Sunday, June 9, 2013

Pentecost 3, 2013: Ushers of grace

Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

How do we live in community? How do we respond to one another in moments of joy… in moments of pain or need? Do we respond the way the world tells us we should, or the way the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ leads us to do?

Last week an 84 year-old woman won a huge lottery jackpot. It was reported that a young mother had allowed the old woman to go ahead of her in line enabling the elder woman to buy the winning ticket.

I saw the young mother interviewed the next day. The reporter seemed surprised that the younger woman wasn’t “bitter” about the way things had turned out. From the world’s perspective, it seems hard to imagine sharing someone’s joy without a bit of resentment.

How do we live in community?

There’s a lot of discussion in the world right now about how to be in relationship with the poor and needy among us. The debate, it seems to me, boils down to the difference between pity and compassion– and there is a difference.

Pity is an emotion. It is the experience of real sorrow in the face of someone’s suffering. But pity is detached - an observer of the other’s suffering. It may lead one to act to relieve the suffering of another or it may not. When it does not, pity opens the door contempt.

The issue becomes one of us and them. We worked hard for what we have. It’s their own fault they are suffering. They need to change – who they are, what they are or aren’t doing, how they’re living... We musn’t “enable” them or let them become “dependent” on us. What this is really saying is: I can be compassionate, but only for so long. Then I want relief from their suffering. The truth is, so do they.

Compassion, on the other hand, is the linking of ourselves to another’s experience of suffering. It isn’t an emotion. It’s an act of will – the will to participate with someone in their pain, offering ourselves, our gifts and the love of God that is in us, as balm to their wounds.

When we are moved by compassion, it is the Holy Spirit in us leading us to shine her Divine Light into the darkness of someone’s life. Compassion has no time-limit and no discomfort limit. We commit for as long as it takes and whatever the cost, remembering that our Lord’s commitment to compassion for us led him to the cross. And no matter how long it takes, we trust that God will guide them and us on the proper path to wholeness and restoration of life.

I want to be clear: pity is not a bad thing. Both testaments of our Scripture tell us of the many times and situations in which God was moved by pity into a compassionate, merciful response.

Pity is God tapping us on our proverbial shoulders to awaken us to notice and feel the sorrow that will link us to the heart of God and to the one who suffers. And that’s the point. God hears the cries of those who suffer and responds, often through us, with mercy, healing, and restoration of life.

At no point does God trade mercy for faithfulness, good behavior, or worthiness. Jesus makes the unworthy to be worthy, and does it in the presence of witnesses so that they have to acknowledge the generosity of God in offering grace to those they (the world) deemed unimportant. As St. Peter said, God shows no partiality, (Acts 10:34) therefore, neither can we.

Our readings from 1 Kings and the gospel of Luke illustrate God’s compassion toward iconic symbols of poverty and contempt: widows. And the letter to the Galatians demonstrates how God uses us as partners in this work in the world.

In both of the resurrection stories, the favor of God’s healing was not sought. Neither widow asked for healing or resurrection for her son. In fact, in the story from 1 Kings, the widow yells at Elijah for bringing her to God’s attention at all, believing that this was what led to her son’s death. She would have preferred Elijah and God just leave her alone.

To understand why, we need to look at how that culture lived in community. First is the notion that sin brings punishment. Elijah brought her sin to God’s notice and therefore her son is dead – that’s how she was thinking. Also in “Jewish tradition…female relatives [were required] to walk in front of the corpse in the funeral procession. [This] custom was said to have been established as a reminder of Eve’s defection in bringing death into the world.” (The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, Kroeger and Evans, eds., InterVarsity Press, IL, 2002, 569)

So, imagine the grief of these women. Their husbands were already dead and now their only sons are dead. They are alone, destitute, and forced to march at the front of the funeral procession – ritually bearing the blame not only for the death of their sons, but for all death. Each of them is literally walking into a life of extreme poverty, certain death, contempt and exile from her community.

In both of these stories, Compassion intervenes. God’s grace is lavished on these women and restores them to life and health. In the gospel story from Luke, Jesus happens upon the funeral procession and, moved by compassion, approaches the woman, comforts her, and touches the bier.

I imagine when he did that everyone froze, holding their breath. Jewish men of that time did not approach or talk to women in public, especially women who were not family. And according to Mosaic law even touching the bier would have made Jesus ritually unclean for a week. And Jesus, who was a rabbi, knew that.

Then in the midst of this already shocking moment, Jesus raises the dead man to life. Luke says the witnesses of this were “seized by fear” and glorified God.

Now isn’t that an interesting response? Even though what happened shocked and scared them, the people knew they had witnessed the power of God made manifest right before their eyes in Jesus, the Christ.

And they would have to change their relationship with this woman as a result. With her son no longer dead, she is no longer destitute, held in contempt, or exiled from her community.

Do you think anyone in her community resented that? Do you think anyone complained that God was enabling her or making her dependent on divine grace?

We don’t know what happened in this woman’s life after Jesus walked away. But we do know this: because of God’s intervention, the community had to live together differently than they anticipated that they would, differently than the world and their religious laws said they should.

Now they had to live together as a community touched by grace and she who should have been no-one was now the favored one. And that, people of Redeemer, is how the kingdom of God works.

As partners with God in this work in the world, we are called to be ushers of the flow of the grace of God, not barriers to it. When we think we have the right or responsibility to identify someone as undeserving of our mercy, compassion, or assistance, I hope we remember these women and how God responded to them.

That is, after all, why we exist as church – to form, equip, and send out bearers of the lavish, impartial love of God into the world. We gather together to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be strengthened for service in the holy name of God.

Let us pray: “O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

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