Love and Compassion
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for All Saints and the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, November 5, 2023
“God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more.”
I ONCE TOLD SOMEONE that I liked them. Their response was, “Of course, you’re a pastor. You like everybody, right?” After I laughed out loud, I said, “No, I don’t, not everybody.” I don’t. How can you? It’s an unreal expectation that no one could meet, nor should they. Not everyone is likeable. Some people present a personality I can’t get along with. That’s pretty standard, don’t you think?
Love is something else. It’s at once more intense – to like or to love are widely different feelings. I can love someone I don’t like, because they’re God’s creature and part of this earth. We share common origins and many experiences. Love makes room for compassion. But hold on a minute: these words need some definition.
Love and compassion are words often spoken, but are usually undefined. Without clear understanding, we might be confronted with sentiments like: If you really loved everyone, you’d buy them dinner and get them an apartment. You’d get them that bus ticket to Arizona. You’d build them a shelter, let them drink and keep their dog. We are abused with such words as compassion. It’s the terminology of those who are looking for OPM. Not Opium. OPM means “other people’s money.” So let’s get our definitions straight.
Love, in Webster’s, is a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties, an affection and tenderness felt by lovers, or based on admiration. That speaks of garden variety, everyday love. Love, by classical definition, can be familial—the love of a child; fraternal—love of a friend; romantic—love between two people that invites intimate and shared lives. And then the commandments. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind. And thy neighbor as thyself.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” The Greek word agape describes a love that is selfless, godlike, completely self-giving—all out. Our love of ice cream or baseball, or a friend who likes the same things as I do, doesn’t go so far as godlike love. We won’t die for baseball.
Compassion breaks down to com- and -passion. Com is “along with” and passion means “to suffer.” Com-passion is a willingness to suffer with someone else. Webster’s has a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion sees trouble and runs toward it, knowing someone is in there all alone and hurting.
Sainted Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” “Charity isn't about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same – with charity you give love, so don't just give money but reach out your hand instead.” That woman got people feeling compassion in seconds.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Jesus had ultimate compassion. When John writes “God so loved the world that He gave is only begotten Son…” that’s the compassion of God for us. Jesus told of a servant in debt who owed the king millions. 10,000 talents was an astronomical sum. Justice demanded the man be put in prison with his family to work it all off. The man pleaded for mercy and the king felt compassion for him. He forgave this huge debt.
The next thing the man did was to demand repayment from a fellow servant who owed him a thousand. He hadn’t learned a thing about compassion, but “grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison.”
Word got back to the compassionate king who recalled the cruel man. “You evil servant! I forgave you that great debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” Back to prison he went. The moral of the story: We owe forgiveness to all who fail us, knowing how much God has forgiven us.
Do you know how much that is? Do you know all your sins? Can you enumerate everything you ever did, thought, said or felt that offended heaven and deviated from how you were meant to live? People make confessions for which they prepare a list of all their sins. They review a list that brings their attention to sins they never thought about when committing them. With pads of paper covered with sins, you remember those you hurt, or disappointed, or neglected. God knows the rest. It’s a ponderous list. And the worst of my sins, I know, are when I lack love and compassion. For these are the basic requirements of life – commandments #1 and #2.
People come in the doors of church with stories, requiring aid, implying that if I don’t meet their need, I’m a bad Christian. When I fail them, that’s what some of them actually tell me. They thought this was a church. Isn’t it the church’s job to help people in need? I see cigarette packs, signs of deliberate poor choices. I hear odd tales that don’t add up, and I mustn’t give God’s money to liars. I don’t like having to say No. I only hope I haven’t turned away angels unaware, or worse, my Lord Jesus who came to me hungry, lonely, thirsty… and I gave him nothing. Nothing, in His own name, in His own house.
Love and Compassion are decisions we make. We owe no one anything, perhaps, but we owe God all we have, our very lives. St. Paul says, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” Rom 13:8 Compassion often has to come by assignment, not by admonition. People get sick and suffer all the time crying out to exhausted nurses. We won’t end suffering at the beck and call of all. Even Jesus didn’t heal all diseases or make all the dead come alive again. His miracles were exceptions, even in His own life. He made exceptions and some people got up healed.
That king was about to banish his servant to prison when he felt compassion to forgive the debt. Later he rescinded that stay of execution, corrected by the evidence of the man’s evil heart toward others. Compassion can be conditional. Riding with police and seeing methamphetamine face, I know some people’s lives are just too hard for anyone to change from the outside. They’re going to have to change themselves. There are some who will not merit help, or can’t receive it, or will abuse the gift, and others to whom we are not called. Only God has that figured out. We can meet the needs where we find them, and where we’re prompted to act – and have the means and grace to act for God.
Love is a gift. Some people haven’t got that gift. Antisocial personality disorder is marked by a complete lack of empathy. This character flaw means they have no place in themselves to feel love, no compassion at all, no sense of how the other guy feels. They’re on their own island. You have to leave them there.
Love is a gift. And love is a choice. Choose and Cherish it. Love means you can suffer. It means you may be betrayed. Love is a way into your heart, and hearts may be broken, again and again. But to live without love is not to live at all. Our hearts were made to be squeezed and knocked around. You know you’re alive when those pangs come. Reach out and love as God extends His grace through you, doing for someone what they can’t do back for you, and feel that warmth spread in your chest. God approves. “It only takes a split second to smile and forget, yet to someone that needed it, it can last a lifetime.” ― Steve Maraboli
St. Paul writes, “he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ… I have you in my heart… how greatly I long after you all in the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more… being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:3ff
It’s the octave of All Saints. This eight-day season celebrates the fact that God loved the world and sent His Son for us all. God wills that all should find Him and follow Him, though in defense of His gift of freedom, He doesn’t force us to receive that love. The redemption won on the cross of Christ was to wash every sin from every human soul, and that grace is available to every life. God’s love is immense and it’s also very personal – His call to each heart is shaped just for that person, like a key to a lock. But they have the handle on their side. Will they open it? Who can tell?
We, as His emissaries are to extend that love from heaven to those God gives us in our paths, to make ourselves vulnerable through the mighty gift and grace of love. By the power of compassion.
Christians are supposed to know something about love and compassion, by experience, by practice, by God’s grace and the mighty Spirit.
Challenge your heart to extend yourself, with wisdom from above, to compassion, to suffer with, to love.