A Prayer for Compassion

April 2, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Reading: John 11: 1-44 


Okay, a sermonette it is. I can take a hint. And yes, as Jim sang so beautifully, it is about love; as it always is. God is love. And we are created in God’s image. We are truly ourselves; we live most fully when we love and allow ourselves to be loved.  But for some reason, that’s much easier said than done.  And so we reflect on the words and actions of Jesus to learn, to be inspired, and to develop into who we are called to be.

The long gospel story according to John, that David read this morning, is filled with a series of vivid verbal masterpieces: messages and metaphors of the genius, glory, and grace of Jesus. Bible scholars have long believed that each of the four New Testament gospels is targeted at a particular group. Matthew writes his gospel to the Jews. We see that in his frequent references to the Old Testament. Mark writes his gospel with the Romans as his primary target. Hence, he is succinct and to the point. His is the first written among the four gospels and he spares those busy Romans the finer details of the Jesus’ life and ministry on earth while at the same time making clear that Jesus is Lord of all. Luke the physician writes to make the message clearer and more relevant for the well-educated Greeks. Consequently, we see the heady physician cover details about Jesus’ life and ministry in the finely crafted Greek of a well-schooled man.

John’s gospel is different. John’s target gospel audience is far broader than those of the first three gospel writers. Some might say that John writes for the leftover people who for one reason or another are not the recipients of the other three writers. John seems to have the whole world in his mind as he writes. If the Jews, the Romans, or the Greeks read it, that is all well and good. John, however, writes to reach everyone. He says such things as, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” and, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” and, If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” So while the other storytellers write to a specific audience, John’s approach is aimed at whoever will listen. In addition, more than the other three gospel writers, John seems to stress the divinity of Jesus. It is John who gives us the great “I am” statements from Jesus and it is to one of these that we turn our attention now. Today we hear him say, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (v. 25).

This is a claim from Jesus that takes us to a climax of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus has made claims about his identity before. Now, however, he makes his claim in the context of the most powerful demonstration of his identity that he had ever made. What is more, we learn from what we are told here that Jesus Christ will make a difference in our lives.

Why has John has written this and the other stories?  He tells us in chapter 20:31, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John writes his gospel so that we can learn from it in such a way that we may live more fully. His gospel is full of lessons that can help us celebrate the fullness of our purpose for being. The Gospel of John is sometimes described as a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim.  So today I’d like to simply wade in with you and select just two elements of this story from which we might learn.

The middle of the Lazarus story contains the shortest verse in the bible; “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). This piece of the narrative is fascinating. Jesus has just proclaimed that he is the source of everlasting life and yet, he allows himself to be vulnerable to the pain of loss. He is moved with grief over the death of his friend Lazarus.  He feels and expresses deep sorrow enough that people around him comment on it.  I think that Jesus’ behavior coming right after his words about fullness of life are intentional.  Living in Jesus is to allow breakthrough moments of unconditional love. It requires that we allow ourselves to be truly and deeply touched by the suffering of others. And there is so much.  People who we know are struggling with serious health issues; several have family members who are dying. A short ride from here we can see people who are homeless. We know of children who attend local schools who come to class hungry. And if we dare watch the news we are bombarded by stories of individuals demoralized by life’s blows, people hurt from the dishonesty and greed of others, people moved to acts of violence by fear and prejudice. It’s natural to want to shield ourselves from feeling their pain; somehow cushion our awareness. How much can we take? But Jesus models for us.  He weeps, and in the weeping he shows us that to live fully we must feel fully. Compassion begins with our own experience of suffering, but then requires that we let go of our personal and emotional reactions and fully enter into the experience of the other; no attempt to fix, to advise – we enter naked into the unknown simply to be with the other.

The “gift of tears” is known a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the overflow of a spiritual experience in an emotional/physiological expression that while painful at the same time creates deep comfort in one’s soul. We sense that we are truly alive when we are fully with another in their suffering. For when we cry, we disperse the inner clutter that dams up the flow of the Spirit. Love comes with compassion and love is the power behind a miracle. The tears over Lazarus showed enormous compassion that led to Jesus taking action, confirming the power of love.

A second seemingly incongruous piece of this gospel story is at the very end.  Jesus has just called Lazarus from his four day stay in the grave and Lazarus has responded. He has walked out and startled the crowds.  Then Jesus says to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

We move from the height of miraculous glory – the raising of a dead man – and now Jesus calls people from their wide-eyed wonderment to the down-to-earth tasks of releasing Lazarus from his grave clothes in order that he might be free. This is not simply a trifling detail in the story. You and I are called to a ministry of unbinding. There are people all around us, living with us in our families, working with us in our jobs, attending social functions with us, joining us in church bound in their grave clothes; tied up by low self-esteem, bound up by perfectionism and not feeling that they measure up, believing that they are invisible, unimportant.  We can help unbind people simply by spending time with them, listening attentively, smiling, affirming, encouraging, accepting them as they are, communicating that we value them.  It doesn’t take much, and yet it’s everything.

Lent is a season of preparation – a time to get ready for Easter; get ready to celebrate new life – a fullness of life. The message of this fifth Sunday in Lent is that we live most fully when we love and are loved. We prepare for this new life of the resurrection as we open ourselves to those whose hearts are broken and whose spirits are bound. We prepare for this new life of the resurrection as we remain attentive to opportunities to love.

I end with the last part of a prayer by Virgil Fry: Walk with us, God. Our trek is not always easy,
our vision shortsighted, our love often hidden. May we seek the deeper places where our compassion, our joy reflect You, the God who is Love. Amen

Because loving isn’t always convenient, and compassion can take its toll, we come together as one family around the table to be nurtured and strengthened for the journey. Come now to the table.