Sunday, June 06, 2010

Lessons in Compassion

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 5) – Year C (RCL)
Youth Sunday at 10:15 Liturgy

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Sunday, June 6, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands
[Original manuscript, but sermon preached from outline]

Now that we’ve gotten through Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, we have a shift in liturgical seasons. We enter the longest liturgical season of the year, the season after Pentecost. We have come through Eastertide, where we focus on the promise of new and eternal life made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we look forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We end Eastertide with Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, that gift that provides us with what we need to continue in the here and now until the eventual coming of the Kingdom. And now, in the season after Pentecost, we settle into the fact that we do live in the here and now, and begin looking at how we may live the Gospel in our everyday lives.

Because of the sharp shift we have just gone through, from focus on the promise of the Kingdom of God during Eastertide to living of everyday life in anticipation of the Kingdom, we may be tempted to see the Kingdom as being at some future time and place beyond our own realm. But we do not wait idly by for this kingdom to manifest itself. For with Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God has begun. It is not fully manifest, but it is beginning to break through. It is not for some future time and place, but belongs as much in the present. This Kingdom, while not fully manifest, plays out in the day-to-day lives of each of us, as we struggle to meet our basic needs, as we confront the forces of evil still present in our world – greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, complacency. This season after Pentecost is not about waiting for the Kingdom but rather is about doing our part to help make the Kingdom a reality here and now. It is about living a kingdom lifestyle, living the kingdom values proclaimed in the Gospel. And as our liturgical season shifts, so does the tenor of our Sunday scripture lessons. For the next six months, our lessons give us insight into the way we are to live our day-to-day lives in the newly forming Kingdom of God.

Today’s lessons, particularly the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel, focus on the theme of compassion and the various ways it is manifest in our lives. The Gospel lesson from Luke focuses on divine compassion, on the compassion that Jesus has for the widow as she grieves the loss of her only son. Jesus is responding to the widow’s suffering, both seen and unseen. There is seen suffering in the loss of her son, but also unseen suffering in the sense of hopelessness that she faces now that she has no male provider to care for her. She has instantly been thrust into poverty and to the margins of society. Jesus, moved by her plight, has compassion and solves her two-fold suffering in a miraculous way, through the raising of her son from the dead. For us, this story illustrates the first step in engaging in acts of compassion. Jesus was moved to help the woman. We cannot act in compassion until we are first moved, casting aside our complacency or our hardness of heart.

Now what Jesus actually does is a little beyond us. I doubt many of us have raised someone from the dead lately. So, we will move on to the Old Testament lesson, which puts a slightly different, more human, face on compassion.

In this story from 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah comes to Zarephath. While his entry into the village and immediate demand for food may seem a bit rude, we have to realize that 1) God has told him this woman will provide for him, and 2) he has been living out in the wilderness during a time of drought. So, he has probably not had much to eat or drink for some time. Now the widow is in a bad place herself. She is without hope, having barely enough meal and oil for one final loaf of bread for her and her son. And in this drought situation, there is no hope of getting any more. This is the end for her. But despite her own plight, she has compassion on Elijah and does as he requests. Of course, it probably helps that he tells her that God will provide for her needs. But even so, she had to have a certain amount of faith, as well as compassion, to trust the word of this crazy stranger who has just wandered in off the desert and to give of her remaining meager supplies. Out of her compassion, she does give of what little she has to Elijah. In fulfilling Elijah’s request, God’s promise to her is fulfilled. The meal and the oil do not run out, and she, her son, and Elijah have enough to eat for some time to come.

