June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17 and I Kings 17:8-24
“And the Winner Is…”
How many of you have imagined what you would do if you won the lottery? Many of us fantasize about that whether we ever buy a lottery ticket or not. Have you seen the billboard along Southbound I-25 that says something like “Become that rich relative you wish you had”? It is an ad for financial planning. When we think of what we would do with all that wealth, it may include amazing homes, fancy cars, exciting trips, expensive jewelry and oh, somewhere way down the line… donating to some charity or to our church. Of course, we would give some of that wealth away!
I’m guessing many of you have heard of TED Talks. TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design. TED has become known for their conferences on “ideas worth spreading”. If you have never seen a TED talk, I encourage you to check them out. TED, a nonprofit organization, gives awards to people whom they think have made a difference but who, with their help, could make even more of an impact. Some winners include former president Bill Clinton, musician Bono, and British chef Jamie Oliver. The recipient is given $100,000 and more importantly, is granted a wish for a better world.
Imagine TED calls you to tell you that you are the recipient of $100,000 and a wish for a better world. What would you do with it? Would you feed people? Would you find ways to create more housing? Would you provide medical services? Just playing with that possibility is fun. What need tugs at your heartstrings more than any other? How would you respond to it if you were given the chance?
Karen Armstrong is a theologian who has written many books. Karen was chosen in 2008 to receive the TED Prize. Karen was clear what she wanted to do with the money. She wanted to work on a Charter for Compassion. This charter was crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In November 2009, a thousand religious and secular leaders signed the charter.
I have to admit that spending 100,000 on compassion is not the first, or even the tenth thing that comes to mind for me. But when I reflect on it, it is very wise. Both of our stories today are stories of despair and compassion. They invite us to reflect on this word compassion, which has Latin roots meaning “suffer with”. I’m guessing that is a turnoff right there. And yet, what is more beautiful than those who are with us in our suffering? In my father’s death recently, I have had the opportunity to experience the compassion of others. It is really moving to receive the tangible signs of love and care of so many people.
In both of the stories this morning, there has been a death. The story from Kings begins earlier with the prophet Elijah being instructed to ask a widow who has nothing…literally nothing…to feed him. I have to admit real discomfort when reading this story. When Elijah asks her to feed him, she tells him she has no food. She has a tiny bit of flour and some oil. She has collected two sticks to feed her son and herself and then they will die. Elijah tells her not to be afraid and to go make some food for him first. REALLY??? This is written to show God at work in the most unexpected places, but when I read it, it causes me to imagine myself pulling up to a stoplight and telling one of the people standing there with a sign to buy me some dinner and then think about what they will eat. It just feels disrespectful to me. But Elijah is a prophet and I am not. He promises that her food will not run out. It doesn’t. But something worse happens; her son becomes so ill that he is no longer breathing. The widow pleads to Elijah and Elijah cries out to God, stretches himself over the boy three times and the boy comes back to life.
In the time Elijah spends with the widow and her son, he has come to care for them and when he sees that the son has died, he is moved to act on the boy’s behalf. This story and the one from Luke are more powerful than we may see on first glance. In that culture, it was a sign of weakness to be moved by another person’s suffering. Both of these stories show not only Elijah and Jesus being moved by suffering, but taking action. Compassion invites us to do more than feel the pain of another, but to act in a way that relieves it. Their actions restored the most vulnerable in society and were a challenge to the culture that saw weakness in reaching out to those who were hurting.
I once heard Huston Smith describe the five world religions as fingers on a hand. If we look at them on the surface, we see how they differ, but if we go to the heart of them, he said as he pointed to the palm, we see how much they are alike. The thread that unifies all the great world religions is compassion according to the Dalai Lama who said, “It is my fundamental conviction that compassion—the natural capacity of the human heart to feel concern for and connection with another being—constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings, as well as being the foundation of our happiness.”
Both of the texts call us to see that God is compassion. God is present in our suffering even beyond our understanding. Karen Armstrong wrote a book about this called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In it she says “all faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality” and it brings us into relationship with God. She goes on to say, “Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called The Gold Rule, ‘Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you’ or in its positive form, ‘Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’ Further, they insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody—even your enemies.” (pp. 4-5)
Compassion is walking in another’s shoes. It’s an expression we often use, but how often do we experience what it is to do this? In the first church I served, I did a Lenten series on prayer. One day, we did a process called Shoe Prayer taken from a book called Simple Ways to Pray for Healing by Matthew, Sheila, and Dennis Linn. In this form, you keep your left shoe on and put on the right shoe of another person. There is a guided prayer that goes with it and it involves experiencing the world of the person whose shoe you are wearing. Frankly, I was leery of this, but I decided to try it. No one got up and left when I told them what we would be doing. I ended up with the sandal of a woman with terrible arthritis. Her hands and feet were terribly knotted and gnarled and it was a struggle for her to walk, but it didn’t stop her. She was new to the church, but one of our most involved members. I had wondered what it was like for her to live with arthritis. I put on her shoe and began the exercise and I could feel her pain in a way that was deeply moving. I have not seen her in more than fifteen years, but I feel deeply connected to her today. That prayer experience helped me to literally walk in her shoes.
We may feel intimidated and wonder what it might mean for us to be compassionate today. A few years ago, Michelle Tatlock who is head of Pastoral Care at UNMH met with a group of people from the community to reflect on the Charter of Compassion. There were Buddhist priests, a Rabbi, 2 Imams, a Catholic Priest, an LDS President and a Protestant minister. They got to know one another, reviewed the book together and then they discussed the Golden Rule from each faith tradition. I think conversations like this could be a game changer for the community. What would it look like if we came together with compassion as our guiding principle? It could indeed change the way we interact with one another. Someone asked at text study if there was something like 12 steps to compassion. In fact, Karen Armstrong identified them and titled her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Compassion is cultivated in our thoughts, in our words, in our actions. It is important that we practice compassion with others and also with ourselves. It has the power to change us all and it’s worth the investment of our time and energy. When we are compassionate people, everyone wins!
I read a quote by John Pavlovitz this week that really struck me. I will leave you with John’s words: “At the end of this day, the world will either be a more or less, kind, compassionate, and loving place because of your presence. Your move.”