Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Compassionate Thing to Do

Luke 7:11-17
Ordinary 10
June 6, 2010
William G. Carter

Through the summer, we will explore that phrase “Thy kingdom come.” The Gospel of Luke will be our main course, offering a diet of stories, parables, and dramatic actions. And the text for today comes from chapter 7:

Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

I can't think of anything more difficult than losing a child. It ranks at the top of the worst situations we can ever know. And I have seen the situation plenty of times.

My first funeral when I came to town was a young man who started home on a Friday night and never got there. When we gathered for the service, his mother was numb. His sister was angry. Nobody knew what to say, until his mother spoke and said, "This is not right. A mother is not supposed to bury her son." What else can anybody say?

On the evening of my last birthday, after the balloons ran out of gas and the remainder of chocolate cake was covered and put away, I went to sit with a family who had just lost their son. He was a talented athlete. He had everything to live for, but chose not to live at all. We sat together for two and a half hours, most of it in silence. The line into the funeral home stretched around the block. Inside, teenagers draped on one another's shoulders. Over the quiet muzak, all anybody could hear were the sounds of sniffles and moans. The parents stood by the open coffin, shook hands, and said, “Thank you for coming.” What else could anybody say?

On such occasions, we speak carefully. In measured tones, we usually offer a brief word. We say, "I'm sorry for your loss," or "I miss your son," or "I give thanks for his life, and the joy that he brought you." Or perhaps we say something like this: "I don't know what to say . . . but I am here if you need me."

The mother in our Gospel story was surrounded by an entire village. A large crowd stood around her. She had lost her son. We don't know if he died from illness or accident. It didn’t matter. Everybody was there, surrounding his mother in support. God knows, she needed it.

She was a widow. In the Bible’s world, that means she had no income. The neighbors were sympathetic, although many of them prayed privately that they would not become like her. A widow could not work for pay in ancient Israel. She was totally dependent on the kindness of neighbors and remaining members of her family. This woman lost her only son, who had survived with her after his father had died.

What would you say? What is the compassionate thing to say?

As that woman and her crowd moved toward the cemetery, they were blocked by another crowd. Jesus was at the front of that crowd. He saw the coffin on the back of a cart, saw the somber men standing beside it, and saw the widow covered with a black shawl. It was a scene that stirred up deep feelings in the pit of his stomach. That’s where compassion is seated in the human soul: somewhere down deep. It begins to well up and swirl, sometimes physically shaking us into action. As somebody once said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin..” (Frederick Buechner). Jesus was feeling it as he looked upon that scene. We can expect him to speak the compassionate word, to do the compassionate thing.

He is so full of compassion, says Luke, that he looks the widow right in the eye, and says, “Stop crying. Cut it out. No more tears.”

Clearly Jesus would have benefited from visiting a bereavement support group. They would have set him straight. Grief never happens in a straight line. It swirls around. It resists our management. Grieving people should weep whenever they need to. Anything can set off the feelings of loss, so we let them out whenever they come. Keep some extra tissues in your tunic, and don’t apologize.

And the Lord Jesus, so full of compassion, looks at her – looks at them all – and says, “Stop your weeping.” That’s strange. Let me just say it.

He has acted like this before. One day, he was teaching and healing. He was so full of power. Everybody was reaching to touch him. They could feel the healing power, and they saw others all around being cured. And he looked at them and said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:21). That was a strange thing to say, followed immediately with the words, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (6:25). It almost sounds like he is declaring, “Everybody gets a turn!” If you weep, you will laugh; if you laugh, you will weep; if you weep, you will laugh; and so on.

As a way of testing his own words, Jesus stops a funeral procession in a small, little town. He tells the mother of the deceased to stop her weeping. Then he speaks to the corpse, “Young man, I tell you to get up!” The dead man sat up and started to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Now, I can’t explain a story like this. It’s a kingdom story. It comes from that hidden realm where the life-giving God rules over everything, even death. That is how I understand the Gospel word “kingdom” – it’s the place where God is the ruler. Every once in a while, we hear these tales, or we see these visions, and we might believe that life as we know it is not the way life really is.

