St. John’s Episcopal Church, West Hartford, Connecticut
The Reverend Alexander H. Webb II (“Sandy”)
January 4, 2020
Ordination to the Priesthood
The Reverend Marjorie Freeouf Baker
“Look, See, and Have Compassion”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I draw my text this afternoon from our gospel reading: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…”
Two important things happen in this short clause – Jesus sees, and Jesus has compassion. Jesus could have looked away from the suffering of the people around him, he could have guarded himself from their burdensome reality, but he does not. Jesus looks, and Jesus sees.
More importantly, Jesus acts. Jesus sends out his disciples to be shepherds among God’s wandering people. Jesus does something practical and tangible to make a difference for the people he has seen, for the people whom he cannot un-see.
Jesus looks, and Jesus sees, and Jesus has compassion.
Jesus does a lot of this – looking, seeing, and having compassion – in the ninth chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel.
The chapter opens when some townspeople bring a paralyzed man to Jesus on a stretcher. They ask Jesus to heal him, and to forgive his sins. In Jesus’ day, healing and forgiveness were seen as the purview of the religious elite. The scribes do not believe that Jesus has the authority to proclaim life-transforming words of hope, but he does it anyway: “Take heart,” he says, “your sins are forgiven…Stand up and walk.”
The next vignette takes place near the tax collector’s booth. There sits a man named Matthew, taking in what is due to the emperor plus a little bit extra for himself. Tax collectors were seen as grifters, as sinners beyond redemption, but Jesus pays no heed to their sordid reputation: “Follow me,” Jesus says, and Matthew’s life is changed forever. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Before the chapter ends, Jesus raises the dead daughter of a woman who kneels before him, Jesus stops the hemorrhage of a woman who touches his cloak, Jesus restores the sight of two blind men who beg for his mercy, and Jesus opens the lips of a man whose words have been stopped by a demon’s possession.
The conclusion of this action-packed chapter comes as no surprise. After having had compassion on no fewer than seven individuals, Jesus opens his heart to the entire congregation: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…”
If it is possible to sum up the ministry of Jesus Christ in a very few words, those words would be these: Look, and see, and have compassion. Do not look away. Do not guard your heart from the truth. Do not fail to act. Look, and see, and have compassion.
Margie and I share a love for the City of Memphis. Memphis is a city with soul, a city where the ribs are dry and the music is blue, a city that is filled to overflowing with equal measures of beauty and suffering. In 1968, Martin Luther King came to our soul-filled city because some Memphians were not willing to look and see the plight of other Memphians, much less to have compassion for them.
In what would become his final sermon, Dr. King draws his listeners’ attention to the Parable of the Good Samaritan in St. Luke’s gospel. He wonders aloud why it is that the priest and the Levite pass by the wounded man on the Jericho Road without stopping to render aid: Maybe they were late for an important church meeting, he wonders. Maybe their religious code required them to stay away from the dead and the dying on days when they intended to preside at the sacraments. Humorously, Dr. King even wonders if they might have been on their way “to organize a ‘Jericho Road Improvement Association’…Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down in an individual effort.”
In the end, Dr. King lands on a much simpler possibility: The priest and the Levite were afraid. “You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road…” The robbers who harmed the wounded man may still have been in the area; the man on the ground may have been “merely faking,” seeking to lure them in. Fear gets the best of the priest and the Levite on that lonesome way, and it stops God’s ministry of compassion dead in its tracks.
Dr. King concludes: “The [question] that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’” But, the Good Samaritan reversed the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
Even though the wounded man was lying at their feet, the priest and the Levite were afraid to look, afraid to see, afraid to have compassion. That’s where they went wrong. Anyone who wants to engage the mission of God and participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ must open her heart to the entire congregation, and speak life-transforming words of hope. The most frequently repeated admonition in the entire Bible is this: “Do not be afraid.”
We are gathered here on this Saturday afternoon because Christ’s ministry of reconciliation is hard, and because fear lurks all around us. We are gathered here because someone dear to us is about to make a selfless commitment not only to continue living into her own baptismal responsibilities, with the help of God, but to help us live into ours as well.
The unique ministry of the priest is to offer the sacraments. The sacraments do not pull away from the dead and the dying, they are intended for the dead and the dying, in every sense of those words. At the altar, Margie will tell us again and again the story of Christ’s love for us and for the world. In confession, she will offer forgiveness and freedom with God’s own authority. In ministering to and with us, she will offer a blessing – the very same blessing that once gave sight to the blind, speech to the mute, and life to the dead.
By having the courage to look into the dark places of our lives and of our communities, the courage to see the things that most people would rather not see, Margie will show us what it is to have compassion in Jesus’ name, and she will teach us how to do the same.
My dear sister in Christ, my co-worker in the vineyard, my fellow priest in the Church of God, the Prayer Book makes your mission plain: “In all that you do…nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.”
 Matthew 9:9-13 (NRSV)
 The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I See the Promised Land.” Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. James M. Washington, ed. New York: HarperOne, 1986. 284-285.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 531.