Sunday, February 28, 2021

Phil Kniss: Gotta blame somebody

Lent 2 - Who is to blame?
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

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This is the Gospel story we need right now.
In this long, suffering season,
when grief is piled upon grief,
when violence is on the rise,
when our leaders fail us,
when it seems nature itself is taking aim at us—
from global weather systems,
to a microscopic virus—
this is a Gospel word that speaks to something
we spend a lot of emotional energy on—blame.

Luke 13 gives us the burning question:
“Who is to blame, for the terrible things that happen in life?”
The suffering in Jesus’ day was also ratcheting up . . . and up.
And people wanted to know who to blame.

As Jesus continued his steady march toward Jerusalem
in the Gospel of Luke,
he kept getting peppered with questions.

The questioners in Luke 13 were sincere,
unlike last Sunday’s “expert in the law” who tried to trap Jesus.
Today some people come to Jesus with breaking news.
Yet another tragedy took place in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem.
We don’t get details,
but it seems there was targeted violence
against innocent religious pilgrims from Galilee,
perpetrated by Governor Pilate himself.

Jesus had been talking lately about God’s judgment,
so people were curious.
Was this tragedy an example of that judgment
you were talking about?
Was God punishing the Galileans?
Jesus replied with a flat “no!”
Then quickly added,
“But nevertheless. You still need to repent.”

And to strengthen his point, he gave another example.
Not of violence, but a terrible accident.
A large tower in Siloam fell, and crushed 18 people . . . to death.
Same deal, Jesus said.
Were they more guilty than those that escaped?
“No! . . . But . . . you still need to repent.”

And then he told a short story.
A landowner was hungry for figs,
but his fig tree wouldn’t bear any,
for three years running.
He told his gardener to cut it down.
It was wasting the soil.
But the gardener begged for patience.
Give it another year.
I’ll fertilize it well, work some manure into the soil.
If it still doesn’t bear fruit, okay.
Then, you cut it down.
In other words, don’t blame the tree,
and . . . if you want it gone next year, you hold the axe.
Notice how he gave the responsibility back to the landowner?
I wonder if Jesus is the gardener in this story,
always patient,
always looking for redemption,
always waiting for a fruitful season,
slow to blame and condemn.

Two truths.
We live in a world that is not the way it should be.
The world is broken.
The world is full of deep and profound suffering.
And . . . we live in a world full of people missing the mark,
that is, sinners,
people rebelling against the good work of God.

So the question still hangs in the air.
What’s the connection between the two?
How are sin and suffering related?

Truth be told, people aren’t quick to blame suffering on sin today.
In the ancient world, the world of the Bible, they were.
If a man was blind, his parents sinned.
If a person was crushed by a tower,
there was some god somewhere getting even.

Today we don’t explain tragedy as God’s punishment.
And the words of Jesus here would support us in that.
No, Jesus said, victims of disaster, and violence, and illness,
are no worse sinners
than those who happily escape that fate.
Jesus was pushing back against the world view of his community.

And since that is not our world view,
we might think we’re off the hook here.

But is something deeper going on here,
rooted in human nature,
that we also need to own up to.
Are we not also blamers?
Blamers, because we are controllers.
The attempt to explain, and point fingers at a cause,
is really an effort to control.
If we know why something happened,
or who caused it,
we’re in a better position to control our environment,
and get a better outcome.
Sounds innocent enough.

But there is a more insidious shadow side.
If we keep the finger always pointing away from us,
we can avoid our own discomfort, or shame,
or the cost of repentance and reparation.
If we consistently point our fingers at an evil out there . . .
we don’t have to come to terms with the evil in here.

When I point at easy targets—
the armed and violent white supremacists and haters,
then I don’t have to name and confess
the white supremacist leanings that reside in me
(and yes, they do).
I may get righteously angry at COVID minimizers,
who put their own freedom and convenience
above the welfare of others
(and yes, righteous anger is certainly justified here).
But I am also at risk of getting caught in a vortex of blame,
and never having to face my own independent streak,
or repent of the times I put my own agenda first.

And I can certainly be vocal and vehement in my opposition
to the hateful rhetoric of a conservative talk-radio host,
without becoming gleeful at his death,
or suggesting he got his just deserts.
The latter keeps me from being honest
about my own prejudice or vanity.

Whenever I say someone died because God was judging them,
I am skirting around the hard work of self-examination.

