"He had compassion"-Sermon for Proper 5, Luke 7:11-17
I was in Jerusalem during Lent in 1997…working on a film crew, which mainly means lugging cameras, tripods and the like around the narrow streets of the old city, which is at the center of Jerusalem…the ancient part of the city were Jesus actually walked, lived and taught. We were creating a documentary video on the Via Dolorosa…the way of sorrows…the 14 stations of the cross…the path that Jesus walked on his way to the cross…which stretches from the Praetorium where Jesus was judged by Pilate to the Holy Sepulcher which is the church that is raised above Golgotha…the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. For several days we walked the path thinking about the shots we wanted to get…good angles…good natural lighting…and the such. And then the day arrived for the actual filming to take place. The Primates, the Archbishops and Presiding Bishops, of the Anglican Communion were going to make a pilgrimage along the path, and we were going to film them doing so as the primary background footage for the documentary. For us filming, and me lugging the equipment, the shoot was incredibly hectic We were trying to not disturb the sacredness of the pilgrimage itself while still getting our needed shots in…and we were constantly moving from station to station in the crowded and again narrow streets of the old city to remain one step ahead of the pilgrims to prepare the next shot at the next station as the bishops arrived…and then moving on to the next as soon as their prayers at that particular station began to end. Adding to the fevered pitch of the experience was just being in the presence of these holy men…the leaders of our global communion. It felt like something momentous and holy…and so surely I wanted to be at and do my best. Well though the streets were full of people along the way, I noticed one man in particular. His head lowered, eyes unfocused. He was sitting cross-legged on the well-worn street with a hat before him…he was begging for money. It was clear he had suffered some sort of traumatic head injury…the scars were clearly evident…and shocking in their extent. It didn’t look like he should be living at all. And in the middle of all that I was doing…I felt stuck…I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I felt something stirring with in me…in my gut…it surely wasn’t disgust…it was closer to sadness…it was certainly physical and emotional…something I felt…my face was flushed and my mind cloudy. I began to reach for my wallet…and in the process almost dropped an expensive camera…so I stopped what I was doing…and just then a colleague shouted…come on Miles…we got to move. So I did. I glanced back once and then ran on…dutifully to the next station where I did my best to refocus on my work and prepare for the next shot.
And here’s the thing…I continued on with the work at hand…we made our way all the way to the Holy Sepulcher…we got the very last shot of the bishop’s descending into Jesus’ tomb. You could tell the bishop’s anticipation was building as they neared their pilgrimage’s end…they and really we were on a spiritual mountaintop…there was a profound, weighty feeling that this was rich and good and holy…we were surrounded by the most head spinning, intricate sacred space I have ever been in…beautiful beyond description…heavenly even. But again here’s the thing…I could not shake the image of the man on the street. The image felt like it was calling to me…beckoning me. I wanted to run back to the man and pour the contents of my wallet into his hat. I wanted him to know that I saw him…I wanted to connect with him in some way. But I couldn’t walk away from what I was doing…so I continued to go through the motions till finally the last piece of equipment was placed into the van on the street outside the gates of the old city…and then dismissed myself in some nonsensical way…and I turned and ran. I was almost immediately lost in the dark and tiny pathways and streets. I couldn’t really remember where along the path I had seen the man…but I ran on. I was indeed filled with sorrow that I would not find him…that he would have moved on…returned to home wherever that might be…I began to shed tears…bumping into people along the way…but I continued on…and eventually rounded a sharp corner and their he was in the very same spot…with the same unfocused look in his eyes…and I stopped…dead in my tracks…and then I began to approached him slowly…apprehensively…like I was entering a sacred space…like the bishops entering Jesus’ tomb. I approached the man and indeed emptied my pockets and my wallet into his hat…and through my tears…said something like, “I am so glad you are still here.” He looked up only briefly and wordlessly nodded. And I felt like for one split second he saw me…he focused on me. And I felt like in that moment we were connected…in a place beyond describing. I felt like I was remade in some way. Not knowing what to do or say next…we probably didn’t even speak the same language…I turned and walked on…with no sense of where I really was or where I was going next. And I don’t think I really cared…I had done the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else in the world…at least in that moment.
