March 19, 2017--The Third Sunday of Lent: "Compassion"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 19, 2017: The Third Sunday of Lent
This incident in the Garden of Gethsemane is one of only a few moments in the entire life of Jesus that is mentioned in all four Gospels—it is just that important. After dining with his disciples for the final time, Jesus goes out to the garden to pray. The disciples go with him and he says to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray” (Mt. 26:36). Kneeling down, and looking up to heaven, Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). This prayer of our Lord is for relief from the anguish and pain that awaits him in the morning. Getting up from prayer, Jesus returns to the disciples and finds them peacefully sleeping. He wakes them and says, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (Mt. 26:40b). While Jesus is still speaking, a crowd suddenly descends on the group, clubs and torches and swords in hand. Their leader is none other than Judas.
The disciples get antsy; they know, deep down, what is about to happen. After Judas tries to mark Jesus with a kiss, the disciples ask, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Before Jesus can answer, spit-fire Peter draws his sword, and lops off the ear of the high priest’s servant. We learn in John’s gospel that the servant's name was Malchus. “No more of this!” Jesus shouts. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Then, reaching out to Malchus, Jesus touches his ear and it is healed. After this, the crowd seizes Jesus, claps him in shackles, and leads him away to the house of the high priest. It is there that Jesus will be convicted of blasphemy and sedition. Early the next morning, Pilate will condemn him to death, and Jesus will be led out of the city and crucified on a hill by the city garbage dump.
Jesus’s actions in the garden set an example for you and for me. Everything Jesus said and did in his life issues a calling to you and me, and how he handled the violent crowd in the garden is no different. Jesus is our Lord, our Savior, our King, and following him means living as he did. The call issued to all of us from his encounter with the authorities in the garden is to be compassionate in the face of difficult, even deadly, odds. In this particular situation, compassion led Jesus to answer pain with healing, hatred with love, violence with non-violence. The crowd that came to arrest Jesus that night was out for blood and, in the end, they got what they wanted. It is ironic because they wanted Jesus’s blood, but instead got the blood of one of their own. When faced with clubs and torches and swords, Jesus remained peaceful. When someone was injured in the fray, Jesus was not indifferent or uncaring—he was compassionate and healed Malchus’ ear. Christ’s compassion had a very distinct result: it kept the situation from escalating any further, perhaps to a point where more people could have been injured.
At its heart, Christian compassion is just that: it is a stop, an end, a break that keeps death, or pain, or destruction, or suffering from continuing on. We see this when we answer the call to do mission work in the world. A few years ago I went on a mission trip to North Dakota, to work in a small community on the Spirit Lake Reservation. One job that we were given was to clean the local cemetery. This was the final resting place for many of the ancestors of the community, and the cemetery had been neglected for quite some time. In places, the weeds were taller than me. It took our group four days to cut through the weeds, replace headstones that had toppled over, and clear away years of trash and debris. It was hard work in the summer sun, and the bug bites were terrible. The morning after we finished the job, we returned to the cemetery to admire our work and noticed something astounding: many of the graves had been decorated sometime during the night with mementoes and trinkets. Our work, our act of Christian compassion, had allowed that community to reconnect with their dead; it helped them to grieve their losses and experience hope.
That is Christian compassion—it stops the progress of death and despair and hopelessness— and it takes many forms. Each Saturday morning for the past few decades this congregation has exercised a ministry of compassion by feeding the hungry. At times this ministry has limped along, and in my time here there have even been questions as to whether or not it could continue. But every Saturday morning people show up, to serve and to clean up, and the result is that hope is in abundance and everyone, volunteer and guest, leaves satisfied. The Senior Outreach Ministry here at the church is another expression of Christian compassion. When members become ill or unable to attend worship or other activities, this ministry helps them to remain connected—this ministry takes the church beyond the walls of the church. In a culture that so often shuts the elderly away when they become less active or involved, this is a vital and significant ministry. And how about the compassion of a tutoring program that has contributed to the education of children in Enid for 19 years? Every Wednesday we sit down with those kids and show them how important they are, how loved they are, how worthy they are of a good education.
I could go on, and not just with examples from the part of Christ’s body within these walls. All over this community, this nation, and the world, Christians follow the example of our Lord and live in ways that are compassionate. Sometimes its with food or medical care, education or construction, a listening ear or a sympathetic heart. It whatever way it comes to life, the result is always the same: death loses its power, suffering comes to an end, pain is relieved, and peace reigns.
