Compassion Reaches Out

(sermon 7/23/17)

reaching toward you

Luke 7:11-17

[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. 

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They continued along the road, Jesus and the group of people who were following him. Some of them, of course, were with him long-term; others were just tagging along to hear what he said and see what he did while he was passing through their neck of the woods, before they returned to their normal routine after Jesus moved on. The day was hot and the road was dusty and they were tired and thirsty, but it wasn’t so bad because now they could easily see their destination – the walled town called Nain, which was a solid four- or five-hour walk south of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in the northern part of modern-day Israel and very close to the northern edge of that part of Palestine that we call the West Bank.

As they got closer, they could see the main gateway into the town – small and narrow so it could easily be defended, with stone-walled rooms on either side of the portal meant to house armed men who could take care of any enemy troops trying to enter the town by attacking them from both sides as they tried to get through the narrow opening just a few soldiers at a time. Usually, though, it was much more mundane than that, being just a pinch-point for people trying to get out and others trying to get into the town.

Just inside the main gate would have been a stone-walled courtyard – again, with relatively narrow access points to it could be easily defended. This was the main public gathering place in town. It was the coffee shop where people came to have offsite business meetings and cut deals. It was the magistrate’s court, where the town elders heard and settled legal disputes. It was the park, where young people hung out and laughed and watched each other and did the things young people do; and where old people hung out and read the paper and talked about the good old days and complained about the young people. It was the central gathering place for public celebrations, like weddings, and public mourning, like funerals as we heard in this gospel text was happening on this particular day.

Just as Jesus and his followers got to the main gate, this funeral procession was moving out of the courtyard and was coming through the gate. And just as we pull over or stop to let a funeral procession go by or pass through an intersection, Jesus and his followers and all the other people who were trying to get through the checkpoint and into town moved over to the side of the road to let them by.

While they waited, I imagine they had the same kind of thoughts that run through our own minds when we’re in a similar situation; a combination of respect and compassion, and if we’re being totally honest, maybe also mixed with some minor annoyance that we’re being held up as the procession goes by. And with thoughts running through our heads:  I wonder who it was that died? Did they die from old age, or were they younger; was there maybe some illness or tragic accident? What was their story? Who are they leaving behind; will they be OK? Yes, there but for the grace of God go I, and even at that, I’ll go that way all too soon. So sad. Oh well, the road’s clear now; I can get back on my way. I wonder what I should have for dinner?

But that isn’t what happened on this particular day, at least not completely. This day, as the procession came through, Jesus didn’t just stand quietly and respectfully on the sidelines. He stepped into the procession and into their grief. He learned that this was the only son of a widow, whose well-being, maybe even whose very survival, was threatened by the loss of this last male provider, beyond even the grief that any parent would feel over the loss of a child. And having compassion for her in her suffering, he reached out, raising this man from the dead, bringing life back to not just him, but to his mother too. Put simply, Jesus didn’t just passively watch this situation play out. He didn’t just continue into town after they’d gone by. He didn’t just organize clusters of people to walk around town and pray for the widow’s well-being. He stepped into this most public of tragedies as it unfolded, in the moment, and he concretely did what was in his power to bring physical and emotional and spiritual healing into the lives of these total strangers. He apparently didn’t know and didn’t care about any of the details of the man or his mother. Were they good people? Were they devout Jews? Had they lived the kind of life that people would approve of? Did they deserve this special attention? None of that seemed to be important to Jesus. Apparently, he raised the man from the dead strictly out of compassion and because they were beloved children of God.

We’re supposed to do the same kind of thing, of course – to step in and provide life and love and hope and compassion and healing into people’s lives, even the lies of total strangers – people we know as little about as the man and his mother, and to do it in the same unqualified way that Jesus did.

You think you can’t do this same kind of thing? You think you don’t have the power of life and death and healing? Jesus would disagree. He told his disciples that after he left them, that through the Holy Spirit they would do far greater things than even Jesus himself had accomplished. And by definition, that’s true – I mean, Jesus was just one man, whose earthly ministry only lasted about three years or so; while more than two billion followers have been working for good in the world in Jesus’ name for two thousand years now.

Well sure, you might say, we have the ability to do good things, and to help people, but we don’t actually have the power over life and death; that’s in the realm of miracles…. Really? Collectively, through our voices, through our actions, we have the power to shape our society. We have the ability to push our social policies in one direction or another, toward more ethical action and compassion, or in the opposite direction. When we hear on the news about official government analysis that the proposed changes to our current healthcare insurance system would result in the unnecessary, premature deaths of an additional 23-30 million people over a ten-year period because they’ll be stripped of the healthcare coverage that they currently have – friends, we do very much have the power of life and death, the power of health and healing, in our hands.

In compassion, Jesus reached out, and he calls us to do the same, in our own way, in our own time and place.

Is that hard? Yes, sometimes. Is it something to dread, or to do because we’re trying to earn God’s approval? No, we’re no more able to earn God’s approval than the dead man on that stretcher was. We need to work this way on behalf of others out of gratitude, thankful for the grace that God has filled our lives with. And we can have that kind of gratitude because of the full power and meaning of this gospel text. I know that I’ve said that it’s a good thing to try to experience a story from scripture by imagining it, experiencing it, through the eyes of different people in the story. In this case though, I don’t think we get the full power of the message of God’s compassion, or develop a true sense of gratitude, by seeing this story through the eyes of one of the people standing along the road watching it all play out. We don’t even get the fullness of this story if we see it through the eyes of the widow. We don’t get its full meaning seeing it through the eyes of the people carrying the stretcher. We get it when we see it through the eyes of the one being carried. Through the eyes of the one who Jesus reached out to, and touched, and healed, and gave new life to. Because whoever we are, I think we’re a lot like him.

