Sheepscott Community Church June 6, 2010
1 Kings 17: 8-24
Luke 7: 11-17
His Heart Went Out to Her
No one can read or hear this morning’s gospel story and not be moved by it because there is all the ageless sorrow of the world in that one sentence, “He was his mother’s only son and she was a widow.” In this thimbleful of words, you have all the pathos and poignancy of human life. Jesus’ response to the funeral procession and the mother’s tears? As the scripture tells us, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” How could she not cry? She had just lost the most precious thing in the world to her, her only son. If she did stop crying, and the scripture does not mention whether she did, it would have been because there was something about this man that arrested her tears and put her on tenterhooks to see what he was going to do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to focus for a few minutes on the line, “his heart went out to her.” Other translations say, he was moved with pity, and, he was moved to the depths of his heart. I ask you to consider in your own lives when or towards whom your heart went out, once upon a time. I’ll just be quiet for a minute while you think about that. What or who ever stirred you so deeply that your heart went out to a person or situation?
Is anyone moved to share the memory or thought that came to you? If nothing came to you, I’d strongly suggest that you do this meditative exercise again in the privacy of your own home. If still no thought of when your heart went out to some one or to some situation comes to you, I’d say you have some spiritual work or housecleaning to do to uncover why there has been no stirring of compassion––and that is what we are talking about here, compassion. In our contemporary world, especially the political world, compassion as empathy, an empathic spirit, is viewed negatively. It’s to resist that rhetorical trend by compassionate action, by behaving in a Christlike way, reaching out in a communal sense of loving concern.
Instances of Christ acting out of compassion abound in the gospels. I’ll only mention one that occurs in Mark 8: 2, which reads: “I have compassion for these people. They have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry or they may collapse on the way.” This was the occasion of the multiplication of the seven loaves and fishes to feed 4000 people, not counting women and children. Jesus knew the hunger and thirst of a human body and had compassion on its needs and hurts, and so he fed it; he quenched its thirst. In fact he fed 4000 or more of them.
As much as Jesus’ compassion is a factor in the situation described in this morning’s gospel, I think the momentousness of the occasion has something to do with it as well. In the moment documented in Luke’s gospel of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, we can sense the fraughtness of the moment; there is great feeling of love and grief, and it would seem that anything was possible in such a charged moment. When people are out in the street talking with one another, grieving or celebrating together and not sequestered in their houses with the drapes drawn talking about what is happening out in the street in a derisive, divisive way, when people are together supporting each other, everything positive is possible.
I think a moment of that sort which we experienced nationally, was September 11, 2001. If ever there was a fraught moment, or series of moments, and then days, that was the time. Individuals and the country could choose how they would be, how they would respond. Is there anyone among us whose heart did not go out to the grieving families of the lost and missing? To the brave souls who resisted the takeover of the plane that was probably headed for the Congress and the White House? To the surviving families and colleagues of New York City’s finest fire and police who gave their lives that others might live? Is there not an echo of an earlier sacrifice in that? Some laying down their lives for others, whom they did not know?
It was a moment, or series of moments in our nation’s history that was as fraught as that moment of Jesus standing by the young man’s bier surrounded by townspeople and professional mourners. And individuals reacted to the moment in the fullness of their free will and the compassion of God––or not. That is always a free choice, and the world tilts on the axis of the cumulative weight of those choices by individuals and by the world at large.
Let me offer another angle in to this story of Jesus as the Christ, the one whose heart goes out to another and heals and raises up as a result of that compassion. In the ancient world, the noblest faith was thought to be Stoicism, a hallmark of the Greeks. The Stoics believed that the primary characteristic of God was apathy, incapability of feeling. The argument behind this was that if someone could make another feel sad or sorrowful, glad or joyful, it meant that at least for a moment someone could influence that other person. And if he could influence him, that would mean that at least for that moment he would be greater than that person. Now, by definition, no one can be greater than God; therefore, in the nature of things, God must be incapable of feeling.
But in this instance of the raising of the widow’s son, a man being acclaimed as the Son of God, is moved to the depths of his being by the widow of Nain. This was something new in the ancient world––a divine figure who felt for others in the depth of his being.
Fine for Jesus, and even fine for those who gave their lives on September 11. That’s how they chose to respond, and we respect their courage, their love, whatever it took to decide as they did. But really, what does that have to do with us? Hear this quotation from Jesus himself, which he spoke to the apostles and which is recorded in John 14: 12-13: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.”
Why would we not ask? There is so much in the world that needs tending to, and here we have the promise from Jesus that he’ll do anything we ask in his name. Perhaps we just don’t have that level of faith. We have prayed about things before and never seen an answer that we recognize as such, or certainly not the answer we prayed for. The fact is that God has the wider vision of what our life is and knows that our desired answer to prayer would not be beneficial for us or even for somebody we are praying for. This is not the picture of the distant apathetic god of the Stoics, but the embodied compassion of God that is the heart of Jesus, the Christ.
In a situation where we’re faced with something like a dead man being carried along the street on a bier, or the catastrophe of loss of life in Haiti as a result of the earthquake, or the tsunami in Indonesia, or the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, when we’re looking at something like that, we just don’t have the level of faith that says, “Young man, arise,” of “Oil gusher, stop gushing,” with full expectation that that will happen because of how Jesus the Christ lives in us. Unfortunately that’s the way it is––for most of us, notwithstanding the scripture that we will do even greater things than Jesus did because he went to and is with the Father and will do anything we ask in his name. There certainly is dynamic tension between Jesus’ promise and our belief and unbelief as we are in the situations we encounter
Well, what can we do then? How can we respond to his assertion that we will do even greater things than he? We can take a first step. We can accompany that widow of Nain, which can translate in our lives to attending funerals and praying with the community, offering consolation and condolences to those left behind who are grieving. Surely we can do that. We can pray––as we do––for the correct technology employed with patience and persistence that will lead to the capping of the well and the extensive cleanup necessary during the spill and afterwards. There may be some among us whose hearts go out to the people and the wildlife on the Gulf Coast and who will travel to help where they can.
Let us return to psalm 146, from which we read this morning as our call to worship, for thoughts about how we can act in a Christlike way with the help of God in accordance with God’s will. There we read:
Blessed is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth and the sea and everything that is in them––
the Lord, who remains faithful forever.
And how does that Lord remain faithful?
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, (“Young man, I say to you arise.”)
the Lord loves the righteous,
the Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow...
All of these works rise up out of comapssion, out of an empathic spirit.
Jesus said we would do the works that he did, some of which works are mentioned in psalm 146. And where will we get the strength to do those works? From the communion we share together this morning, both the communion of each other’s presence and the bread we will break together. We have all chosen not to be sequestered in our houses with drawn drapes, but to come out to this assembly to share and be shored up by the life that Christ offers us through each other and in the breaking of the bread. Amen.