Before every Rotary Club meeting, Bill Gamble recites words of wisdom or a truism for the group. These words are usually taken from the archives of influential men and women. This past week he quoted Sam Adams saying, “Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason.”
This truism speaks directly to the double-edged sword of the human experience. I say double-edged sword because while some feelings can lead to positive action, other feelings can be destructive. While at times we, as human beings, can choose to be governed by reason over feelings – the human brain is evolved enough to do so – in the end, Sam Adams was right.
Many of our decisions and actions are directly related to how we feel about something. For example, if we feel mad or sad, we are prone to do things to harm ourselves or others. While negative feelings can often lead to destructive behavior, we also have the capacity to feel things that inspire us to do good and amazing things – things that reason would rule out as impossible. The feelings of joy and hope can accomplish things beyond our wildest imaginations.
Therefore, God’s salvation project is not accomplished by giving us perfect reasoning skills – reasoning skills that rule out the impossible; God’s salvation project isn’t about inhibiting our ability to feel – for better and for worse. Instead, God’s salvation project is accomplished by directing our feelings toward God’s goodness and mercy – a goodness and mercy manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ – a goodness and mercy beyond human understanding.
In today’s gospel lesson, we see God’s goodness and mercy play out in the flesh of Jesus. In today’s lesson, we see how God feels about humanity. “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and had compassion for them.” Above all else, God is governed by compassion; God is governed by a merciful love; God is governed by the truth that God wants to be with his children and even suffer with his children.
The part of Jesus governed by reason tells him that he and his disciples are dog tired after their missionary journey. Even more, they have just heard the grizzly tale of John the Baptist’ head on a platter. It is time to take a time out and rest.
However, Jesus and his disciples are overwhelmed by the masses who come seeking healing and wholeness. Human reason says, “We are closed for business – be back tomorrow at 8 a.m.” However, Jesus’ feeling of compassion overrules his reason and he begins to heal the sick and lame.
A week ago, over 100 people gathered for the Rise Up Community Workday. The workday consisted of basic yard work in vacant lots and picking up trash and debris. As the Reeves’ brothers, Allen and Edgar, finished up a morning of hard and exhausting work in the oppressive heat, Allen pointed to a yard that was overgrown.
Edgar replied with human reason, “Well, someone lives there. We were only responsible for vacant lots.” In reply, Allen said, “Yeah, I heard the guy is bed bound – he can’t walk.” Edgar stopped the truck, looked at Allen and said, “Well, I guess that is why we are here.” And believe it or not, Edgar Reeves was moved with a compassion that led him to cut the man’s yard.
As one writer noted, the truth of God’s compassion toward us is at the center of our theology. Likewise, the human response to God’s compassion is our ethic. In other words, God’s posture of compassion toward us begets our posture of compassion toward others.
The theology of God’s compassion and the ethic of human compassion is growing increasingly more important in a world that is governed by a human reason that says, “you get what you deserve.” God’s compassion is growing increasingly more important in a world that is fed by a human reason that says, “What’s in it for me?”
But I sure am glad God is not bound by this kind of human reasoning or else I wouldn’t be here today. I sure am glad there have been many people in my life who have operated off God’s compassion or I wouldn’t be here today.
We would do good to never forget the simple truth about all of us – rich or poor, republican or democrat, black or white, gay or straight, man or woman – none of us would be where we are day without God’s compassion, without God’s merciful love played out in the flesh of those around us, and ultimately played out in the flesh of Jesus our Lord.
I invite you to take a moment to remember those who have shared God’s compassion with you, a compassion that has helped you grow in compassion, a compassion that softened your heart and opened you up to healing and wholeness. Who are those who refused to be limited by a human reason that says – you don’t deserve it or why bother if there is nothing in it for me?
Maybe it was a parent or sibling or grandparent. Maybe it was a classmate or co-worker. Maybe it was someone from church. Maybe it was a complete stranger! Whoever it was, you have experienced the compassion of God through them, a compassion that is meant to direct your feelings to show compassion to others, a compassion that animates the stories of our faith.
I don’t know if you noticed but the lectionary writers glossed over a few really big stories in today’s reading. In particular, the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ walking and water was skipped over. And these aren’t exactly minor stories in the gospel narrative.
When I asked the Tuesday Bible Study why they thought this was, Anne Strand said something like, “because how we feel about something is more important than the resulting action.” In other words, perhaps the lectionary writers omitted these two miracle stories so that we wouldn’t be distracted by the action and gloss over the reason behind Jesus’ action – his posture of compassion (as opposed to duty or obligation).
Underneath it all, our God is governed by an unwavering and incomprehensible compassion toward his people – a people who often look like sheep without a shepherd. It is no secret that we live in a community and a world that is hungry to know compassion, and too often are we governed by feelings of anger and despair – feelings that only perpetuate the problem.
I don’t know about you but in the midst of my own trials and tribulations just an ounce of compassion goes a long way, just an ounce of compassion changes the trajectory of my feelings, just an ounce of compassion shifts my feelings of anger toward charity, from despair toward hope.
Sure, there are ways to program a heavy dose of compassion in the community through projects like Rise Up. But at the end of the day, changing the culture toward the kingdom of God – a kingdom built on the compassion of Jesus – starts with you in whatever context you find yourself on a day to day basis.
Who are the people in your sphere of life who are angry? Who are the people who are devoid of hope? Who are the people who are drowning sadness? Who are the people feel lost and lonely? Who are the people who are afraid? These are the people to whom Jesus calls you to be compassionate toward.
And if you are one of these people, do not be afraid to let your feelings of sorrow be known, for ours is a God who is full of compassion, this is a church community who is formed and reformed by the compassion of Christ, you are not alone in your sorrow. Remember the words of the psalmist, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is with me – his rod and his staff comfort me.”
And wherever you find yourself this day – may the Lord be now and evermore your defense and make you know and feel the only name under heaven given for healing and salvation is the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – the Compassionate One. Amen.