Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Trinity 2016
Start Date 5th Jun 2016 11:15am
Description

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner

This morning's gospel reading speaks to us about compassion, a primary Christian virtue revealed and expressed by Christ in a little village called Nain.

This tiny place still exists. At the time of Christ only a few families lived there and it's much the same today. Both Eusebius the early church historian and St Jerome mention it as near the village of Indur which was destroyed in the 1948 partitioning of Palestine. It rests at the foot of the hill called Moreh not far from the Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration.

If it hadn't been for Christ's great act of compassion here, I suspect that no one would ever have heard of this sleepy rural village. For decades, human geographers have studied people's emotional relationships to places, especially the ways in which people attach meaning to place. So often, spaces become places when we come to know them better and when we give them value.

St Luke paints a vivid picture for us: the town gate, the dead young man, the distraught mother, a large crowd and many tears. The dead man miraculously restored to life. In our mind's eye it's not difficult to picture the paid mourners wailing their way through the streets and a small woman clothed in black with ashes on her crestfallen head, walking behind a roughly-made coffin, probably all she could afford. A pathetic scene; a grief-stricken community sharing in the immensity of this woman's loss.

St Luke's gospel, just like Matthew and Mark, has events that can still be placed on a map. Often there's enough information so that someone from that time could have located the market square, house or building or even the room within the building where something was said or done. Unlike Jairus, begging for Jesus to heal his daughter, and being told to 'just believe', the widow here says nothing, and asks for nothing.

Perhaps she's so overwhelmed by grief that she has no hope. There is nothing to ask for. But Jesus knows her helplessness and despair. 'When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, 'do not weep.' In another biblical translation his reaction is described as being heart broken and Jesus saying to her, 'Don't cry'. Of course the woman is crying, but Jesus encourages her not to despair because he is with her and there is hope.

Did you notice that when Jesus looks at the woman with compassion, St Luke calls him 'the Lord', this is the first time St Luke calls Jesus by this name. What we see here is Jesus' compassion as a revelation of God's compassion, just as the power he will display is an expression of God's power. His faith and spiritual intensity has for ever marked this little village.

I'm sure you will have spotted the close parallels between our Old Testament reading from 1 Kings and this gospel account. Both stories concern compassion and raising the dead son of a widow (1 Kings 17:10, 21-2; Luke 7:12). Both stories use the phrase, 'gave him to his mother' (1 Kings 17:23; Luke 7:15).When St Luke was writing this gospel, the literary world of the time, unlike today, greatly prized the imitation of classical works.

If Luke shaped his words to resemble the story of Elijah's miracle, even using word-for-word phrases, this would have been very compatible with mainstream of Greco-Roman literature. Indeed Luke not only warms to Elijah, this story also resembles the compassion shown in Elisha's raising of the Shunammite woman's son. (2 Kings 4.18-36).

Oliver Davies in his recent book, A Theology of Compassion, makes a strong case for regarding compassion as the primary Christian virtue. He argues that its compassion, rather than love, that best depicts the Christian life, since as he says, 'love embraces concepts that are both wholly distinct and easily confused'. Compassion, on the other hand, combines so much. In compassion we not only recognise someone's distress, we feel moved by it, we want to do something about it. This is what characterizes mercy and compassion in the Synoptic healing stories.

We know it takes a bit of courage to show such compassion, but we also know that it's the way of the Cross and often deep down we don't really want it. Often we would rather not empty ourselves or die to ourselves and become, as St. Paul said, the refuse of the world. Often we would rather be important, respected, honoured and spoken well of, than to allow ourselves to be identified and suffer with those who are not. Often we care more for our things, than we do for our souls or the suffering of others.

And so we come to see that this little one eyed town of Nain, comes to encapsulate the heart of Christ's radical teaching: Here Jesus chose the way of compassion even over the scripture. How many times did he tell people, 'You have heard that it was said, but I tell you…'? In other words, 'the scripture says this, the law proscribes this, but here is what I say.'

He touched lepers and dead bodies, consorted with women, both prostitutes and foreigners, all of which were strictly forbidden by scripture. He released his followers from the tyranny of the Sabbath, saying that the Sabbath was made for humankind not humankind for the Sabbath. So, the Lord of compassion reached out and touched the bier of the poor widow's son and raised him from the dead.

How are we supposed to react to this story? Some of us might not take it too seriously, certainly not literally, because it took place a long time ago and doesn't make sense in a 21st-century science-focused world. Some of us may doubt the boy was really dead, perhaps he was concussed or in a coma, or perhaps this isn't meant to be literal, but rather an allegory for spiritual reawakening.

Perhaps some of us are angry when we hear this story. Why did Jesus raise this boy from the dead and not others? What was special about this woman? Why was the one I loved not brought back to life, when I prayed so hard?

In a world where so many middle eastern towns such as Fallujah, Homs, Damascus, Aleppo, Gaza and Baghdad, are symbols of violence and brutality, this little village of Nain stands as an icon for goodness compassion, and healing. Throughout history, humanity has recognised compassion to be a very special thing. Today we have come to recognise that compassion transcends even international boundaries, cultures and religions. There's no doubt about it, compassion is a primary Christian virtue.

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