Scripture: Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 1: 40-42
There is a story of a Fisher King (by Richard LaGravenese) that tells of a king who as young boy goes into the woods by himself. While he is spending the night alone, he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of people.” But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy but invincible, like God. So he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly burned and wounded. As this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason…he had no faith in anyone, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience, and he began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat.” The boy filled a cup with cool water and gave it to the King. The cup was the holy grail. The king was astounded, and asked the fool, “How could you find what my bravest and brightest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”
In Phoenix we have experienced a relentless heat wave. Forecasters say that the current streak of consecutive 110 degree days may end up being the longest Phoenix has ever experienced and endured. Heat is sometimes described as an invisible disaster… one that leaves few visible scars like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or wildfires. Last year it is estimated that 425 people died of heat related causes in Maricopa County. Most of the victims were unhoused or elderly. It is estimated that Phoenix has approximately 10,000 unhoused people….people who are our neighbors and part of our spiritual family.
Like the fool, we have noticed that people are thirsty, we have surpassed our goal for contributions for water. We have felt compassion for our neighbors on the sizzling streets. Perhaps we feel we have done enough or even more than enough. But, Beloved Community, the heat wave continues, and we need to dig deeper and give more. We, who know no thirst, need to continue to offer compassionate assistance to those who are thirsty and perhaps near death. The watering can where we collect funds for water remains in our entry way. Our neighbors continue to experience thirst, and we are people of compassionate hearts.
And so, what is the difference between having compassionate hearts and just being do-gooders? The word “compassion” comes from a Latin word that means “to suffer with someone,” Compassion happens when someone else’s heart break becomes our heart break. Compassion occurs when we suffer together. It happens when we can feel the suffocating heat experienced by our homeless brothers and sisters. It happens when we expand our sense of family to include those who are witnessing unbearable thirst. Compassion takes place when we give as a result of a sense of affiliation rather than for any desire for recognition or reward. Compassion occurs when we continue to fill our watering can because our hearts break at the thought of life threatening thirst. Compassion takes place when our neighbors’ thirst becomes our own thirst, and when we can think of no alternative to offering water. Compassion occurs when we realize that there is no finish line when we feel the suffering of others. We are a compassionate people, and we will continue to offer water to those who thirst.
“Compassion is a unique form of human connection that is transformational. It opens us up to the suffering of another as if it were our own. It compels us to act…..Compassion restores our shared humanity. Indeed, it gives us back ourselves, freer and more authentic. It’s a magical thing to witness, especially when it goes both ways.” (The Courage of Compassion by Robin Steinberg, pg. 203)
What do we learn about the compassion of Jesus in our Scripture readings? It is said that Matthew writes of Christian teachings in which Jesus is viewed as the fulfillment of God’s will. Jesus is presented as the Messiah through whom Israel might gain divine forgiveness and community. As Jesus and his disciples went out of Jericho, a huge crowd followed them. Two blind men were sitting by the road, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out “Son of David, have mercy upon us.” This is not an insignificant use of words. Afterall, David had lived almost 1, 000 years before Jesus. What the riff raff by the side of the road were declaring was nothing less than this man, Jesus, was the promised Messiah. This was a cry of faith. The crowd was having nothing to do with it, and just wanted these street urchins to get out of the way. They were bad for business. Jesus, on the other hand, stopped and asked the blind men what they wanted. Jesus wasn’t too busy or in too much of a hurry to hear their pleading cry. The blind men asked that their eyes be opened, and Jesus in pity and with compassion touched their eyes and they received their sight and followed him. What did Jesus want them to see now that they could no longer retreat into blindness? What did he want them to do as they followed him?
