Mercy and Compassion bring Transformation

June 5, 2016

Last month I finally read a book that I’ve been wanting to read for months. It’s Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. He has become known for his work challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system.  Desmond Tutu calls him America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction for justice for all.

I could not put the book down – it is inspiring, disturbing and transforming, with stories of desperation and death turning into stories of life and hope. It is disturbingly enlightening about the reality of the criminal justice system in this country. He tells how his understanding of mercy and justice changed through his work with prisoners wrongly condemned to die. Desperate people on death row or life imprisonment without parole, have been given life and hope by this man and the organization he founded, Equal Justice Initiative. It’s a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the depths of our criminal justice system – those most desperately in need. It’s a “powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice.”

He tells how his faith, or when his faith had run out, the people of faith who encouraged him, gave him hope in the times of deepest hopelessness and exhaustion, when the way forward seemed impossible. That’s the story of the widows in today’s scripture readings.

We have the rain, a jar of flour and a jug of oil that are running dry. We see compassion and care for a vulnerable, starving widow. We hear Elijah  request  her to trust with a radical faith that does not make sense. Then the flour and oil continue to run on empty, but her son, her means of support dies. We hear Elijah crying out to God and there is new life for her son.

In Luke’s gospel we have a widow who has lost not only her husband but also her son, which meant not only double grief and loss, but now she had no means of financial support, her life had no viable future. We see the compassion of Jesus reaching out to a desperate, vulnerable woman in suffering, without anyone asking, with no mention of faith.

Jesus responded to the widow’s grief with deep, powerful feelings of compassion, which can only reach out in action. He tells her not to weep, and touches the bier, the coffin. The accompanying crowd would have been horrified, because touching a coffin resulted in him becoming ritually unclean for a week. Jesus as always, did not let ritual purity prevent him from compassionate action. Imagine the crowd’s greater horror when he tells the young man to rise, and the young man actually sits up and speaks, and Jesus simply gives him to his mother. They are rightly afraid, overcome by the impossible happening in their midst, yet knowing that God was in the midst of them and had visited his people.

What are we to make of this?! I believe that sometimes the impossible can take place, that miracles are possible, and I also believe that there can be rational understandings for what looked like miracles. Back in those days, without the benefit of modern medicine, it was difficult to distinguish death from unconsciousness. I read that this is the reason that at the entrance to some old grave yards there is a covered ‘lych gate’ which literally means a corpse gate. The coffin was delivered to the gate the evening before the funeral, and some social histories say that someone (often a deacon!) would sit beside the deceased in case the body recovered during the night. Hmm. All I can say is Robin, be glad we don’t have a lych gate in our church!

I do not think we are to try and figure out whether the story is literally true, whether the young man was really dead or not, but rather to hear and see how strongly the compassion of Jesus compels him to act. The widow is an example of those he has just talked about in Luke ch 6, telling his disciples not just to love God but to be merciful, or compassionate, to those whom God is merciful.

Let’s remember again that Luke is writing with intention, as we can see with its similarity to the story of Elijah in our Old Testament reading today. Even to the phrase where Elijah ‘gave him to his mother.’ This is to show that Jesus is a healer, a prophet like Elijah yet greater, who acts with compassion, a prophet who is filled with the divine power over life and death, a prophet who brings in the new order of God’s reign, in which the broken hearted are healed, and even the dead are raised.  Luke shows that Jesus not only forgives sins but is strongly concerned with relieving suffering, especially suffering that is undeserved. And Luke is foreshadowing another funeral, another grieving mother, at the death of Jesus, which will not end in death but in resurrection and new life.

This is who Jesus is and what Jesus does. He reaches out in compassion to people and situations of death and agony and despair, often through us or others in our community. This is a story that can speak to us in the situations that we despair of or dread, or to people we know whose lives are in tatters and whose futures hold no hope. This is a story that inspires our faith and reminds us that in Christ all things are possible, as we show mercy and compassion to those who are suffering.  

Muhammed Ali: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” 

It starts with our attitudes and intentions. “When we choose indifference, we betray our world…When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see the possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows, to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world. There is a huge force field that opens when intention focuses and directs itself toward transformation.” (John O'Donohue, from TO BLESS THE SPACE BETWEEN US)

What are the situations that you or others face, that bring despair and hopelessness? What is dead that needs or can be brought to life ? Whether it is the current political climate of polarization, or the endless deaths from gun violence, or whether it's a family torn apart by divorce or abuse or addiction, or facing terminal illness of a family member or oneself, or even your faith, we are reminded that the compassion of Jesus reaches out in every way. Whatever we are experiencing, Jesus is our compassionate companion as we go through it, and we can trust his presence with us to give the strength we need day by day.

“Even as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we’re also in a web of healing and mercy…the power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent = strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. (Just Mercy, p.294)

We are called to reach out with the mercy and compassion of Jesus, to live in a web of healing and mercy. We may not bring dead bodies to life, but as we show mercy and compassion, we experience ordinary miracles of mercy, compassion and transformation.

I had a chance to experience God’s mercy and compassion in action via the community in a deep way a few years ago, when I went to Belize to take part in a networking gathering of diocesan coordinators with Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD). The Anglican Church in Belize is one of many ERD partners all over the world where life is overcoming death, where life-giving projects are sustained in almost unbelievable ways.

We visited a number of church schools. One school was in a tiny rural village on the river – just 3 classrooms and 30 children in multigrade classes. No sanitation and no running water – they used a pit latrine and for water they went to the tiny house of the teacher next door to the school. In so many ways, those children had nothing. Yet they sang and danced for us with so much joy and life! And then eagerly went to their classes. We were informed that 10 years before that they had no school at all. And then I saw - painted on the outside of the building was a quote from Mary Oliver – Tell me, what will you do with your one, wild and precious life! 

Closer to home, the children of St Patrick’s school in Haiti are being given new life through our support of their teachers. Even closer to home, the work of  PACT, People Acting Together in Community, brings hope to those who are struggling to survive, struggling for housing, struggling to make it to the end of each month, through the actions of the community acting together.

What are we to do?

Trust that with Christ all things are possible.

Look for the miracles in everyday life, starting with gratitude, and showing mercy and compassion to others and ourselves.

Read Just Mercy and be disturbed and inspired, read The new Jim Crow and be enlightened about how the systems we live in, operate on racial bias, white privilege and power.

Be the answer to the prayers you pray for justice and mercy.

Use your privilege to vote in elections, if you are eligible.

Trust that with Christ all things are possible

Today I’m going to invite each of us to prayerfully experience the compassion of Jesus. I invite you to close your eyes and quiet your mind, and think of a moment or event you most dread in this coming week or this coming year. Maybe it’s something you know is coming up, or maybe it’s something you’re always afraid of that might happen.  Or maybe it’s a relationship or situation that seems hopeless and gets you down. Come into the middle of the scene if you can, picture it, imagine it, and feel the frustration, the anger, the sorrow, the anguish, the despair. Then watch as Jesus comes and joins you in the middle of it. Let him approach, see you, speak, touch, command. He may not say what you expect. He may not do what you want him to do. But if his presence comes to be with you there, that is what you most need. Once he is in the middle of it all, you will be able to come through it. You can trust the presence of Jesus with you. We may not always feel it, but Jesus is there, the companion through the long nights, through the moments of despair, through it all. I invite us all to try this prayer not only today but as we go through our lives with all that we face. As Jesus shows us mercy and compassion, may we show Jesus’ mercy and compassion to others, and experience the transformation that brings  Amen.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.