That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at here,
when he answered their questions, with “No, but . . .”
They wanted to fix blame, maintain their innocence.
They wanted to build a hedge around themselves.
They wanted to believe they were in control.
Jesus said, “You all need to repent.
You need to turn around.
You need to live in the world differently.”

Jesus is not saying tragedy is punishment.

If Jesus were standing among us now,
and we asked him who is to blame—
for the ones who die of COVID-19,
or who are victims of killer storms,
or political or racial violence,
or tragic highway accidents,
or random ravaging illnesses
that take people in their prime of life . . .
who is to blame for all this, Jesus?
Are they being punished?
Did God pull the trigger?
I think Jesus’ response would be the same.
“No . . . but . . .”

No . . . these are no worse sinners
than those who come out unscathed.

But . . . we still live in a world steeped in sin,
and sin has consequences.
Not necessarily tit for tat on a micro level,
but on a broader scale, in God’s cosmic economy,
sin does, in fact, result in suffering.
In Paul’s words from Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”

Sin breeds death and decay.
Things go downhill when humanity rebels against God.
Creation itself is suffering from the sin of humanity—
there is a connection between sin and climate-related
hurricanes and wildfires and winter storms.
The earth is groaning.
Fig trees are not bearing fruit, so to speak.

Repentance breaks the cycle.
Repentance opens the door for God to act.
Repentance tells God, “We let go of our controlling ways,
work in us, loving Creator.”

I think that was Jesus’ intent in telling this parable of the fig tree,
right after a discussion of human suffering.

Jesus, in his mercy, urges us all to repent—
to let go of our need to control, to be strong.
If we do, we will be granted one more opportunity
for God to work through us
to produce the fruit for which we were planted.
So let us repent of all self-justification,
humble ourselves before our Creator,
and join whole-heartedly with God’s redemptive work in the world.

There’s a very appropriate confession for this moment
in the back of our new Voices Together hymnal, #898.
It’s also in your order of service.

You may either read along with me,
or simply listen, and join your heart with this prayer.

Christ our companion,
you came not to humiliate the sinner
     but to disturb the righteous.
Welcome us when we are put to shame,
     but challenge our smugness,
that we may truly turn from what is evil
     and be freed even from our virtues,
     in your name.

—Phil Kniss, February 28, 2021

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Phil Kniss: When we can’t choose our neighbors

Lent 1: Who is my neighbor?
Luke 10:25-42

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Did you know Jesus was a sneaky story-teller?

Well, most any story telling is a bit sneaky.
Because we don’t tell stories just to pass the time.
We tell stories to teach and shape and change us,
through the back-door so to speak.

When you want to encourage change—
in a person, in a family, in a community, in a system,
in a whole nation—
stories are a wonderful change agents.
For a simple reason.

Give someone a rational argument
why they should act or respond in a certain way,
and two things usually happen.
They analyze your argument, to judge and decide.
And they stay emotionally unhooked from that decision.
Usually, since the change you want comes with a cost,
the listener has strong incentive
to find a hole in the argument,
so they can continue, unmoved, with status quo.

But if you tell them a story they can inhabit,
a story where they picture themselves as a character,
there’s a better chance they pause, from analyzing it,
and listen with their heart, with emotions engaged.
They may let the story carry them, rather than try to argue with it.
Suddenly, they can imagine themselves in a new future.

It’s true when it comes to how you respond to COVID-19,
or to white supremacy and systemic racism,
or to climate change,
or to reaching across the political aisle,
or to resolving any sort of conflict.
It’s usually not a superior argument that changes people.
It’s walking with people in life, and sharing the same stories.
It’s knowing someone who died of COVID.
It’s having family members who walk a different path.
It’s having a deep friend willing to speak hard truths
and stick with you as a friend.
And it works in matters of faith, as well.
Stories help us grasp what it means to be Christian
in everyday life.
They help us choose to take risks in following Jesus,
help us love and embrace the Bible.

I’m not knocking careful thinking.
We must exercise our minds.
We must think well, think deep, and think true.

But if we want to encourage change,
if we want to motivate someone else, or ourselves,
toward a new way of living,
we need to engage the matter with our whole selves,
mind, emotions, and body.
And the tool of choice is story.

Jesus was a master of this way of shaping people.
Someone would ask him a question
in order to catch him on a fine point of the law.
And instead of answering directly,
Jesus would tell a story.

We think we already know today’s Gospel story.
The phrase “Good Samaritan” is part of our English lexicon.
We assume the story encourages compassion, and it does.
It’s a lesson in not being too holy to help, like the Priest or Levite,
but to stop when we see someone hurting,
no matter who it is or how busy we are.

