Sunday, June 5, 2016

Pentecost 3, 2016: Living compassionately like Jesus did

Extemporaneous sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Mills River, NC. Transcribed.
Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24), Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

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

The Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading bring up for us the concept of compassion -as distinct from the concept of pity. Pity is a thought. Compassion is an act. So, I want to talk about that word for just a minute. The Greek work that we translate as “compassion” literally means, “ to feel the bowels yearn.” For the ancient people this was the seat of compassion. This (points to gut) is what we would call heart. This (points to head) was the location of thought, as for us.

So, when Jesus had compassion on the widow whose son had just died, leaving her penniless, homeless, and without protection, basically, she was to become a beggar until she died – he felt a yearning in his bowels. For the ancient peoples, the bowel was the location of love.

So in his body, Jesus felt the stirring of love. We know that God is love. So the stirring in our bowels is the stirring of God, acting in us. He said to the young man - our Scripture interprets it as, “Rise,” but what it actually says, the Greek work says, “Awake,” “Wake up.” which he did, and he gave him to his mother.

Now the story in Elijah and the story in Luke are almost identical. Elijah hears the spirit of God stirring in him and the first thing the Spirit of God says to him is, “Go.” The Scripture starts with, “The word of God came to Elijah…” The word of God, the logos of God, the action of God, came to Elijah and said, Go. Go to Zarapheth and there you’ll find a widow; and she’s going to give you something to eat because I have commanded that that happen.

So the word of God, the command of God is creative, is it not? In Genesis, God created √°dam, which means human, and eve, which means first, and breathed life into their nostrils and they were alive. They became human. (Gen 2: 7). Job, in the book of Job says, ‘the spirit of God made me, but the breath of God gives me life.’ (Job 33:4) And in John, you remember that just recently we read about the upper room just after the crucifixion and the disciples are all afraid, and their behind a locked door; and Jesus passes right through the locked door, and what does he do? He breathes on them and he breathes his own spirit into them; his own life into the apostles including the women.

So Jesus says to the young man, Wake up. Compassion. The compassion that we’re given in these stories show us the compassion of God and the compassion we should have for one another. God says to Elijah, go to that widow. And he does, and the miracle happens with the bread and the oil; and he eats, and she continues to eat. Then her son dies – and she blames Elijah: you shouldn’t have even brought us to God’s attention because now my son is dead.

But what happens in Elijah? The spirit of God stirs in his bowels and he’s upset. And he goes to God and says, why are you bringing calamity on this woman? And he takes the child and brings him up and lays down on him. He takes his own body, his own life and lays on the boy and he says to God, please, please, please, bring life back to this boy.

But in the story in Luke, Jesus sees this woman walking in the funeral procession and knows that she’s a widow and that her only son has died, which means she going to die poor, a beggar, and he has compassion. He feels the love stirring in his gut and he walks up…

Now remember, in Jewish times and in Jewish faith, if you touch a dead body, you’re unclean. Even if you touch the bier, the thing holding the body, you’re unclean. But how many times does Jesus dispense with those rules when he has to? He walks up to the bier and he touches the bier, not the body, and he says, ‘young man, get up.’

That’s the difference between to story in Elijah and in Luke’s gospel. This story is the same exact story, right down to certain phrases; except in the Elijah story, Elijah lays on the boy and said, ‘God, please bring life back to this boy.’ But in the Luke story, Jesus brings the life back to the boy because… Jesus is God! Nowhere in the history of faith in this community has anyone brought life from death. Nowhere. Other people had done tremendous healings and lots of what we would call magical stuff, but nobody had ever brought somebody who was dead back to life. Yet Jesus did this a couple of times in his ministry, didn’t he?

So the compassion that we’re shown in these two stories is the compassion God has shown people who are suffering and the compassion we’re to have for each other just like Elijah did when this woman’s son died.

So let’s look at: what is the Incarnation. The incarnation was God taking human form, embodying flesh and walking among us. I want to look now at the Latin meaning of the word compassion because that’s what matters her in regard to the incarnation. So, the Greek meaning is that stirring in your bowels, the source of love. The Latin word from which we get the word compassion is "com," meaning "with," and "passio," meaning "to suffer." To have compassion is to suffer with someone.

The Incarnation is Jesus’ compassion, God’s compassion for humanity by coming among us and suffering with us. And we’re asked to follow in Jesus’ steps, to do exactly what he did, right? So when Elijah sees this woman, he suffers with her. ‘Her son is going to die, don’t bring this calamity to her, Lord. Please bring this boy back to life.’ And he does.

Jesus, sees with compassion. Jesus in human form, embodiment of spirit, sees this woman’s calamity about to strike and stops it. He suffers with her and he stops it.

So how do we do that? How do we do that? Isn’t that the whole point of church – to be Christ in the world today? We are bearers of that Holy Spirit. Christ breathed on us – I mean, we just had Pentecost. The Holy Spirit breathed all over this church. And every Sunday we leave here and we are sent out into the world; to walk out into the darkness, or as our Presiding Bishop now says, to enter the nightmare of the world and make it into the dream of God. Right?

The interesting thing about this gospel story from Luke is that it’s the second of a couplet. You may have noticed, but almost always, Luke presents stories in male and female versions. So this story immediately follows the story of the centurion whose slave was healed by Jesus; and then it follows with the woman whose son is healed. Now look at the centurion: a man of the world, commands great respect, has plenty of money. And then the opposite – the widow – whose son has just died- no power, no prestige, no respect… nothing.

So when the action of God, the compassion of God happens to the world, it happens to the powerful and the rich, and it happens to the powerless. It happens to men, to women, to the respected, to the un-respected… It’s as generous as Jesus said, and that’s how ours should be.

