Compassion Contagion (sermon)

This morning I had the privilege of preaching at the congregation that helped launch my seminary ship, St. Peter’s Lutheran in Lancaster, Pennsylvania!  They were kind enough to host me before I enrolled in seminary through a program called Project Connect, and were a great conversation partner in the whole discernment enterprise.  Also, the pastor there happens to be the very fella who baptized me!  Sometimes, the ELCA is such a small world that it gets weird.  Case in point: several congregants I met this morning let me know they’d be seeing me at my internship congregation in Florida, because they overwinter there–and that the pastor (my internship supervisor) ALSO interned at St. Peter’s Lancaster.

(Aside: so excited for this internship!)

Anyway, sermon.  Many thanks to my editors and brainstorming partners, Christine K. and James L., and, of course, to random Google searches.

Gospel: Luke 7:11-17

Good morning!  Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I have to confess to you, I had a really hard time writing this sermon for you all this week.  Part of it was because I was really excited to be invited to preach here, and really wanted to show you guys that you didn’t waste those three months you spent giving me a taste of ministry a few years ago.  But another part was that I had a really hard time finding a fingerhold in the gospel today.  I had no idea how to spend twelve to fifteen minutes telling you that Jesus raising the dead is good news.  I mean, it’s pretty self-evident, right?

Which is why Friday morning found me engaging in the last ditch effort of finding sermon inspiration: Googling searches on themes in the text, fingers crossed that the Holy Spirit would guide the search engine.  Which is how I stumbled across something called the widowhood effect: a proven sociological effect where the death of a spouse increases the likelihood of the bereaved partner dying too.  This was not the bright, uplifting sermon illustration I was hoping for. But it’s what I’ve got, so bear with me.

One of the guys researching the widowhood effect, a guy named Nicholas Christakis, talks about this one time when he was a hospice doctor in Chicago.  One of his patient was dying of dementia, and she was being cared for not by a spouse, but by her daughter.  Her daughter was exhausted from caretaking, and the daughter’s husband, he was sick over his wife’s exhaustion.  Well, one day Christakis gets a phone call about the grief of the whole situation, not from the patient or the daughter or her husband, but from a friend of the husband, who was depressed because of everything his friend was going through.

This is the moment Christakis realized that the widowhood effect doesn’t just affect spouses—it can actually affect people who don’t even know the person who’d dying.

So Christakis changes his research, and started looking at the widowhood effect in terms of how it affects whole social networks: husband and wife, mother and daughter, friends, friend of a friend, friend of a friend of a friend.  And while investigating how these social networks work, Christakis started looking at not just death, but at things like obesity, and sadness, and happiness.  Guess what?  It turns out that those spread through our social networks too, like the common cold spreads through every family that has a youngster in a preschool class during cold season.

This was a eureka moment for me.  My original idea for this sermon had been to emphasize to you the immensity of the tragedy that struck the widow of Nain by telling you about how the social structure of first-century Palestine meant that the loss of first her husband, then her only son meant that she was completely, utterly, tragically alone in the world.  This reading is totally supported by everything I learned in my classes at seminary, but annoyingly undermined by the author of Luke, who records that this lonely, lonely widow was in fact accompanied in her mourning by most of the town of Nain.  I tried to tell myself that they were just there for show and maybe for the sausage rolls at the wake, but that’s not right.  The widow of Nain is in the middle of a complex social network, and what affects the widow affects them too. That crowd who came out with her are sharing the grief and stress of loss with her.

Jesus has his own multitude following him, and if grief is the emotion that’s passing through the funeral crowd, then maybe the contagion of this crowd is: Hope.  Jesus comes to Nain after healing the centurion’s servant in Capernaum, so these people are on the lookout for the spectacular.  They’re on the edge of their seats.  They’re ready to see something amazing.  They’re probably not thrilled to see a funeral crowd—what a downer on a day of expected wonders.  “If only Jesus had gotten there a few days before,” a woman in the back whispers to her neighbor, “I bet he could have healed that young man just like he healed the centurion’s servant.”  “Oh well,” replies her neighbor, shaking her head.  “Too late.”  And they lower their voices as they try to pass the funeral procession as unobtrusively as possible.

