Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God is Full of Compassion” (Psalm 111:1-4)
January 28, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The older I get, the more I feel like a dinosaur when it comes to contemporary popular music. I’ll see a commercial for the Grammy’s and think, “Who are these people?” When it comes to popular music I am mostly stuck in the past. Last week one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Sir Elton John, announced the final tour of his career. His “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour” will include over three hundred concerts spanning five continents. One of my favorite Elton John songs—a song I cannot remember ever not knowing—is his 1972 hit “Rocket Man.” You probably recognize these lyrics:
She packed my bags last night preflight
Zero hour 9:00AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much
I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space on such a timeless flight
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone
(From his album Honky Chateau)
This song is based on a short story entitled “Rocket Man” by legendary science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury from his 1951 collection The Illustrated Man. This story is written from the perspective of a boy named Doug whose father is a professional astronaut, a professional “rocket man.” But his father, like the character in the Elton John song, has always felt conflicted about his job. One day at the beach Doug and his father have a brief but poignant conversation:
“Doug,” he said, about five in the afternoon, as we were picking up our towels and heading back along the beach near the surf, “I want you to promise me something.” “What?” “Don’t ever be a Rocket Man.” I stopped. “I mean it,” he said. “Because when you’re out there you want to be here, and when you’re here you want to be out there. Don’t start that. Don’t let it get hold of you” (106).
Today’s psalm has good news for rocket men and rocket women who feel like they are burning up their fuse up there all alone. Psalm 111 is about the compassion of God. The psalmist is effusive:
Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! They are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever. He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion (Psalm 111:1-4).
All the mighty works of God—from creation to salvation, from reconciliation to resurrection—are all motivated by compassion—or again as the psalmist put it, the Lord is “full of compassion.” This compassion of God is a recurring theme in scripture. Matthew describes Jesus’ earthly ministry this way:
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:35-36).
In the same way the psalmist identifies the Lord’s “marvelous works” as being rooted in compassion, Matthew identifies Jesus’ work of teaching, preaching, and healing as also being rooted in compassion. The Greek word translated “compassion” here also means to be filled with pity for someone, or to have one’s heart go out to someone. It is the same compassion Jesus had for the hungry crowd before the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:14), the same compassion Jesus had for a leper he healed (Mark 1:41), the same compassion that overflowed from the gracious father upon the return of his prodigal son (Luke 15:20).
God has always been, is now, and will forever remain, a God “full of compassion.”
When you experience an act of compassion, you do not forget it. One incident I remember occurred many years ago. As newlyweds during our senior year in college, my wife Steph and I both worked part time at different grocery stores. One autumn Saturday morning I was working as a cashier. It was game day, with a long line of impatient customers loaded down with beer and soda and chips and other “essentials” for the college football games that afternoon.
I was working faster than usual, trying to keep the line moving, and as I was scanning a large glass bottle of prune juice it slipped out of my hand, shattered on the counter, the prune juice running over the counter and down the sides of the checkout station. The customer was furious, “Oh, come on, really?!” he yelled. The remaining customers in line immediately took off, scrambling to beat one another to a different checkout line. Out of embarrassment my face turned nearly the same color as the spilled prune juice.
I apologized profusely, grabbed a roll of paper towels and started cleaning up, and the manager, Teri, walked over. It was always a relief when Teri was the manager because she was always kind to me. The customer was irate and started yelling at Teri about my accident, and guess how Teri responded? She gently said, “I’m sorry we did this.” “Sorry you did this?” the customer yelled, “You didn’t do it,” and pointing at me he continued, “He did it!” Teri simply repeated, “I’m sorry we did this. We’ll give you another one for free.”
Teri then walked the “delightful” customer to another cashier. She returned a moment later, took the paper towels from my hand and smiled, “I’ll clean this up. Don’t worry about it. Take a fifteen minute break.” When I returned from my break my cash register station was all cleaned up, and I got back to work. Teri never mentioned it to me again. She just took care of it—taking the blame for what I had done and cleaning up the mess I had made. Compassion looks like that.
