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A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens February 25, 2007 at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio,

Dedicated to Amanda and Matthew on their baptismal day, to Brant Sankey as we remember him with love, and in memory of Alma Read as she enters eternal rest and always to the glory of God!
Compassion as Sacrament
Part II of VIII in the Lenten Sermon Series “The Sacraments of Life”
Romans 10: 8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Filled with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, Jesus heads into the desert. For 40 days and nights, he fasts and spends time with the Devil, the Great and Power Tempter. The Devil finds his alone-time with Jesus a good time make him some offers he cannot refuse. The Devil is apparently interested in increasing Jesus’ effectiveness in the ministry and multiplying his power on earth. He proposes three seemingly “good deeds” which could increase Jesus’ glory and strengthen his political hand among the Jewish leaders, the people of Palestine, and the whole global community.

First, seeing he is hungry, The Devil tells Jesus to make his own manna in the wilderness, to turn a stone into bread. The man from Nazareth says, “No, it takes more than bread to really live.” Second, the Devil leads him to a high place and in a moment shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, probably including those past and future. Not claiming to be the Creator of all the worlds, but the current power broker of them all, The Devil says, “If you worship me, I will give you all of these kingdoms.” Again quoting the writings of Deuteronomic law, Jesus responds, “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.” Finally, the Devil takes Jesus into Jerusalem and puts him on top of the Temple. He says, “Go ahead and jump. After all , doesn’t your ‘good book’ say that if you jump, the angels will catch you and carry you. You won’t even stub your toe?” Jesus says, “Yes, I know that’s in the scriptures . . . I also know scripture says, ‘Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God!’”

Disgusted and having failed to break the fasting, newly baptized Savior of the world, the Devil leaves him alone. But, he doesn’t go far away. He lays in wait for another opportunity to return and try to mess with Jesus’ head and heart.

The Devil didn’t understand Jesus. He doesn’t see the depth of his compassion. At the core of his being, Jesus was compassionate. He lived and breathed compassion. The word “Compassion” literally means, “to suffer completely together” with another being. In order to suffer with someone, you must enter fully into their reality. While the Devil tries to put away hunger, control the power of earth and quote scripture, Jesus enters into our suffering and experiences our pain completely with us. Is this any more apparent than his taking on the suffering of the cross and dying for the sins of the world?

Apparently, the Devil was not a religious Jew. If so, he would have known the story from the Talmud of the rabbi who wanted to know when the Messiah would come and how he would know him. One day, while out walking, the rabbi came upon the prophet Elijah and asked him these burning questions.

Elijah answered, “If you want to know when the Messiah is coming, go and ask him yourself.” “Is he here on earth?” the rabbi responded. “O, yes,” answered Elijah. “But, where will I find him?” pressed the rabbi. Elijah said, “Go to the gates of the city and among the poorest people there, you will find among those who are covered with wounds.” Now frustrated, the rabbi responded, “But there are so many poor and wounded there, how will I know him.” Elijah answered, “Trust me, you will find him. While the others unbind all their wounds at the same time and bind them up again, The Messiah unbinds one wound at a time and binds it up again, all the while saying to himself, ‘perhaps someone will need me, I must be ready.’” Find the compassionate one and you find the Messiah.

Compassion is central to all religions. The Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all speak about God as a God of compassion. While we live in a world where competition is the dominant mode of relating to people in politics, sports, or economics, all true believersproclaim compassion and not competition as the way of God.

To be with others when and where they suffer and to willingly enter into the fellowship of the weak, is God’s way to justice and peace among people. When we dare to live with the radical faith that we do not have to compete for love, but that love is freely given, we will experience and share compassion in this world (drawn from Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, Crossroads, NY, NY, 1994, pp. 98-99).

We need to be careful not to confuse compassion with pity. Pity always steps outside of pain and observes it. Pity gives money to the beggar on the street, but doesn’t look in his eye, sits down with him, or talk with him. Pity is too caught up in the competition and getting ahead to stop and smell the pain of the suffering.

Compassion means to get close to the one who suffers. But, we can become close to another person only when we are wiling to be vulnerable ourselves. A compassionate person will say, “I am your brother. I am your sister. I am human. I am fragile. I am mortal, just like you. I am not afraid of your tears and your pain. I too have wept. I too have pain.” Henri Nouwen writes this:

This is why so many of us find it easier to show pity than compassion. The suffering person calls us to be aware of our own suffering. How can I respond to someone’s loneliness if I have not gotten in touch with my own loneliness? How can I feel compassion for someone else’s disability unless I acknowledge my own disabilities? How can I be with the poor, unless I confess my own poverty? (Ibid., p. 105).

When we reflect on our own lives, we will realize that the greatest moments of comfort and consolation were moments in which someone said, “I cannot take away your pain. I can’t offer you a solution to your problem, but I can promise you I won’t leave you alone and I will hold on to you as long and as well as I can.” There is so much grief and pain in our lives. We experience the sacrament of compassion when we have another person or a number of other people enter with us into the pain and grief.

It was late one night when I entered Kobacker House - Riverside Hospital’s Hospice. I was there to visit with one of our members who was entering her last stages of life. As I entered the room, I realized I was in the presence of holiness. There by her bedside were family members who were silently keeping vigil. I recognized the signs of the end - irregular breathing, color changes to the skin and so much more. There was a nurse quietly and gently ministering to her like an angel of mercy. Nevertheless, Sitting, praying, crying, and eventually singing “Amazing Grace,” the presence of life embraced the presence of death and all was well in this sacramental time of pure love.

Early the next morning, suffering and sadness ended. Life itself passed and she entered the heavenly home where all God’s people gather in peace. The sacrament of compassion - of “suffering completely together with another person,” had been fully and beautifully fulfilled by a small community of lovers.

As with other times, I have been present at the death of someone, I felt around me that night the depth of love and compassion needed to carry a person from life to death to eternal life. But, I was also keenly aware that God’s compassionate heart was open that night. God’s compassionate heart has no limits. We pray in this season the words of the 51st Psalm, “A pure heart, create for me O God, put a steadfast Spirit within me.”

Just before his own death last April, Bill Coffin told Bill Moyers, “I don’t know what heaven looks like, but all I need to know is, God will be there. And our lives go from God, in God, to God again.”

My prayer this week is that we go from God, in God, to God again. I pray that God makes room in our hearts for compassion. I pray that God will enlarge the boundaries of our hearts and make us ever more sensitive to each others needs, each other’s pain, each other’s suffering, each other’s joys, each other’s loneliness. I pray that we look into one another’s eyes and see with the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of compassion, the needs of those right in front of us.

Yes, I pray this week, that as we head into the forty days of Lent, through the power of God’s Holy spirit, God enlarges the boundaries of our hearts so we may give and receive the sacrament of compassion. Amen.

Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church