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Jeff Rudy ~ Steer Toward the Pain

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

-Luke 7:11-17

I have a confession to make: until this past winter, I never could maintain the attention span to make it through a single viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. I’d always fall asleep at some point. Something about black and white films have the tendency to make me sleepy. But that all changed, I think, when my son and daughter auditioned and were cast for the play It’s a Wonderful Life last December. My son played the role of ‘Young George’ and my daughter was Zuzu Bailey, and got to deliver the beloved line “Listen, Daddy! Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings’.”

I fell in love with the redemption story of George Bailey as I saw the rehearsals leading up to the performances. So when it came time to start our routine of watching Christmas movies, I was eager to see the movie with a renewed sense of interest. I noticed something unique about George Bailey’s attire right after his father died and he stood up to Mr. Potter, who was trying to take over Bedford Falls, at the board meeting. (My friend Elizabeth, who heads up Wesleyan Accent, recently posted about this and that came to mind as I was working with this text.)

downloadGeorge had this black band around his left arm. Many of you are aware of the significance of that piece of fabric in yesteryear – it was a public display of an individual or a family, that they were in a time of grief. It served as a reminder for others to give you space to grieve; an acknowledgement that you’re not entirely okay and that is okay. In times past, women would also wear mourning jewelry, which would often have a locket with the picture of the loved one who had died on one side and a locket of hair weaved through fabric on the other side.These bits of attire served as a reminder to you and an indicator to those around you that you were in a season of sorrow; that all isn’t well with your soul, and that that’s okay.

At some point these things waned from popular use and we typically don’t have these sorts of public expressions today. I suppose the closest thing we have is the ability to turn on your hazard lights on your car as you process behind the hearse from the church or the funeral home to the place where your loved one will be interred or their ashes scattered. When you’re in such a procession, people sometimes steer over to the side of the road as the procession goes as a sign of respect, to give space and acknowledge the grieving party.

At the church where I am serving, it seems like we’ve had a good deal of that recently. While we’ve had lots to celebrate this year in the life of Jackson (TN) First UMC, and we’ve celebrated some very good milestones recently – 16 young people making their commitment to be disciples of Jesus Christ as they were confirmed in the faith, many who have experienced healing from various diseases via surgeries or treatments of other sorts, people have been told that their cancer is in remission, families are growing through birth and adoption – there is so much for which we have to be thankful – but there is another reality that continues to strike at and break our hearts – mortality. This church experienced some of its greatest growth and flourishing in the mid 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s. Do the math and you’ll realize that many of our church’s members have approached life expectancy. And so, it seems that the opening words of the liturgy of a service of committal are quite appropriate for this season we seem to be in – “In the midst of life, we are in death; from whom can we seek help?” The response to this question in the liturgy comes from the Psalms: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Celebration and grief. Life and death. And so the stage is set for this encounter Luke portrays in this morning’s gospel lesson. Two competing atmospheres are approaching one another: one, a festive celebration of joy and triumph at the wondrous things that have occurred through the ministry of the man Jesus from Nazareth, whose popularity is still growing; the other, a funeral procession headed by a woman who had already lost her husband and now whose only son had died, leaving her utterly desolate, without sustenance and financial support for the rest of her life, which might not be very much longer given what has transpired.

The funeral procession has already gone outside the town limits and it is outside the city gate, where it’s more likely to be lonely and isolated and outcast, where the two groups meet. No cars, no flashing lights, but there was apparently some clear indicator of who the widow and childless mother was – something like a black armband, or mourning jewelry. Or perhaps, I suppose, it was likely the manner in which she was weeping that gave her away – the mourning that only a woman who has lost a child could let out, but something evoked a visceral reaction in Jesus. The Message reads it thusly: “When Jesus saw her, his heart broke.” Or as the NRSV puts it, “…he had compassion for her…”

I was asked this week by a dear friend and mentor of mine: “What is the difference between passion and compassion?” It might’ve seemed like a smart-aleck response, but I said, three letters. Yes, probably deserving of an eye roll. But those first three letters “com-” are significant, for in Latin “com” means “with”; hence, where “passion” means “to suffer,” “compassion” means “to suffer with”. Having that preposition “with” means that compassion has 800px-Drawing-a-circle-with-the-compasseseverything to do with relationship. John Phillip Newell sees a connection between the word compassion and the mathematical compass, which has two points—a needle and a pencil—and also measures distance. A compass, and hence compassion, has everything to do with the relationship between two points – or two persons – or two parties. There’s always a connection.

