Pentecost 2: It all starts with compassion
Someone recently pointed something out to me that I found useful in understanding today’s readings: There are three moments of disruption and trauma in the history of the people of Israel: Tower of Babel, slavery in Egypt, exile in Babylon.
After each of them when God reconstitutes the people as people of God, God does so by reminding them of their mission to the rest of the world. In today’s reading from Exodus, God says to the people: “I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself…you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
God saves them, pulls them together, and sends them forth into the world as holy people.
The church today is utterly de-stabilized as the result of coronavirus. And as a mostly white denomination—at least in this country—many of us are being turned upside down and challenged to look at our part in systemic racism.
Perhaps we need to be reconstituted around mission as well.
We at Sts. Peter & Paul have an opportunity, with all the challenges of all the new ways we are being forced to do things, to reconnect to our mission, to let God reconstitute our identity as Christians in this corner of the world.
Today’s gospel is Jesus’s way of talking about that same re-forming of mission, about a community being formed up into a community of missionaries, disciples sent forth, sent forth as Jesus and sent forth with Jesus. I know, we don’t always think of ourselves as missionaries and yet, Jesus came to call a community of followers, not to sit around together, but to go forth and share good news.
I was in a conversation this past week when someone talked about colonialism, and about how even Whites of European descent are subject to it, in the form of “colonization of our imagination.” I think that as white folks and, I dare say, as Pacific Northwest Episcopalians, we may have limited imaginations about what is possible for us as missionaries.
So how do we expand our imaginations and let God do with us what God will in our current situation?
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
We know what it’s like to have few laborers. Oh my goodness, there are never enough laborers, right? Not enough choir members, not enough Godly Play teachers, not enough kids, not enough vestry members, not enough people to help around the building and grounds…
Often leaders of congregations of any size will say “we need more people in the pews, we need people to pay the bills, or to bring their kids to youth group, or to make coffee.” When we think the harvest is supposed to be people joining our church in the way that we perhaps joined the church years ago, then this can read as a gospel of scarcity.
But what if harvest means something different?
What if the harvest are people who live in fear, rather than love? What if our part in ending systemic racism is to look at our fears, to look at the ways that we can practice love instead of fear? Love is a practice, not a feeling. Perhaps our work as disciples is to free our imaginations in order to practice love such that others experience the love of God. What if that is our labor?
It is easy to read this passage about laborers and harvest and think about what we lack. But what do we have?
What if the plentiful harvest is not people to give money and fill pews—good thing we don’t have to worry about filling pews right now–what if the plentiful harvest are those people who need what we do have, in abundance?
No matter what we feel about evangelism or whether we think we’re able to heal and cast out demons…we have a message to the world. We have the compassionate love of Jesus, and we can share it, simply by being generous with our own compassion. This is where today’s long gospel starts, after all: Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The Greek word used for “compassion” whenever Jesus has it is the same word we would translate as “guts”
When have you felt a blow in your gut about injustice or someone else’s pain? That gut reaction to injustice inflicted upon others is part of our God-given humanity. It is part of the divine spark that God plants in us, that allows us to be the disciples Jesus sends forth.
Compassion is the starting point for everything Jesus tells his disciples to do, each of which could be a subject for a whole sermon: healing, casting out unclean spirits, enduring persecution and rejection, traveling light, all of it. We must begin with being compassionate
with ourselves, during this tumultuous time when neither the church nor the world is what it should be or could be.
It starts with compassion. This is good news for us, because what I’ve learned about this place in the short time that I’ve been here is that you draw from a deep, deep well of compassion. Your DNA as a parish is about care, about casting out demons of loneliness or hunger, with compassion.
In the Exodus story, God says to the people: this is who you are, and this is how I am with you. God is still saying that to us in this wilderness time: We are to be people of compassion, and God is with us.
I want to close with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. It’s called “A Prayer of Self-Dedication” and it’s on page 832 of the prayer book. (Note that I always mention these page numbers because the prayer book is a treasure trove of prayers you can use at home or anywhere, any time.)
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations,
so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will,
and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.