Over the years, I have taken part in enough funeral processions that I really don’t expect them to be interrupted. You’re born, you live, you die, you stay there – that is life as we know it. I visited a cemetery yesterday. The flowers from Memorial Day are still blooming. They were taken there by people who still grieve for loved ones, who accompanied them to plots and places of rest, and expect their loved ones to stay there.

But there’s the possibility that God has another kind of kingdom, that God is not bound by our rules. It pushes us to stay open to the ways that God truly runs the universe. These are the ways that lie outside of our control, and usually outside of our observation. But Jesus has come to lob them into our lives and awaken us to God’s grace.

Maybe you heard how the priest, minister, and a rabbi were all chatting over breakfast one day. The subject turned to death. Specifically, what do you want people to say at your funeral? The priest thought for a moment, and said, “I want them to look at me and say ‘he lived a holy and joyful life.’” It was the minister’s turn, and she said, “I would like to say ‘she made a difference in the lives of others.’”

As they spoke, the rabbi began to smile. “What about you, Irving?” said the priest. “What would you like them to say at your funeral?” The rabbi said, “I want people to say, ‘I think I just saw him start to move.’”

“Blessed are those who weep now, for they shall laugh.” That is the promise of God’s Kingdom. It is a promise from the future, hurled back toward us. This is how Jesus works, as you know. He is one with the Father, timeless and unbound by our conceptions of time. He brings us these promises from God and God’s future – and he helps us of the time when every sickness is healed, when all the hungry are fed, when injustice is dismantled, when every tear is dried, when life is given back in resurrection.

Jesus works with a backwards power. He is ahead of us – and when we hear of the amazing miracles of scripture, it is as if he throws a piece of the future backwards toward us. A crowd is miraculously fed here and now – it is a glimpse of what is coming for every hungry person. The blind person gains sight – it’s a vision of the Final Vision. A dead person is raised – that is a sign of God’s future, given here and now, for comfort, edification, and anticipation.

So maybe there’s more to compassion than offering a sympathetic ear or a comforting hug. Indeed these are gifts to all whose lives are disrupted by trouble and death. It is compassion, also, to point to a Living God whose ways are better than our own. There is a spiritual reality beyond the mechanics of our culture and the customs of our churches. Jesus calls it “the kingdom.” It is an upside-down, topsy-turvy, forward-backwards realm of grace. It’s a whole new order, whereby Jesus loves the unlovable, heals the incurable, and crowns the wretched of the earth.

His Mama sang about it before he was born: “God will lift those of low degree, and knock the high and mighty off their thrones” (1:52). Her Son began preaching it on the very first day: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free” (4:18-19). And now we are left with this disturbing little tale of a widow who lost her only son, only to have him raised from the dead and placed back into her arms. Something is afoot in the ways of God.

So I invite you to keep your heart open as we move through the summer and discover more about these ways. There’s no telling what a Living God is going to do.

For now, I want to set the Table with some words from a favorite theologian. He is an Episcopalian by the name of Robert Farrar Capon, and he puts all on the line this way:

Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to improve the improvable, not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead. He never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there. And he never meets us without bringing us out of nothing into the joy of his resurrection: you, me… and poor old Arthur down by the docks with his pint of Muscatel in a brown paper bag. We are all dead. And he raises us all . . . because his Word is the word with the ultimate bark, and when he says, ‘Arthur, come forth,’ that’s all old Arthur needs. His nothin’ ain’t nothing no more.

When I preach something like that, I get two reactions. I see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to the doctrine of grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of their shipwrecks they are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls them. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden perception that he really meant it when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light.

But after the service, in the time it takes them to get downstairs to the coffee hour, the smiles have been replaced by frowns. Their fear of the catch has caught up with them again, and they surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for morality.
(Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, p. 129-130.)

Ah, don’t let the world squeeze you back into its mold. The Kingdom of God is Good News. It is the announcement that death does not have the final word on anything or anybody. Our deadly ways will not reduce the love of God.

In fact, the world tried to shut down Jesus. Nailed him to a cross, put him in a dark hole. But look: here he is – here and now – and he calls us to the banquet hall of his kingdom.

(c) William G. Carter
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