O Compassionate Ones
1 Kings 17:8–16 and Luke 7:11–17
This morning’s lesson is about how Jesus, following his gut instincts, broke from the thick of a crowd to rescue a poor and vulnerable widow. It’s a story of how Jesus met this nameless woman in the thick of a crowd of her own and healed her from sure and certain doom. In the process, we hear one of three explicit, resurrection stories found in the Gospel of Luke. With this text, Jesus commands each of us to break through the procession of injustice and exploitation with compassion for the most vulnerable and be a people of hope for the world.
Let us pray: Lord, open our hearts that as your word is proclaimed we may hear how you’re calling us to serve you today. Amen.
Reading this lesson in preparation for today’s sermon, my mind ventured to those times and places, situations of sorts when the least likely among us became the most prominent thought of the day. For some reason, I suddenly remembered the first vacation Joe and I took with his three children. It was 1998, and we had gotten married just a couple of months before. Brian was 14, Carolyn was 12 and Tommy was 10. The five of us piled into a vehicle I called “our real estate” and headed north for Squam Lake, New Hampshire. Somewhere along the way, the family game began. It was probably Carolyn who got us rolling: “A. Algeria.” To which Brian responded, “B. Brazil.” Tommy didn’t miss a beat: “C. Chad.” Before I could follow up with the obvious D for Denmark, I laughed out loud, “How in the world did T for Ten year old Tommy come up with C for Chad?” I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know Chad existed when I was of elementary school age! But there we were, talking about Chad as we ventured off to another relatively unknown land.
Mali is another one of those smaller, more obscure countries with lots going on. Timbuktu? Most folks consider it to be a fairytale land, as in, “From here to Timbuktu…Does it really exist?” But for the last year, we’ve been increasingly exposed to the atrocities of slavery, violence and fear based rule in Timbuktu and the surrounding countryside of Mali through the persistent reports of journalists following international efforts to bring an increase of justice there. Until recently, Mali had been one more example of a nation effectively enabled to persecute its people because of its relative obscurity and the little economic consequence it bears on the rest of the world. But God entered into the contours of a human heart to propel the world to seek compassion for these people living in the outer reaches of the globe.
When God fills one with a passion for justice in this world, it’s a visceral experience that rises from deep within. This is compassion in the way of Christ that we read about today. The word we read as compassion is a biblical concept from the Greek splagnitzomia that comes in both verb and noun verb form. It’s a feeling and a body part deep within, a part of our being and a response that jars us from complacency and motivates us to seek the lost and then pour it all out for the one or ones who need us most. Splagnitzomia’s a full body experience that churns in our stomachs and won’t let us stop until the great injustices of the world are met head-on. It’s what gives us the confidence to live our days with a mind for justice, never thinking for a moment that the work is ever done.
Western Presbyterian Church is a body of compassionate ones. If you’re worshiping with us for the first time, or just beginning to listen to our podcasts wondering what Western is all about, you will soon know that we are a congregation of people intent upon serving the many diverse needs in our communities near and around the world. We are a body of compassionate ones united by our enduring commitment to the most vulnerable and we come together in corporate worship each week to be refueled for the long journey for justice.
Our service mindedness is manifest in efforts like literacy and arts projects for children, work to save the environment and insure rights for those who are developmentally challenged. We work with hospice, the humane society, the White House, The League of Women Voters… I was impressed to read the interest inventory taken several years ago that delineates over 100 justice minded causes we engage. But what’s most impressive for me is that for all of our interests, we seem to maintain a balance between individual priorities and corporate, church-wide ones. So that in addition to the individual ways we serve vulnerable populations and not for profit institutions, we aggregate our resources in support of Open Doors, feeding and housing the homeless and the movement to end gun violence everywhere. Lest this message degenerate into a narrative resume for Western Presbyterian Church, let me suggest that while we are an exemplary, justice minded congregation, our lesson from Luke this morning illuminates a few pitfalls we must continue to safeguard against.
First, we learn from Jesus who could’ve allowed himself to be insulated by the large crowd with him, that it’s necessary for us to continue to look beyond our individual concerns – even the broader concerns of our circle of Christians at Western – and keep our hearts and minds open for additional opportunities to serve the oppressed of the world. We cannot allow our vast list of church-wide concerns to become a screen to hide behind the work of others or the work of the body. Tangentially, we certainly can’t allow our exemplary outpouring of justice work to become a platform for self-aggrandizement around the community or even the denomination. This is something which an intentionally justice minded congregation like ours easily could do. In the midst of our hard and important work, a strong, capable, celebrated congregation like ours must continually engage our intuitions, follow our gut instincts like Jesus followed his to survey the contours of society for where injustice may have been left unnoticed or unserved like in the countryside of Mali or the Middle East or China or even the United States where human rights are grossly violated each day.