But there’s Jesus, totally failing Funeral Etiquette 101.  A complete stranger, he walks right up to the chief mourner, and tells her not to cry—a clear sign that the Son of Man hasn’t taken a pastoral care class in his whole life.  And then he strolls right up to the pallbearers, and puts a hand on their burden, making them stand still.

Here, in this intersection of the crowds, between grief and hope, Jesus is moved by compassion.  A very special kind of compassion, which literally means in Greek “to be moved from one’s bowels.”

I wish that our English language had a word for compassion that was all tied up in the gut the way the Greek word is, because the way I usually think of compassion is all gentleness and sympathetic head tilts.  But not this stuff.  This compassion burns like a mother’s love for her child: it’s strong and tight and desperate.

From that place of gut-wrenching compassion, Jesus brings the dead young man back to life. Without pomp or circumstance, thunder or lightning…just the way my mom used to get me up for school: “I’m telling you, get up!” And the young man sits up talking, like returning from death is no more remarkable than picking up from the middle of a conversation.

The crowd bound by hope and the one bound by grief are both immediately seized by fear, the author tells us.  I can understand that: I’d freak out too, if a corpse sat up and started talking right in front of me.  But the fear becomes praise, and the mourning is turned into dancing, and the rumors of Jesus and what he could do are soon flying across those social networks, all throughout Judea.

But I wonder, too, if after the initial shock of seeing a dead man sit up, and seeing Jesus lead his widowed mother over to him and give them back to each other, compassion didn’t spread too.  After all, if both grief and happiness can spread through people, why not that beautiful desperation to love one another?

When we come to church on Sunday, we’re like those crowds in the gospel caught between grief and hope.  We hope to be such good people—people of justice and mercy and peace—but so often we fall short.  I hope to be generous, but I see a homeless person on the street and feel suspicious instead.  I hope to be loving, but I see a loved one about to make another boneheaded life choice and feel judgmental, not commiserate.  Despite my best intentions when I get up in the morning, at the end of the day I’d rather be right than sorry; I’d rather be strong than vulnerable. The crowds in the gospel were at the funeral of a young man; well, sometimes I feel like I’m permanently at the funeral of my own broken expectations.

Which is why it is such a blessing to get to come to church every week and fall on my knees with, my social network, church, and admit that I haven’t loved God with my whole heart; and I haven’t loved my neighbor as myself.  Where else in the world do we get to do that?  To set down the burden of being right or respectable or beyond reproach, and admit that, actually, we’re sinners who have fallen short of our own expectations, never mind God’s.

And we’re get to do that because Jesus is in the middle of this funeral of broken expectations, telling us not to weep, stopping us in the middle of our lament, telling us he’s already died for this.  Here, in this place, right between grief and hope, we find God-among-us, who is moved by such gut-wrenching love for us that he hung on a cross and chose to die, rather than keep us counting our sins and numbering every broken expectation.

That changes us. That starts another ripple throughout our social network, every time we meet and pray that God’s will be done.  Another seed of compassion is planted every time we remember that we are washed clean in the waters of baptism and fed with the bread of life. Even if we walk out those doors every Sunday and pick up our old conversations like nothing ever happened, something is fundamentally different about us.  Because on us, Christ had compassion.

And compassion is catching. Consider this your spiritual health warning: as Christians we are in a dangerous position: every Sunday we have a high exposure to divine love, and leave here at an increased risk of compassion.

God knows how that kind of thing might spread.


2 Replies to “Compassion Contagion (sermon)”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Victoria. I loved your thought-provoking sermon this morning and the way in which it was delivered. Not “preachy” at all, but more like a conversation you were having with each person sitting in church. This style of preaching requires that you MUST pay attention. Don’t change a thing! I will share this with Pastor Geib, the elder. He will enjoy it, but hearing it is recommended. 😉

    1. Dear Carol,

      Thank you very much for listening, reading, and sharing! I love preaching, and work hard at both trying to understand where the Spirit is driving the texts and at speaking in a way that’s easy so hear, so thank you for the affirmation! It’s very gratifying.

      It was so great to see you yesterday! 🙂

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