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boundless compassion

by: Phil Hirsch

For several years I volunteered at a home for children who were very sick. They had HIV and AIDS in a time when there was no good treatment. They would go in and out of the hospital and sometimes, tragically, they died. The limits of their lives were painfully short and those of us who cared for these children we were often overwhelmed by what we experienced.

“In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn.”   So goes the liturgy of the Burial for the Dead.  

“Compassion” is the heart of Jesus’ life, the word literally means ‘to suffer with’ someone. The 13th century theologian Meister Eckhart said that the best name for Jesus might just be “Son of compassion.” 

One day, Jesus met the funeral procession of a man who died and the scripture says he was ‘moved with compassion’ for those who were feeling the deep pain and sorrow of that man’s death. He responded by raising the man from the dead as if to show that not even death can limit God’s love.  

Life is limited, love is not. That is what kept us going at the home for sick children. Love means having deep empathy for others who are hurting. In some cases, I have literally felt another’s hurt in my own body.  

At times when tragedy and life seemed like more than I could possibly handle, I could feel God suffering with me. In the pain of loss, betrayal, loneliness, injury, family distress, or physical injury, it has helped me to remember that God is bigger than what I was facing. When I wasn’t sure or wasn’t feeling it, I could simply pray, “in your boundless compassion.”

Phil Hirsch has served as a pastor for almost 30 years. He currently is the Executive Director for the Domestic Mission Unit of the ELCA in Chicago, IL. He is the former president of Dooley House in Camden, NJ.


October 9, 2016–Crossing Borders

Anne Williams, Ankeny, IA


Warm-up Question

What sorts of things make you feel better when you’re physically hurting? What about when you’re emotionally or spiritually hurting?

Crossing Borders

shutterstock_387439942Rami Adham, a Syrian-Finnish (yes, he lives in Finland) father of 6 is known as Uncle Toy among Syrian refugee children. Adham collects toys and money in Finland then gets himself smuggled into Syria through Turkey to deliver toys and goods to people living in refugee camps. He has made the journey 28 times in five years. It can be dangerous, as he has to be smuggled across the border both ways each time he travels. It’s not unusual for him to walk six or seven hours at a time, sometimes dodging bullets. He says that Syrians have lost faith in others in the world because of the terrible violence in their country. Adham says no one will ever stop him. He’s completely dedicated to the kids of Syria.

Discussion Questions

  • Would you ever consider doing something dangerous to bring some good to someone else?
  • Do you think what Rami Adham is doing is healing? To himself? To the refugee children?
  • How are Adham’s actions healing?

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

First of all, let’s frame Jesus’ story by exploring where he is. Jesus is outside of Jewish lands, he’s in a no-man’s-land between the borders of Judea and Samaria. It’s interesting that the village he enters is in that no-man’s-land. Even more interesting is that there are lepers living near this village. Lepers weren’t allowed to live in the towns, having to live in the hills or valleys around the towns they came from. In a lot of ways, lepers in the ancient world were refugees – unable to live in their own homes, often violently driven out of the towns they used to live in. The only way they were allowed to go back to their old lives was to prove to the local priest that they were healed – free of any skin diseases or conditions that might be considered contagious.

So this is where Jesus is, in a town where there are 10 lepers who just want to get back to their lives, with their families, in their homes. Our Bible text doesn’t say how Jesus healed these ten men, but we know he did. Only one of them turned back to Jesus and thanked him.  Notice, the only man who comes back to thank Jesus is a Samaritan.  Samaritans were often seen as enemies of the Judeans and regarded with suspicion. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well.

It’s not really a surprise that we find Jesus valuing people who are both the refugees of the ancient world and the historical enemy of his people. Luke consistently tells us that Jesus is always there for the poor and the hurting, that his care extends to them no matter who they are or where they are from. Even if they exist on the very edges of society Jesus is willing to be there for them. And it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus is willing to leave his comfort zone, even the boundaries of his own country, to meet those who need his help.