Second, and this is a little more tricky, we need to be sure that one’s fervor for her own cause doesn’t create a singlemindedness such that others’ perspectives on an issue might be rendered invalid. Your agenda might not be someone else’s agenda, but a dominant or more popular voice could easily crowd out a softer or less popular perspective. I recall a conversation with Betsy Carter early on when she wanted to announce that a group from Western would be participating in the Climate Change March on the Capitol. I really appreciated her expressed uneasiness that she might offend members of the congregation who might have a different stake in the claim. Yet I recall another conversation this spring about peacemaking trip to Israel and Palestine, and how a small group felt unwelcome to voice its perspective on what is known to be a very polarizing issue. We want to foster an environment where various perspectives and actions on matters of justice are invited as valued contributions in a debate that enable us to learn from one another and grow stronger as a body. Silencing debate by ignoring the less dominant or, to some, less overtly justice-minded perspective is in itself an injustice that communicates that another person’s position – or dare I say, another person – is invalid.
And last for today, each time we reach a break-through of the sort that Jesus cries for the most vulnerable to realize every day as we’re hoping to reach a break-through at Presbytery in the conversation for gays and lesbians to be allowed per the polity of the church to be married in our churches, we must not stop long to rejoice. We can’t rest on our laurels. We owe it to the most vulnerable left in the world to pause and wonder aloud where justice remains unmet. Each celebration becomes food for the journey – incentive for our work ahead. A favorable outcome from an act or word of justice can open our hearts like nothing else. Out of sincere gratitude for the victories won in our individual priorities, we can become seekers of what is hardly seen or heard. From our privileged vantage points, where we realize wins each day – wins in our personal lives and wins in our work for justice around the world – we must continue to scour the news, the street corners of our communities, and our hearts to identify where another less privileged group could use some help. While each victory raises the bar of justice around the world, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That’s one reason why we need to gather together each week in worship of our God of compassionate causes: to be fed for the work ahead, because it’s a crowded roadway, an endless procession, and a potentially tiresome journey that requires the most compassionate ones to dig deep lest we become resigned that the task is futile.
Sometimes inspiration for the task comes from the most humbling of places. It was Tuesday morning as I was sitting one car back from the traffic light at L and 24th when I noticed William, sitting on his overstuffed garbage bag, rocking back and forth. I wondered to myself when the District would be finished with the sidewalk repairs on the other side of Pennsylvania so that William could return to his more usual spot. At that very moment, a Miriam’s Kitchen guest entered the scene. He was walking east on L toward the West End Library, duffle bag in hand. William was sitting next to the lamppost. Our Miriam’s Kitchen guest – obviously a man in dire financial need – casually reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. He quietly slipped it to William who, in turn, quietly slipped it into the ziplock baggie he’d pulled out from under his crossed leg. Our Miriam’s Kitchen guest continued his lanky walk across 24th street. He looked inside the garbage can in front of the Library and pulled out a crumpled, dark, long-sleeved, button-down shirt that was near the top of the heap. After evaluating the shirt, he carefully laid it across the can in case someone else could use it. He walked into the Library as the light turned green. My mouth fell open.
O compassionate ones, when Jesus left the course of his walk to address the need of the widow at Nain, he is urging us to break out from our charted path to also have compassion for the most vulnerable among us. He is crying for us to break out for what is right and break through the crowdedness of life, reaching out to the one or ones who should have voices of solidarity alongside theirs. He is calling us to continue to search the contours of society for those violations of justice that have not benefited from prominent, well-spoken voices and help those people and situations to receive the kind of support that Christ wants the world to know.
Jesus calls us to break out of our privilege positions in this world – our relative places of wealth and prosperity, kindness and gratitude – and have compassion for the most vulnerable. Jesus calls us to allow the causes of the world that lack the resources we have to share to become special causes of our own if not with our time and money, with our deference and respect. In our work of compassion we need to pause along the way to insure that it’s the joyful image of God shining through – the Fruits of the Spirit coming out through the way we live and move and have our being in this complicated world filled with oppression and suffering, pain and want.
Most of us will never know what it means to feel worthless? Most of us will never know what it means to be oppressed or shot down. Most of us will never know what it means to be utterly without resources – protection, support, money, intellect, sanity – so that your security is at stake every breath of your days. So may each one of us continue to work like Jesus toward justice for all. May we follow our guts to the contours of our communities and the world to identify ways that we support the compassionate ministry of Christ. May each victory we experience in our individually supported causes prompt us to examine our consciences, our instincts and the news to identify outrages that lack support and direct some of our attention there. And may each of us seek to break through the crowdedness of injustice and exploitation to be a people of hope for the world.