Sunday, February 12, 2012

Have you ever been surprised by compassion?

I am back in the pulpit today at Charlottesville, and it is good to be back. Today's readings are 2 Kings 5:1-14 1 Corinthians 9:24-27Psalm 30 and Mark 1:40-45.

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Have you ever been surprised by compassion?

Have you ever been surprised by a kind word from someone at the very moment you needed it the most? Maybe from someone whom you least expected it?

Or, have you been surprised by someone who opened a door, or a friend who squeezed your hand in the moment you needed it most?

Have you ever been surprised by your own compassion maybe with someone you have a very hard time with?

Sometimes compassion is simple, and the simplicity surprises us.

Take, for example, Naaman, who we meet in the Old Testament lesson today. Naaman is a soldier who is very sick and in need of compassion. The prophet Elisha tells him to go wash in the Jordan seven times.

But Naaman goes away angry, thinking Elisha is mocking him. Surely it must be more complicated than this.

Prophets are supposed waive their hands and do prophet-y things. The simple moment of compassion is not as he expects.

Thanks to a lowly servant, Naaman finally catches on. He washes and is healed. And he is very surprised, and humbled.

It was as simple – and as surprising – as Elisha said, but Naaman almost misses it by being too caught up the complexities.

Or take the nameless leper who is healed by Jesus. Things are not as he expects. Jesus heals the leper and tells him to go to the Temple to be washed, and not talk about what he has seen.

Of course, the healed man goes out and blabs to everyone, and soon large crowds descend upon Jesus.

These biblical stories, and others like it, are meant to push us off kilter so we can see God’s compassion that is so close to us we might otherwise miss it.
These stories are meant to surprise us.

Sometimes it takes a surprise so that we can see God more clearly and love more dearly.
The apostle Paul is driving at the same point in his letter today, but coming at it from a different angle. This idea of running the race is not about being the fastest or the first past the finish line.

Rather, Paul is talking about how we can run the race of life by being open to the holy, and being open all of the time to the compassion that surrounds us.

He implores us to practice looking for compassionate surprises. And keep practicing, practicing, practicing.

We live in a world undergoing tremendous change and complexity, and it can feel overwhelming. Compassion is not always easy to see in the noise and cruelty of the world.

This week in our community, we have the trial opened for George Huguely, accused of killing his girlfriend, Yeardley Love, when both were students at the University of Virginia. For many, the trial reopens wounds that have not healed. The killing shook the tight University community to the core.

Yet I am also mindful of how this terrible incident sparked many acts of compassion, and still does. Cruelty does not get the last word.

A few months after the brutal killing, Teresa Sullivan gave her first public speech in this pulpit as president of the University of Virginia.

She called upon all of us to build a more compassionate community because we are all connected.

We here have taken up that challenge in big ways and small. That is our mission and has always been our mission. Building a compassionate world is really what it means to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

This church is a refuge for those who are hurting and needing solace, and may that always be so.

But the Church is not a refuge from surprises or change. Indeed, the Church is often characterized as the “rock,” but it is not an inert lump of stone. The church is alive, it is an organism, and it is changing because we are changing.
I believe there is a holy spark of compassion here at St. Paul’s that is truly extraordinary. That spark will change us into the compassionate people we were created to be, and we in turn will change the world around us.

By practicing compassion we are running together the race that Paul encourages us to run. 

The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu 
To practice compassion requires not worrying when something doesn’t work exactly right, trusting that Holy spark will carry us through.

And here’s the good news: We don’t have run this race of compassion alone. We can find strength together, as a community of faith. When we do, we will find that new growth and healing will come to us, day by day.

When we run this race of compassion together, we will spread healing and hope into the world beyond, and we have no greater mission in this life than that.

But we need to be ready for the unexpected. We need to listen for the holy from unexpected corners, from unexpected voices, in moments when we least expect it.

God’s Kingdom really can be that simple – and surprising.

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