Now, we could stop here, take that lesson to heart, and go out and recommit to compassionate lives as followers of Christ. But there is a nuance to the gospel lesson today that we cannot, should not, ignore. Yes, Jesus acted with compassion when faced with an angry mob. Yes, Jesus urged his followers to non-violent action when they were assaulted with clubs and swords. Yes, Jesus reached out and healed a man whose ear had been cut off in the fight. And yes, Jesus showed us that chaos and hatred should be answered with peace and love. But what do we do with the fact that the crowd, and Malchus who lost an ear, represented everything that stood against Jesus and his kingdom? What do we do with the fact that these enemies, these extremists, these people so filled with hatred were the recipients of the Christ’s compassion and love? What do we do with the fact that Christ gave something so life-giving, so graceful, so full of mercy to people who had done nothing to deserve it?
You see, it is easy to be compassionate in the ways I’ve just said: feeding hungry people, befriending the lonely, educating children. It may not be physically or emotionally easy, but it is easy. The recipients of that compassion are not our enemies, they do not approach us with clubs and swords. The child that I practice math with each Wednesday is not my political, ethnic, or religious enemy. The guests who come to eat here on Saturday morning are not out for blood. The people of a hurricane-ravaged community are usually not looking to execute any of the mission workers because of what they believe or do. But this is what Christ and his followers faced in the garden that night. They faced people who were ethnically, religiously, and politically opposed to everything Jesus stood for. They faced people who were out for blood. They faced people who had come to arrest Jesus and start the process that led to his execution. And it was to these—the angry, the vicious, and the extreme—that Jesus reached out in compassion.
My friends, this takes our understanding of Christian compassion a big step farther. This means that our practice of compassion should not be just to those who have a need or who are in want or who need something from us, but also to those who are our opposites, our political or religious enemies, the least worthy person we could possibly imagine. And this is not some radical new interpretation of the Gospel, either. This is the way Jesus lived his entire life. The disciples were embarrassed when Jesus talked with the woman at the well because his compassion was for someone who had broken every law of Moses. The Pharisees and Scribes grumbled to themselves when Jesus sat down and ate meals with sex workers and tax collectors. Jesus once told a parable about a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road, and how he was rescued by someone who was to be avoided at all costs. In the Sermon on The Mount, Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” None. There is no reward in loving those who love you or who are lovable—at least nothing significant.
Christ calls us to show compassion to those who are in need: those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, without a place to live. But by his example, he also calls us to show compassion to those we don’t like, to those who vote differently than we do, to those who look and speak and think differently than we do, to those who may even be out for blood. This is his call because it is in these acts of compassion that the kingdom of God is built and the power of God’s peace and love takes hold of the world. All of us have a Malchus, a servant of the very thing that is trying to take us down. All of have a angry crowd, too, that comes out with clubs and torches and swords, demanding our very lives. And we have a choice, a crossroads where we must make a decision. We can either take up a sword as Peter did and fight back, cutting and slashing until everything around us is bloody and beaten. Or, we can take up compassion as Christ did, and end the cycle of violence, hatred, and death right in its tracks. There is nothing easy about this sort of compassion, but it is the way of the Lord, the one and only way that will give life to you and to me and to the whole world.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, hear the call of Christ today and be committed to the way of compassion. Be committed to compassion for those who need it the most. Continue to feed the hungry and give clothing to the naked; continue to embrace children as the gifts of God that they are, and continue to use your hands and feet to take the Gospel into the world. But also be committed today to the way of compassion with and for those who hate you, who persecute you, who call for your blood, who stand against everything you stand for. When you are tempted to live in the darkness, tempted to live by the sword, tempted to live by the ways of the world, resist. Resist and persist; you have been brought out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light. When falsehoods and lies attract with promises of power and fame, stand firm in the truth of God: you are loved and worthy. When it feels good to hate, to hide away and give thanks that you are not like those people, chose the way of love. Clothe yourselves with compassion. You are holy and you are beloved. Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
At the crossroads of compassion and violence and hate, at the crossroads that will either lead to life or to death, chose compassion…chose the way of life. As Martin Luther King Jr., said in a sermon in 1957 on the topic of loving enemies, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of start. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Chose compassion today, and you will have life. And in this way, the vision of the prophet Isaiah will become reality: good news will come to the oppressed, the broken-hearted will be healed, captives will be set free and prisoners will be released, the year of the Lord’s favor will be proclaimed to all people, and the glory of the Lord will be on display for all to see. Chose the way of compassion today and always. May God make it so. Amen.