Sermon for May 8th, 2022
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Spiritual Gifts (and how to give them): Compassion
Since it's mother's day, I'm reminded of the story about a mother who was out walking with her 5-year-old daughter, when the little girl picked something up off the ground and started to put it in her mouth. The mother stopped her, patiently explaining that the item had been lying on the ground and probably had germs. The little girl looked at her mother in absolute admiration and asked, "Wow, Mommy...how do you know stuff like that?"
"Well..." said the mother, thinking quickly, "...all Moms know these things. It's in the Mommy test. You have to know all these things to pass the Mommy test before you can become a Mommy." The little girl pondered this new information as she and her mother walked on in silence. After a few minutes, the daughter suddenly stopped and said, "Oh, I get it! If you flunk the test, you have to be the Daddy."
For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the list of seven spiritual gifts found in Romans chapter 12. And up to this point we've gone in the same order they're listed in the Bible. From here on out though, we're going to jump around a little. Today I want to talk about the last gift mentioned in the list, the gift of compassion.
Why? Because it's mother's day. And perhaps more than any other character trait, we tend to associate motherhood with compassion. So does God for that matter--there are countless verses in the Bible that describe God as a mother, showing compassion to her children. Here are just a few of them:
- Hosea 11:3-4. God says: “Yet it was I who taught [the people of] Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
- Hosea 13:8. God (as momma bear) says: “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart;”
- Deuteronomy 32:11. We read: “As an eagle that protects her nest, that flutters over her young, so God spread out his wings and took them, he carried them on his pinions.”
- Deuteronomy 32:18. “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
- Isaiah 66:13. God says: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
- Isaiah 49:15. God says: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
- In the Gospel of Matthew 23:37, Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, gathering her brood under her wings to protect them.
So when we think of the spiritual gift of compassion, we often think of the very first person who showed us compassion in this world--in most cases, our mothers. Of course, if you've been paying attention the past few weeks, you already know that compassion is not an attribute or special superpower that belongs solely to mothers. Psalm 103 reminds us that "As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him."
Why is it that mothers and fathers are such a consistent example, such a frequent metaphor for what compassion looks like in the Bible? Is it because all future parents are born with an innate talent for showing compassion, and only compassionately gifted people go on to have children? No--if that were true, the world would be severely underpopulated. The reason parents show compassion to their children is simply because children, from day one, are really, really needy. When the baby cries at night, someone has to get up. Good parents rise to the occasion--they provide what is needed for their children, whether it's food, protection, encouragement, or compassion. Good parents do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether or not they really want to do it.
In a similar way, as Christians, we believe that whenever (and wherever) there is a need for compassion (towards our own children, towards other people's children, towards friends, church members, or even complete strangers) that we are compelled to respond; that we can and should give the gift of compassion. Even if it's not your thing, not a convenient time, or you just don't feel like you have much compassion to give. But we also believe that in the act of giving a gift, in the moment when you choose to show compassion to another person, God shows up too, and gives you the strength, the courage, or whatever other resource you (and the object of your compassion) need in that moment.
So what exactly is compassion? The modern English word comes from Latin, com-passio (com = together + passio = to suffer). To suffer together. It's not the same as sympathy, which is rooted in feeling (pathos) what someone is going through. Compassion is actually getting down in the trenches and experiencing what another person experiences, suffering shoulder to shoulder. Sympathy is when the baby cries and you think, "awwww...poor baby" and then go back to sleep. Compassion is when you get up and walk the baby up and down the hallway...both of you crying.
In our scripture passage from Romans today, the apostle Paul connects the word "cheerfulness" to giving the gift of compassion. To understand the connection, you have to go back to the beginning of the verse (v.6): "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: Prophecy, in proportion to faith"--and there it is right there, "in proportion to." That phrase is then implied in several of the subsequent pairs: "the giver [in proportion to] generosity; the leader [in proportion to] diligence; and the compassionate [in proportion to] cheerfulness."
In other words, our ability to be compassionate, to give that gift of compassion to another person, is dependent upon our level of cheerfulness. That seems odd, right? What does cheerfulness have to do with compassion. Well, nothing really. At least, not in the "modern" sense of cheerfulness, which roughly means to be happy or in a good mood.
If you look at the Greek language in which Paul is writing, it gets worse before it gets better. The word he uses for cheerfulness is ἱλαρός (hilaros), which is in fact related to the modern English word "hilarious." But I don't think Paul is saying you have to be a stand-up comedian in order to be compassionate. In addition to "cheerful," Strong's Greek Dictionary further defines ἱλαρός (hilaros) one who is "already won over, already persuaded, already inclined and ready to act."
Think about that for a moment: If you go to see a horror movie, or a drama, or a tragedy--and near the climax of the film they start making a lot of jokes, you might think "Huh? What's going on here?" But if you go to see a comedy, because you wanted to see something lighthearted, because you already like the main actors and think they're pretty funny, you are already predisposed, inclined, and persuaded to laugh: The movie will likely be more than funny--it will be hilarious.
In the same way, when you give someone a birthday present or a Christmas present, you probably decide what to get weeks in advance (or in my case at least a few hours in advance). You order the gift online, or go to the store, and you pay for it--you commit to it--then you wrap it up nicely or put it in a gift bag, put it under the tree or on the table with the other birthday presents. When it's time to hand the present to its intended recipient, in that moment you are not still undecided about what to give, or whether to give a gift--you are already persuaded, already inclined and ready to act. You made up your mind long ago.
What does this have to do with being compassionate?
We think of compassion as a reaction, a response, a decision to do something when we encounter suffering in another person or people. And when that happens, we go through this process where we evaluate the need in our heads (how much suffering is there here, really? A lot? A little?) and then we evaluate our ability to help (Do I have enough time? Money? Do I even know what to do here?) and whether or not we think someone else is likely to show compassion if we don't (she has lots of friends, she'll be okay...or...it's not really MY business) and only if all the stars line up just right do we make the decision to give the gift of our compassion.
But the best time to make that decision--the best time to commit to being compassionate--is precisely when you don't know what or when you might be called upon to give, or to whom. It's every morning when you wake up, saying "I'm going to find a way to be compassionate today; I'm going to be on the lookout for suffering; I'm already won over, already persuaded, already inclined and I am ready to act."
Because then your compassion won't be a calculation; it won't be a transaction; it won't be an awkward response. It will be precisely what God intended it to be, and precisely what it needs to be...a gift.
One more mother's day story before I close: A father was talking with his young son one day about growing up, and the son asked the father, "Dad, what's the difference between a boy and a man?" The father thought about this, and then said, "A man is someone who always works hard, someone who is responsible, and takes care of the whole family." Now it was the little boy's turn to think. After awhile he said, "In that case, Dad, when I grow up I want to be a man, too...just like Mom."
Happy Mother's Day, First Presbyterian Church!