The Heart of Boundless Compassion – The Rev. Michelle Meech
June 20, 2021
A sermon preached on June 20, 2021, the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost. Click the play button above to listen along.
Today is the third Sunday of the month, a Sunday we set aside as Healing Sunday. Over the last 15 months, while we were worshipping through Zoom, we observed this by asking one of our trained healing ministers to pray over everyone at some point during the service.
On this third Sunday, we’re returning to the practice we had prior to Zoom church. Today’s healing minister will stand in the open space during Communion, and as you are comfortable to do so, you’re invited to approach to ask for healing. You’re welcome to ask for healing for a particular need or you’re also welcome to say nothing. You’re welcome to ask for the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, or you’re welcome to ask for no hands. No matter how you ask or what you need, you will be prayed over.
Especially now, Healing Sunday seems very poignant. We have carried so much during these past 15 months: The weight of isolation, the weight of disconnection, the weight of trying new things and changing almost constantly. The weight of loss – of social connections, of loved ones, of jobs and homes. And the loss of feeling safe around people.
So, as we steadily and carefully move ourselves forward from this pandemic, it’s important to realize that really what is true right now is that we are all healing or, at least, in need of healing from all this loss.
Healing is also the theme of today’s scripture readings. Although, it’s a little difficult to focus on that because of the overtone of chastisement in them.
We have God chastising Job: “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.’”
We have Paul chastising the Corinthians: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return– I speak as to children– open wide your hearts also.”
And we have Jesus chastising the disciples after he calmed the sea, “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’”
We can choose to hear these as words of anger, or even scorn or dismissal. After all, isn’t it disappointing and grim to read that this person we call the Good Shepherd would be so callous and insensitive as to ignore the fear of his friends? In our insecurity and judgement, I think we stop at the chastisement and think that’s the point of the text. But I think there’s more to examine here than just these words.
Because we worship a loving God. The God of Life who is Love. Whose Love became incarnate in the person of Jesus the Christ, the anointed one. Whose Love continues to inspire us through the Holy Spirit so that we may become what we have been called to be: the Body of Christ in and for the world. Learning to become more surrendered to Love as we go deeper in our walk with God and learn to leave behind resentments and disappointments and prejudice so that we may open ourselves to God’s healing.
So what is happening here in Mark’s Gospel? Let’s look at the context.
In chapter 4 of Mark, Jesus has been teaching crowds of people through parables – the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed. And then, verses 33-34, immediately before today’s passage, the text says: ‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them (all the people gathered), as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
Jesus had been instructing his disciples in the deeper meaning of the parables, asking them to move beyond a basic, customary, easy hearing. Inviting them to see the Truth of God’s Kingdom or God’s Reign. Summoning them… calling them out of habitual patterns of judgement and insecurity and into a life lived in service to Love.
And then, he says, let’s cross the water to the other side.
This is a threshold moment. An initiation. A baptism, if you will.
To leave one place for another, to cross a threshold, means that we are becoming something new. Especially over water. Throughout our scriptures crossing over water always means new life – Noah crossing over the flood waters to a new earth, Moses crossing over the water in a basket as an infant to become a leader of his people in a foreign land, the Israelites crossing over the River Jordan to the Promised Land.
These thresholds, or baptisms, also mean that we have opened ourselves to God’s healing and all that that means: To letting go of resentments. To redefining ourselves so that we are no longer always beholden to the trauma and the disappointments that have shaped our experience thus far. To seeing ourselves anew in the loving eyes of God.
And, unfortunately for us humans, this is usually not a comfortable or easy transition. The fear of leaving parts of ourselves behind (even painful parts) is real and can rage like a very real storm inside of us, tossing us around. And insisting that we cannot truly heal, we cannot become a new creation, we will always be less than a beloved child of God. Which is the only thing we were ever created to be.
So, for Jesus, who already understood this Truth, the crossing probably didn’t seem to be problematic. He was simply showing his friends the next step. Yet, he was awakened from his rest to find all of them, the ones he loved so dearly, terrified for their very lives.
And the first thing he does is still the storm. His first action is to respond compassionately to their suffering. To bring forth the power of God’s unbounded Love and manifest peace, soothing the storm into quieting down.
This is the heart of Jesus – boundless compassion. And this is always the first response God offers when we are in need of healing – boundless compassion.
In the 1990’s, a woman named Becca Stevens was attending seminary in Nashville and she started ministering to women who were being trafficked, who were homeless, who were suffering from addiction. After she was ordained as an Episcopal priest, she created a program of healing for these women called Magdalene – a program founded upon compassion. Women who enter Magdalene are given 2 years of medical care, therapy, group sessions, and room and board. Then, upon completion of the program, they are given the opportunity to work at Thistle Farms, a worldwide seller of home and body products or at the Thistle Farms Café. The leadership of both of these enterprises consists largely of women survivors who have been through the program.
And it works. Five years after graduation, 75% of the graduates are living healthy, financially independent lives.
But I guarantee you, even though they were in deep pain and living in abusive situations, each one of these women were scared to leave their lives behind and cross the threshold into God’s boundless compassion.
Because people who are in deep pain are actually afraid that God’s Love doesn’t include them. So why cross over when I will just be rejected anyway? Perhaps you have felt that way from time to time.
That’s because compassion isn’t always the first response of the human race so we haven’t learned it well. The Eucharistic Prayer says, “We are heedless of Jesus’ call to walk in love.”
Whether we’re being asked to respond to our own pain and fear, or the pain and fear of others, we usually end up asking: What did you do to create your own suffering? Or what are you doing now to deserve my help? And we may try to fix or offer advice or even just shake our heads and walk away. This includes ourselves. The truth is, if we have trouble offering ourselves compassion, we usually have trouble offering compassion to others.
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century German theologian is famously quoted as saying: “Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion.”
God’s first outburst is always an action that lifts us so that we can become initiated into this boundless Love that lifts others too.
The story of Thistle Farms demonstrates the 2 most important aspects of compassion. That it comes first as an act of help. And second, that it’s not the same as pity. Pity is when we feel sorry for another person. Compassion is an active force that works to still the storm and create real healing, real peace, real difference in the world.
The heart of Jesus is one of compassion – a boundless compassion that seeks God’s justice, not the world’s justice. That seeks to bring stillness and peace to those who are suffering by striving for God’s justice and peace in this world.
And a part of our own healing is to learn this path of boundless compassion – to cultivate the ability to have compassion for others, actively working in this world for justice and healing. And to develop compassion for ourselves so that we may seek our own healing and come home to the God of Love.
May we all know the Truth of God’s Reign – that we are, each one of us, beloved children of God. That’s who we were created to be and that’s exactly who we are.