One of the presenters brought up a line by Brian McLaren who is an author and pastor, who asked in one of his books: “Are we a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school for disciples who are still on the way?” (Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices)I was struck by this quote because it asks how we see our church, as a club or a school? Is it a place where we believe we have arrived as the saved, or a school of disciples still learning what it means to follow Jesus. I hope you feel like me that we are all still learning, we are still on the way…
It reminds me of another quote (similar to McLaren’s) from an earlier age you might recognize: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum (or club) for the saints.”
What these quotes are getting at is the fact that the church is made up of all sort of people on their journey of faith, there is doubt and faith, prayer and deluiosnment, sorrow and joy. We are all imperfect creatures, sinners and we are all saved by the grace of God. And we journey together sharing that love of God.
This is not a club or museum. This is a place for growth in your life, this is a place of healing for all the pain and sorrow you bear, this is a place of peace in the midst of the violent world we live in. And from this place we go out into the world to minister in Jesus name.
And to help us with that, we listen to the whisper of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that gathers us together, that helps us hear the ancient stories from Holy Scripture, stories of God involved in the lives of God’s creation, and then the Spirit guides us outwards.
Today in the Gospel reading, Jesus’ compassion for the widow of Nain, is echoed by our first reading, of Elijah’s compassion for the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings. The first story also has the miracle of meal & oil that did not run out.
In both cases, we have widows who are on the margins of society, even struggling to survive and God has compassion on their plight at the death of their only sons. The stories don’t speculate but bear witness to the fact that God intercedes into our lives, bringing life when there is death. And also abundance when there is scarcity with the meal & oil.
The widow of Zarephath asks for Elijah’s help but the widow of Nain was bearing her son to the grave, she did not ask, but Jesus had compassion and in a moment of sheer grace, lifts her son from the grave.
These Resurrections brought joy back to the widows, their sons breathed again. And yet the point of these moments reminds us that God acts beyond our understandings and beyond the boundaries of the other, for these gentiles were rewarded just as much as the faithful. We are all disciples learning on the way as God acts in our midst.
In the Raymond Carver story, "A Small, Good Thing," a woman named Ann orders a cake for her son Scotty's seventh birthday party. The baker has been running his little bakery for more years than he cares to remember. He offers no Hello or Can I help you? - he pushes a loose-leaf binder of photographs of cakes at Ann. He takes down the details of Ann's order & says the cake will be ready Monday morning for the party after school.Raymond Carver's story is a beautiful tale of simple, heart-felt compassion. Ann and Howard and the baker manage to see beyond their own hurts and disappointments to offer peace and comfort to the other, life in the midst of death.
But the party never takes place. On his way to school on Monday morning, Scotty is hit by a car. Ann rushes the boy to the hospital where they are met by Ann's husband and Scotty's father, Howard. Ann and Howard keep vigil all day Monday and Monday night at their son's bedside. But Scotty never regains consciousness; the boy dies late Tuesday morning. Ann and Howard are devastated.
After they return home from the hospital on Tuesday, the baker has left messages and continues to call. "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you. Did you forget him?"
The exhausted parents are outraged at the insensitivity of the boorish baker. The calls continue all day and evening. Finally, Ann has had enough. Though it is almost midnight, she insists on going to the bakery to put an end to the baker's harassment. They drive to the deserted shopping center and go around to the back entrance of the bakery. When Ann and Howard identify themselves, the baker angrily opens the door.
"I work 16 hours a day in this place to earn a living," he says. "I work night and day in here, trying to make ends meet . . . You want the cake or not?" He all but throws it at them.
"My son's dead," Ann says with a cold finality. "He was hit by a car Monday morning. We've been waiting with him until he died. But you couldn't be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can't know everything, can they, Mr. Baker?"
The baker's anger melts. He takes off his apron and clears a place at his wooden work table and pulls two chairs around. "Sit down, please."
"Let me say how sorry I am. God alone knows how sorry I am . . . I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I've forgotten, I don't know for sure . . . I don't have any children myself, so I can only image what you must be feeling . . . I'm not an evil man, I don't think . . . What it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please, let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me."
Then the baker offers, "You probably need to eat something. I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat to keep going. Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this."
The baker takes some cinnamon rolls he had just baked and serves them, with hot coffee, to Ann and Howard. The grieving parents are suddenly hungry. The rolls are warm and sweet. With bread and coffee, the three talk about loneliness and loss, about grief and struggle, all night until the morning sun rises on a new day… (from the Cathedral)
When Jesus meets the widow at Nain, Jesus is moved with compassion - he opens his heart to feel her sorrow and connect with it. The word compassion literally means "to suffer with." Compassion not only changes the person we feel for but changes us, as well. It was true for Elijah and Jesus and it is true for us. We are called by Jesus to recognize and reach out to those whom the world consciously and unconsciously dismiss as unimportant and marginal, the others and welcome them into our midst as God's own.
And as Meister Eckhart preached that "Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion."May that be true of us as well. Amen.