What was the connection between Jesus and this woman? Maybe this is mere speculation but I wonder if, when Jesus beheld the grief of the widow who had lost her son, that he pondered the future grief of his parent, his Father in heaven when he would die. Or perhaps he considered the grief and vulnerability that his own mother would experience when he would die, at which time he would present one of his disciples to his mother as another son (John 19:26-27).

In any case, he was moved with compassion to do something. Rather than steering his parade away from the procession, he did the opposite: he steered toward the pain. That was the advice given to Fleming Rutledge by the leader of a seminar on how to be helpful to suicidal people: Steer toward the pain. That’s the picture of genuine Christ-like compassion – steering toward the pain, suffering with the other. And behold how his compassion doesn’t stay on the emotive and passive side like we tend to do by merely clicking on the “sad” face on a Facebook post (not that that’s a bad thing, but that’s not the heart of compassion). Compassion, in the Jesus way, is active – it steers toward the pain, joins folks in the valley of the shadow of death and finds some way to point to the hope of the resurrection.

Look at what Jesus said and did. He first says, “Don’t cry” to the mother – which sounds like a rather insensitive remark. (Let me interject one piece of pastoral advice here – never tell someone who is grieving “Don’t cry” unless you are going to raise their loved one back from the dead, too.) But when Jesus said this, it was in reality a prelude to the action of raising her son. But note how he does so, and here compassion takes on a different, challenging quality – by touching the bier, a sort of stretcher on which they carried the dead—what might be somewhat the equivalent of a coffin or casket in our day. But in that time the body was out in the open and Jesus was running a great risk as he approached the bier and touched it. Jesus was willing to make himself ritually impure, but that’s Jesus for you – disregarding his own societal and religious status and acting on behalf of those who have none – emptying himself (think Philippians 2:5-8) and suffering with us in death, for that is where we were and where we find ourselves – in order that we might have the hope of new life, of restoration, of resurrection. That’s what compassion does – it calls us to run the risk of steering toward the pain and entering the hard places so that others might find a glimmer of hope.

One of our lay people at Jackson First UMC, Abby Lackey, experienced the death of a stillborn child five years ago. In the season that followed she started a non-profit organization, Heaven’s Cradle, which has developed into a comprehensive perinatal hospice care program. For more information about Heaven’s Cradle, visit this website: Her experience of loss, the compassion she received was contagious as she found herself equipped to be compassionate toward others in the same way – this compassion is uncomfortable, says Abby, calling us to places that at times we’d rather not go.

Having this sort of compassion is risky – it will stretch us in ways that we will find uncomfortable; we might have to run the risk of getting our hands dirty or having our reputation take a hit. But that’s what active compassion does. The other two times in Luke’s gospel where this word for compassion is used are in probably the two most popular parables Jesus shared: the good Samaritan and the father of the prodigal son.

  • When the Samaritan saw the man who had fallen into the hands of robbers, he was moved with compassion and steered toward the pain (whereas the others steered away), put himself in harm’s way and got his hands dirty – put ointment on and bandaged the man’s wounds and took the man to an inn and covered his hotel and hospital bills. That’s active compassion.
  • When the father of the prodigal son saw him a long way off on his way home, wearing rags and walking barefoot, the father was moved with compassion, would have to have hiked his robe up in what would have been an undignified manner, ran through the town so that the townspeople couldn’t shame the returning son, threw himself around his long lost son and ordered for sandals to be put on his feet, a robe for him to wear and a ring for his finger. That’s compassion.

Where does this put you and me? I think what William Brodrick once said about how we have to be candles fits with this idea of an active sort of compassion. Listen to what he said:

“We have to be candles, burning between
hope and despair, faith and doubt,

life and death, all the opposites.
That is the disquieting place where people must always find us.”

So… when “in the midst of life, we are in death,” when the parade of festive celebration meets the procession of death, we find Jesus, we find God in both, but he is steered toward the pain – compassionate. It is because only in the procession of death, the pain and grief, where resurrection is possible. May that be where we steer, in compassion, nearer to where we find God:

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,

Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to thee;

Nearer, my God, to thee; nearer to thee!

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