That makes for a good enough story to tell.
But maybe it’s not the story we need.
Humans are already pretty good at being compassionate—
seeing someone in distress,
and bringing aid and comfort.

That kind of story is a nice story.
But Jesus wasn’t known for telling nice stories.
Jesus was a tricky storyteller.
He told stories to transform people and challenge systems.

And did you notice what Jesus did here?
He was in a discussion with an “expert in the law” (it says)
about loving our neighbors.
And the expert asked,“So . . . who is my neighbor?”
That’s a boundary question.
Religious people want to know where the line is,
where religious obligation ends.
And like most religious groups,
1st-century Jewish leaders had their lines drawn up,
separating the deserving from the undeserving.

So instead of answering the question,
and giving the legal expert a point to argue over,
which is what he wanted,
Jesus told a story.

A poor man was beat up, and lying by the side of the road.
Two other religious leaders (of different groups)
walked by on the other side.
The legal expert could see how this would unfold.
This will be a lesson to love the wounded person as my neighbor,
to show compassion when your neighbor is wounded,
even when you are an important person
with other agenda.

I can hear him rehearsing his response in his head.
“Yes, Jesus, well-spoken.
The law does ask us to aid our wounded neighbors,
even when we need to sacrifice self.”

But the tricky storyteller threw a . . . small curveball,
when a Samaritan fulfilled his religious obligation,
and showed compassion to his wounded neighbor.
Samaritans were despised by Jewish leaders,
especially by experts in the law.
Because Samaritans were outside the line of obligation.
But okay, the legal expert could set that little fact aside.
Point still taken.
We need to love the neighbors we find on the side of the road.

But . . . Jesus had another trick up his sleeve.
He said, “Now that you’ve heard my little story, tell me.
Who do you think was the neighbor?
Who was your neighbor?”

Whoa, what just happened there?
The expert was so busy identifying with the religious leaders
walking down the road,
seeing a beat-up man as the potential neighbor to love.
And suddenly, the expert is the man on the side of the road,
and the travelers are the potential neighbors.
And the question becomes,
which of the travelers, is the neighbor you should love?

Well . . . that’s an awkward moment.
The story just got flipped on him.
And the question hangs in the air, framed in a story,
without a legal point to argue.
The question was simple.
The answer was simple.

“Who is your neighbor?” you asked.
Well . . . Poor Wounded Man . . .
who was your neighbor?
Who in this story should you be loving?

The expert couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”
He just mumbled, “I suppose the one who helped him.”
“Good,” Jesus said.
“You just answered your own question.”
And he walked to the next village.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about
Jesus teaching us to show kindness to neighbors in need.
We have been taught that since the time of Moses.
Kindness and compassion are universal moral goods.

The emotional hook in this story
takes us beyond generic kindness.
It exposes our prejudice.
It reveals the limit of our compassion.
It unmasks the false notion
that we can choose our neighbors.

Most of do choose where we want to live, based on various factors.
We might choose our neighborhoods,
but if we are followers of Jesus
we don’t get to choose our neighbors.

The neighbor is the one God places in our way.
The one we can hardly avoid . . . but wish we could.

Who is the Samaritan neighbor in your life? and in my life?
The one we are somehow attached to or beholden to,
even if we are slow to admit it, name it, embrace it?
Of course, I wouldn’t stand here and tell you who to love,
in so many words.
That wouldn’t be Jesus-like of me.
So I just leave you with this story Jesus told,
and ask you, dear beat-up-person-by-the-side-of-the-road?
Who is your neighbor?
And we can just let the question hang there,
while we move on to the next village,
in our slow and steady journey toward Jerusalem,
in the Gospel of Luke.

With that,
I think it’s appropriate to engage in the ancient church practice
of corporate confession.
There’s a traditional confession in the Book of Common Prayer,
that I have often found meaningful.
And our new hymnal, Voices Together,
includes it, with a few adaptations.
Let’s pray it together.
It’s in your bulletin, and the first part is in unison.

one Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and one another.
all Most merciful God,
we confess that we are captive to sin
     and cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
     by what we have done
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
     we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us,
     so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
     to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
one God, who is rich in mercy,
     loved us even when we were dead in sin,
     and made us alive together with Christ.
By grace we have been saved.
In the name of Jesus Christ,
     our sins are forgiven.
Almighty God
     strengthen us with power
     through the Holy Spirit,
that Christ may live in our hearts
     through faith. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, February 21, 2021

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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Phil Kniss: When scarce is the shelter

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus is transfigured
Luke 9:28-36

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Today we combine, in one service,
two things you may think are unrelated.
But then, it happens every year on this last Sunday before Lent.