Discussion Questions

  • If you were one of Jesus’ disciples, how, would you feel about leaving friendly territory and moving into potentially hostile territory to follow him?
  • Who exists outside friendly territory in your world? Hint: this is necessarily a literal question – some spaces are hostile to a person without being violent.
  • Are there ways for you to meet the people who live outside the borders of your comfort zone?
  • Could healing happen if you were to meet those people? What kind of healing would it be?

Activity Suggestions

Grab a bunch of maps, ideally one of your town, one of your state, one of the country and one of the world. The bigger the better. (If you have the space and the resources, have the students draw the maps on strips of butcher paper or poster paper taped together, accuracy isn’t the goal). Spread out all the maps and give your students markers. Instruct them to draw the borders in their lives, the lines that divide us and them. It might a school district border, a line between rich and poor neighborhoods, etc. Reflect together about the borders that exist at all scales of our lives, local, national, global. Reflect further about what it would take to cross those boundaries and get to know the people who live on the other side. What kind of healing would that look like?

Closing Prayer

Gracious and loving God, we know that your presence covers the whole earth and that you are present wherever two or more are gathered in your name. Help us to uncover all of the places where you are, especially if they lie outside our comfortable and safe boundaries. Help us to find ways to cross those boundaries in ways that will bring healing and wholeness to those on both sides of the line. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.


Sept. 10-17, 2008 – Political season is open season on candidates’ past, families

Warm-up Question: What is one thing in your past that you would love to forget?

With both conventions over, the seemingly endless campaign season is finally in “full swing.” For the next two months, Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Joe Biden (as well as hundreds of senatorial and congressional candidates) will be making their cases — and defending their records — in an effort to win votes.

But they’re not the only ones talking. This is also a season for journalists to investigate and communicate all they can about the candidates’ pasts: who they dealt with, what promises they broke, who they’ve hurt, and what they’ve done wrong. Tabloids, blogs, primetime anchors, and reputable newspapers will all be trading on rumors, facts, and everything in between.

So far, we’ve learned about John Edwards (prominent Democrat and former VP candidate) and his affair with a campaign aide during his run for the presidency. Sarah Palin is under investigation for abusing her power while governor of Alaska, and the media has had a field day with this family-values oriented candidate disclosing that her unwed 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have been charged with “flip-flopping,” saying one thing and then changing their minds for the sake of winning votes. And candidates in every corner of the country are being investigated for ties to oil companies now that gas prices are sky high and oil companies are making more money than ever before.

At the same time, the most forgiving folks are ironically the candidates’ fiercest and most recent critics — the people who ran against them during the primary season. Nearly all the leading candidates for president during the primaries have now enthusiastically endorsed either John McCain or Barack Obama, after very recently saying harsh and even cruel things about their former opponents. The biggest story at the Democrats convention in Denver was about whether the Clintons would “play nice” with Barack Obama after a bruising battle for the party’s nomination. Is this also “flip-flopping” too? Or is it authentic forgiveness and reconciliation? Perhaps no one will know. But in the meantime, we’re all in for a fall full of attacks and apologies, rumors and revelations. And maybe, a little actual conversation about policy and the things that actually matter about governing a nation.

And after November, all these folks will have to figure out a way to govern this nation together, after tearing each other apart.

Discussion Questions

  • What about a candidate’s past is interesting or important to you? What is not?
  • How are you feeling about this year’s election? The advertising? The reporting? How much are you paying attention?
  • How well would you be able to work with someone who for the last year or so called you names or made fun of your past experience?
  • How much room is there for forgiveness in our country’s political scene?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 14, 2008.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Scripture Reflection (especially Genesis)

The story of our biblical “founding fathers and mothers” is a study in dysfunctional families. Joseph was one of 12 brothers and one sister. He was an arrogant brat as a kid, and his father’s favorite, so his brothers beat him up and left him to die in the desert. Then they had a change of heart and sold him into slavery instead, and they lied and told their father that Joseph had been eaten by wild animals. So much for brotherly love!