Now while this story does rely on miracle and divine intervention, I think it also holds some insights into compassion and the miracle of engaging in compassionate acts. In this story, we have the intersection of, or interaction between, human and divine compassion. God had compassion on Elijah and provided for his needs through the widow. In so doing, God also had compassion for the widow. In fact, God’s compassion was really operating on multiple levels. Through Elijah’s words of assurance to the widow, she gained a renewed sense of hope – that this might not be the end, but that she and her son might yet survive. And then through the miracle of the jars of meal and oil, God’s compassion physically sustained the widow and her entire household. The fact that the jars of meal and oil never gave out reveal an even greater truth about God’s love and compassion – God’s desire for all to have life and to have it abundantly.

Not to sound trite, but the underlying message is that when we have compassion for others, our own needs or concerns seem to be taken care of in the process – and sometimes in ways we don’t even anticipate. It’s one of those mysteries. There are all sorts of stories of people who had barely enough resources to survive, but helped another in need anyway. I have been blessed to meet some such people. And their story is always the same. Even after giving, they still had enough for their own needs – just like the widow. And not only were their basic needs met, but they were also blessed. They find they were fed physically, and in the process were also fed spiritually. The amazing thing is that when it comes to compassionate giving, those who are among the poorer in our society tend to give a greater proportion of their meager resources to help others in need. And they generally find that they still have enough to meet basic needs. Studies on this phenomenon indicate that the reason this is so is because such help is an expression of how communities come together to meet common goals. By helping others, they also express faith that their own needs will be cared for.

As a religion based on community, we need to listen to this. Our scriptures are full of stories of compassion, particularly toward the most marginalized in society. And it is through community that we are best able to meet those needs, to express compassion. It is through the individual, but particularly the communal expressions of compassion that we begin to create a sense of the Kingdom of God here and now.

I think the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath also gives us some insight into how we engage compassion, enter into acts of compassion. It is by inviting God into the process, allowing the intersection of human and divine compassion – the divine compassion that presents itself when we invite the prophetic into our midst. This is symbolized in story of Elijah by the widow offering compassionate care to Elijah, the prophet, who in turn revealed that all would be well, and this was backed up by God’s actions. For us, inviting the prophetic into the process means looking to those who have an openness to the calling to be compassionate. Who are these prophetic ones we seek? They are here in our midst. When it comes to openness to being compassionate, there are none more predisposed than our children. Our children and our youth are the prophetic ones we need to turn to.

In this liturgy, we are celebrating our Christian education program by incorporating elements of what our children and youth have been learning all year. In our Christian education programming, we seek to prepare our children and particularly our youth to be sent out into the world. The primary goal is to instill in them the simple fact that God loves them, each and every one of them. And in the process, it is our hope that through their time in our midst, that they have learned what it means to be a Christian, that they have picked-up some sense of Christian responsibility, that they have realized that being a Christian means being willing to serve. But we can only tell them the stories. They have to internalize them. They have to make the lessons their own.

I am pleased to report that when it comes to this part of their education, becoming compassionate followers of Christ, our kids have all passed with flying colors. Our children and youth have not only engaged in acts of compassion, they have been leaders in compassion. Just in the last academic year, our kids and youth have of their own volition (though sometimes with prompting by their teachers) started three campaigns of compassion. They did the Pennies for Peace campaign to help build schools in Afghanistan. They made luminarias to help raise money for the Redlands Community Hospital hospice program, but also to emotionally help those for whom Christmas is a difficult time of year. And our children did a drive to collect baby clothes for Joseph’s Storehouse. And I dare say that this is far more than us grown-ups did during that same timeframe.

Our children and our youth have learned that we who are readily fed are called to feed others. As Christians, this means that we not only feed physically, through the giving of bread, but also spiritually, through the sharing of the Good News, through the giving of Christ, who is the Bread of Life. And they have learned that in feeding others we too are fed spiritually. And thus the cycle continues.

Our job is to raise up our young ones, to teach them, to be good shepherds to them. But our job does not end there. We also need to listen to them, because they also have something to teach us, about Christian values, about Christian responsibility, about working to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now. As Isaiah foretells in his prophecy of the coming kingdom, “a little child shall lead them.” And we would do well to follow.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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