1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
For the past several weeks, we’ve been on a journey through the seven spiritual gifts found in Romans, chapter 12. And despite our natural tendency, when we hear the word “gift” to think, “Oh, for me?” These gifts are not that kind. They are not special talents or abilities that God gives to us like birthday presents, but rather they are all the things that all of us have at our disposal to give to God as our “living sacrifice,” our “spiritual worship,” our blessing to the church and to the community.
So today we come to the very last gift on our list: Compassion, which Paul tells us is a gift that should be given in cheerfulness. We’ll explore later what exactly is that connection between compassion and cheerfulness.
But first, I know you’re going to be terribly disappointed, because today I have no long and complicated etymologies for you in Greek or Latin or Hebrew. This time, compassion really does mean compassion, and cheerfulness means, well, cheerfulness. But I do have three stories about compassion that I hope illustrate the gift even better than a dictionary could…although you should probably take the first story with a grain of salt!
One evening a wealthy businessman was riding in his limousine when he saw two men along the road eating grass. Disturbed, he yelled at his driver to stop, and he got out to investigate. He asked one man “Why are you eating the grass?” “We don’t have any money for food” the poor man replied. “So we have to eat grass.” “Well then, come with me to my house and I’ll feed you” the businessman said. “But sir, I also have a wife and two children with me. They are over there, under that tree.” “Ok, bring them along too” the businessman replied. Turning to the other poor man he stated, “You come with us, also.” The second man, in a pitiful voice, then said, “But sir, I also have a wife and SEVEN children with me!” “Very well then, bring them all” the businessman answered. They all piled into the limousine, which was no easy task. Once under way, one of the poor fellows turned to the businessman and said, “Sir, you are truly too kind.. Thank you for taking all of us with you. The businessman replied, “No problem, I’m glad I could help. Besides, you’ll really love my place…the grass is almost a foot high!”
Compassion, like all seven of our spiritual gifts, is not a quality or personality trait that a person might passively possess. It’s something you actively do. When you see someone hurting or suffering, and you think or say, “awwww…poor thing!” that’s not compassion, at least not yet. That’s empathy, and it’s a good thing that can sometimes lead to compassion, although often it doesn’t. Empathy doesn’t become compassion until you actually give that person a hug, or a helping hand, or until you carry his burden, or suffer with her in solidarity.
One day a lawyer came to Jesus, in order to test him: “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?” Jesus answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?” The lawyer said, “That I should love the Lord God with all my passion and my intellect and my strength―and that I should love my neighbor as much as I love myself.”
“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do that and you’ll live.” But looking for a loophole, the lawyer asked, “Wait a minute, Jesus―Just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
Jesus answered by telling this story: “Once there was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily for him, a pastor was on his way down the same road, but when the pastor saw the man he crossed over to the other side, and pretended he hadn’t seen. Then a church elder showed up; but she also went out of her way to avoid the injured man.
“Then a despised, dirty, no-good Samaritan came along (Samaritans were so universally hated, that the lawyer and most of the people in Jesus’ audience, including his disciples, would have barely even acknowledged a Samaritan as a human being! Think of some group of people you secretly detest or, look down upon, or are afraid of―maybe its illegal immigrants, or transvestites, or Republicans or Democrats, or drug dealers or child molesters, or corporate executives or circus clowns―whoever you are, there’s bound to be someone you despise).
Anyhow, when the despised, dirty, no-good Samaritan came along and saw the man’s condition, he felt compassion for him, and his dirty little, shriveled heart…went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey (probably a stolen donkey!), led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins (probably ill-gotten gain!) and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill―I’ll pay you on my way back.’
Jesus, of course, had finished his story…but the lawyer and the disciples kept on waiting for the punch line, you know, the part where the Samaritan kidnaps the injured man for a ransom, or sells his organs on the black market. That part never came. Jesus simply turned to the lawyer, and said, “What do you think? Which of the three was a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” The lawyer knew the answer, but could not bring himself to even say the word “Samaritan,” so instead he said, “The one who showed him compassion.” Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
Go and do. One compassionate action is worth more than a thousand heart-felt sentiments. And yet, there is something even more to it than that. Compassion is action, but it is also an orientation away from one’s self and towards another person.
