The Dew of Compassion

Hospitality. Power. Now compassion. Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Mark manages to cover some rather significant features of what it means to be a follower of Jesus — and yes, I know that’s a major understatement.

This is an important week in the life of lectionary preachers in Year B. After this week we exit the Gospel of Mark for five weeks and jump into John. Where do you want to leave people before moving into another narrative world? We are a little over half way through Jesus’ ministry according to Mark. Remember that come chapter 11 the rest of the second Gospel is the last week of Jesus’ ministry. Not a bad time to take stock of where we’ve been and what we can expect when we return to Mark later in the summer.

Compassion. As you know, the Greek word for compassion has its root in a word that means “guts” and the seat of feeling. “Feeling it in your gut.” You know that feeling — where your reaction to something sends your stomach churning. You get a hitch that you sense physically, primitively. You feel that pit, suddenly, even painfully. That’s compassion — a visceral feeling. Jesus has compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd. In other words, lost, lacking guidance. But more so, in need of care, of protection, of pasture, of tending, of nurture.

But for Jesus, compassion is not just a feeling but a doing. And Jesus had to show his followers that compassion is inherent to discipleship. Compassion is a requirement on your part, even more so, an urge on your part. It hits you in the gut and sends you into motion for the sake of the other. Think about its etymology — to have sympathy with, co-suffering, passion together. And so, this gut feeling should cause you to go outside of yourself. That feeling deep in your gut that then radiates throughout your body like an adrenaline rush? Well, it will not go away unless you let it go into the places and spaces that need it, and need it desperately.

But all too often our compassion remains complacent. We might feel it, but don’t do anything about it, don’t act on it, don’t advance its essential truth — that there is no compassion unless it is known by the other — and deeply.

And the feeling of compassion can also be an opportunity for some radical reorientation. And what better time in the life of a preacher than the summer to take the time for recommitments, re-visioning, reprioritizing. A time to consider what aspects of ministry call to your passions and what you will do about them — what needs need attention; what issues need tending; what needs nurture. Or, where are you lost?

Because as much as Jesus knew how lost the crowd felt, Jesus also knows how lost and lonely you can feel. Who has compassion for you? Who tends to you? Who makes sure you are protected and safe and loved and nurtured? Perhaps one of the reasons that we feel lonely in ministry is that we don’t allow ourselves to be the recipients of compassion, to be the objects of someone’s passion, to acknowledge that we merit attention. Think about that for just a minute, maybe longer — what it feels like to have compassion for another and then what it feels like that you are, amazingly, the other. It feels good, doesn’t it? Too good, probably. And so we back away. Make excuses. Sabotage the situation. Why?

Let’s face it. We’d rather feel lost than trust that we are worthy. We’d rather feel sorry for ourselves than believe we deserve relationships that are truly reciprocal. We’d rather do things on our own to prove our power than step into places of potential powerlessness.

It’s one thing to recognize that someone has compassion for you. It’s quite another to allow those acts of compassion to unfold in your world.

We also like to pretend that we have it all figured out. That we don’t really need true compassion. Because we often mistake compassion for pity and that’s the last thing we want to feel — pitiful. We mistake pathos for pathetic. True passion for obligation. Why? Maybe the reason is profoundly theological — we simply cannot believe in God’s grace; in God’s love. Those whose call it is to proclaim God’s love have the hardest time being convinced that they are the objects of that love as well.

We’d rather get lost in the crowd, not be noticed. Yet, Jesus sees you. Yes, Jesus sees you. Sheds tears for you, because “the dew of compassion is a tear” (Lord Byron).

Jesus sees the sheep without a shepherd. And sometimes even a shepherd needs a shepherd. Even a pastor needs to be noticed. Even a preacher needs compassion. Let it happen.