I have been slowly rereading my favorite novel of all time, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Miserables. The novel begins by portraying the compassion of Bishop Myriel, who would later show compassion for the paroled thief Jean Valjean, compassion that not only changed Jean Valjean’s life, but went on to have ripple effects throughout the rest of the novel. Hugo describes Bishop Myriel:
(Bishop) Myriel could be called at all hours to the bedside of the sick and the dying. He well knew that there was his highest duty, his most important work. Widowed or orphaned families did not need to send for him; he came on his own. He would sit silently for long hours beside a man who had lost the wife he loved or a mother who had lost her child….He sought to counsel and calm the despairing by pointing out the Man of Resignation, and to transform the grief that contemplates the grave by showing it the grief that looks up to the stars (Signet Classics edition 17).
One of the many episodes of Bishop Myriel’s compassion involved a man condemned to the guillotine:
He spent the whole day with him, forgetting food and sleep, praying to God for the soul of the condemned, and urging the man to join with him. He told him the greatest truths, which are the simplest….He taught him everything by encouraging and consoling him. This man would have died in despair. Death, for him, was like an abyss. On his feet and trembling before the dreadful abyss, he had recoiled with horror.
Bishop Myriel’s compassion helped this condemned man, as Hugo continues:
(Bishop Myriel) climbed onto the cart with him, ascended the scaffold with him. The sufferer, so desolate and overwhelmed the day before, was now radiant with hope. He felt that his soul was reconciled, and he trusted in God. The bishop embraced him, and as the ax was about to fall, he said to him, “He whom man kills God restores to life; he whom his brothers drive away finds the Father. Pray, believe, enter into life! The Father is here” (15).
Like Bishop Myriel, Jesus Christ is moved with compassion for you, compassion for isolated rocket men and women who when out there, want to be here, and when here, want to be out there, compassion for all his “harassed and helpless” sheep. Like Bishop Myriel, Jesus did not come because you sent for him, “he came on his own.” And Jesus went even further than Bishop Myriel in actually dying in your place on the cross—“his highest duty, his most important work.” Jesus took the blame for the messes you have made and cleaned them up so you can take a break. Your soul has been reconciled. You can trust in God.
And the ripple effects of Jesus’ compassion for you will continue throughout the rest of the novel of your life, and then on into eternity.
In response to this compassion of God we can not only echo the psalmist in giving thanks with our whole heart, we can also treat others with the same compassion with which God has treated us. We can also be moved with compassion, take pity, have our hearts go out to those in our lives who need it. Imagine a world full of people like my grocery store manager, Teri. Imagine a world full of people like Bishop Myriel. Imagine a world full of people like Jesus.
And imagine treating with compassion the one person on whom you are always the hardest, as the late preacher and writer Brennan Manning wrote in his 2012 book Souvenirs of Solitude:
Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist, once reflected that we are all familiar with these words of Jesus: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren that you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Then Jung asked a very probing question…“What if you discovered that this least of the brethren of Jesus, the one who needs your love the most…is you?” (33-34).
Back to Ray Bradbury’s short story “Rocket Man” for a moment…Bradbury beautifully describes how one night Doug and his mother unexpectedly sensed the presence of their father and husband, the Rocket Man:
This night was no different from a thousand others in our time. We would wake nights and feel the cool air turn hot, feel the fire in the wind, or see the walls burned a bright color for an instant, and then we knew his rocket was over our house—his rocket, and the oak trees swaying from the concussion. And I would lie there, eyes wide, panting, and Mother in her room. Her voice would come to me over the interroom radio: “Did you feel it?” And I would answer, “That was him all right.” That was my father’s ship passing over our town, a small town where space rockets never came (97-98).
Your Heavenly Father is here, full of compassion for you, passing over your town, assuring you with hope “that looks up to the stars.”