The Power of Compassion

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Power of Compassion

 

Luke 7:11–17

Pentecost 3C 05.06.2016

 

If I was to say to you that “The church is dead. Long live the church!” You would think I am being a bit rash. Deep down you might have already thought that and any thinking person would but then you would begin to ask yourself whether or not you are being too harsh, That maybe just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean I am right. Maybe the church exists but I can’t see it yet. The fact is though that the church many of us grew up with is dying right before our eyes. If not dead, it barely lives. On countless street corners squats the shabby specter of these once vibrant places. Church buildings are on lockdown most of the time, haunted hulks of vaulted ceilings, empty pews, and bygone glory. Inside are dusty storage closets full of idle angel wings, boxes of unused hymnals, and once bright nurseries now draped in cobwebs. All that’s left is the ghost of Christmas’ past.

But, hang on a moment we said the church is dead and the church as we know it is dead, but what about the second part of the statement, the more intriguing part where we said “Long live the church!” This seems to suggest that there is still a case to be made that even though old ways of being church are indeed dead or dying, the spirit of the Beloved Community never dies? This is indeed a more difficult challenge. This suggests that something went wrong and that we might be a part of the problem. Long live the church suggests that maybe the church isn’t dead and that perhaps we are the ones who are dead, and the cause of death is amnesia. Perhaps we are the ones who have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong. So what does this challenge look like? We see that organized religion in the West seems to be at once both lifeless and pregnant with possibility. Maybe ours is the age of the ecclesiastical “in between”— as if one long breath of 400 years has gone out like a sigh, but the next 2000 breath has yet to be drawn. To some it feels like Good Friday, but what if it was already Advent. What if we are standing around like hesitant physicians afraid to tell the truth to a dying patient who needs to hear it. And what if the spirit remains, as stubborn as any human longing. And what if we are so hardwired to tradition that we would rather seek transcendence as a means of avoidance rather than address the reality of life. Of course we mean well. We sing our hearts out. We pray long prayers. But none of it can finally compensate for the fact that as a change agent, we have all but disappeared. Instead of leaven, we are like chameleons for Christ, absorbed into the very dominant culture we are called to critique and resist. As Robin Meyers has said; Who thinks of the church any more as a defiant community? Or faith itself as embodied resistance to the principalities and the powers? Whatever else may be said of the Jesus Movement, it was born in opposition to the status quo. Now it largely sanctifies the status quo. Its founder constituted an unacceptable risk to the Roman Empire, and that resistance seemed so counterintuitive and subversive that even his mental health was questioned. And lets be clear here I think resistance is less about complaining about the past and how we got here and more about facing up to, acknowledging that we have sanitized and watered down faith to the point where people say ‘ho-hum’.

Perhaps G. K. Chesterton was right when he said that “Christianity is not a faith that has been tried and found wanting, but a faith that has been wanted and never tried.” When it comes to analyzing the decline of organized religion in the West, there is plenty of blame to go around. Western culture is a culture of hyper-individualism and mindless performance. The spiritual life requires a moral imagination, and not relativism because that leaves very little left to imagine. Responding is all that is left to us and the “imaging” is all done for us by technology and the media. The discerning mind, the intellectual critique and the heart-felt compassion, are now blurred by apathy and neglect. The moral imagination, the most deeply human of all endeavour must work well if we are to love well. Sure, we are “connected” to our “friends” through the “social network.” Our handheld devices have bowed our heads, but not in prayer. Rather, we walk through the world in a bubble of disembodied messages from our approved list of contacts. Emoticons replace emotions; push the like button if it moves you and the new meaning of “text” has nothing to do with canon and everything to do with solitude, isolation, and the false gift of individualism, which is to take our individuality and all its differences and its richness and its morality and its imagination and bury it in an electronic pulse.

The videos of cats doing surprising and cute things rushes around the world with millions of likes pretending to celebrate our humanity and advertisements flood our hand held phones with the pornography of the market place. Buy more and live a better life, joint the consumerism bandwagon and find solace.

The sad truth is that much of the church today is a harmless non-interesting handmaiden of the corporate machine, clinging nostalgically to a gospel that is as unacceptable in practice now as it was in the beginning. We confuse performance with ministry, beliefs with faith, and charity with justice. I like Robin Meyers’ phrase where he says our demise of church is the result of the abandonment of our peculiar witness to the upside-down instructions left to us by a God-intoxicated misfit. Christians can survive almost anything, save the loss of distinctiveness.

We can make our share of mistakes, but we cannot be a mistake. The very definition of what it means to be a Christian must be salvaged now, taken back, by force if necessary, from those who domesticated a way of life and turned it into a quarreling quagmire of noisy “believers.”

I suggested on Trinity Sunday that we needed to stop fiddling around with the meaning of the Trinity, because the present-day Rome is burning. The experience of relationship was being destroyed. The empire of traditional orthodox Christianity is being consumed in our comfort making and we are being made bereft of our imagination. While we mumble our prayers for the poor, their poverty and pain increase by the hour, hidden by our social networking. While we huddle together in apathy lamenting the number of industries that ravage the earth for energy and then market death to us disguised as comfort, the very conscience of the faithful is euthanized by public relations campaigns that make us swoon with gratitude for the humanitarian altruism of the few wealthy. The question we face is where are the holy fools for God today?

