Thursday, August 30, 2012

Doing Compassion

James 1:17-27

            The oldest manuscripts (for instance the Muratorian Fragment from 170 A.D.) that we have of the scriptures do not include the Letter of James in its contents.  Martin Luther has famously called James the "Epistle of Straw," evoking the image that it blows away in the wind when it is examined too closely.  And honestly, it is light on what actually makes the gospel, gospel.  It makes a couple of passing mentions of Jesus.  And it runs counter to the message we hear from the Apostle Paul, "For by grace your have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that none may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9)  No, instead we hear in the Letter of James, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:17)  So James, poor maligned James what are we to do with you?

            It would seem by some reasons, you should not be included in our Bibles.  But then why is it that Bible after Bible that buy or receive from parents, teachers and pastors have this "book" named James after Hebrews and right before 1 Peter?  Why has this book remained in our canon, the contents of our Bibles?  I could be cynical and say it only because some long dead men declared that it should be, but I truly do believe that would only be a discounting of how the Holy Spirit guided the Bible to become the book it has become.  It's here for a reason.  It's scripture for us because it has something very important to say about our life of Faith.  It's hear to say that the Word of God has come into the world to dwell richly within in us and call us to a life lived out in tremendous displays of compassion.  The Word of God dwells within us to move us into ever greater acts of love and sacrifice. 

            I want to take a moment and talk about a word that I just used – compassion.  Compassion is a word that has taken a few hits in recent years.  It has been weakened to refer mostly to the pity we might have for someone who's having a tough time in life.  We think of compassion today, and we think about someone who has had a really bad and we say, "There, there.  Everything is going to be alright."  More over, in recent years we've even had the development of the term "Compassionate Conservative" which describes a fiscally conservative person who cares for people in their plights.  Yet the response to people's plights too often in recent years has been, "I'm doing this thing that may hurt you, because it will be good for the whole and even you in the long run."  And that's fine.  The voice that says, "How do we help people change rather than enable behaviors?" is a good one in the political sphere.  Yet, when we begin to talk about who our God is and what our God does in this world, we have to be willing to delve deeper into what this word "compassion" means to God.

            Compassion means much more than feeling deeply sorry for someone else and their plight.  We can actually get deeper into what compassion means to our God when we look at the word's counterpart in the German language, Mitleid.  In German, that literally means with-suffering.  As the theologian Douglas John Hall writes in his book The Cross in Our Context, "To feel compassion, deeply and sincerely, is to overcome the subject/object division. it is to suffer with the other."  How do I know that that is what God means when compassion is used to describe God?  It is because, when I look upon that cross from which Jesus hung, I see that God has made the ultimate, grace-filled decision to come down from heaven and be with the creatures and creation that God has made in the midst of all of our pain, all of our suffering, even in all of our death.  Our God is compassionate because our God comes to where we are, in our suffering.  And then God lifts us up into new life, never abandoning us.

            The wonderful gift that the Letter of James gives each and every one of us is that it describes how this new life that we have in Christ must be a reflection of the compassion that our God has shown us.  Does James describe the pure perfect Christian life as one where church is never missed on Sundays, where only best clothes are worn, where you put on display to everyone else how good of a person you have been from day to day?  NO! In fact, the Letter of James expressly warns against that kind of behavior!  No, instead James paints a picture of the life of faith as one where we have true compassion for those who suffer – that we suffer with them.  Being a "doer of the word," means being someone who loves, cares, and stands with the other, because our God loves, cares, and stands with us.

            You might ask, "But Pastor are we also not to worry about how purely we are living?  Aren't we not to be stained by the world?"  Well, I say to you if an unstained life means that you care first and only for the purity of your morals, then you misunderstand what James is saying about the purity of religion.  Being unstained by the world means constantly remembering who you are as a person that God has done tremendous things for.  "Unstained" is not permission to distance yourself from the messiness of the world we live in.  "Unstained" keeping that identity that God loved you so much that God died on the cross to bring you up out of sorrow, sin and death as you engage and seek to suffer with world around you.  And if you read the Letter of James you will see over and over again that the works that James is calling us to are indeed works of true compassion.  The letter is filled with calls to care for orphans, widows, the poor, and the hungry.

            Will any of these works of true compassion save you?  Absolutely not.  But you have received the tremendous work of God's compassion throughout your whole life.  And I do think that begs the question:  How will you respond to the compassion that God has for you?  You have been made holy by a love that knows no bounds or depths.  God doesn't want our piety and our purity.  God wants us.  God wants us to be people who go forth bearing this good news to whole world, so that others may too see the boundless compassion that God has for the whole of creation.

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