Sunday, February 7, 2021

Moriah Hurst: Compassion—to suffer with

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

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

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.

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

No comments:

Post a Comment