Then 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 he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
We’ve been considering compassion these past few weeks, and in this passage from Matthew, we heard that Jesus had compassion for the people he was meeting as he went from town to town. That compassion arose in part out of his perception that they were “like sheep without a shepherd,” as Matthew’s author put it. Just reading it now, we get good general understanding of his meaning with that phrase, but in writing his gospel to an original audience who primarily grew up within Judaism, they would have known that this phrase that shows up multiple times in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly to condemn government and religious leaders who haven’t led the people wisely or well; who haven’t looked after the people’s best interests, and leaving them to fend for themselves.
A lot of times when this passage is used as a preaching text, the sermon emphasis will be on Jesus’ last line – “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” The sermon becomes a call to action; to evangelize more, and to do more for others in the name of the gospel because the amount of suffering in the world is so great.
There’s nothing wrong with taking the sermon in that direction; it’s a perfectly logical message to draw out of Jesus’ words. As we’ve thought about compassion, we’ve certainly emphasized the idea of being the face of Christ, and being more compassionate to others, both inside the church walls and especially beyond. But you know, after a while that can become a real burden, to be told over and over and over again that we need to do more and more for others. We know we’re supposed to be self-giving and compassionate, but there’s just so much need in the world, so much that needs to be done, and with few clear answers on exactly what should be done, and how, that in our efforts to be compassionate, it’s very easy to feel like a ship without a rudder, like sheep without a shepherd. With all the need, we can start to feel like whatever we might do adds up to less than a drop in a bucket. And after a while, we can find ourselves slipping into “compassion fatigue;” that we’re depleting ourselves as we keep trying to do more and more for others. And along with that compassion fatigue, we can start to feel resentful of the continual calls to do more, more, more – and then, when we don’t – can’t – live up to all that, feelings of guilt and shame can set in, and in the end, we don’t feel like being very compassionate at all.
Imagine being a woman with a husband and three kids and a fulltime job outside the home, and you do all the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and laundry and all the other housework and get dry cleaning and get the kids to soccer practice and dance class and youth group and the dog to the vet and your mother to the doctor and make dinner and clean up after dinner and then help the kids with their homework and you give of yourself all day and all night long for the good of your family – so that by the time you flop into bed at night, you’re exhausted, you’re spent, and you realize you haven’t had a moment of the day just for yourself, and you start to wonder if there’s really any “you” left at all – only to get up the next morning, get all the kids out of bed, and ready to go, and get out the door to church… only to hear the preacher – and yes, it’s usually a man – tell you for the umpteenth time that you need to stop being to selfish; you need to think less of yourself, and that you have to give even more of yourself for others. If that’s your story, I just don’t think that’s the sermon you need to hear.
So today, I want to suggest that we hear this gospel text from a slightly different vantage point. A lot of times, when we hear a story from the Bible, we tend to picture it as if we’re watching it on a movie or television screen, watching it all unfold in the third person. But this morning, Instead of considering Jesus’ having compassion for some abstract group of other people “over there,” picture this story in the middle of the action, as one of those people. Imagine this story, seeing it through the eyes of one of those people that Jesus is helping and healing and having compassion on. I’m suggesting today that it’s important to recognize that we aren’t always the distributor of Christ’s compassion in the world, but we’re the recipient of it, too. It’s important to recognize that we’re worthy of that love and compassion.
That can be hard for us to imagine or accept sometimes. Maybe there’s something in our past, or our present – something that we did that was immoral, or even illegal. We hurt another person. We were unfaithful. We were dishonest. Whatever it was, or is, it’s something that maybe we feel guilt or shame about, and it’s keeping us from feeling that we’re worthy of Christ’s compassion.
And I have to say that some of the language that the church uses feeds into those kinds of feelings. We talk about God’s grace as being something that God extends to us strictly as a matter of God’s own choice; something that God unilaterally decides to offer to us and that we could never obtain from God by way of earning it through our own efforts. That’s very true, and it’s something we should all be grateful for. But then, we take that concept further, saying that we aren’t deserving, we aren’t worthy, of God’s compassion and love. I know that that’s standard, orthodox Christian doctrine. But honestly, I wonder if putting things that way doesn’t go a step too far. I mean, I think of the entire, overall biblical record of God’s dealing with humanity; I think about God’s entering our existence in the flesh; and I think of the crucifixion; and I can almost hear God saying “Unworthy? Unworthy? Look at what I’ve done for you – look at how I’ve walked in solidarity with you in the flesh. Look at how I suffered for you. I did these things precisely to show you that you are worthy of my love and compassion! I call you precious, and loved, and worthy! So don’t let anyone – not the world, not even the church, not even yourself – call you unworthy after I’ve called you worthy!”
As most of you know, a couple of weeks ago a group of us marched in the Kentuckiana Pride Parade. It was a great time; a lot of fun. But it was more than just fun. We were able to represent our congregation and witness to our welcoming and inclusive nature to some 18,000 people who were at the parade. And with the exception of one or two screaming street preachers with bullhorns, we received a very favorable response from the crowd, and several of us were able to have good conversations about our faith and our church along the way. At the end of the parade, while we were just standing round chit-chatting, a young woman was standing on the sidewalk, and she said to one of us, “Wow, that’s really cool, that a church would march in the Pride Parade and show support for us.” And our member said “Yes, we do.” “And you allow gay people like me in your church?” “Yes, absolutely; in our church we say all are welcome, and we really mean it. You should come check us out sometime.” “Oh, I don’t know. I mean… I loved being part of church when I was younger, before they told me I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I’d like to be part of a church again, but there are just so many things in my life, that make me feel unworthy to go.”
Doesn’t that just break your heart? Can’t you just hear God saying, “I call you worthy; don’t let anyone convince you that you aren’t!”
I want us all to do something this morning. We did this at Montreat; I’ve done it before, too, and probably some of you have also. I want you to get comfortable in your seat, and close your eyes. Sit in the silence; feel the stillness. Now take a deep breath in, and hold it…. Now breath out. Again, breathe in, and as you do, imagine that God, and all goodness and peace and love are entering into you along with your breath, then hold it… and let it out, and as you let it out, imagine all that stuff that’s a barrier between you and God, all that stuff that’s causing the feelings of unworthiness, is leaving your body. So breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. [repeats]. Now imagine yourself in someplace that’s special to you, someplace where you feel at peace, someplace that you have fond memories of…. And imagine that you’re sitting at a table, or maybe on a blanket spread out for a picnic…. And imagine sitting across from you, the most special people in your life, the people you love the most…. And now, imagine loved ones that you cared for the most who have passed away; you’re all there together… And now imagine in the center of them, looking at you, is Jesus… Now imagine that they’re all looking deeply into your eyes, into your very heart, and they’re smiling, they’re beaming at you… and they’re all telling you, assuring you through their eyes, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are loved; that when you were created, God called you very good. That you are worthy…. Embrace the compassion of this stillness; feel it throughout your body….Now, imagine yourself coming back out of this, breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. Breathe in, and as you do feel the warmth and beauty of knowing that you are worthy and loved by God. Hold it… … Breathe out. [repeat]. OK, open your eyes.
Remember that we are indeed called to be compassionate to others; it’s an important, inseparable part of what it means to follow Jesus. But before we can offer Christ’s compassion to others, we have to know it, and be assured of it, for ourselves. So remember the compassion you felt this morning in the stillness – and remember that if you ever start to feel overwhelmed with compassion fatigue, or you feel guilt or shame creeping in, if you feel unworthy again, you can go back to that place in the stillness, and feel that compassion again.
Thanks be to God.