“The Gift of Compassion”- Seeing Christ in our Midst Sermon Series
“The Gift of Compassion”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
July 18, 2021
It’s been over a decade since I broke my left hand in a ridiculous softball accident, the details of which I will spare you today. But, it was a pretty bad break that happened on a Thursday night. Surgery would fall on Monday. In between Thursday and Monday, I have a wedding to conduct.
The problem is that Thursday night they put a huge cast on my arm from the elbow down to the fingers to hold everything in place. So, I arrive at this wedding and I have my suitcoat that Michelle had to pull onto me because I could not physically get it over the cast. And I rest my wedding notes on my cast, and then hanging down from out of my cast are my pinky, ring, and middle finger. They are so visibly broken, so visibly sideways and you can definitely see them hanging there throughout the wedding.
In fact, it is so noticeably broken that I end up being fairly concerned about it taking away people’s attention from the service and bride and groom and vows that I decide I have to make mention of it early in the service so as to acknowledge “yes, it’s here. It’s broken. Let’s move on.”
But really isn’t this always the way? We notice the broken things, the ailments.
We notice when someone around us is suddenly on crutches. Comes in with a cast. Now has a wheelchair. Walks with a pronounced limp. Has a prosthetic limb. When I have a small band-aid on my finger Leo will notice immediately,“ What happened?”
We notice broken things, the hurting things. Until, of course, we don’t.
” There was a man with a withered hand in the synagogue.”
“Withered” – somehow weakened, paralyzed, useless.
Now, the Pharisees – the religious leaders – know this man is in the synagogue. But notice where their attention is:
“They watched (Jesus) to see whether he would cure (the man) on the sabbath so that they might accuse him.”
It is not the man or his ailment and his need that grab their imagination or their prayer or their empathy. What has their attention is the distinct possibility that someone among them might break a law.
To be fair, the Pharisees were not just grumpy rule-keepers. At their most faithful, they were actually studied people very much seeking to keep the will of God.
Much of their way of being centered upon taking Leviticus 19:2 with reverent seriousness: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, NIV). And the Pharisees understood “holy” to mean “pure.”
To be ‘holy’ meant to be ‘pure ’and not defiled with sin or that which God forbids. In fact, the name “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means ‘to separate. ’
Purity is about separating oneself from that which is unholy.
And so the Pharisees sought to take all the purity laws quite seriously – purity laws about food,
- Laws about who could be touched and not touched,
- Laws about dress,
- Laws most certainly about Sabbath laws.
As well, physical wholeness was also a purity issue. People who were not whole — people who were maimed, chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs…they were impure.
As one theologian summarily states: “The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.” (M Borg)
That is a very different world than ours in this country where from birth we name and celebrate that all are created equal…
And yet, I think we all readily recognize, as well, how difficult it is in our day to avoid some of this underlying thinking from the ancient world.
If you voted this way…
or are part of this denomination…
or drive this kind of vehicle…
or live in this neighborhood…
or have this bumper sticker…
or eat at this particular establishment…
or have this accent…
Then it is hard for our minds not to quickly think, “then you are all these things that are red.
Or blue.” “You’re on this side. You’re on that side.”
In fact, what has become more and more acute in recent years is that we are so aware of this that we police we each other according to that line.
If a leading democrat breaks rank or a leading republican breaks rank – you can almost guarantee how their ‘own ’will punish them for not keep the purity of the cause.
Or, if a conservative or a progressive does not properly and strongly enough condemn this or that on social media – what then are they really about? How “pure” is their way?
It’s a thinking, of course, that very much infects the church. Just tell us what denomination they are, where they stand on this or that and we know precisely if those people are “pure” or not.
We have an ancient inclination within to see one another terms of purity codes of some sort – religious, political, or otherwise.
I want to be careful here… because God does call us to take stands and confront sin and not remain silent in the face of evil – history has taught this painful lesson time and again. It is good and right to name evil. In fact, Jesus in our passage is confronting evil head-on.
But, if we let ourselves get caught up regularly in…
who stands where, who voted this way, who wears that brand, where is the church on this and that…if we get so caught up in where people are with this line…we can find that we have inadvertently just started to pay attention to the line and not people.
We can get so caught up in the purity of our cause that we are always staring at the line and de-marking people as more or less based on how they fall along the line.
Treating people not as people but in measure to their proximity to the line – and appreciating them or disdaining them accordingly.
