Those seeking guidance from the Desert Fathers and Mothers often didn’t receive the teaching they expected.
Instead of a stimulating sermon, they were told “Watch me and do what I do.” They were to learn a way of being.
Jesus is similarly direct in today’s reading from Matthew 25:31-40. A striking call to action which I’d like to reflect on today, ‘Sanctuary Sunday’, when we turn our hearts and minds to the difficult, often desperate, plight of refugees.
“Watch me and do what I do”
As I’ve read Jesus’s words over the last couple of weeks I’ve kept hearing, “Watch me – and do what I do.” In the reading, those who cannot understand Jesus are referred to as “the righteous”. I think we can reasonably assume they are preoccupied with deciding who is deserving and who is not, distracted with law, with regulation, caught up in the whole business of judging. Trapped on the surface of life, they cannot see the essential relationship between themselves, the person in need and God.
As far as Jesus is concerned, the righteous cannot see, and are occupied with what is ultimately of no significance. They cannot see that the refugee is their brother, their sister.
We can only imagine what Jesus would have made of the slogan “America First” or the often divisive rhetoric that surrounded the Brexit campaign. To the righteous, Jesus’ immediate self-forgetful compassion is reckless, hopelessly idealistic. Perhaps today he would be accused of not “Putting Britain First”.
And they would be right, of course. He puts everyone first, gets on with what is needed, says everyone should have what is essential for life.
From my own experience, I suspect that a large part of what makes us hesitate to act, to give, is fear.Fear of losing things we value, of having them taken away. Of not being first in the queue or eligible for a benefit before someone else.
Yesterday I came across a wonderful story about a group of Christian missionaries who had travelled to Africa in order to convert various tribes. One of the missionaries decided to play a game with a group of children by placing a bowl of fruit under a tree, challenging them to a race – whoever got to the tree first would win all the fruit in the bowl.
As the race began, instead of running to the bowl, the children all joined hands and gathered around the tree sharing the bowl of fruit. They simply had no concept of how or why only one person would have all the fruit while others looked on. When it came to something as important as food, these children understood themselves not as competing individuals, but as a sharing community.
It is possible to see the world differently. Many of those who are refugees see the world like this. So alongside “Watch me and do what I do”, let’s add “Do not be afraid – because you are loved.
Jesus is not just talking about compassion, but being compassion.
He has an extraordinary way of translating circumstances we find difficult to address, into direct, practical ways of being. His teaching, his life is uncompromising. When he sees someone hungry, he gives them food. When he sees someone thirsty, he gives them water. When someone is alone or finds themselves in a strange land, he makes them feel welcome and at home.
There is no hesitation. There is no fear. There is just giving.
Jesus is not calling for compassionate action tomorrow, or next week. Or when the economy picks up, or after we have first taken care of people living in our country. Or when the political powers have worked out how best to apply Jesus’ naive sounding words within the complex reality of the “real world”. He’s not asking us to think about compassion. He is showing us how to be compassion – today. Jesus’ words are like a searchlight. They reach deep into who we imagine ourselves to be and what it might mean to claim we are his followers.
The “righteous” simply don’t get it. They ask Jesus to explain what on earth he’s talking about. And he says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus sweeps aside all the familiar, conventional ways we use to decide who is deserving, and who we think of as “family”. His simple words are truly radical.We are all made in the image and likeness of God. We all owe our being to One Father. The refugees we see suffering each day in the media are our family.
The problem is, we think we are separated from each other. Let me read you these words by the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr:
“The “problem” of immigrants, welfare recipients, incarcerated, mentally ill…disabled, and all who are marginalized by mainstream society, is a problem of the incarnation. When we reject our relatedness to the poor, the weak, the simple, and the unlovable we define the family of creation over and against God. In place of God we decide who is worthy of our attention and who can be rejected. Because of our deep fears, we spend time, attention, and money on preserving our boundaries of privacy and increasing our knowledge and power. We hermetically seal ourselves off from the undesired “other,” the stranger, and in doing so, we seal ourselves off from God. By rejecting God in the neighbour, we reject the love that can heal us”.
The Incarnation is not finished. It is to be completed through us. And all the questions Jesus words and life raise for us find their answer in compassion: in being compassion.
You simply cannot think about being a Christian outside of active compassion in the messy, complicated reality of community life, local and global. This is living in the body of Christ. Being compassion is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us his Spirit.
Why do we come to Church? To hear the Word so we can, with thanks and joy, immediately give it away!
What can We Do?
Jesus describes the compassionate as blessed by God and called to inherit the Kingdom. Being compassionate reveals that Kingdom is not some far distant destination, but within and amongst us. It is the “Light that shines in the darkness”, which gives birth to compassion, which lets us see the person in need. And to see that the person who gives and the person who receives are both rooted in God.
To see like this, to live like this, is costly. It’s hard work. Acting with unconditional compassion can make people very angry. It’s frightening. They will say it is idealistic, unrealistic, naïve, foolish. It threatens the virtual world we have created and the pictures of ourselves within it. But this is what being a follower of Jesus requires. Jesus shows us that this is what being fully, radically human, being really alive, looks like.
Jesus had no fear of being compassionate. He had no fear of being human. You can’t have one without the other. It wasn’t popular then, and it’s no more popular now. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He just got on with being wonderfully, fully human – until he was killed for it.
Some Final Thoughts
How do we become places for God’s light to enter the world? As we learn to recognise and manage our own need for control and power and affirmation, as we learn to love and be at peace with ourselves, we discover that our life is found in communion, through compassion.
You might say that we are made by Compassion for compassion. It’s what we’re here for.
And whatever the world may say or think, there is no need to be afraid. If we fall over, as I repeatedly do, God is there to catch us and walk beside us. So today, Sanctuary Sunday, perhaps I can leave us with two questions:
“Who are the members of my family?” and
“What do I have that I can give?”
Let’s pray together.
Lord, help us to become places of light in the world,
For refugees and all in need.
Help us to play our part in your marvellous work
Of bringing each of us, together, to the source of wholeness, wellbeing and peace;
And to see that our homecoming is to the whole of humanity.
Help us to act.
Help us to be compassion.
You can listen to the sermon here: