Compassion Breaks the Walls Between Us
Some of you may know that I spent 3 months as an Ecumenical Accompanier in Israel and Palestine. Part of my work in that program was to be present at checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories. The checkpoints themselves represented division between people. Keeping people separated. Then there was the 30 foot high separation wall that snakes through the West Bank, keeping Palestinians separated from Israelis and often Palestinians from other Palestinians. The other part of my work was a commitment to tell the stories of the people I met when I returned home. I did that in my church in Michigan. Sharing stories of people facing the reality of restricted movement and discrimination. The symbol of which was a giant, grey, concrete wall.
When I finished my presentation this woman from my church named Martha came up to me with her walker. She was in her mid to late 80s and was German. With her thick German accent she said, “We had a wall too! When we tried to visit family in East Germany they did not let us bring in anything. Not a magazine, no paper.”
She could understand the pain of the Palestinians facing similar realities. It was a moment of connection to people she seemed to have little in common with. “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
I sat across from Jim. It was a pastoral visit. But I was a very inexperienced pastor. Still he sought counsel of me and I did my best to oblige. What Jim wanted to know as he was dying of lung cancer was not about what happens after death. What was troubling his heart and soul most was that there was someone he had a divide with. He couldn’t forgive this person. Had I been a more experienced Pastor, I might have gotten more of the story. But I tried to reassure Jim that he would be OK. But it seems to me as I reflect on the visit, that’s what would’ve been true healing for Jim was the restoration of that relationship. But we are good at building walls.
A question: Is compassion something you want to have? Do you want to be considered a compassionate person?
We are told in Mark’s gospel that Jesus had compassion for the crowds seeking healing because they were like sheep without a shepherd. If we break down the word compassion (Com — passio), we find it actually means to suffer with. Jesus suffers with the people who are lost and in pain. I wonder if we really have the capacity for compassion. Compassion that really frees. I mean, how do you suffer with someone? You can sit with them in their pain. Hear their stories. Hold their hands. Empathy, understanding, sympathy… But compassion. Can we suffer with?
I think it helps to remember that as much as we attempt to follow Jesus, we are also the ones in the crowd clamoring for healing. On our best days we are able to muster the energy it takes to listen and respond to needs of someone else. On most days we barely have time and energy to help ourselves. We wander like lost sheep seeking guidance and respite from everything crying for our attention. I’m pretty convinced that I didn’t say the exact right thing to heal Jim of the wall that stood between him and his friend. I still wonder if I had the capacity to do better.
The perfectionist in me has trouble with knowing that even when I want to help, I won’t be able to do it all the way. Maybe you share that feeling; that I should do more to help people in need. But I’m reminded that the act of being with and hearing someone’s story can be a step on the way to healing. Maybe it is only Jesus who is capable of true and complete compassion. Only he can completely suffer with. For us, no matter how hard we try there will always be a divide — it might be of our own creating or because life circumstances make it difficult for us to know fully the plight of another. At least not enough to suffer with.
But Jesus knows each of us completely and takes on our flesh to suffer with. He the one whose compassion succeeds in fully taking on the pain and plight of the least among us. It’s the reason we gather here around this table and take into ourselves the com-passioned body of Christ. The flesh destroyed but redeemed. The blood spilled for the healing of all flesh. So that as we eat and drink together, we are united as the Body of Christ for the world. So that we can have courage to attempt compassion, however imperfectly. Through Christ in us, we have the capacity to poke holes in the walls between us and the other. Trusting that one day they’ll be torn down completely. And the unity God promises will be our reality.