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Compassion in Response to Chaos

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse

Baptism of Our Lord

January 7, 2024

Genesis 1:1-5

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

This past week while we were in Nova Scotia, my father told me a story about an old family friend and classmate of his named David Corkum. Mr. Corkum has always had a raspy voice. He was definitely not a member of any choir. Dad described to me what had happened to David Corkum’s voice. Once, during Christmas break, when he and David and a group of other Lunenburg teenagers were fooling around on the shore by a wharf, one of them fell through the ice and couldn’t find his way back to the opening. His winter clothing began to absorb the icy water, and he started sinking into the frigid waters.. There was yelling and scrambling, but none of that was stopping what they could see happening through the ice. In the middle of the chaos, David stripped off his coat and boots, dove through the hole in the ice, and retrieved their friend Robert from the icy deep, saving his life. As a result, David Corkum became very ill for months, albeit recovering, but left with a damaged voice. He had saved a friend’s life while risking his own - certainly an act deserving of legendary heroism.

I have known Mr. Corkum my entire life but had never heard this story before. When I asked him why he had never told me about it, Mr. Corkum was reluctant to talk about it and squirmed at the title of “hero.” He reminded me that Lunenburgers have never been raised to be bystanders. He mentioned a documentary he had seen years earlier as a teacher about the “bystander effect” - which has been used to explain how dictators rise unchallenged to power and how victims of crime are not rescued - and his long-held hope that he would never be such a bystander. His actions proved his goal had been achieved. And that is why my father - rightfully proud of his friend - told his story.

What Mr. Corkum did was to bring order to chaos with an act of compassion. That is how our first lesson puts the act of God, and what God has done for us with Christmas. Into a disordered scene, God brought a person - an idea, a vision of the world - around which we can all organize. God did not do this with law and rules. Jesus is an earthly representation for us of compassion. Is there a better response to chaos?

Let’s consider for a moment what we mean by compassion, and how it is interpreted in the gospel. A word that we often use in its place is empathy. That is the ability to see and even feel how another person is feeling and what they are seeing. There have been plenty of books written about the value of emotional intelligence, which, distilled down, is also the ability to have empathy - to experience the world beyond us. But empathy has its shortfalls. It can be interpreted as a neutral act, neither good nor evil, and even both. For instance, if we consider the conversation that Jesus goes on to have with the Devil in the desert, we might certainly say that the Devil character demonstrates empathy - he sees inside Jesus, and uses those weaknesses, those gaps of faith, to tempt him. The shortfall of empathy is that it doesn’t require action. (Indeed, it even suggests that we need to have a connection first to those we help, which is obviously limiting.) Empathy is like crying at a sad movie: we feel the pain of the characters, but an hour later we go home to our own lives.

Compassion, however, requires the next step. It can be defined as the act of our seeing someone’s need and trying to help them - at a cost to ourselves. Compassion requires sight and recognition, and then action. The cost doesn’t have to be risking our life through a hole in the ice. It might mean the inconvenience of buying a coffee for a stranger on the street. It could mean a few extra dollars for a charity, or just saying hello on the elevator when you’d rather be texting.

But suddenly you can see how compassion is the ordered response to chaos. A lonely person feels supported. A poverty-stricken person receives a gift. Someone in danger - the ultimate human chaos - is saved.

The gospel that we hear every Sunday defines Jesus by the compassion he shows, and the compassion he teaches. He doesn’t just feel sympathy for the widow at the well; he goes and speaks to her. He doesn’t tell us to feel sad for the injured Samaritan; he tells us to help him. He doesn’t sympathize with the prodigal son; he urges us to welcome him.

Of course, our gospel lesson today features John the Baptist, a master of chaos, and certainly a concrete example - he precedes Jesus, stirring things up, and Jesus, who follows, soothes, and guides. John the Baptist reminds us that chaos can be healthy - the kind of chaos that challenges social norms and rejects the way things have always been. And Jesus shows us that the next step - the healing act - is compassion.

Here’s some bad news: plenty of studies have shown that the more money we have relative to society, the more power we hold, the more status we claim, the harder it is to show compassion. We see this all the time when people in power take from others without consideration. And in some ways, this is just human nature: the more power we hold, the less we need community to help us. But this is a big problem for society - it means that the people most able to help - with their influence, their talent, their treasure - may also be the least likely to do so. The gospel is constantly waking us up to this tendency. If it is good enough for Jesus, the Son of God, it is good enough for us.

Perhaps you made some New Year’s resolutions. To lose weight. Or stop smoking. To binge less on television. Apparently, one of the most popular resolutions is: to be happier. But perhaps there is one resolution we might all make - one tied to happiness and self-worth: to demonstrate more compassion. To respond to chaos with the gospel’s idea of order. To be the kind of people in our everyday lives, in the moments that appear to us, who, as Mr. Corkum put it, would save a person from the icy deep. Amen.


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