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2018 July 1st THE POWER OF COMPASSION

2 Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Three things happened this week that directed my thoughts to the power of compassion.

The first was a statement from the Minister for Home Affairs, who advised Australians that we are in a ‘dangerous phase’ when it would be unwise to feel compassion for asylum seekers, lest it give encouragement to the people smugglers. Powerful, dangerously powerful compassion.
The second happened to me as I listened to Paul Barry speak about his friend, ABC journalist Liz Jackson, who has just died from Parkinson’s disease. Speaking personally about her fine and endearing qualities, he began to falter and choke up. While I know no more about Liz Jackson than any of you do, I felt like I was going to cry. Which seemed really strange, as I don’t cry easily.

The third experience of powerful compassion was encountering once again the deeply moving story of the healing of the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, and the raising up of Jairus’ daughter.

These experiences raise a number of questions for me, like, "can a follower of Jesus ever rationalise any stance where compassion is deemed to be off limits?” and "how do we face up to situations when to show compassion is likely to come at a cost to ourselves?”

Rather than attempting a direct answer to any of these questions, I simply want to hold up to you the powerful compassion of Jesus, as it shines through today’s gospel reading.

So, what is ‘compassion’? While love is a more overarching term, compassion is more specifically the energy we feel when we encounter the suffering of others. It is commonly a bodily experience; perhaps a lump in the throat for the more reserved among us, or outright weeping for the less guarded. It is in a turning of the gut or an ache in the heart. This is why those who are the potential recipients of our compassion are sometimes kept out of sight, why discussing "on-water matters” is not allowed. Because when we hear the stories of suffering, or see the footage, the chances are that we will change our minds. Our love will overcome our fear. And that could spoil even the best-laid plans.

So if we want to understand Jesus, for example why his ministry so often got him into awkward situations, eventually costing him his life, we have to understand the power of his compassion. And in Mark 5, as he and his disciples return across the lake and are immediately swamped with a throng of need and want, that compassion is on full display. Jesus is physically, emotionally and spiritually immersed in a dynamic and in some ways overwhelmingly demanding situation, where everyone wants a piece of him. How can compassion deal with the dilemmas of being pulled in so many different directions?

Note that in such stories there are usually three parties- The person or persons in need, such as the woman with a chronic bleed, Jairus, and his sick daughter. Secondly, there is the one from whom something is being demanded, in this case, Jesus. Thirdly there is what I call "the chorus”- onlookers who often bring a negative tone to the situation, and in whom danger can lurk. The disciples are ignorant of and insensitive to the engagement between the woman and Jesus. So are the ones who come from Jairus’ house to announce that there was no point Jesus coming to a little girl who had now died. Ignorance and insensitivity do not only get in the way of the healing process. They also make the compassionate engagement an unsafe space for both the vulnerable and the one who reaches out in love.

Notice now how Jesus operates from his compassionate centre as deals with the dilemmas these two intertwined stories raise for him. Huge, demanding crowds press in on him. If Jesus were a politician and this was a numbers game, he might have stopped, kissed a few babies, and preached a cracking sermon. But it is just one man’s one crying need that gets his full attention, so he sets off with the pleading, stricken Jairus. But then another dilemma arises. He feels, in all of the pressing and pushing of the crowd, another critical need close at hand. He feels his energy move. What should he do? Stop and deal with her, risking delay on the other urgent mission, or will he just let this one go? There is nothing neat and tidy about this encounter. There is also nothing safe in exposing his intimate exchange with a woman whose bleeding makes her ritually unclean. Not safe for either of them. But for Jesus, nothing in that moment matters more than that a compassionate exchange of healing affirming words "Your faith has made you well”.

For everyone else, the delay in that encounter could be seen as contributing to the death of Jairus’ daughter. We are so used to thinking of these things in terms of an agonising Sophie’s choice- I save one child, I lose the other. Jesus however does not seem affected but such linear thinking. When stopped by the bearers of the bad news of the little girl’s death, he simply proceeds, though this time, with just a few disciples, who could possibly be more of a help than a hindrance. Arriving at Jairus’ family home with a gentle, compassionate touch, he take the girl by the hand, and with the gentle, compassionate words "little girl, get up”, he restores her to her family.

