testament. The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim (רחמים).
So, we speak of the heart as the seat of love; some of the ancients spoke of the bowels as the seat of compassion; but where was the seat of compassion for the ancient Hebrews?
It was in the womb. The Hebrew word for womb is racham (רחם). Racham, womb, rachamim, compassion. Rachamim is the plural of racham. We could say that for the ancient Hebrews, compassion was highly concentrated womb energy.
The Hebrews saw compassion made vividly real in the love of a mother for a child. Some of us are mothers, all of us have a mother. In a normal upbringing, our first experience of love is likely from our mother.
A mother’s love may be gentle, firm or fiercely protective. A mother’s love seeks the best for the fruit of her womb, her child. The love of a mother causes her to act quickly if her child is in any kind of danger at all.
So when the Hebrew Scriptures speak of God’s compassion, they do it in Hebrew terms. God’s compassion is love for the children born from God’s womb. (You see how the Scriptures don’t picture God in purely masculine terms? Many people assume they do.)
So a mother shows compassion, indeed anyone with a womb can be compassionate. The God of compassion has a metaphorical womb. What about the blokes? We can be compassionate too; in terms of Hebrew Scriptures, a compassionate man has a metaphorical womb. Think of it as men accessing their feminine side. Or think of it (if you like!) as gender-fluid imagery in the Bible.
Compassion is part of who God is. It’s not simply something God has. It’s part of God’s being. It’s foundational to the universe. Where the Hebrew Scriptures speak of God as compassionate, long-suffering and faithful, the writer of 1 John will simply say ‘God is love’. By ‘love’, John means self-giving love. Love that took Jesus to the cross. The love we call compassion.
It’s clear that disciples of Jesus are called to act with compassion, to let it flow from us. That’s not always so easy though. Let me highlight something else in this story today.
When the disciples returned from their mission trip, Jesus said to them ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’
Jesus saw they needed a break. Sometimes, when we see how great the needs are around us, we forget to be compassionate to ourselves. We neglect self care. We keep on going to our own detriment.
Yet what else can we do when the needs are so great? How can we stop?
What we simply cannot do is meet all the world’s needs ourselves. We are just not big enough, robust enough. We aren’t loving enough to meet all the world’s needs without falling apart at the seams.
What we can do is this: figure out what energises us when we do it. I think of that as what feeds me. What can I do for others that feeds my soul? That’s where I can make my contribution. When I focus on doing that, I can keep giving and giving for a long time.
And I can allow others to find their ‘sweet spot’, as it were. I can encourage you to find what you can do that nourishes you so you can serve.
In the body of Christ, there are many parts. And many parts to play. Our task is to discern our part.
Frederick Beuchner is an American theologian. He was 95 last Sunday! He once wrote
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
The place God calls you to is to the place of your deep gladness. The place that feeds your spirit, that builds you up. When you find it, stay with it. It may be in ministry, like me; it may be in serving food to others; it may be in visiting the sick or doing administration well. Stay there. Put your roots down deep, right there.
The world’s deep hunger meets you there. Well, it meets us everywhere. The world is in a shocking state at the moment.
When the world’s deep hunger meets us somewhere other than where our deep gladness is, we start to get worn down and frazzled. We’re more likely to have ‘compassion fatigue’ if we try to meet the world’s deep needs from the wrong place.
Not long ago, I was chatting to someone I studied medicine with, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth. He said that while ministry pays less, it would be a happier life. Well, I can certainly attest to that. I have found my place of deep gladness as a minister, and from here I can meet some of the world’s deep hunger. But don’t ask me to be in some other place. Don’t make me try to meet the world’s deep hunger doing something that doesn’t make my heart sing.
Heart. There’s that biological language again, and it may help us find our place of deep gladness. If you’re looking for that place, ask yourself
Does this make my heart sing?
Do I have a real gut feeling about this? Does it ‘feed’ me, does it nourish my spirit?
Does this awaken a deep, womb-like desire to awaken life in others, to nurture them and help them grow?
If so, you may be finding your place of deep gladness. If you find it, trust God with it.
We are called to a compassionate life, and called in a way that leads us to be compassionate also to ourselves.
I invite you for a few moments to ask God to show you just where your place of deep joy may be.
West End Uniting Church 18 July 2021