We set aside this day at Park View to recognize and welcome
new members of our community,
and hear their faith story, and bless them, and so on.

And in the larger church, it’s Transfiguration Sunday.
Every year we have this strange and mystical Gospel story
in which Jesus is glowing with glory on a mountaintop,
and Moses and Elijah show up, also glowing,
and three disciples stand by gawking.

This story didn’t get a lot of attention in the church I grew up in.
I guess because it wasn’t a practical story about following Jesus.
We can try to follow a Jesus who touches lepers,
who welcomes children,
who teaches nonviolence,
who shows grace to sinners,
who heals the sick,
who confronts the powerful.
But how do we follow a Jesus who . . . glows?

So what to do? Well we could just be practical on this Sunday—
ignore Transfiguration, and only welcome new members.

But I don’t want to do that.
I think this story is more practical than it seems,
and it relates to belonging.
This is not about having our heads in the clouds.
It’s the opposite.
Luke’s whole reason to include this story, is once again,
to show his early church readers,
that Jesus belonged to their own religious stream.
He was not trying to establish a new and strange religion.
He was not a threat to the tradition.
He was not undoing the law and the prophets.
In fact, the two people he met on the mountain
were shining object lessons to that fact.
They were the law and the prophets.
Moses the law. Elijah the prophet.
Both prototypes of the tradition.
And they were there to validate Jesus to his disciples.

This story is less about that mystical experience on the mountain,
and more about the difference it makes in life at the bottom.
It’s about followers of Jesus staying grounded
in their tradition, and walking in it.

See . . . a ministry of healing and teaching and trouble-making
that a charismatic figure like Jesus is engaged in,
is apt to spin off into something crazy,
because crowds get sucked into the moment,
and starting worshiping the man, like some new god,
and a cult is born.
We’ve often seen it happen in the Christian world, haven’t we?
And in the last few years, it’s happened in American politics.

This mountaintop experience with Jesus
was meant for life back on the ground.
It was to keep everyone clear about who they were,
where they had come from,
who they belonged to.

That’s why Peter’s impulsive offer was met with silence.
He said, “Let’s build three shelters here on the mountain—
one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Luke tells the reader, as an aside,
“Uh...Peter didn’t know what he was saying.”
Jesus just ignored the comment and
walked back down the mountain with Peter, James, and John.
He said, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw,
until after the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”
To spread word now about that fantastical experience,
would make it more likely that the crowd
would misplace their worship of God,
and turn all this into a Jesus cult.
By waiting to tell the story until he was gone,
when the church would be navigating a hostile culture,
the event would have its intended impact—
it would encourage the church to stay true to the tradition,
to the law and the prophets,
and to renew it from within.

Now, that’s not exactly how Jewish and Christian history unfolded,
but that’s the fault of misguided humans.
It was not by Jesus’ design.

And now, to connect this story to Membership Sunday,
and to church in a pandemic.

So . . . Peter was misguided in trying to build a shelter
to house and contain and institutionalize, in a way,
their encounter with heaven.
And the church is always tempted in that same direction—
to take a meaningful spiritual experience,
and give it a physical structure to house it, handle it,
contain it, replicate it.
Then we become married to the form,
and not to the content of our faith.

We’ve done that with church buildings, for sure.
Early cathedrals were built, literally,
to house and protect certain sacred objects.
In Germany, the largest cathedral in Northern Europe
was built in the Middle Ages
to house the supposed bones of the three wise men.

Today, on the Mount of Transfiguration,
where Peter wanted to put up some quick shelters,
there’s a large, marble church building to remember the occasion.
It took a few centuries, but Peter got his wish.

Why is it that followers of this Jesus,
in a time of pandemic are suing state governments
to bypass legal and health restrictions against large gatherings,
and insisting they can’t properly be a church
without meeting inside their usual physical structure,
and engaging in their usual forms of worship?

It’s hard to find any biblical argument,
that any particular worship form,
in any particular place,
is essential to being the body of Christ in the world.
We can still be a community without the forms we adopted.

Every email you get, and every page on our website,
has in big letters, across the top,
“We are still a community.”
Those words are there because we believe them.
They are true, whether or not we have a structure to house us.
They are true, whether or not we have a way to institutionalize them.

