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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Miracle of Compassion

2010-06-06 Sermon
Luke 7:15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

The main miracle in this story is not the obvious one. Jesus raises a man from the dead. Yes, that's obviously miraculous. Jesus touches the palate on which the friends are carrying the body of the man who has died. And then, Jesus shouts at him, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And he does. Yup, it's a miracle alright. Not even a Major League umpire could blow that call. If you want to concentrate on how powerful Jesus is, that's the miracle you seize, because it proves Jesus is stronger even than death, and Amen and Alleluia to that.

But as amazingly powerful as raising someone from the dead obviously is, it's not the point of the story. Jesus is coming into town, and sees the crowd that came for the funeral, mourning and wailing the way they do in Middle Eastern funerals. The Bible says Jesus is moved to compassion. But not because so many people showed up, and not because he knows the man who died was really nice. Jesus sees the man's mother. She's a widow. The man was her only son. The Bible says Jesus is moved to compassion because of her. Jesus knows how things work in his society. This grieving mother has lost her husband and now her only son. Not only is she heartbroken, she's going to be financially broke, too. Because, back then, without a man to take care of you, you didn't really count. No Social Security, no Medicare. Sorry.

Jesus raises the man from the dead because he has compassion on the man's mother. Jesus doesn't want her to have to beg for handouts. Jesus wants her to have a decent retirement. Jesus wants her to be cared for in her old age. The mother is the reason for the miracle, not the son. The Bible says the man sits up to speak, and, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”

So, when you think of why Jesus performed the miracle, it wasn't to save the man, no matter how nice a guy he might have been. And Jesus didn't do it to prove how powerful he was, even though he is more powerful than death. The miracle of Jesus's power is secondary to the miracle of Jesus' compassion. This story is teaching that power, even Jesus's power, is just a tool, just a means to an end. The greater force, the real power behind the power, the end point of the power, is compassion. Compassion.

Compassion is more powerful than death. Compassion is more important than power. You might have to have power to exercise your compassion well, but the power is not the point. Compassion is what gives life.

Psalm 146, the Old Testament Lesson we read first today, starts out,

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Why? Why spend your life praising God? The psalm goes on:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

In other words, if you put your trust in power, if you think power and strength and sitting at the cool table at lunchtime is all there is to life, you're going to be disappointed. Power can achieve good things, but it can also achieve very bad things. Or it can achieve no things.

Think of how much effort the powerful company, British Petroleum, is pouring into plugging the hole in the Gulf of Mexico. Think of how much power the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil streaming into the ocean represents. That's the stuff that powers our world, but now it's destroying a good stretch of our world. And there's not a darn thing any of us has the power to do about it. Even the president of the most powerful country in the world can't make it stop. Power, power everywhere, and it's useless.

The psalm goes on:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that's in it (including, presumably, the oil that smart people accidentally unplugged), God the creator of all's first concern is justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry. And, no matter what powerful TV people like Glenn Beck might say, that's not some liberal socialist agenda; that's word-for-word from the Bible. God cares more about the oppressed and the hungry than the CEOs of oil companies. Not that the CEOs are bad people. Some of them might be doing wonderful things with their power and wealth. If you have power and wealth, or if you come into great power and wealth – maybe you win the lottery, maybe you work hard and scrimp and save your life long – leverage your power and wealth on the things the Bible cares about.

Then, in the psalm, the Bible ups the ante even more:

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,

There it is. The connection back to Jesus and today's gospel lesson. God's power always, always, always points to God's compassion. And God's compassion is first and foremost for the people like that widow in the gospel lesson who have no one left to care for them. The greatest miracle in the story is that God will go as far as to raise the dead to provide for people like her.

You say, “But I'm no miracle worker. I'm not Jesus. I can't raise people from the dead.” Well, of course not. You're not Jesus. Don't waste your time shouting at dead people. Don't waste your time trying to be someone you're not. Don't waste your time trying to prove to people who are long gone or don't really care about you how powerful and how right you really are. That's a waste of your power. Instead, spend your time cultivating your compassion. Whenever you're about to do something, ask yourself, “Am I doing this because I want to be compassionate – compassionate to my family, compassionate to my grandchildren, compassionate to widows, or orphans, or someone oppressed? Or am I doing it because I like being powerful? Am I doing it because I like to prove how right and how righteous I am?” And even that's no perfect test. Compassion for yourself can always be twisted into selfishness. As in, I've been oppressed today; therefore, I'm going to eat my weight in ice cream. Compassion for others can become just as selfish, if you're doing nice things only to make people like you. Compassion isn't measurable. Compassion is an art. What you do for someone may appear very small, even insignificant to someone on the outside. But to a person who's dying of thirst, a cup of cold water is life. To someone who has no family, a phone call can sound like a choir of angels. Or, if you've got a billion dollars and you like to snorkel, go plug the hole in the Gulf of Mexico.

I'm sure that even back in Bible times, there were doubters. I'm sure there were tabloid true-story investigators who said, “I'll bet that woman's son wasn't really dead at all. I'll bet it was some elaborate sideshow engineered by that traveling preacher.” So what? People like that are missing the point. The point isn't that a man was raised from the dead, as amazing as that might have been. The point is that the most powerful, amazing, creative force in the universe cares about one solitary senior citizen. The greatest person to ever walk the face of the earth cared that this one lady would have food on the table and a roof over her head. That's the real miracle. It's maybe not the most obvious, until you've been in that situation, or know someone who has.

The Bible tells us this is true, not just for this one unnamed lady, but for you, too. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It's not complicated. It's a truth so simple little children can sing it, and say it, and understand it. It's us grown-ups when we get crazy for power who mess it all up. More power than that of a million gallons of oil is streaming into your life ever day, and most of the time, we don't even notice it. We get all knotted up in the search for our own power, and ignore the power of God's love. We ignore the power of compassion God has handed us. How can we do that? Why would we want to? But those are silly questions that don't really matter; don't waste your time self-analyzing or beating yourself up for what you haven't done. Go and use your ability to do what you can do.

Legendary Coach John Wooden, who died yesterday at age 99, said, “Ability is a poor man's wealth.” That's a wonderful saying, and one of the reasons John Wooden is legendary. But ability to do what? Ability to dunk a basketball? Ability to predict the stock market and get rich? Ability to raise the dead? Ability is like power; it's just a tool, and neither good nor bad until it produces results. You have the inborn ability, the innate power, of compassion. Every single one of you has it. I would go as far as to say you each has an infinite supply of compassion. I challenge you to exhaust your natural resources. Try to become so compassionate that you can't do it any more. It can't be done.

If compassion is the main miracle in today's Bible lessons, then each of you is a potential miracle worker. If compassion is the main miracle in today's scriptures, then each of you has the power of Christ at your disposal. If compassion is your power to use, then the worst thing you can do is nothing And the least you can do, is a miracle.