“Seeing the people, [Jesus] felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd…”
Compassion is one of those amazingly slippery virtues. It resists easy definitions and invades life with a constant sense of curious complexity. Rejecting the tempting evils around us easily becomes rejection of the beloved perpetrators of that evil. The hair-line fissure between rejecting a person and rejecting their crime is difficult to distinguish in the best of moments and maddeningly impossible at worst. But the recipients of the rejection, they know, they always can tell where the fissure is and when it has been crossed.
Leaving our church in the dark of a Saturday night, I felt secure in my intended text and message for the following morning. Jesus, according to Matthew, met the wounds of people lacking purpose and spirit with a sense of compassion that birthed healing and change. A message like this is easily sold as “Gospel” truth and even easier to package in the homely surrounds of a warm, Sunday service.
But as I traveled the 4 miles from our church in Suburbia to my home in mini-Urbania, something disturbed my “well-deserved” peace. Coming to the main drag stop light, Evans and High, a person walked opposite me along the side walk in the 8 degree cold. And as my car waited, this person bundled tightly reversed direction and came to the passenger side window of my Buick.
Now preaching compassion is one thing and living it another; my authenticity reached far enough that I rolled down my window a cautious 4 inches.
I need a ride, a woman’s voice said.
A pastor, near midnight, in an “iffy” section of town… compassion’s complexity fighting with reason’s righteous voice. Why is this woman walking a cold street? Is she homeless? She must be freezing. How can I help? What if she accuses me of some egregious evil of which I will most certainly be innocent? What if she has a weapon?
Where to? The bar… No, no ride to the bar.
What about you? What about me? You wanna play…
Nothing about growing up in a small farm community or a spotless resort town prepares a person for their first “propositioning.” What do you say? The conversation’s beginnings had covered this woman’s actual intentions and I was caught flat-footed.
No, no thank you, I say, with too much emphasis. I’m shocked by my own certainty; usually people inspire me to a certain sense of pastoral grace, some conversational misdirection that veils the hard truth. Such grace is missing entirely in this moment. Immediately rebuffed, she turns away as though my words were a hand slapping her along her cheek. The light turns green and the Buick’s fuel injection system is empowered with all the fuel it could want and more as I head North on Evans and she walks, as quickly as possible, South. I head home, in my warm security, to a wife and kids, compassion personified in a home. She heads South, cold and rejected, compassion staying in the Buick with me and not escaping the 4 inches of cautious space that had been open for a few, brief, irreplaceable moments.
I tell my wife the story. I pray a “pharisaical” prayer… some thankful expression about God’s allowing me to escape where televangelists and New York governors have failed. And exhausted I lay my head finally down, after a long day of work, thought, and prayer.
But sleep eludes me. I lay waiting for the moment when repose becomes sleep… and wait…
I start to wander mentally through my day. And it strikes me then… I was called to reject the “offer” but was I called to reject the “offerer”? The right side of right is always just that, right. But beyond rejecting the woman’s invitation, I had subtly slipped over the unnoticed line and rejected the woman. Who was that person who first found the resurrected Lord, a woman, a prostitute? Where were my kind words that flow easily at funerals, in church foyers, by hospital beds, and over coffee? Was it too much to bring kindness to this person? I am rarely rejected, my life blessed with advantage and success. Where is birthed such an outrageous confidence that I would deem myself worthy of heaping one more rejection on a life most probably full of them.
On the 6th day of Creation with angels celebrating in awe, God created… He created me…and He created her, the woman of Evans and High. And, while churches sing about being God’s children “saved by grace,” in a very real sense, this woman rejected and gone, is as much a child of God as me or anyone else created in His image.
The compassion of Jesus so recently exposited to pious empty seats in the homey confines of a compassionate church, did little in birthing compassion for the woman of Evans and High. Let our hearts be broken with what breaks the heart of God, I had preached. Pray with trusting faith, I had taught. Take hopeful action, I had commanded. The empty chairs shook at the sound of the truth so powerfully laid plainly before them… empty, Saturday night chairs that they were. And my heart, the one receiving and communicating the Gospel message for the day, left the shaking chairs and compassionate building, remaining personally unchanged and uncompassionate. And a woman, the sort who may have willingly risked her life to be with her Lord in the moment of his agony, was deemed unworthy, by me, of any personal word or kind thought.
How does one preach that sermon to chairs filled with warm, smiling “children of God” the Sunday morning after failing so brutally the God-given test? The easy “sell” and the supposed easy “package” evaporated in the night on the corner of Evans and High. “When you pray, don’t pray as the hypocrites do…” said Jesus. No, don’t pray that way, preach instead. Compassion, easily preached, is, it turns out, maddeningly slippery in definition and tremendously complicating in practice. Empty chairs may shake when I preach the inauthentic word, but my very life, Oh God, my very being shakes when you preach yours, on the corner of Evans and High.