We are part of a long stream of God’s people throughout history,
who keep seeking new ways to live out
our calling to embody Christ in the world we live in.
As the world changes, so do our ways of embodying Christ.

I sent out an email early this week to the congregation.
I asked individuals to respond to one question, with one sentence.
How do you nurture your sense of belonging to the church family,
while we are unable to meet together physically?

My main purpose in doing that, was to make you think about it.
And a lot of you did – I got 95 responses. Long and short.

This was no scientific study by any stretch.
I just tried to notice how often certain things got mentioned.
As you might expect, tuning in to live-streamed worship
was mentioned most, 40 times.
But tied for first, also at 40,
was meeting and interacting online, mostly by Zoom.
Other things that got a lot of mentions,
were writing notes and calling people on the phone, 25.
Praying for others was mentioned 13 times.
Having safe and distanced small gatherings or porch visits,
or chatting while walking, 13 mentions.
Reading the church newsletters and emails came up a lot.
Working on a project with others,
even if you worked by yourself.
Small groups and Faith Formation classes were appreciated.
And people are finding ways, even now, to join in singing.

Beyond the numbers, here are a few direct quotes:
I feel connected when I sing along with the hymns
I page through the church pictorial directory with warm thoughts and prayers
I send snail-mail cards with a personal note
When I’m in prayer I have mental images of those at Park View I’m praying for
I listen in to Shine Time and watch my kids participate
I know I still belong when I miss a Zoom meeting, and feel the loss
I call a friend once a week to talk about happenings at our church
I read From Across the Fence and I feel like I’m chatting with fellow church members in the fellowship time, coffee cup in hand. 
Our Advent small group decided to keep meeting, and now we are a Lenten small group.
And this more extended metaphor . . . I picture the congregation as a forest of trees of all sizes entwining our roots together underground. I feel the steady support of fellow root systems holding and touching me during these times of quarantine when outwardly my branches are being blown by the storms of life. We are all drinking from the water of life.

You see, we can be church even
when the physical structure and forms we enjoy
are taken away for a season.
Yes, there are losses to mourn.
We grieve the absence of sharing the same resonant space
while we are singing.
We are saddened by the eerie silence and emptiness
of our Fellowship Hall for a whole year.
We mourn the loss of gathering around tables full of food,
and sharing laughter and conversation in close quarters.
And we will notice, with heaviness,
another Holy Week going by
without an in-person Tenebrae Service, or Easter Vigil,
or a packed house on Easter morning.

But if we think these losses prevent us
from belonging to the people of God,
or functioning as the household of God,
or being the church in the world,
then we have been putting our faith in the shelter,
instead of the people who ARE the body of Christ to us.

So this Sunday, just before we enter into the season of Lent,
is meant to remind us of this.
Both the Gospel story of the Transfiguration,
and the celebration of belonging,
on this Membership Sunday.

We are still a community.
And we still belong to God and to each other,
even when shelter is scarce.

Join me in prayer.
God we confess our misplaced worship.
Our idolatry of comfortable forms and shelters.
Now, as we are bereft of much of this,
lead us on a new path toward belonging,
lead your church toward your mission and purpose.
Prepare us for the life you intend for us,
and give us courage to walk in it.
In the name of Jesus, who walked among us in glory,

—Phil Kniss, February 14, 2021

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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Moriah Hurst: Compassion—to suffer with

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus comforts and heals
Luke 7:1-17

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During this time of isolation I’ve become more aware of my steps and of getting out and walking the neighborhood. I see many of you as I do laps of familiar streets around the church. Jesus also spent a lot of time walking around. For him it was a main mode of transport. Today in our Luke text we see Jesus out on foot with his disciples and coming into contact with the people living around him. These are not people he sought out but encounters Jesus had on the way, like I wave at you from a safe 6 feet distance.

First Jesus comes into contact with a Centurion. Well, actually, he doesn’t. The Centurion sends first some Jewish elders like a PR team to tell of his need but also his merit and worth. Then later a group of friends is sent. Jesus never meets the Centurion. Another preacher suggested that we explore the idea of remote healing through this story.