Our text for today is about the widow of Nain and here we see the counter-cultural nature of Christian ministry. It screams that there is nothing remotely ordinary about Jesus. He’s the charismatic fool from Galilee who transforms lives. He associates with the outcast and changes their lives. He is the one the widow of Nain puts her faith in.

Luke talks about the “large crowd” that accompanied Jesus and his disciples. He uses the same Greek word to describe how when they entered the town gate, they met another “large crowd” that was leaving the village. It was a funeral procession. They were leaving Nain because ritual purity prohibited burials inside the city walls. And so the two “large crowds” met at the town gate — the followers of Jesus and the mourners of Nain. The corpse was “the only son of his mother,” which meant that this woman faced double jeopardy. She had been a widow, and now she was childless. As if her fragile life wasn’t hard enough, she fell further down the economic scale of protection and provision. All she had to live for and to live by was gone. Perhaps the “large crowd” that accompanied her was indicative of the depth of her tragedy.

When the two crowds met and Jesus encountered the widow, “his heart went out to her” in a spontaneous act of compassion. No one had asked him to do anything. No one had recognized him. But the sights and sounds were too much for Jesus. Moved to compassion, he told her, “Don’t cry.” He then touched the coffin, raised the man to life, and “gave him back to his mother.” Here at once we have a picture of what compassion looks like. It is foolishness in that it has no reward, no ego serving result. It is counter-cultural in that it goes against the accepted norms of society. It is economical subversive-ness in that it re-instates the widow to a place of worth and value in society. It is dangerous to the orthodoxy and how does it do this? It does it through the unexpected, the ridiculous idea of compassion, of giving without expectation, of spending without return, of giving and giving and giving again.

This is dangerous stuff because resisting orthodoxy, will set off the ancient alarms of heresy. The truth is that the first followers of Jesus were resisting not just oppressive hierarchies and purity codes of their religion and their society, but the very definition of religion itself. The “principalities and the powers” were not limited to the Roman Empire. They included the religious establishment itself, whose legalistic maze brokered access to God and “devoured widow’s houses.” Just as the church does today by its very existence. To be a disciple of the resister from Nazareth is to challenge more than individual sin. It is to resist theological perversions as well. In our scene this is to honour the mind, live the questions and explore the adventure of humanity. Encourage the imagination as a gift of mindfulness, ask the hard questions regardless of their effect or perceived effect, and participate with integrity the complexity and the promise that being human offers. This can sound seductively exciting, of course, without sounding appropriately dangerous. What can happen is that when a phrase like “resisting the principalities and the powers” rolls off the tongue it can make someone believe that all we need to do is hit the streets, or storm the barricades, or maybe lie down in front of a tank. What I think we might think about here is that the need for resistance is perhaps better explained as the need for resurrection and by that I mean more than civil disobedience or political rebellion. They are of course required as counter-cultural activities in some cases, but what is required is   being subversive for the cause of love and this requires a new life, a new paradigm a new birth. It requires resurrection and that is not about an individual rebirth, it is the coming alive of all the faithful. Let’s be clear about the nature of this resistance. It is always personal, a rebirthing of the ego. It is always theological, as it is always spiritual and it is always cultural in that it has to take note of the dynamics of contextual change. In simple terms resurrection, and resistance are about pushing back against the idea that Christianity is an orthodox belief system with the view that being Christian is about being unorthodox.

I like the challenge Robin Meyers gives us when he reminds us that resistance against orthodoxy is not just about signing on to do battle with some perceived enemy, because sadly the ethos of the warrior and the righteous battle dominates Western culture. Anne Lamott reminds us that “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Sadly the orthodoxy of today’s church is saturated with the language of righteous warfare, calling Christians to “put on the whole armour of God” and circle the wagons against a culture that we are told wishes to destroy Christianity by persecuting and marginalizing its true practitioners. When in fact the issues we face are far more dangerous than that.

The issues we face with the demise of the church are more dangerous than right or wrong doctrine, more dangerous than any fears about Gay marriage and abortion, because this resurrection promise is like the widow’s in our text. It is wholly life transformative, it is radical theology that challenges all our assumptions. It requires us to sweep aside that which we cannot yet see, to turn the other cheek in the face of a slap, to go the extra mile when there is nothing but muddy path ahead. It is a willingness to embrace a faith born of wonder, or “radical amazement.” It is a faith that welcomes doubt because that welcomes human reasoning and challenges that which has been divinely revealed. It is not arrogant to believe that human reasoning can be brought to bear on that which is immutable, and thus trans-rational, because doubt cannot disassemble anything that human reason has not previously assembled, so it is healthy, and in fact imperative to doubt orthodoxy in fact it is dangerous not to. Amen.

Meyers, Robin. Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance Yale University Press.

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