I would suggest that the first act in the experience of compassion is to stop long enough to see what is in front of us. We have to stop to see what requires our mercy and our compassion. As Christians, we are no longer allowed to cavalierly drive by unhoused communities of people in our city who are at the risk of dying due to the extreme heat. We are not allowed to avert our eyes or do nothing.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus stops again to acknowledge a leper who is begging to be made clean. I can picture the crowds moving away in horror, eager to avoid this man with oozing blisters and whose stench is overwhelming. Jesus entered into real deal situations that were not for the faith of heart. While the crowds moved back in horror, Jesus moved forward in pity, mercy and compassion. Jesus touched the man and made him clean. We cannot move away from our unhoused neighbors in need. Imagine how good a shower would feel after a night on the street. I’m sure that we have some extra soap, some extra wash clothes, some extra shampoo. Our Missions Committee will get our supplies and money where they need to go.
When we feel compassion and reach out to one another, we also experience hope. “Hope isn’t about expecting that everything will be easy and wonderful, hunky-dory with rainbows and unicorns covered with the glitter of good luck in life….Real hope lasts through the tragedies that include lost children, natural disasters, the lingering death of a loved one, and the other tough stuff that life throws sooner or later at just about all of us.” (Rev. Dr. Ann Hays Egan, Building Communities of Hope, pg. 93) When we have hope, we realize that our world has random acts of nature. Instead of attributing these difficult situations as acts of God, hope allows us to see them as opportunities to help, opportunities to experience compassion. Hope isn’t about good luck, prosperity or getting what we want, it’s the support that carries us as we move through life. It’s the knowledge that life is sacred and guided by a loving God.
“In the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, hope is about trusting in God, and believing that, somehow one will endure through the difficult times and be led to love and justice. Many writings link gratitude with hope, in that when we are grateful for life and all it brings, we are more hopeful. Buddhist and Hindu teachings focus on living a mindful and peaceful life which reduces suffering for oneself and others, which brings more hope…Hope is the belief that we can live a more compassionate and just life and that we can contribute to a more compassionate and equitable world.” (Rev. Dr. Ann Hays Egan, Building Communities of Hope, pg. 94-95)
When we live our lives with hearts of compassion, we realize that if there are people who are hungry, we all suffer. If there are people who are unhoused, we all suffer. We diminish as a human family when not all of us have safe places to lay our heads. If any go without work, we all suffer. We thrive when there is work that provides enough to pay the bills with some left over to share. If even one of us is thirsty, we are all thirsty and in need of the compassion of others.
“One of our greatest spiritual challenges and opportunities is having hope amid pain, struggle, injustice and disaster. We can continue to help one another through these difficult times by being our best and highest selves. With help from spiritual teachings, family, and friends, we can adjust to these external disasters by taking things one day at a time, addressing the challenges as best we can, and doing something each day to try to help someone else.” (Rev. Dr. Ann Hays Eagan, Building Communities of Hope, pg. 220) As Holly reminds us, it’s not good enough to be a good person, we have to do something. We have to do something with hearts of compassion.
And so we utter these words to God:
“It is sometimes far too easy to look at the world’s needs and our personal resources and feel completely overwhelmed.
It is sometimes far too easy to tire of the work that needs to be done when we realize there is no end to the work that needs to be done.
May we be encouraged in the face of our weariness and our sometimes overwhelmed perceptive.
May we be reminded that miracles do still occur in this world and that they are sometimes planted in us.
Let us open our ears that we may more fully hear the call to serve.
May our hearts be filled with the energy we need to be the hands and feet of love in action.” (Progressive Prayers for Progressive People by Mark Sandlin pg. 93-94)
May we stop by the side of the road and offer water in a holy grail.
Beloved Community, we are not talking in the abstract about the need for compassion. We are talking about real life circumstances in the here and now. We are not talking about a third world country, we are talking about our own backyard. We are talking about a real emergency. Jesus asks us to do something---not tomorrow---not when it cools off---but now as we experience record setting and life threatening heat. Jesus asks us to open our eyes and see. We are simply not allowed to walk by the people sitting by the side of the road in downtown Phoenix. Jesus requires nothing short of our compassion.