So when we hear the world – and ohhh, my gosh in this political season we hear plenty of this, don’t we? - when we hear the world saying who should not be treated with respect, or who should not be given compassion, or who should not be welcome among us… what we hear is this story. We hear it in the context of its couplet: the powerful and the powerless, the respected and the un-respected. And we remember that we bear the spirit of Christ in the world today.

So when God asks us to have compassion the way God asked Elijah and said, Go – go to Zarapheth, God is saying to us and to this church - this congregation is the body of Christ – God says to YOU, Go into the world. Find this person to whom I want to give grace... find this family who needs our compassion and bring it. Give it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a centurion or a widow. Bring it.

The last thing I want to say about this story (Note: this is such a great story. I told someone before church, these are some of my favorite readings, but I find myself saying that a lot!): whenever Jesus spoke, he always spoke in levels. That’s one of the reasons I loved learning Greek to hear the different levels Jesus was speaking in. So the level here is the literal level. There’s a story about a woman whose son dies. There’s a funeral. Jesus touches the bier. The boy wakes. That’s the literal.

Jesus is always talking spiritually too, isn’t he? Always. So remember I said that he said to the boy, ‘Awake. Wake up.’ If we think about it, this is a story about waking up spiritually. We’re walking around, many in the world are walking around either spiritually dead or spiritually asleep - kind of mindlessly going through our stuff; and this includes people who walk into church every Sunday somewhere and pray. They may be saying words, they may be doing (churchy) things, they may be obeying rules, but are they feeling that yearning in their gut? Are they feeling God’s love stirring, ready to pour into the world to bring compassion to someone who suffers?

This story is also for all of us to hear as a prayer. Listen to the symbolism in it: the widow – the person who has no prestige, no power. The son – the Son – get it? - who is dead and God says, wake up! It ends with, “A great prophet has risen among us… and God has looked favorably upon his people.” Let me tell you what the Greek said: “One on whom the spirit of God rests has risen among us; and God has visited his people. So when we hear that, we often hear this being directed at Jesus. This prophet has risen among us. And God has loved us and been favorable to us because this prophet is here. But let me tilt that just a little bit for you.

What is a prophet? A person who speaks the message of God to the world. We’ve got a whole bunch of prophets in the Bible who speak to the people saying, ‘Remember God. Wake up!’

Who woke up? The dead boy. What’s the first thing the dead boy did when he woke up? He spoke to his mother. He’s the prophet! He’s the one on whom the spirit of God rested. And then, the people shouted, God has visited his people! We have proof – this dead man is now up and speaking. He’s the prophet. Jesus is the Savior - not the prophet. It’s not that they didn’t get it. They did get it! They understood what was happening. We’re the ones who keep missing the point.

When you wake up spiritually, you become a prophet. Ahhh, which is why so many people choose never to wake up! It’s a big responsibility, isn’t it? But that’s OK, because it’s not as hard as you might think. Remember in our Collect, we prayed this: “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.” (BCP, 229)

By your inspiration… What is inspiration? Is there a doctor or nurse in the house? (Reply comes: “Breathing.”) Breathing!

By the breath of God in us, the life of God in us, we come to think and know the things that are right and do them.

One thing you don’t know about me is that I’m a science nerd. If I could have stayed in school I probably would have gone into quantum physics or neuroscience. I love both. So a new discovery in that field is that there’s a direct link between the heart and the brain. They have found the neural pathways that directly link the heart and the brain. So if, we, by the inspiration of God, feel that stirring in our bowels, the location of our love, it will automatically help us to know what is right.

I’ll give you a personal example. I go to Charlotte twice a month to see my therapist. (Note: Yes, I see a therapist. I think everybody should!) On the way back, there’s a place where I’m getting onto I-85 to come back to Shelby, that there’s always a beggar, and it’s not always the same beggar, but it’s one of those spots. There’s always a beggar. So before I leave the doctor’s office, I always take a dollar out of my wallet; so that when I get there, I can just hand him the dollar.

But I struggled for so many years with: should I give this person a dollar? Not this person, any person begging, and here’s why. I worked in alcohol and drug treatment for many years. If I give them a dollar am I just enabling their habit? Am I going to hurt them, rather than help them? If I give them a dollar, are they going to use it to buy their dog food instead of themselves? And so I really struggled with ‘should I give this person a dollar?’ Every time I saw a beggar do I do this? Any yet my heart kept saying - the stirring in my bowel kept saying - give them a dollar.

So I sat and I prayed about it a long time. And you know? It could be that this person is going to use it to put toward buying a drink. But what I get every time I get to give them a dollar… I roll the window down and this is what I get to do (Note: demonstrates with a parishioner in his seat): I get to look at that person right in the eyes. I get to draw near – my body and their body, together. They can feel what I’m feeling. They can see that I have given them the respect of looking them right in the eyes.

What happens with that dollar? I don’t know. I don’t care. What I seek is the opportunity to make that contact. For just a moment to have contact with a person that most people will just ignore, driving like this (demonstrates looking the other way) so they don’t have to look out and see them.

Compassion. The action of God stirring in us. The love of God helping us to know what is right and do what is right. God will bless that dollar I give them. They might use it for alcohol. Not my job. My job is to love. To give that person a moment of love – which I did… which I do. So I always have a dollar ready for them.

So, I’m going to close with a poem from one of my favorite compassionate saints; one of our bishop’s favorite compassionate saints: St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis writes this: God came to my house and asked for charity. I fell on my knees and cried, Beloved, what may I give? Just love, He said, just love. Amen.

Note: Citation on the St. Francis poem is coming. I left my book at the church. :)
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