Monday, 10 February 2014 00:00

"Compassion", February 9, 2014

Isaiah 58
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 9, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Isaiah 58 is another of those key prophetic scriptures that we find ourselves coming back to year after year.  It’s chock full of great reminders of the ethics of the true believers.  It’s not really a surprise.  A lot of it has to do with when it was written.

Most scholars believe that Isaiah was written by three different authors spanning over 200 years.  The first 39 chapters were written before the fall of Jerusalem.  They are full of warnings for the people to shape up or they would be shipped out.  The people did not listen, at least not enough to thwart the foreign invasion.  The temple was burned down and the people were sent into exile in Babylon.

The next section, chapters 40-55 comes from this exile period.  The people are licking their wounds and the prophet gives them comfort. The suffering servant scriptures that point the way to the delivering Messiah come from this period.

Finally, third Isaiah, the last ten or eleven chapters deal with the people coming back to the Promised land, rebuilding the temple and getting it right this time.  Jesus quoted third Isaiah in his first sermon and today’s scripture is the ethical epicenter of the prophet’s words.

Most of the literature from this period is good fodder for reflection on how we ought to live our lives.  There is a certain humility in them.  Other scriptures written from a place of power are not so compassionate.  But these are.  Maybe that’s why third Isaiah was Jesus’ favorite prophet.  At my last church, we spent and entire Lenten season looking at Isaiah 58.  Since we can’t do all of that today, I want to focus on a small portion of the scripture.

In Isaiah 58:6-7, the prophet builds on Micah’s general comment to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Isaiah gets specific and says, “Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Our sacred work is to do justice, but to do so compassionately. If you break down the word compassion, you have passion with another. Our sacred work is to care for one another and to bring about a more peaceful world.


I heard Marcus Borg speak at a Baptist Peace Fellowship conference several years ago.  Among the many things he said was that Compassion is the core of Christianity.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has Jesus say, “Be Ye perfect as your God in heaven is perfect.”  That is impossible.  Really.  How can we be perfect like God?  We look at that and say, well I can’t be perfect, so why even try.  Original sin gets in the way. It lets us off the hook.  But Borg said that Jesus was really after another idea.  He was after encouraging the people to be better. Luke’s Jesus said, “be ye compassionate as your God is compassionate.”  We can do that.

The dominant religious view of Jesus’ time was based on holiness.  Jesus’ view was based on compassion.  When Jesus started implying that our sacred work was to be compassionate as well as holy, well that messed with the predominant world-view and it got him in trouble.  Maybe that’s why we’re so attracted to Jesus, because the compassion he espouses got him in trouble and sets us free.

In his book, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” Borg said, “For Jesus, compassion was not simply an individual virtue, but a sociopolitical paradigm expressing his alternative vision of human life in community, a vision of life embodied in the movement that came into existence around him.” (p.47) Now that will take some work, don’t you think?  Some sacred work.

The concept of compassion, has its roots in the Hebrew word that means the same thing as womb.  It’s something that we feel in our gut. The word is often translated as bowels.  You might have heard the expression, “his bowels were moved with compassion.” You know about having your heartstrings being pulled at.  It’s that internal pull that makes us ache for and with another.

Now, Hebrew words for compassion are also translated as mercy.  But mercy is not the same as compassion.  Both are loving words, but mercy often conjures up a power differential.  Someone throws themselves on the mercy of the court to get a lighter sentence.  We’ll talk more about mercy in two weeks.

Compassion on the other hand, is the mutual feeling of being in this boat together.  It’s like the difference between empathy and sympathy.  Sympathy says, poor you.  Empathy says poor you, therefore poor us.

When we talk biblically about compassion, then, we are talking about what makes us feel with another.  And if we feel with another, then we might have the imagination to relieve our collective suffering.  That’s the sacred work that follows the sacred work of compassion.

Jesus loved third Isaiah.  Isaiah 58 in particular rails against those who think that coming to church and going through the motions is what it’s all about.

Isaiah challenges us to reclaim the purpose of the worshipping community.  The people to whom this scripture is addressed had just returned from the 50-year Babylonian exile.  They were holding all of their old fasts and rituals in the ruins of the old temple.  They were doing everything they thought they were supposed to be doing.  But they weren’t getting the response from God that they thought they deserved.  In a moment of self-righteous pity, they began to blame God in verse 3:

“Why do we fast if you don’t see?  Why humble ourselves if you will not notice?”  Ever pray something like that?