Thanks be to God.

Give Thanks

(Sermon 10/9/16)

elegant-thank-you-card

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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The ten men stood along the road, hoping for someone passing by to have a bit of mercy on them and maybe give them some money; they needed to beg in order to survive. But these ten couldn’t just stand up close to the road, maybe by a traffic signal with a little handwritten cardboard sign trying to evoke compassion or at least pity. According to the religious Law, as lepers – people who had any one of a number of contagious skin diseases, not necessarily just what we call leprosy today – they weren’t allowed to live in town with other people. They had to live outside of the towns and cities, in a kind of quarantine, or even exile. Beyond being medically contagious, they were also considered ritually unclean, and anyone who came into contact with them also became ritually unclean. So even as the ten stood along the road, they had to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn anyone coming along. And if, by the slimmest of chances, any of them ever did actually get better, they needed to present themselves to the priest to verify that they were healed and ritually clean before they could re-enter society.

So on this particular day, Jesus was traveling along the road, and as he approached they started calling out to him, seeking mercy, whether that was actually physical healing or maybe just some money dropped in their cup. And we heard the story. Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priest, as if they’d already been healed. But as Luke tells the story, they apparently weren’t healed immediately, on the spot; it was only once they were on their way to the priest that they were healed – so they must have been confused at first by what Jesus had told them to do, but they trusted him and did what he said. And somewhere along the way, they discovered that they actually had been healed.

It must have been an amazing thing. It would have been like they’d been given a completely new life. You can just imagine how excited they must have been; how big a hurry they would have been in to get to the priest, and be given the OK – clean scan, Cancer-Free, HIV Undetectable, whatever the modern analogy might be.

But in the excitement of that moment, and the rush they must have felt to get to the priest, one of them – and only one – took the time to run back to find Jesus, to give praise to God, and to thank Jesus for what he’d done. And to make it more staggering, this one man who took the time and effort to express his gratitude was a Samaritan, of all things. This one, whose actions Jesus complimented, was a member of a despised minority. Samaritans were religious and ethnic “half-breeds;” a population arising from Jews who had disobeyed the religious Law and intermarried with Gentiles, and when they even did worship the God of the Jews, did so in a way that the Jews considered heresy. Imagine Jesus holding up one of those people as a model to emulate.

I can’t tell you how many times in my own life I’ve gotten caught up in the moment and not expressed gratitude when I should have, whether to another person or to God. As I said in our weekly email, it wasn’t ever malicious, but was more just oblivious neglect. Sometimes, I might not have realized I’d done it until years later, and when I realized what I’d done, I’d try to find a way to make amends for it – better late than never, I suppose. The most troubling cases were where I couldn’t make amends to a person I owe gratitude to, because they’re no longer here.

We talk about gratitude a lot in the church, and how important gratitude to God is in the deepening and broadening of our faith. Part of that is just the recognition and identification of how we’ve been blessed, and that it’s God who’s deserving of gratitude for those blessings. In our weekly email, I mentioned someone who intentionally takes time at the end of each day to stop and recognize how we was blessed, and what he was grateful for that day; to write about them in his Gratitude Journal, and to take the time to thank God for those blessings. I think that’s a very good spiritual discipline.

But another important part of gratitude in our lives of faith is to recognize that it isn’t just a feeling or emotion. Gratitude needs to lead to an action, something concrete. Having a spirit of gratitude will lead us to do some thing, to show that gratitude in the most acceptable way – by sharing, extending, the love that’s embedded within whatever it is that we’re grateful for, outward. God blesses us because God loves us, and God wants us to show gratitude for that love and those blessings by reaching out and loving others in the same way.

I’m going to do something now that preachers rarely do: I’m going to shut up, and not say anything for the next two minutes. During that time, I’d like you to take the notecard that you got this morning. And on one side of the card, I want you to list, just in bullet form, maybe just a single word or two for each, the top seven or eight things in your life that you’re most grateful to God for. And I want you to really try to get to seven or eight of them, so you’ll have to get down past the top three or four that come to mind quickly for all of us. OK, you’ve got two minutes – Go…

OK, time. Congratulations; you’ve just started your own Gratitude Journal. Now here’s the next step: on the other side of that card, just jot down, and again, just a word or two for each idea, ways that you think you might be able to show gratitude for your list of things in some concrete way or ways. OK, ready? Go…

OK, time’s up. Now I’d like you to take that card and put it in your wallet or your purse, fold it in half and carry it around in your pocket, whatever it takes, but carry it around with you this coming week. Try to take it out at least once a day, and look at your list of things you’re grateful for. In those moments, ask if now that you’ve thought about it, what else might you add to that list? And look at the list of things you might do to express your gratitude to God. Are you doing any of those things? Are there other ways that you’ve thought of that might be a good idea? And then take a few moments out of your busy day, and give God thanks for the things on that list, and ask for the ability to do some of those concrete things you wrote down.

Whatever you wrote on either side of your card, remember that our gratitude – both the feeling of thankfulness, and whatever concrete action that arises from it – all arises out of God’s unchanging, unending love for us. The love that Jesus showed to the ten lepers on the road that day, even to the half-breed Samaritan heretic, is the very same love that he shows to you, and to me, today and always.

Thanks be to God.

 

Dinner Reservations (sermon 8/28/16)

place cards

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)

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Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.

I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe  just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”

And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.

It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.

But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.

There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.

There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.

From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.

But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do.  We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.

Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.

Thanks be to God.