Sunday, June 5, 2016

Divine Compassion

1 Kings 17: 17-24; Luke 7: 11-17

When we look at the first reading from 1 Kings and the Gospel reading from Luke, we find an obvious similarity: there is a widow whose son dies and is revived. In both stories, God intervenes with compassion for the widow.
In the Elijah story, the larger context is that God has sent him to this Gentile widow for her to feed and house him. What God didn’t say when sending Elijah to this widow is that she has given up. She and her young son have run out of food and there is little hope of finding more food because the whole region is in a drought.
The widow is depressed; she has no food and no hope. She will use the last of her flour and the last of her oil to make some bread and then prepare to die with her son. Elijah is welcome to share in this last meal. Elijah prays and they discover that the jar of flour and the jug of oil never run out.
So, the widow becomes used to living again. She looks forward to a time when the drought is over and they can eat other food, like olives and grapes and beans again. Her depression has lifted. Then the unthinkable happens: the son dies.
Now that the widow is used to living again, she is devastated. Instead of the depression she felt before, she feels angry. She blames Elijah. Elijah is also dismayed at the loss. He has been with this little family to become attached to the boy, and he cries out in prayer for God to hear his request to revive this child.
God hears, and responds. The child come back to life, and Elijah takes the boy and gives him to his mother. The widow responds with faith: Now I know you are a man of God. The widow and Elijah have twice experienced God’s compassion.  
In the Gospel story, Jesus is in a town called Nain. As he and the disciples walk along, they see and hear a funeral procession. The only son of a widow has died and they are on their way to the tomb. Jesus stops the procession and touches the bier, which is probably a sort of stretcher, or perhaps a wooden platform.
In this case, the widow has not spoken; she has probably prayed that God would not let her son die. Or perhaps she simply prayed for help. What will she do now that she has no one to support her, to house her, to feed and clothe her? Who will give meaning to her life, since she now has no one to cook and clean and sew for? Like the widow in the first reading, I am sure she is depressed, hopeless.
Jesus has noticed her and resolves to intervene. Of course, he knows he has the power to raise the young man from death, and chooses this moment to demonstrate his divine power and divine compassion. He tells the young man to rise. The young man sits up and looks around, and Jesus gives the son to his mother.
The crowd around the widow and her son are amazed, and word spreads about Jesus. The disciples have never seen this either, and they are most likely among the amazed. But Luke doesn’t mention this. The focus is on divine compassion and the impression it makes on those who witness the event.
Even today, poor widows face a difficult life if they have no resources, or no one to care for them. Fortunately for most of us, there are compassionate people who care for our widows and elderly folks. Family members step in and do what needs to be done. If no family members are available, there are homeless shelters and nursing homes. But some folks slip through the cracks, and shelters are not always the safest places to live. So we are called to offer God’s compassion to those who live on the margins.
At Hope, we do a good job of caring for the newly bereaved. Time after time, I have seen those who are experienced in grief adopt a newly widowed person. They offer strength and advice and company. They invite them to be involved in activities that lead to new life. They offer divine compassion to those who are grieving.  
We are called to offer God’s compassion to many people, not just those who are widows. In 1982 my little brother Rob died on Easter weekend. I was 14 when he was born, and I adored him. He was kind of like my first son. Beginning in his teens, Rob went through a long struggle with mental illness and it ended then, when he was almost 20.
At the cemetery on Monday, the brief burial ceremony was led by the pastor of my parent’s congregation. The casket was open since there had been no visitation, and I looked for the last time at Rob. He looked so peaceful, more peaceful than he had looked in many years. I kept waiting for him to sit up and smile at me. But it was not to be, because Jesus did not come by to change the story.
Twenty years later, it was Easter weekend and I was remembering Rob. Usually, I manage the grief, cry a few tears, and then put Rob back in his place with Jesus. But this time, I was overcome with grief. I was wondering what he might have been like had he lived. Would he be a father? What work would he be doing? I was in deep grief and couldn’t stop crying. I called my friend Randy who lived near me, and asked if I could come over. I explained what I was feeling and that I simply needed a hug. Randy reached out and wrapped his arms around me. He offered me the compassion I needed.
Whenever we offer a hug, a meal, a phone call, an invitation, a tissue, we are offering compassion. When we do these things in Jesus’ name, we offer divine compassion, and share the good news with those who are hurting. Jesus may not come by and change the story, but he is present when we offer his compassion to others.

Please pray with me. Compassionate God, we thank you for your love for us. Some days, we need a hug, we need some compassion. Reach out through us to pass on your love to others. Amen