The Compassion of Christ

Pam Morgan, Rector
St. Thomas, Springdale
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 14
1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Have you ever shown up to take a test feeling completely confident you know everything you’re going to be tested on but when you receive the test you realize you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did? Panic sets in and you suddenly wish you’d studied more, been better prepared. When the test is over you’re mad at yourself for not taking the test seriously enough to make sure you were ready for it. Have you ever taken a test that you couldn’t prepare for? Either the test came as a surprise or it was about something there wasn’t anything available to study, no task to practice and master ahead of time.

These scenarios describe how it feels when our faith is tested. We can never really prepare for that. It catches us by surprise and we seldom do as well as we’d hope to do.

This week’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s so let’s back up a little. In last week’s lesson, on hearing the news that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been executed, Jesus tried to retreat for a minute. (More than likely to grieve for John). But the crowds thwarted that. They followed him out to the deserted place with their sick in tow. Jesus had compassion on them. He set aside what he went there to do, healed their sick and blessed enough bread and fish to help his disciples feed a multitude of more than five thousand. Immediately after they had eaten and gathered the leftovers into baskets, Jesus forced the disciples to get in a boat and go across to the other side of the sea while he dismissed the crowds. Then he went up the mountain alone to pray and maybe have that minute to mourn that he didn’t get earlier, but before you know it he sees his disciples are in trouble on the sea. He has compassion on them, gives up his alone time, and walks out to meet them. Never mind that there is no wharf or ridge to walk on, Jesus walks on the sea. The disciples don’t know which they’re more afraid of: the waves knocking the boat around or the image they see coming toward them. They assume it is a ghost. Jesus tries to assure them that it’s him. Peter says prove it by commanding me to come to you on the water. Jesus says, come on then. Apparently Peter starts out walking on the water but the closer he gets to Jesus the more the wind picks up. Peter panics and starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus to save him, which he does. “Oh, you of little faith,” Jesus says. Peter may think he’s helping Jesus prove who he is to the others. Instead, he ends up having his own faith tested in front of the others, and he fails.

I can’t think of anything more common to the Christian life than what this story reveals about faith. As long as we don’t need it we talk about our faith being the strength we need to meet whatever life brings. Then life brings a test that takes us by surprise and we realize how unprepared we are that there really is no way to prepare to have your faith tested. Like Peter, more often than not, we fail. There’s no shame in that. It happens to all of us.

Peter turns his attention back toward Jesus. Jesus stretches out his hand and lifts him out of the tempestuous sea. His doing that has nothing to do with Peter’s faith. This story reveals something about Jesus too – how steadfastly compassionate he is – compassionate toward the multitude who barely know him, toward the small group of disciples who do know him, and toward the one who nearly drowns in front of him. Jesus is equally compassionate to the one, and the few, and the many. Great faith, little faith, or lack of faith is not a condition for Jesus having compassion and acting on it. It’s his nature to be compassionate.

That ministry of compassion is our work as the Church. It’s the ministry Christ entrusted to us, the ministry we’re called and empowered to do through the sacrament of baptism. Christ is still being steadfastly compassionate through our compassion to those who need it. We’re called to be Christ in the world. Every one of us is called to be a vessel of his compassion, to attend to those he cared about, to use our voices, our minds, and our bodies to bring relief to those for whom life is hard, regardless of their faith or lack of it.

The scriptures are very clear and very consistent about who most desperately needs our compassion. It’s those who cannot get through a single day without some sort of suffering unless someone steps in to help them. The wealthy don’t need advocates to ensure they stay wealthy. The powerful don’t need people to speak on their behalf. They have their own voice

Every Tuesday the outreach ministers and I look in the faces of people who live in their cars. Ten or more may live in the same house. Some of them are far too impaired physically or mentally to have a job. There is no shortage of people like them. And there will certainly be more. They are the ones who most need our compassion. They are the ones who need advocates. We can’t change the life of anyone who comes for Tuesday lunch. That’s too big for us. Their lives are just as difficult when they leave as when they came but we can do what Jesus did for Peter. We can reach out our hands and keep them from sinking for a little while. When we do that we are faithful to our call as Christians.

There are all sorts of things in life that can test our faith and make us feel poor, unloved, and powerless whether we really are or not, things we can’t prepare for. Whether or not we show compassion unconditionally to the poor and vulnerable as Jesus did is also a test of faith. It’s a test of what our faith means to us, a test of what we know about the ministry our Lord entrusted to us. And we don’t have to fail this one! We can see it coming. We can prepare for it. We can speak for those without a voice. We can let the compassion of Christ flow through the Church to lift up those who are sinking in life’s tempest wherever we see them. We can do this. We are the Body of Christ. Compassion is his nature, and it is our nature.