The story is told of a man who prayed to the Lord, asking to see a vision of what heaven and hell are truly like. That night in a dream, the man was taken by an angel to a beautiful house filled with people gathered around a table. On the table was laid an incredible feast, with every kind of food imaginable. But the people were sick and starving, flesh and bone, ravenous, with wild hunger in their eyes. They had giant utensils, forks and spoons that were longer than their arms, and so while they could put large quantities of food on the forks, they could not reach the forks to their mouths. The people were angry, and frustrated, jealous, and most of all…hungry. The man said to the angel, “Surely this is hell―a most wretched place.”
Then, the angel took him to another house, that looked identical to the first. It, too, was filled with people gathered around a table. On this table, as well, was laid an incredible feast, with every kind of food imaginable. The people in this house also had giant forks and spoons, longer than their arms…but they were happy, laughing, and obviously well-fed. This was surely heaven, but at first the man couldn’t figure out what made the difference. The people had exactly the same opportunities, and the same challenges…but with such obviously different results. The Angel simply pointed, and said, “watch.” And the man began to notice something beautiful: The people in heaven, with their long forks and spoons…were feeding each other, and they were happy.
And they were happy. Paul tells us that compassion is connected with cheerfulness. And here I have a confession to make. For most of this past week, as I contemplated this verse, this sermon, this connection…I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get it. And that’s because for most of this past week, I wasn’t in a very cheerful place myself.
It’s not easy for me to admit that. As a pastor, as a leader, I’m supposed to be the one cheering other people up, encouraging people, comforting people, inspiring people. But sometimes the inspiration packs up and goes on vacation, for preachers, for accountants, for civil engineers, for stay-at-home parents, for all of us. And that can be a scary thing, especially when others are depending on you to have your act together.
You know, the irony is that this whole time I’ve been preaching a sermon series about “spiritual gifts” and telling you that it’s not so much about *what* you give, but *how* you give it. It’s not about quantity or quality of the gift, but about the spirit and attitude of the giving. And here I got wrapped up in the gifts I was trying to give.
Is my sermon good enough? Is the worship service just right? Am I giving enough time to this project or to that person, because they *need* me. They *need* my gifts; they can’t do it without me! When you start to think that way, giving your gift becomes…stressful. Hard. Giving wasn’t enjoyable, I wasn’t cheerful, and by extension, I had no compassion left to give. So if you’re one of those people I snapped at last week, I’m sorry.
Paul says, in verse three of our passage today, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
So what I learned this week is that I need to trust in that “measure of faith that God has assigned” instead of measuring it out on my own. I learned that cheerfulness comes from actually letting go of the gift that I’m giving, not following it around and fretting about whether or not it’s good enough.
It’s saying : This is my gift. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always perfect. It’s not always what I want it to be. But the gift―the real gift―is me, giving myself to you. To God. To the world. This is what’s really behind all the spiritual gifts.
So if you’re going to give the gift of prophecy, proclaiming the good news to the world, then let that good news be you, a person God made, a person God loves.
And if you’re going to give the gift of ministry, or serving, then find your table, grab your chewing gum scraper, and serve with all your heart.
If you ever have an opportunity to be a teacher, take it. Because everyone has something to teach, and it is in teaching others that we learn most ourselves.
If the opportunity presents itself to encourage someone, then give the gift of exhortation; lift up your heart, and let your words lift those around you, with healing, with inspiration and love.
In all things, be a giver, and give with authenticity, with sincerity. Don’t just give your stuff…give your whole self.
When the situation calls for a leader, then stand before the people, or sit before them, or run all around them―but protect them and serve them with diligence and love.
Finally, show compassion through your actions, and through your orientation…but don’t forget to have fun in the process.
Most of all, remember that a spiritual gift isn’t a gift unless you give it away. So if you forget every single one of the gifts and remember just one thing, then let it be this:
Your gift is yourself.