Passage: Psalm 146; Luke 7:11-17
Date: June 10, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Let us pray: Prepare our hearts, O Lord. Turn down the volume of the words which swirl around us and in us. We desire to hear your voice, yours, that hearing, we may also live into your will, your light, your joy, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
We begin with a great Psalm, the 146th. It is printed on an insert for us to read and hear responsively. Be astonished what it reveals about God. Remember, most ancient literature was not like our local Street Roots newspaper, which is written by the homeless and down-and-out. No, then like now, media was controlled by the elite. So, listen to the amazing subversiveness of this psalm of praise. (Ps. 146)
God's subversive character continues in the second lectionary reading, from Luke 11. Following today's episode, disciples of John the baptizer will inquire if Jesus is the one to come. He responds, "Tell John: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them." It is about Jesus. Listen, then, for God's good news: 7:11-17.
I got in on just a couple of minutes of it as I was flipping channels last week. An attractive young woman was beseeching others to let her remain on the ship. Yes, she had made some mistake, but couldn't they remember all of the good things she had done previously, and not vote her off? An equally attractive but more confident brunette followed, reminding the others with obvious pride of her contributions. Yes, she had had an injured knee, but it had healed so much that she no longer needed to wear a brace. She was sure she could do her part. She did not want to be tossed overboard either. I did not stay there long enough to find out what happened to any of them on that reality show.
Much more than a show, Luke's few verses expose the real plight of a woman being tossed overboard by life, literally. It happened then. It surely still does. In ancient cultures, and in many today, the closest human relationships were not between husbands and wives. Remember, virtually all marriages were arranged by families so as to maintain social status in a community. Courtship/falling-in-love type weddings were almost non-existent. While the relationship between spouses could become very close, the tightest fiercest relationship was between a mother and a son. He was the land-inheritor, and her protector and provider in old age. Ancients who heard these verses would have known full well their dire implications.
Jesus and his entourage approached the small town. A funeral procession was coming out. Hear the hammer blows of her pathetic situation: "He was his mother's only son." "She was a widow." Widows existed on the extremities of Judean society. Without any economic support or protection, with no niche of social belonging, because it always had to be through a male, her death would surely follow her son's. Even surrounded by the crowd of mourners, she was distressingly alone.
The one from out of town, which would make him suspect, the stranger Jesus saw her. Funerals happened all the time. Life was predictably brief for the vast percentage of people in primitive societies. By the time Jesus began his ministry, 75% of his contemporaries had already died. But, he saw her, saw this nobody. Luke says he had compassion for her. Big deal. In English, it is almost a wimpy word. But, in Greek, it carries intestinal power. Jesus did not just see the widow's striking need. He took it to the core of his being. Feelings are rarely portrayed biblically, especially Jesus'. Here, this lowly widow's pain became his pain. Debbie Blue says: "It's not the kind of activity that makes for a smooth running machine. Compassion is not about boundaries and rational detachment. Brueggemann calls it a radical threat to the numbness maintained by the dominant order." (Theolog, the blog of the Christian Century, 6/4/07) Compassion, God's radical threat. It calls what is into question. So, it matters to me, this compassion of Jesus. I believe we are most whole, most in touch with the holy, when our hearts can be broken on behalf of others. Growing in that kind of compassion is nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
Jesus, out of untidy compassion, quickly slashed through boundaries. A stranger, he initiated encounter. A man, he spoke to a woman in public. "Do not keep on crying," he said. Like something was going to happen to change her horrible situation. It was, because it was the compassion of Jesus. He put out his hand, touched the stretcher bearing her son, and thereby breached a cleanliness code. The bearers all stopped still. Then, without any theatrics, a brief command: "Young man, I say to you, rise!" Nothing more was required. The mother had not asked Jesus for help, had not demonstrated her faith in him. Yet, with the restoration of her son, she received her own life back as well. It had all been Jesus' initiative, the result of his compassion. They were filled with awe, because surely the Holy Spirit was at hand, doing what God does: unpredictably breaking in with life in the face of death, light in the midst of darkness.
Friends, we are here because of this God, this overflowing-heart-of-compassion God. We receive new members today, and they will proclaim before you their relationship of faith to this God. We commission senior highs and advisors, and they will promise to be open to the compassionate spirit of this God as they live and work together. Amazing!
Did you not rejoice recently with God over the government-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland? After decades of brutal Christian sectarian violence, Protestants and Catholics there are now part of a miracle. It is indeed fragile. Literal and emotional walls will remain for some time. But what was thought impossible has occurred. Thanks be to God.
Last week, I met a 35-year-old from the Netherlands when I was at the Taize community in France. Ton is an open, positive free spirit. An alcoholic and drug user, he has been clean and sober for almost three years. After years of existing in darkness and death, he now is living into the light. Christ's compassion has engulfed him, and his life is new. Thanks be to God.
In April, the world's largest retail fast food chain, McDonald's, caved in to the Florida based Coalition of Immokalee Workers union. McDonald's agreed to guarantee higher wages and improved working conditions for tomato pickers. Our denomination, which had sided with the farmworkers in an earlier successful Taco Bell boycott, hailed the agreement as "a real move toward human rights and fair food for everyone." The last remaining hold out fast food chain is Burger King. We know what to do. Light, justice, hope unpredictably breaking in. Thanks be to God.
And does not your heart break on this 40th anniversary of the United Nations condemned illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian west bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem? I believe it is God who breaks our hearts over the injustice, the mutual fear and searing pain, the nearly overwhelming hopelessness of it all. And in that breaking, we touch the heart of Christ, the compassionate cross of Christ planted firmly, deeply in that suffering. Thank God.
More, when we can no longer stand it, when holding on to a past hurt or deed eats our insides, wakes us at night, when we cry out for relief, or for forgiveness, for peace because we cannot fix it ourselves, we can rejoice and be glad. God's life-restoring Spirit is at work in us.
When we realize our own aloneness, when we discover that so much around us sustains a culture of death and fear and we are part of it, when we find ourselves wanting to go against the current, we can rejoice and be glad. We are being caught up in Christ's life and hope.
Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community, wrote these words of instruction to the other brothers. Listen.
Desiring as you do to give your life because of Christ and the Gospel, always keep in mind that you are advancing with him toward the light, even in the midst of your own darkness.
So, no longer looking back, run forward in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ. He is leading you along a path of light...
You know that Jesus came for all, not just for a few....
Making the earth a place where all can live, be they nearby or far away, is one of the beautiful pages of the Gospel for you to write by your life. (Brother Roger of Taize, essential writings, p. 33)
Do you hear it? This is about God, this overflowing-heart-of-compassion God. Rejoice and be glad in Jesus Christ our Lord.