Just last Sunday, I went to pick something up at Home Depot in Waterford. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I passed a young man with a cardboard sign that said, “Hungry and homeless.”
Now, truthfully, I was not busy and there was no reason I couldn’t have driven down to a nearby restaurant and come back with some food for this person to eat. But I didn’t.
I drove by the young man without even acknowledging him and then went right on home. Later, I wondered:
How often does this happen – how often do we continue on our way without truly seeing the people in front of us? Who do we see? Who do we not see?
I found myself thinking about these questions when I read today’s Gospel text in which Jesus approaches a city, after walking about 25 miles from a nearby town, and stumbles upon a funeral procession leaving the gate. People pour out through the small space and, as they do, Jesus’ eyes land on a woman who is weeping openly, tears streaming down her face.
Jesus sees this woman, who has just lost her only son, and he stops. Next to her, people are carrying the bier, or the stand where her deceased son has been laid out for everyone to see.
She no longer has any relatives.
Jesus takes in the reality of the woman’s circumstance. In ancient mid-east culture, required widows to have a living male relative in order to own property or make a living. With her son gone, this widow would be forced to beg, or worse. Jesus understands that this woman is not just weeping for a lost loved one but is weeping because she is preparing for a future in which she stands at a street corner homeless and hungry with people walking by without even acknowledging her as a human being.
As Jesus looks at her, he perceives her grief, her hardship, the injustice of the whole situation and the text tells that Jesus “had compassion” and is “moved” and Jesus stops.
When I read the text, I totally get why Jesus stops upon seeing the widow and is filled with compassion. Jesus is all about those on the margins. Yet, I find myself struggling with the call that this story has on our lives. After all, why is so hard to see people? And to stop? And to take risks? And to wander out of our safe buildings into the surrounding streets?
As I wrestled with these questions this week, I come back to the message that Rev. Greg Boyle shares in his book Tattoos of the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. He says that Jesus teaches us that compassion is about location. It’s less about getting it right and more about where we stand.
Maybe this week Jesus is simply teaching us that we need to spend more time stopping.
Just this week, I found myself at a Memorial Day observance, realizing that I don’t know a whole lot about the experience of being in military or being a veteran. I found myself wondering this week: What is it like to have to wait for someone who has been deployed, unsure of whether or not they will come back? What is it like for people to lose their loved ones – their sons or daughters, or beloved partners? What is it like to be injured by war? Or transition back to civilian life? Or try to find a job? I realized that I didn’t know the answers to those questions, and I wondered if perhaps the first step to stopping and seeing others is realizing that perhaps before we have not seen or understood.
Perhaps it is first humbly admitting that sometimes we don’t know, we don’t know what it’s like to be a widow, or lose a son, or be a veteran, or be homeless or be a refugee.
Perhaps the first step to seeing others is taking a risk, wandering into the streets to stop and hear the stories of those in our community – whether that means walking with the color guard of the memorial day parade, stopping to visit with someone on a street corner, showing up at a soup kitchen, wandering the streets or being more attentive when you are out and about.
Who do you see? Who do you not see?
Perhaps part of the miracle of today’s story is that when Jesus reaches the gate of Nain, he’s not busy worry about the centurion’s attendant that he healed the other day, he’s not consumed by whether or not the Pharisees will like him, he’s not consumed with his long to-do list, or the things he forgot to do, or what do people think of that sermon on the plain that he just gave, instead when Jesus sees the widow, he is fully present in the moment. Isn’t that miraculous?
When the ancient desert fathers and mothers were disconsolate and without hope, they would repeat one word over and and over again. The word wasn’t “Jesus” or God” or “Love”. The word was “Today” and it kept them where they needed to be.
As Thich Naht Hahn writes: “Our home is the present moment, the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.”
Now. Here. This.
Not only am I amazed that Jesus stops in this story, I’m amazed at what comes next. Jesus reaches out and touches the stand that is holding the body of the young man who has died. Touching this stand, or more specifically being in contact with the dead, renders Jesus unclean, or put another way, an outsider in his own society. Like the widow, who is also unclean from tending to her deceased son.
Instead of following correct social protocol and keeping his distance, Jesus enters into relationship. Jesus doesn’t say, “Ooof, that’s rough. See you later.”
Instead, Jesus pauses his disciples, stills the funeral procession and joins with the widow in her pain. In the 23rd Psalm, it reads: “Yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”
In this story, as both the son and the widow walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus is with them, Jesus’ rod and staff comfort them as Jesus touches the boy and says: “Rise.”
Jesus says to the boy who is unclean, to the one for whom death has grabbed hold, the one to whom the world has sung you have no future, to this one, Jesus says: Rise.
Jesus says to the widow who has been told that she a human being cannot provide for her own future, who has faced an unjust social structure that ranks worth and value, to this one, Jesus says: Rise.
Jesus says to the crowd, to the onlookers, to those about to walk by, to those too shy or afraid to stop or lost in their own thoughts, Jesus says: Rise.
Jesus says to the readers of the Gospel of Luke, to those who are hungry for bread and hungry for justice, to those who can’t keep up with the Jones’ and those who are the Jones and are tired of keeping up, to those who thirst for dignity and worth, a life of meaning and purpose, to those, Jesus says: Rise.
For God stops and God sees you and sees your potential for life and says: Rise.
Rise to dignity. Rise to justice. Rise to equality. Rise to compassion.
For we are all children of God.
It’s like a story I once heard from a fellow pastor. One day the pastor was sitting on plane next to a gentleman who told this story: The man had an adult son confined to a nursing home who had been in car accident several years before and had a serious brain injury. The son lived in a permanent comatose state. The gentleman explained that he and his wife visited their son every week, but at some point, they stopped loving him. Love, he said, is a reciprocal relationship, giving and receiving. Their son could not give nor receive, and thus they felt no relationship with him. They continued to visit every week, but they stopped loving him.
One day, the couple went to visit their son and were surprised that he already had a visitor in his room. It turned out to be a nun who routinely stopped and visited in the nursing home. The parents waited outside in the hall and listened as she talked at their son. The father thought to himself, “As if my son could appreciate a conversation.” Then she took out a Bible and read a psalm. The father thought to himself, “As if my son could appreciate a psalm.” Then she crossed herself and prayed a prayer. The father thought, “As if my son could appreciate a prayer.” And then it began to dawn on him. He had been looking at his son through clinical eyes, eyes that said, “You’re son is gone.” But the nun looked at him through the eyes of faith that said, “Here is a child of God.” The man suddenly felt compassion welling up from the deepest part of his being, a part that he had long thought dead.
Here. Now. This.
God says to us: Arise.