Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Healing Place for Souls

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 6, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Luke 7:11-17 (Proper 5C)

“A healing place for souls.”  That is part of our threefold mission statement:  “A healing place for souls, a school for justice and a welcome table
for all.”  What do we mean when we say that?  What is it that we are trying to say about ourselves?  What do we mean by healing?

First off we should acknowledge where the phrase comes from.  We did not make it up.  It was the inscription over the entrance to a library in Thebes in ancient Greece.  No one knows exactly what they meant by that, but libraries ideally have always been places of the quiet gaining of knowledge and humility, a place where balance is easier to achieve than most places.

Unfortunately, when people hear the word “healing,” they tend to think of the curing of physical illness.  They think about the practice of medicine and if “healing” is used outside of the practice of medicine than we must be talking about miracles.  But although we do not want to preclude the possibility of the miraculous we certainly do not mean by calling ourselves “a healing place for souls,“ that we are “a place of miraculous cures.”

In one sense the possibility of and longing for miracle is a distraction for something much, much bigger that is going on when we talk about healing.  This is clearly true in the story of Jesus.  The miracle stories are about physical cures, even, as in this morning’s reading, the raising of the dead, which, in today’s language, we might call “extreme miracle.”  But none of the miracle stories in the story of Jesus are just about, or even primarily about, the physical cure.  They are themselves enacted parables, Jesus carrying out his teaching.

Last week and this week we have the two miracle stories from the seventh chapter of Luke.  In chapter six Jesus was teaching, in the Gospel of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew, shorter and more concise.  What Matthew takes 109 verses to say, Luke says in 29.  The summation of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 might be verses 36 through 38.

Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.  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.

          In short, “Live with compassion, as God does.”  The word translated as “merciful” can just as easily be translated “compassionate.”  I think “compassion” is a better English word for what Jesus is getting at.  “Mercy” is a great word, but it still implies having power over someone, just choosing not to exercise it.  “Compassion” is more empathetic, putting one’s self in the place of another.  It comes from two Latin words, cum, “with,” and passio, “to suffer,” “to suffer with.”

          Jesus then lives out this teaching in the two miracle stories of chapter seven.  Last week we heard the story of the healing of the Roman centurion’s slave.  This week we have heard the story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. Jesus shows the compassion that he urges his followers to have, and that he teaches God already has.  The word even appears in the second story, the one we just heard.

When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.

          There the Greek word for compassion is one of my favorite Greek words of the New Testament.  Jesus has splanchnizomai.  It comes from the Greek word for our inner organs, splanchna.  It is rather like our word “guts,” which come also to mean boldness or courage.  “He’s got guts.”  This compassion is truly felt; it is emotional as well as reasonable.  It comes from inside.  It’s a very strong word.

          Just as important in these stories as enacted parables is not only what Jesus does and his motivation for doing so, but to whom he does it.  After teaching us to have compassion just like God does, he shows compassion to a Gentile soldier and a widowed woman.

          In the first case, the Roman soldier, his followers must have been disturbed that he was doing a good deed not only to a Gentile, but to a man who worked for the system of oppression that kept Jesus’ people under its thumb.  Granted, we are told that he was recommended to Jesus by the Jews of his town and had even helped build them a synagogue, but a Roman was a Roman was a Roman.

          In this morning’s story we have a widow who has lost her only son, apparently the last male under whose protection she was able to be.  Her future was bleak.  Without a male to support her, she was a social nothing.

          In these two miracle stories, Jesus shows that our compassion is to be so deep that it pushes at the boundaries of our culture, our natural sensibilities, or even our religion.  God’s compassion knows no bounds and neither should ours.

          This is an important part of what we mean by healing.  Compassion heals even if it does not cure, and healing takes place when compassion crosses boundaries.  Illness itself can be a kind of boundary, a very strong one, in fact.  Sickness or distress of any kind often isolates us.  It can make us feel alone and it can cause others to be wary of us, even if what we have is not communicable.  Human beings have a natural tendency to treat all illness as if it were communicable.  Jesus asks us to have the “guts” to push against this boundary.

          When we say we are a healing place for souls we mean that we are a boundary busting place.  It means we have our eyes wide open, and our senses honed to detect boundary building within and among us.  It means that when someone walks in the door carrying a burden, we are prepared to care and to act as much as we can to unburden, or at least share the load.  No one has to suffer alone here.

          That is an ideal, of course.  It is a calling, a high calling.  It is sometimes hard work, extremely hard work, and sometimes we fail.  But our failures are not a sign of our commitment, or lack thereof, or, if they are, we ought to remove that phrase from our Mission Statement.

          The question, “What would Jesus do?” that was popular a few years ago was not a bad question.  It is appropriate to ask it of ourselves.  Whatever specific action is the answer to the question, compassion should be its chief characteristic.  Compassion is not only what Jesus did and does, it is who Jesus is.  So for us, who share his body and blood, and, with God’s help, his guts too.

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