Now lets look a little deeper to the sources of the power of Jesus’ compassion.

The first is the power of his spontaneity. It is common for us, when facing ethical dilemmas, to weigh up the situation for the best possible response. Jesus however simply gives priority to the urgency of Jairus’ need, and ‘goes with him’. Then, when another urgent need touches him in the pressing crowd, he stops to deal with a woman when another, less sensitive, might just keep moving. After all, she has had a problem for years, and so another few hours would not make much difference, would it? Spontaneous compassion is less likely to heed the dangers, like the person who plunges into the surf to rescue a drowning stranger.

So how might we follow in the way of the spontaneity of Christ’s compassion? Spontaneity is, by definition, not something we can manufacture. It comes easier to some than others. It has a lot to do with preferencing love over fear. We can however choose to try and be more open in ourselves, less guarded, more responsive to the needs that confront us. We may not warm to the dangers into which Jesus’ spontaneity led him. On the other hand, what price life in all its fullness?

The second source of power is the quality of his grace.While normally Jairus could be seen as his competitor in having spiritual authority in the community, Jesus simply responds as one compassionate human being to another in need. Then, when the woman touches the hem of his garment, he feels his power flow from to her. Then, in a deeply beautiful and compassionate way, he credits her with her healing- "daughter, your faith has made you well.” And so this woman, shunned and humiliated for so long, is given back not only her health but also her self-respect. The power imbalance has been equalised. That’s compassion. That’s grace. And finally when he comes to Jairus’ house, he takes the little girl by the hand, and says to her, "get up”. In this he invites her to act towards her own restoration. This is a seeming trifle in the story, but is typical of one who never takes away people’s power in the process of giving them their healing.

Our openness to the energy of grace is a matter of choice. In a world of extreme power imbalances, there is a crying need for generosity from those to whom life has dealt a strong hand. Those who through their spiritual practices cultivate love and weed out fear will be more likely to be open and generous as a result. Ego begins to take a back seat. Vigilance will also make us sensitive to the voices that try and play to our insecurities, even to then point of recommending a guarding against compassion. In the end, it is a matter of which god/God we choose to follow.

The third source of Jesus’ power, intertwined with spontaneity and grace, is power of touch. When the woman tries to surreptitiously reach for his cloak, he notices, and says, "who touched me?” The disciples seem to scoff- everyone is touching you! But Jesus knows the difference between touch that means nothing and touch that means everything. Touch has healing power. Jesus does not always touch the people he heals, but he often does. He seems to particularly choose those for whom touch would be luxury that others would baulk at- like the lepers, or anyone else considered ritually unclean, like the woman who is bleeding, or a child who has died. Jesus risks using the power of touch for all the right reasons. When Jesus touched people he never abused his power. Nor should we; not should we allow others to so abuse us.

We all know about the link between touch and health; for example, how it is vital for the healthy development of babies and children. There is also a saying that is true for all ages: One hug a day for survival, three for maintenance, five for growth. Then there are those times when nothing but touching, rightly understood, can meet the need of another. As Michael Leunig prays,

"God help us, if our world should grow dark; and there is no way of seeing or knowing., grant us courage and trust, to touch and be touched, tppo find our way onwards, by feeling. AMEN”

We also know how devastating can be the consequences of abusive touch. This is why our church has a clear "Safe Space” statement, as well as regular ethics training for both ministers and lay leaders. Different people have different needs, different tolerances, different levels at which they may feel that their space has been invaded. One of our fundamental responsibilities as a community of faith walking in the way of Christ, is to be a place both of healing and of safety.

And so, today, when we receive the sacrament of holy communion, as we take within ourselves the very being of Christ, we accept his mark on our lives; the mark of compassion- powerful dangerous compassion. After communion we will be invited to pray these words "May our lives show the signs that love is possible, grace is believable, and compassion is our way of life.”

And in spite the sometimes challenging, even dangerous places that compassion may lead us, it is the only way worthy our wholehearted and undivided attention. AMEN




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