by Bill Shimkus
True Compassion — Hebrews 4:15
For the past couple of years here at Trinity, we have included two small Post-It notes on the cover of our worship bulletins on All Saints Sunday. On these pieces of paper worshipers were encouraged to write the names of “saints”; that is, people living or dead who had offered encouragement or served as a role model for them in their lives as followers of Jesus. Then, during the singing of the hymn “For All the Saints” they were encouraged to bring their notes forward and stick them on the altar, pulpit or communion rail. We kept the Post-It notes in the chancel through all the services on Sunday until after our school chapel service on the following Wednesday morning. Only then would I gather them up.
It has always been interesting to see the names that were included. Many of them I did not know. Some had familiar family names of members here at Trinity. Some were of church workers whom I had known from my years here in the Northwest District – names like Emile Jaech and Jon Cleveland. And each year there was always a handful of notes that listed Miriam Hoelter.
Why do you think that is? There are, of course, many ways in which Miriam touched the lives of the people around her – some of which you’ve already heard this morning. But as I spoke with others as the news of Miriam’s “passing” got out, as I thought back over my own contacts with Miriam over the past few years and as I viewed the comments that others who knew her left on Facebook or other internet lists, one word continued to crop up – compassion. Miriam sympathized with others in their times of need. People knew that when she spoke to them, she cared.
What makes that so noteworthy is that such compassion does not come naturally to us as human beings, not even to someone like Miriam. For the Bible tells us that we are all, by our very nature, sinners. As such, our first concern, before anyone or anything else, is with ourselves. What we perceive to be our own needs, our own wants, our own interests receive our highest priority. The sad result of such an attitude is the real needs of other people are often relegated to a secondary status; to be considered only if we have the time, the energy or the inclination to do so. And left to ourselves as human beings, there is nothing we can do to change that.
We can be compassionate in our dealing with others because of the compassionate love that God has first of all shown to us. In order to save us from ourselves and the “wages” of our sins, he sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ into the world to be our Savior. Having lived on earth as a real human being, Jesus understands what it’s like for us in our weakness. For, as the writer to the Hebrews put it, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
But more than merely sympathizing with us in our need, Jesus came to do something about it. Through his suffering and death upon the cross, he broke the hold that our sinful human nature had over us, freeing us from its domination, granting us new life as children of God. As people who have experienced God’s forgiving love ourselves, we know that our sins, our weaknesses, our failures are not the final word. Through it all God is at work within us, “molding us” through Word and Sacrament into the image of Christ himself; that we might love others, forgive others, care for others as Christ has first cared for us; that we might become channels through which the love of God flows to other people in their need.
St. Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Because Jesus became a real human being, he was able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. Because of the forgiving love of Christ in her, our sister Miriam could demonstrate that same compassion care to others in their need.
May God help us to do the same, as we follow on the path of discipleship, seeking to embody the compassionate presence of Christ for others and looking forward to that day when we will join Miriam and all those other saints who have gone before us in God’s eternal kingdom.
In Jesus’ name. AMEN
Pastor Bill Shimkus
Trinity Lutheran Church, Portland, OR