And as I have reflected on this experience over the many years that have now followed, I have come to describe the experience as something like, or perhaps something very much like, compassion. And for the experience, I will ever and always be grateful to that man sitting cross-legged on that well-worn Jerusalem street. Compassion is a common word…used much of the time…particularly in the church world. But I think compassion is actually not an experience or emotion commonly felt. For it is something different from sympathy or guilt or sadness or passion or care. It is more akin to empathy and surely connected to love…that binds one person to another. Compassion is both physical and emotional…it is a connecter and a catalyst…binding one person to another. Compassion authentically feels, in the very center of who we are at a gut, base level, the suffering of the other…and draws us in…draws us to the other…fusing a connection between two people…that indeed brings life to both…to care-giver and care-receiver alike. In fact, once compassion leads to a connection forged between two people…I think the roles of care-giver and care-receiver are more or less indistinguishable. Did I care for the man on the Jerusalem street or did he care for me…well both in my estimation. Compassion is a catalyst creating authentic connection….and authentic connection is a catalyst creating life…a shared love life that brings hope and healing…indeed a new sort of life…for both or all involved.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, is indeed a story about life…life restored for a beloved and only son of a woman, a widow, living in a town called Nain. You recall, Jesus and his friends have entered into Nain and as they pass through the gates of the town, they come upon a funeral procession of sorts…the body of a young man…being carried out through the town’s gates. Again Luke tells us that the young man is the only son of a woman who is already a widow…meaning she has already lost her husband…and now her son…and thus is likely feeling entirely lost and alone in the world…with an entirely uncertain future. And here is where I would like for us to pay attention, Luke tells us when the Lord, Jesus, sees the woman…really sees her…he felt compassion for her, and he tells her not to weep…words of encouragement and connection offered to the one to whom Jesus is now deeply connected. He then lays a hand on the funeral bier that holds the young man’s body and the procession stops…and really the end of the story has already been written, in a sense, for only life can be born of this compassion filled encounter. Jesus says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And indeed the young man sits up and begins to speak. And Luke continues with the sweetest sort of description, he writes, “And Jesus gave…gave him to his mother.” I almost literally see Jesus caringly, lovingly, gently sweeping the young man up in his arms and then with great care and attention handing him to his mother…compassion, connection, new life.
Now surely Jesus could have passed along quietly on the other side of the road…he could have even paused and maintained a moment of silence…but his compassion would allow no such thing. Instead he was moved, even compelled, physically, emotionally to connect with the grieving mother, alone in the world, to offer words of encouragement, words binding the two together, and new life emerges in the most wonderful sorts of ways. Surely this young man raised from the dead points directly to Easter…to Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead…the greatest moment of compassion the world has ever known, God’s compassion for all who are made, all who suffer, all who are subject to sin and the power of death, even you and even me. Jesus’ suffering in his death connects him to our own…and his resurrection utterly destroys any and everything that stands in the way of our own connection with God, who is love, and indeed we now find ourselves connected to God for eternity…and our new lives are made forever and eternally certain…compassion, connection, new life.
Now I just get to tell my story today…but I know you too have your own stories of compassion experienced in your own life…both compassion directed toward you in your own moments of suffering and need…and your own compassion directed toward others in their own moments of suffering and need. And the power and promise in each of these experiences of compassion is connection with another, reminding us that we are not alone and our futures are entirely certain…and new life is thusly born…full of healing…full of hope. Each moment of compassion is a gift for which we should be ever and eternally grateful, and they indeed are fresh expressions of Easter…whatever the time of year whatever the experience shared…Easter wonderfully manifest over and over again…compassion, connection, new life.
For when compassion stirs our hearts…stirs our guts…bringing connection to the other and new life, which surely follows for us both, we are, in our innermost beings, most like Jesus. Amen.