The Centurion’s words do come through clearly. Even though he is an outsider to the Jewish faith and actually part of those who oppressively rule over the Jews, he respects them and has supported their places of worship. News of Jesus has reached him and he believes that even at a distance Jesus’ word has the power to heal. The Centurion could have ordered Jesus to come and heal, exerting his power and authority but instead he places Jesus not only as his equal but as his superior. Jesus does not take these words to puff himself up. No, instead he replies to the claims of unworthiness from the Centurion with amazement at this man’s faith. And Jesus judges his own people and followers compared to this outsider’s deep faith. Jesus says “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

The scene shifts as Jesus walks on toward the city of Nain. As he approaches the gate of the city he encounters the second hurting person. We hear first that a dead man is being carried out. Then we hear that he was his mothers only son and that she was a widow, as if piling on the grief and deepening her plight. Right away, without a word from her, Jesus responds with compassion. Some translations say his heart went out to her. “Of course it did!” we might think. But as a widow left alone without a male relative as a protector this woman’s status in the community had dropped almost as low as it could go. Jesus, who was just told by a member of the ruling class that he had power and authority, doesn’t let that go to his head but approaches the stretcher carrying the dead man. And without “drama, ritual or even a prayer,” (Interpretations) Jesus says, “young man, I say to you, rise!” and he sat up and began to speak.

When we hold these two stories next to each other I notice a few things. Jesus doesn’t let the power or lack thereof, of the hurting person change his compassionate response to heal. While the Centurion requests Jesus’ help, the widow never speaks a word and yet Jesus not only heals but raises her son from the dead. Neither the widow nor the Centurion make a request for their own healing it is for one they care about.

In our world held in the stranglehold of a virus we are met today with two healing stories in the Gospel. We are all too aware of the devastation that COVID brings and the current confusion around vaccines, who gets them and when.

A pastor, Mary Austin writes: “In our world, systemic injustice, poverty, underlying health conditions and age have a lot to do with who heals from COVID, and who does not.  Still, even with everything we know, we face a mystery in who lives and who dies.  These stories from Luke show us the same mystery.  We don’t see all of the other grieving widows who don’t happen to run into Jesus, and still have to bury their sons.  We don’t hear what happens to all of the other sick people in Capernaum.  Even for us, with all of our medical advances, illness and healing and death still hold deep mystery.”

Are we like the crowds, the friends, looking on with dread and grief and crying out with and for our hurting friends and world. The phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with you” may feel lame but maybe it is a powerful statement. We need community to rise up and to have that faith when it feels impossible for those who are sick or losing loved ones to hold on to hope. In our prayers we invite Jesus into that healing space with them. Holding out our breaking hearts and asking for God’s compassion.

Compassion, to feel with the other. The Greek word “Literally refers to having feelings in the bowels (or other inward parts). We tend to make the heart the seat of emotions, e.g., “his heart went out to her,” ” but think of this more as a gut reaction, deep down in the core of our being, that’s where compassion rises from. That’s where Jesus' healing comes from in these stories.

Commentator Michal Beth Dinkler writes about it in this way: 
“Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen describes Jesus’ life of compassion as the “path of downward mobility”1 — Jesus chooses pain, rejection, persecution, and death rather than the path of “upward mobility” toward power, authority, influence, and wealth. Jesus did not reach down and lift the poor up from above. He became poor — he suffered with — and according to Luke, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are precisely what enables redemption — indeed, relief from suffering — for all humanity.

Jesus’ “path of downward mobility” differs from the common notion today that compassion means helping “those less fortunate than we are.” It is a particularly privileged American notion to think that if we volunteer in a soup kitchen or donate money to help victims of natural disasters, we have been compassionate.

To be clear, these actions are important and valuable ways of serving others. But when we are able to maintain our distance or stay in a place “above” those we serve, such acts easily become acts of pity, rather than compassion. This is the problem with the idea of serving “those less fortunate”: we are somehow “more” and they are somehow “less.” We still have the power.

Real compassion, as embodied by Jesus, runs counter to our culture’s constant call to succeed, to impress, to be effective. Real compassion is a call to suffer with the powerless. To quote Nouwen again:

Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation. 2

Though the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son is short account, Jesus — importantly — does not rush to action. Luke does not use Mark’s favorite word, “immediately.” Instead, Jesus first shares in the widow’s pain; this is the necessary prerequisite to compassionate action.”

Jesus could have come wielding power and bossing people around, holding himself above others. But instead he chooses to walk the dusty streets with people, to see their plight, hear their request and lets himself feel with them.

Jesus does not ask if we are worthy – but breaks bread and gives his own body and blood to his followers. We too join in that action of breaking bread today asking for compassion for ourselves and all those who are in need.

Please pray with me:
God of mystery, compassion and wonder,
At this and every table
You dissolve the distance between the ordinary and the holy;
You break the barriers separating
The common and the sacred.
We thank you for this thin place,
This holy space,
This well of grace.

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