Well, here’s why: “Behold” bellows YHWH through Isaiah, “in the day of your so-called fasts, you seek your own pleasure and you oppress your workers.  Look you fast only to quarrel and to fight. This kind of fasting does not make your voice heard on high” (v.4) We know plenty of people who are so heavenly focused that they are no earthly good. Isaiah, and Jesus said there is more too it. “Is this the fast I choose, a day to humble oneself?  Is it to bow your head and heap ashes alone? Is this what you call a fast, a day to acceptable to YHWH?” (v. 5)

Well, you know the answer.  YHWH says that true effective worship is about compassion. It’s a different kind of sacred work. YHWH says, “The fast I choose is to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…it is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked, and not to hide yourself from your sisters and brothers.”(vv.6,7)

Isaiah places worship and work on the same level, by using a number of “if and then” statements. “IF you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. IF you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” (vv. 9,10)

Isaiah 58 basically tells us that there are requirements to living as people in God’s commonwealth.  The message of faith is not simply “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  The message of faith is that all members of the human family are your kin.  Therefore when one of them hurts, we all hurt. That is why Isaiah says that the fast that God chooses is to loose the bonds of the afflicted, to let the oppressed go free, to cover the naked, to feed the hungry, to avoid the urge to point our fingers and fight.  These are the requirements of the family of God.  These are the requirements of faith.  These are the requirements of the believer.  The sacred work of compassion.

You know, it’s easy to talk about compassion.  It’s something we value and we can agree that it’s a good thing.  We can even point out the lack of compassion in another and we can be downright righteous about it. I can think of several talk radio hosts in particular. But do we ignore the log in our own eye as we focus on the specks in another’s?  “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”  A yoke is what a farmer puts on an ox to control him or her.  It’s a burden, an albatross.  So is our judgment of another.  Don’t worry about another’s lack of compassion.  Your sacred work is to practice compassion, even with those who drive you nuts.  Remove the yoke of judgment and take the road less travelled by.  It might make all the difference.

I told you earlier that the pastor of the church Trish, Kim and I grew up in died this week.  Martin was a kind, generous and compassionate man.  He was a good and thoughtful preacher, but not overly dynamic. You knew that he cared.  After several tumultuous pastorates, Martin was able to steady the ship.  And the way he did it was to preach and live compassion.  Compassion for people of differing theological standpoints, compassion for people trying to make sense of their place in the world, compassion for this planet.  His wife Kay started a green team that helped the congregation have a collective lower carbon footprint because we all are in this together on this earth. He also befriended my father in the last months of his life.  A nonchurchgoer for most of his adult life, Martin was able to connect with him in the hospital as my dad took fragile and tentative steps toward a committed Christian life.

One of the finest things he did was to have church outside of the building one Sunday a year.  The congregation gathered on Sunday morning and broke up into teams.  One would tend the gardens around the church grounds. Another would do a service project at a local elementary school.  Others collected clothing and made meals at a local homeless shelter. The choir would go sing at the local retirement home.  Still others would knock on the doors of the neighborhood to connect with the people near the big cathedral-like imposing edifice. The reason to do all of this was not to grow the church, but to live out or try out compassion—being in gentle relationship with another.

IF we do all of that, says Isaiah, “Our light shall break forth like the dawn.  Our healing shall spring up quickly.  God will be ahead of you and behind you.” (v. 8)

“You shall ride high on the heights of the earth and your heritage will be restored (v. 14)

“God will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; IF you do all do this, you shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.” (vv. 11, 12)

And most importantly, “You shall call, and God will answer.  You shall cry for help, and God will say, “Here I am”.” (v. 9)

The Dalai Lama put it this way: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Compassion is passion you share with someone.

Our story as Christians is this: Christ came into this world in order to show us a new way. It’s actually an old way retold: A way beyond the pointing of the finger; beyond the speaking of wickedness; beyond apathy; beyond the numbing silence of our journeys, beyond injustice; beyond hopelessness and despair.

Nelson Mandela said, “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other - not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

Think of the people you know who embody compassion.  Aren’t you drawn to them.  Think of the people who embody judgment, aren’t you a bit scared by them?

Compassion is what Jesus was about. Compassion is our sacred work.  Isaiah says, if you do sacred work, namely share bread with the hungry, stop pointing the finger, stop seeking pleasure at the expense of someone else, loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, house the homeless, cover the naked, then your light will break forth like the dawn.  And it will be spring again.  The winter of our collective despair will finally come to an end.  That’s the kind of sacred work God is interested in.  It’s the work that sets us all free.

And when we’re free, we can imagine new ways to use our freed-up energy to engage in sacred work.
Justice and compassion: two faces of a coin that pays dividends in the lives of the blessed beloved community.