OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Third Sunday after Pentecost
Mark Ohlemeier, Seminarian
Luke 7:11-17

It was a bitterly cold evening in Northern Virginia many years ago, and there was an old man waiting for a ride across the river. A number of men on horses came around the bend, but he let the first one pass without saying anything.

The second and third also passed by without a word being said, and finally as the last rider came near the old man caught his attention and asked, “Sir, would you mind giving an old man a ride to the other side?” The rider obliged, and helped the old man onto his horse.

The rider not only took the old man to the other side of the river, but continued on to his destination a few short miles away. As they were nearing the old man’s home, the rider asked, “Sir, I noticed that you let several other horsemen pass without making an effort to get a ride. Then I came up and you immediately asked me for a ride. I’m curious why, on such a bitterly cold night, that you waited for the last rider. What if I had refused and left you there?”

The old man replied, “I’ve been around these parts for some time. I reckon I know people pretty good. I looked into the eyes of the other riders and immediately saw there was no concern for my situation. It would have been useless even to ask them for a ride. But when I looked into your eyes, kindness and compassion were there. I knew that your gentle spirit would welcome the opportunity to help me in my time of need.”

The heartwarming comments touched the horseman. “I’m most grateful for what you have said,” he told the man. “May I never get too busy in my own affairs that I fail to respond to the needs of others with kindness and compassion.” With that, Thomas Jefferson turned his horse around and made his way back to the White House.

Being compassionate towards others is a cornerstone of living in community, and it is a key part of what it means to be a Christian. As part of our baptismal covenant, we pledge to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving and caring for one another as God loves and cares for us. We are presented with a prime example of this divine compassion in our gospel reading this morning.

Jesus and his entourage were approaching the town of Nain, tired after a long journey from Capernaum. As they approached the town’s gate, they were met by a funeral procession going the other way. Here we had two large masses of people, one half trying to go into town and the other half trying to come out and at the center of this melee was Jesus and the mother of the dead man. The woman was a widow, she was at the bottom wrung of the social structure, and by losing her only son she had also lost her primary means of support. When he saw her, we are told, Jesus had compassion for her, saying, “Do not weep.” He then commanded the man to rise, and the man sat up and began to speak.

The compassion that Jesus had for the woman at Nain was not witnessed solely in her son being brought back to life, but rather it stemmed from the consoling words that Jesus spoke to her. Our word “compassion” comes from the Latin “pati,” meaning “to bear or suffer,” and the Latin “com,” meaning “with.” In his eyes and in his voice, Jesus showed the woman that he was suffering with her, that his heart ached in sympathy for the sorrow she felt. But this feeling was much more than in his heart: the ancient Greek term for compassion, splag-ni-zo-mai, shares its root with a word that means entrails – guts – the very inmost parts of the body. When the author of Luke tells us that Jesus had compassion for the woman, it was a co-suffering that flowed from deep inside his very being. This is the same compassion that the Lord has for us in our times of trouble, sorrow, and doubt. And we are likewise called to show that deep sense of co-suffering to those around us who are struggling, with problems both great and small.

This past semester in seminary, I had a major term paper due in my liturgics class, one that was worth forty-percent of the overall grade in the class. It was a huge deal, and I spent the entirety of my spring break researching and writing, spending all my time at the library or on my computer, and coming home just for meals and to sleep. The paper wasn’t due until the final week of class, but mine was finished at mid-term and it was off my desk.

Fast forward to the end of the semester, the week before the paper was due, and I was actually amazed at how many of my classmates had not yet finished their papers. Some, it turned out, had barely even started their research! They were behind the eight-ball and straining under the pressure of the looming deadline. I will admit, it was hard for me to show any compassion for them. Even if they hadn’t gone my route and sacrificed their spring break to get the work done, they still had plenty of time over the course of the previous month to do it. I found it very difficult to muster up any sympathy for a suffering that they clearly brought upon themselves. But since my paper was already done, I was actually in the best position to give them compassion, to offer my prayers, love, and support, and to help in any way I could. I would not be able to suffer for them – I couldn’t write their paper – but I could get them some water, help proofread their work, or just simply provide a kind and calm presence in their stressful time. I could show them that they were not alone, that someone who cared for them was there to offer encouragement, and see to their immediate needs until the crisis had abated. And I realized at that moment: the enemy of compassion is indifference.

The members of this Cathedral have a long and proud tradition of extending compassion to those in this community who are hungry, homeless, and in need of other assistance. Starting tomorrow, in fact, a new ministry is being launched: a summer lunch program, offering free lunches to children and youth who may not have access to a good, quality meal while school is out. It is sad that such a program is even necessary, and we all pray for a time when there is no hunger in our world, but being indifferent to the problem does nothing to help the immediate need. God works through his people, and he has put us in a position to provide compassion and nourishment to those who are suffering.

There is one other thing that Jesus does at that gate outside of Nain, something that helps us to see and to meet the need around us. Jesus came forward, stretched out his hand, and touched the bier, causing it to stop. The Lord of life reached out to touch this symbol of sorrow, and the bearers stood still. Both crowds of people stopped in their routine activity to open up a path for God’s saving work. As we go about our very busy lives, Jesus will occasionally reach out and touch us, imploring us to stop and to be mindful of the need around us. Thomas Jefferson could not show compassion to the old man unless he had stopped the gallop of his horse; likewise, we cannot fully live into our promise to serve Christ without pausing to meet the needs in the world.

There are some struggles in life that are more serious than being late on a term paper, struggles that can sometimes mean life or death and do not have easy endings or solutions. But we have a choice in how we respond, with compassion or indifference. When we do take a moment to still ourselves and to allow the Holy Spirit to fill our very inmost being with love and compassion, finding out about the opportunities to give and to serve here at this Cathedral and elsewhere, or simply taking the time to be present with someone close to us who is in need, we in turn will begin to understand that same compassion shown by the one who suffered and died and rose again to give us eternal life. Thanks be to God.