Sunday, February 18: Practicing Compassion

Matthew 25: 31-46

There’s a trend in the Christian book market to publish books about how the gospel stories are revealed through various pop culture figures. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t cut it for you, you can also read about the gospel according to Oprah, Harry Potter, or the Simpsons. And then there’s the Gospel according to Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts. Shultz was a deeply religious person, and he wove profound questions of faith into the simple stories of Charlie, Snoopy, and Peppermint Patty. In one comic strip, Snoopy is shown shivering in the doorway of his dog house, freezing in a snowstorm. It’s clearly Christmas, from the lights and decorations stapled to his roof. Charlie and Lucy pass by, shielded from the cold with warm coats and scarves. A cartoon bubble floats above Charlie’s head, filled with the words, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” Lucy repeats the same as they walk on by into the warmth of the house. The only thing that fills Snoopy’s cartoon bubble is more chattering of teeth. Charlie and Lucy meant well with their warm winter greeting—but what Snoopy needed more was a warm winter blanket. It’s a subtle jab – how easy it is to speak the words of compassion while failing to act compassionately.

Our gospel text for today is a difficult one. The images of Christ painted in this scripture are challenging—they seem to stretch our imaginations in opposite directions. There is Christ the mighty judge, who inspires fear in the hearts of the sheep and goats whose fates are determined by his holy rule. And then there is Christ as the one who is hungry, thirsty, alien, sick, imprisoned. Yet this Jesus who sits on a throne even as he inhabits the ghettos proclaims a message of justice and mercy. With a bit less subtlety than the cartoonist, the gospel of Matthew teaches the same lesson about the presence and absence of compassion.

I didn’t expect to work on my sermon while we were away, but the Holy Spirit sometimes has other ideas. One of the museums we toured while in Switzerland was the International Red Cross Museum. Situated in Geneva across from the headquarters of the United Nations and down the street from the World Council of Churches, the Red Cross museum communicates the history and purpose of the organization. Originally founded to provide medical care to wounded soldiers—regardless of nationality—the Red Cross has responded to natural and manmade disasters every year since its founding. But the first thing you see when you enter the exhibit is a dramatic presentation of holy scriptures from different religious traditions that inform the organization’s mission. Wisdom from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian holy scriptures each echo the same sacred responsibility to offer compassion to the stranger. The text chosen from the New Testament was none other than today’s passage from Matthew 25.

The matters of compassion and its sister, justice, are certainly one of the most universal of religious practices. And they are also some of the most common matters in the Holy Bible. Poverty and oppression—and our responses to them— are a big deal to God. Some biblical scholars have noted that only the issue of idolatry receives more attention in the Old Testament.

Rev. Jim Wallis tells a story about this. He and his friends did an experiment while they were in seminary. They found and documented every single biblical reference to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to images of God as a deliverer of the oppressed. I don’t know how they had time for all this between classes and internships, but Rev. Wallis and his friends collected thousands of verses that related to poverty and oppression. They even did some mathematical equations to demonstrate their point. They found that one of every sixteen verses of the New Testament related to the poor. In the Gospel of Luke, the ratio reached one of every seven. You might have guessed that the reason the seminarians started this experiment is that they didn’t think that their wealthy American churches were taking God’s concern for the poor seriously enough. They wanted to challenge fellow Christians to realize the omission. It wasn’t long before one of the students decided to illustrate their point in a shocking way. Seminarians do tend to be pretty good at being shocking. The student took an old, beat-up copy of the Holy Bible and took a pair of scissors to it. He painstakingly snipped out every last verse on their list. Rev. Wallis recalls that “when he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?” he just cut it right out. All those psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared. In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, “The might will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.” Matthew 25, gone. The beatitudes, gone. The Holy Bible was so filled with holes that it almost completely fell apart. The seminarians believed it was the gospel according to America, because those scriptures were the ones their churches were ignoring.

We are rooted in a very different tradition than Jim Wallis. He was brought up in the old fundamentalist church, which has focused heavily on personal salvation yet all but ignored gospel message of social justice. Many Disciples of Christ congregations have long been committed to participating in ministries of justice. Our history isn’t perfect, and our spiritual ancestors may have been goats as often as they were sheep. But our heritage includes Christians who challenged child labor, denounced slavery, and advocated for civil rights. These merciful actions, and so many more that don’t make the history books, are a faithful response to the gospel of grace. Just as Jesus was moved by compassion to heal the sick and befriend the outsiders, Christian men and women have healed and befriended Christ himself by responding to the cries of the needy.

I don’t think any other biblical text captures the miracle and mystery of the incarnation any more powerfully than the parable of the sheep and goats. We who welcomed Christ into this world as a wailing infant encounter him again and again in the faces of those who suffer. He turns up where we least expect him. The sheep aren’t rewarded for extending compassion toward the pretty and the powerful. It’s the ones who are in the margins of society, who can’t return favors. It’s the ones who may or may not have showered recently, who may or may not have good table manners, who may or may not have deserved the life sentence that has them locked up in prison. They are the ones in whom Jesus becomes most fully incarnate, and it is through serving the least that we are most able to be close to the one we call Lord and Savior.

Part of being in foreign countries was the constant struggle to translate what we were seeing and hearing. Usually it was a matter of language. We had to consult our travel books every time we ordered a sandwich or navigated a new place. But some of the translation was different. There was the time we walked into one of the gorgeous old Reformation churches to find a meal going on. Folks milling about, helping themselves to warmth and coffee and conversation. As we walked away, we translated: That’s like the Wednesday night meal at Shared Bread. That’s like when we serve breakfast every Sunday to whoever comes hungry. There was a lot of translation to do in the Red Cross museum. Learning about the compassionate work of that organization, I couldn’t help but think: that’s like how Week of Compassion funds have helped build a children’s ward in a hospital in Baghdad. That’s like how our donations and representatives have helped restore clean drinking water to the areas affected by the 2004 Tsunami. And that’s like how Week of Compassion is working with Church World Service to provide humanitarian care to the 2 million Sudanese refugees.

And the most challenging translation of all is that each one of those poor, hungry, wounded, and oppressed is like Christ, quietly hoping and praying that the gospel has transformed our hearts into gardens of compassion.

It is easy to talk, hard to act. There is so much in this world that can break our hearts that we might be tempted to avert our eyes from the pain. But in doing so, we avert our eyes from the cross. We deny the incarnation. We deny Jesus as surely as Peter denied him the night of his betrayal. Few scriptures are as damning as the parable of the sheep and goats. It has all the judgment but none of the triumphant vindication that makes the book of Revelation such a popular stop for apocalyptic enthusiasm. But we are not called to the life of Discipleship to figuratively—or literally—cut unpleasant scriptures from the canon.

None of us can respond to every need. But we can grow in our practice of compassion, as individuals and as the church. We can reflect God’s love for our families and communities by shaping our words and deeds according to the gospel. And we can reflect God’s love for this world by joining our gifts with many others to empower missionaries and relief organizations to reach the needs of those beyond our own reach. Through the practice of compassion, we can translate our blessings into blessings for all the world. May it be so. Amen.

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