Flash forward: Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt, becomes a wealthy and powerful politician. Meanwhile, back home, a drought and famine is threatening to starve Joseph’s brothers to death. They travel down to Egypt, where Joseph has made sure that Egypt would have plenty of grain, and after a rather frightening and funny scene, Joseph and his family are reunited. Joseph convinces Pharaoh to let his family stay in Egypt, and dad (Jacob) helps the brothers figure out how to get along again.

Then dad dies, and the brothers begin to worry: Will our past come back to haunt us? Will Joseph remember the horrible things we did to him, and now that dad’s not around to intervene, will Joseph seek revenge? He has every right to still be angry, doesn’t he? Will he use our past to destroy our future?

So they decide to lie (again). They tell Joseph that dad told them to tell him to forgive them. All the kindness and favor that Joseph had showered on them was not enough; they needed to hear that Joseph forgave them. They lied to Joseph to make him say what they wanted to hear: “You’re forgiven and I will take care of you.”

Whether Joseph believes them or not seems irrelevant. He believes that God has worked in and through this crazy family to make something good happen for God’s chosen people. And because it is in God’s best interest, Joseph forgives his brothers and promises to provide for them.

But before he does that, something amazing happens: Joseph weeps when his brothers (sort of) ask for forgiveness. And when Joseph weeps, the brothers weep, too. All of them begin to cry all over themselves. Wouldn’t you? Think of all the pain, fear, anxiety, anger, grief, resentment, and vengeance that have built up for these guys over the last few years. In the middle of this amazing story of forgiveness, there is a river of tears.

This kind of vulnerability, compassion, and genuine forgiveness are rare in American politics. Our country has become so cynical that we doubt the sincerity of politicians who cry in public, and probably with good reason. But here, in the halls of the Pharaoh’s palace (the Egyptian White House), are a bunch of guys weeping together, burying old hatchets, and healing old wounds. And not because dad (maybe) said so, but because God moved Joseph to see the bigger picture, to trust that God’s love for God’s people was big enough to cover all the deep wounds that separated Joseph from his brothers for years.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did Joseph and his brothers weep? Have you ever had to apologize, or be apologized to, for something really serious? Did it make you feel like crying? How did it feel?
  • Can you picture Barack Obama and John McCain hugging, crying, and apologizing after the election is over, regardless of who wins? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think the brothers made up the story about Jacob (dad) asking Joseph to forgive them? Why didn’t they just ask for forgiveness on their own? And why didn’t Joseph seem to care that they were lying to him?
  • When has what God thinks mattered more to you than how you personally feel about someone who has hurt you? How do we know what God thinks about the people we are angry with?

Activity Suggestions

  • Collect a few days’ worth of political news (Google News works well for this).

    • What attacks are people making about candidates in local, state, or national elections?
    • Which ones are personal, or about past mistakes (family problems, substance abuse, poor financial decisions, friends or coworkers in legal trouble, religion, changing opinions about something, etc.)?
    • Which ones are about real issues that matter to real people (health care, the war, poverty, education, the environment, safety, etc)?
    • How do you tell the difference?
  • Write a letter to someone you have hurt, and another letter to someone who has hurt you. Tell the story of what happened, talk about your feelings, and ask for/offer forgiveness. Then decide if you want to send it, burn it, or keep it around while you think about it.
  • Act out the scene between Joseph and his brothers. Then write another scene, changing the characters and the situation to fit something more relevant to your daily lives in families, schools, teams, or church. Change roles a couple times. Talk about how it feels to be caught up in this story of anger, vengeance, forgiveness, and love.

Closing Prayer

Holy and Merciful One, you shower your people with forgiveness and love. Help us to be honest about our past, real about our hurts, and open to give and receive forgiveness. Make us a gracious and forgiving people. In Jesus’ name. Amen

Contributed by Pastor Jay McDivitt
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Denver, CA