Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Miracle of Compassion

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 10, 2007
BCP: Year C, Proper 5 – The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:17-24
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17
Psalm 30

The Miracle of Compassion

Some of you may remember that two summers ago as part of my preparation to be ordained I worked as a chaplain up at Christ Hospital. It was an exhausting but powerful experience. I don’t need to tell you that hospitals are intense places – places of great suffering and joy, places of death and life. For me, one of the hardest parts of my job was when patients and their families told me that they were praying for – that they expected - a miracle to happen.

I always felt very uncomfortable in those situations. As a priest-to-be these suffering people expected me to back them up and say “Absolutely, keep on praying for that miracle.” I knew, though, that in most – if not all – cases there would be no miracle. But the Scriptures and Christian history are filled with miracles – so who was I to dash their hopes?

During that summer we were given the assignment of leading a prayer service and giving a sermon - on suffering - in the hospital chapel. The service was carried live on closed-circuit TV throughout the hospital. So we knew that it was possible that patients, their family and friends might be tuned in to hear what we had to say about suffering.

During his sermon, one of my classmates told the story of how he and his wife had struggled to have a child. He came from a different culture and so it was kind of shocking to hear that his family and friends encouraged him to divorce his wife and find a woman who would give him a son or daughter. He didn’t divorce her – instead together they prayed and prayed. For years they prayed. And then… she became pregnant. And pregnant again. And pregnant one more time. And then they told God thanks but three’s enough.

Then, as now, that got a good laugh. However, he concluded the sermon with the point that if we pray hard enough God will give us what we want. I sat there in the chapel angry and upset. I imagined the people upstairs in those rooms – lying in bed, hooked up to machines, or sitting beside a loved one – and listening to that sermon. If we only pray harder God will give us a miracle. Why hasn’t God given us a miracle?

As you might guess, later we chaplains had quite a heated discussion about that sermon and about miracles. From my perspective, who would want to believe in a God who can heal people and ease their suffering but chooses not to? Why would God offer miracles to some and not to others? And what do I as a member of the clergy say to people who are suffering and begging for a miracle? What do any of us as Christians say?

The person who gave the sermon defended himself by pointing to the miracles performed by Jesus throughout the Scriptures. He insisted that if we pray hard enough God will give us a miracle.

He could have used today’s gospel lesson as an example. Today Luke tells this very beautiful story of Jesus being moved by the sight of a widow burying her only son. Luke writes that Jesus “had compassion for her” and so raises her dead son from the dead.

It’s a very beautiful story. But, this little excerpt from the gospel doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on its own.

Then as now the world was filled with intense suffering. In Jesus’ world – with no medicine and poor diets – death was a very familiar presence. Jesus would have seen sick people, dying people, and funeral processions every day. But the gospels don’t tell us that Jesus healed every sick person he met. The gospels don’t tell us that Jesus raised every dead person he saw. So, what’s going on here?

To really understand this event we have to look at what else Luke writes. In the previous chapter, Luke recalls Jesus’ most important teaching – here it’s called the Sermon on the Plain. In the sixth chapter of Luke Jesus teaches about his ministry and message. I’m sure his words are familiar to many of us:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Later, Jesus says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you.”

Jesus is teaching that God is compassionate. God cares about us. God loves us. And Jesus is teaching that we are called to be compassionate, too. As a great teacher, Jesus knows that we don’t really learn much through words, through lectures – through what teachers sometimes call “chalk and talk.” Instead, Jesus knows that people learn best through experience. And so after all these beautiful words Jesus goes into action and shows us what he means. He performs miracles as signs of God’s compassion. He performs miracles to call us to be compassionate, too.

The seventh chapter of Luke contains three great miracles. The first is when Jesus heals the centurion’s slave. All the people tell Jesus how the centurion is a good man and deserves to be helped. The centurion himself is humble and says he does not deserve to come under Jesus’ roof but believes that Jesus can heal his slave. Jesus is moved by the faith and goodness of this Roman soldier and heals the slave. It’s a wonderful story, but I suppose we could all agree that this good soldier – who asked nothing of himself, only for his slave – deserved a miracle.

The second miracle is today’s gospel lesson. Notice we know nothing at all about the dead man. We don’t know if he was good, faithful, hardworking, or honest. We know nothing about him except that his mother is mourning him deeply. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter whether this man was good, faithful, hardworking or honest. Through this miracle Jesus is showing us that God offers new life to everyone – there’s no test that has to be passed. God is compassionate to all. God cares for all. God loves all of us.

The third miracle in this chapter occurs when Jesus goes to a Pharisee’s house for dinner. A woman who is described as a “sinner” is there and bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and then anoints his feet with ointment. You know how the story goes – the Pharisee is shocked and criticizes Jesus for allowing this “bad” woman to touch him in this way. Jesus, though, is moved by her faith, forgives her sins and sends her off in peace. Maybe we wouldn’t normally think of this as a miracle – but it’s as miraculous as healing the slave and raising the dead man back to life. Rather than just telling us that God forgives, rather than just telling us to forgive, Jesus allows us to experience forgiveness. Jesus allows us to experience that God is so compassionate that God forgives everyone – even those who religious leaders say are unforgivable and untouchable.

It seems to me that these miracles are important not so much for the physical healing that takes place. After all, like all of us, eventually the centurion’s slave and the widow’s son will die. No, it seems to me that these miracles are important as signs of God’s compassion for all people – for Romans and Jews, for slaves and free people, for good people and people who seem not so good. These miracles are signs of God’s compassion for all people - for people whose names we don’t even know.

Jesus performs miracles to point to the great truth, the saving truth, that God is compassionate towards us. God cares for us. God loves us. Jesus performs miracles to point to the great truth that we are called to be compassionate, we are called to care, we are called to love.

So, how about us? How compassionate are we? Just like in Jesus’ time we are surrounded by a suffering world. All around us people are sick, people are mourning the dead, people are begging for forgiveness. There are people in this very parish who are sick, lonely and frightened. Right now God is calling us to be like Jesus. God is calling us to offer compassion not just to some people. God is calling us to offer compassion not just to people we know. God is calling us to offer compassion not just to “good” people. God is calling us to be like Jesus and offer compassion to everyone. God is calling us to be like Jesus. God is calling us to offer the miracle of compassion.