And lest we are unclear about how dark this path can become – our passage ends with the line-watching people plotting against Jesus’s life.
How would one know if one has been paying too much attention to the purity lines – and who is with us and who is against us, who is pure and who is not?
One measure is this: we notice that we are no longer noticing…
- the ailments right there in our presence,
- the ailments in“ the other,”
- the ailments in ourselves.
“ And Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”
In a visible, public space of worship, all who have been keenly watching the Sabbath line now have their eyes drawn up toward the human being who is ailing and in need.
Jesus is placing the attention on the need – not the line, not the law…
In fact, Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand. Make the pain, the ailment, the hurt, the impurity all the more front and center to every single eye… and the hand is healed.
Jesus is not just healing here.
He has put something else in the center of the synagogue and it is becoming quite clear that Jesus does not equate “holiness” with “purity.”
In fact, if you read the Gospels, you know that Mark 3 is but one of a myriad of examples where Jesus breaks or bends some kind of purity law.
Like eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, touching lepers, having women in his group of followers… and now here Jesus brings an impure person to the center of the synagogue and heals a non-life-threatening injury on the Sabbath.
What we see is that time and again in his ministry, Jesus makes not purity, but compassion, central.
In fact, at one point in Jesus’s ministry, he declares, “Be compassionate just as your father is compassionate.” (Lk 6:36).
Commentators note that Jesus is very intentionally echoing the words of Leviticus 19:2 “ –Be holy as I am holy,” but he is replacing the word “holy” with “compassionate” so as to be clear that what makes God’s people “holy” and “other” is not fundamentally some sort of purity code, but “compassion.”
“Be compassionate just as your father is compassionate.” (Lk 6:36).
Compassion: literally “with” (com) and “passion” (suffering).
A people who know how to be with one another in one another’s suffering…and love.
Compassion is holiness. Compassion is what it means to be ‘set apart.’
I was talking with a Sun City resident recently who attends another church, but he got to sharing with me that a few years ago, around 2011-2012, he and his wife decided to make a weekly trip to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor. As many of you may know, this is a guarded, fenced-in, center used to detain non-US citizens awaiting the outcome of their immigration status.
And there is a visitation program where folks like this couple can show up and talk with the people who are detained. Nearly all speak Spanish exclusively and nearly all know nobody in this country.
I imagine purity lines of all sorts start going on within ourselves as we think about who we think these people are or are not, why they have come here, how close anyone should get to them or the center lest we signal we are that side of the line or this side of the line…
And yet when I asked this guy why he and his wife made these weekly visits, he said, “They are incredibly isolated. They are there for upwards of a year many times, and they have no visitors.”
“So, did you know Spanish, then?”
“No,” he said. “We just started to learn the basics so we could provide a friendly face while they awaiting whatever the news was going to be.”
Isolation and loneliness are not always as obvious as a withered hand, but they are surely a profound ailment to the soul – with very real bodily manifestations, as many discovered over the course of this past year.
“Come you who are blessed by my Father…for I was sick and you took care of me.”
Compassion. Purity-line-breaking compassion…it is central to our God. It is the hill he dies upon, quite literally.
Jesus’s death was terribly impure…
- The holy – bleeding out on Golgotha.
- The holy – naked.
- The holy–mocked.
But how the moment dripped with compassion. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The cross proclaims senseless compassion. Undeserved compassion. The cross raises compassion as God’s final and full response to sinners. We are – all of us – saved by profound compassion.
Indeed, thanks be to God that God does not hold us next to a purity line… but rather among the hands Jesus invites front and center are ours.
Who among us this day needs to place their ailing hands, their tired hands, their guilty hands, their failing hands, their frustrated hands, their calloused hands, their clenched hands…who among us needs to put their hands out front and center and know the profound healing of Jesus who sits “with” our suffering?
Good News unfolds on the sabbath day in Mark 3 not when the ailments and impurities and pains and imperfections and hypocrisies are hidden and the purity lines held just so… but when the disfigured and impure is brought plainly, humbly into sight before Jesus and his broken people…
May we know our hands healed anew by compassion this day. And then having known afresh the gift of compassion…we go from here and whether we go forward known as a historic church or a big church or small church or conservative or progressive or any of the labels and lines we draw…may we be known as a radically compassionate church.
- A people whose eyes notice and care for withered hands of need in our midst.
- A people whose lives lift high the cross.
- A people set apart for they are compassionate as their Father in heaven is compassionate.
“For I was sick, and you took care of me.”