Sermon: The Heart’s Going Out
Texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:11-17
Date: September 15, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
A procession of death is passing through town, heading for the graveyard outside the city gates. The body being carried by the pall bearers is of a young man, dead too soon. His widowed mother leads the procession of mourners. It’s her only son on the bier; when the funeral rites are over, she will return home utterly alone, bereft.
Walk with her in your imagination. Taste the dust scuffed up by the procession, dust salted with tears. Listen to the way the onlookers fall silent as the sad parade passes. Listen to the sound of the widow’s sobs in the quieted street.
A procession full of life is passing through town, coming into the city from the other direction. Jesus is being followed by a rowdy throng of pumped up disciples and curious seekers as they journey away from Capernaum, where the centurion’s servant was healed in the previous story. They are probably weary, these walkers, having gone some 25 miles since morning.
The procession of death and the procession of life meet on the street. The disciples are probably busy scanning the town for a good pub or inn. They might not even look at the funeral procession; they just want to get around it. Perhaps they feel a little irritated when Jesus comes to a full stop. Why does he halt? He sees her. He sees her.
I would have wanted to avert my eyes; to even glance at that much pain is painful. I avert my eyes from strangers’ pain quite a lot, actually; perhaps you do, too. But Jesus—whom the story names as Lord—looked right at her. And when he looked at her, something happened to him. “He had compassion for her.” Something stirred within him, rising like a tide.
In Greek, it is literally a gut feeling. The Greek verb “to have compassion” is the practically unpronounceable “splagcnizomai.” The word occurs a dozen times in the New Testament, only in the gospels. The verb form comes from the noun “splanxna,” meaning your bowels, heart, lungs, liver or kidneys, which in that day were understood as the center of human emotions. In our day we simplify the phrase to the heart, as we speak of one’s heart going out. Throughout the gospels Jesus is a man of compassion. As he walked through the villages and saw the crowds afflicted with sickness and disease, “he had compassion on them.” When he saw the hungry, “he had compassion on them,” healed the sick, and fed the five thousand. When thronged by another “large crowd” of the lame, the blind, the crippled, and the dumb, he told his disciples, “I have compassion for these people.” And when he left Jericho followed by yet another “large crowd,” and two blind beggars screamed for help, “Jesus had compassion on them” and healed them. Two of the most famous parables of Jesus have this verb at their center, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The Samaritan has compassion on the person left bleeding in the ditch; the father has compassion on his son, coming home a broken man.
In today’s story, Jesus sees the grieving, desperately alone and lonely woman. He has compassion for her. He speaks to her then, blurts out the words of comfort that come to him, “Do not weep.” This is not meant to be a critique of weeping in general; there’s a whole lot of weeping going on in Luke’s gospel, some of it by Jesus himself. It’s just meant to give her assurance that he can help. And help he does. He touches the bier so the corpse bearers stop their march to the grave. He addresses the body: “Be raised!” The verb is passive, reminding the reader that the power is coming from God. The same word will be used at Jesus’ resurrection—“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not is not here, but has been raised.” In another moment the crowd will use the same verb as they shout about how a mighty prophet has been raised among them. The point is not the vocabulary but that all would notice that God is at work here, working through Jesus.
The mighty power of God to bring new life where there is death is evident as the body sits up and begins to speak—don’t you wonder what he said? And Jesus “gave him to his mother.” The procession of death and the procession of life meld into one body as they all join together to praise God, who is “looking favorably” on God’s people.
I’m sure you noticed how much the story in Luke has in common with the story of Elijah and the widow’s son from 1 Kings. Jesus is, in a sense, re-enacting or re-presenting this ancient story as he establishes himself as a prophet and more than a prophet. Compassion plays an essential role in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath as well. The widow took a chance on feeding Elijah when her food was about to run out, even though she had a son to feed and they were on the verge of starvation. Elijah promised that God would restore her jars of meal and oil if she would care for him; and God kept that promise. Elijah has been in the household for some time when the son of the widow dies—again, a horrifying situation both emotionally and economically since a woman with no male relative to care for her was in deep trouble. The widow strikes out at Elijah in her searing pain: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Elijah doesn’t try to defend himself or the Lord. He takes the boy, intercedes for him, and God restores the boy’s life. He gives him back to his mother, just as Jesus will do generations later. And the widow, like the crowd in Luke, is moved to recognize that God is at work through the prophet’s words and deeds.
What do such stories have to teach disciples today, when ordinary folks like you and I don’t typically have the ability to literally resurrect the dead? In both stories a vulnerable person is drowning in pain and is in an isolating situation. Elijah and Jesus both enter into the women’s pain and are both moved to action, to bring life to a moment where death is dominating the scene. We may not be able to effect a resurrection, but we all have the power to see people’s pain and react with compassion.
Our worship series focused on “The Outsiders” draws our attention today to a particular kind of pain: Loneliness. Widows suffering the loss of their only child are symbols of extreme loneliness—surely no one could feel as alone as those women would in those conditions. While not many would be in that exact situation, there are millions of people who do feel lonely, isolated, cut off. Drowning in pain. Here’s a view into one lonely life, a (terrible) poem written by a fifteen year old woman named Ranae who was being held in King County Juvenile Detention. Poetry was collected and published by a local publisher to give the detainees a voice outside their cells. This poem is titled “Why?”
Why I’m in here, deserted?
It’s not really fair.
I don’t get to let people know
How I feel about everything.
I feel pissed off,
And why don’t people ever listen to me?
Why can’t they understand about my life?
It ain’t supposed to be perfect.
My life was never perfect.
It was always difficult
Even when I was little,
When I grew up,
When my mom left and I was 7,
Everything, until now.
I felt really lonely
Every day I felt lonely
And the only thing that satisfies me
Is money, alcohol and drugs.
When I’m really upset
And when I got a lot of weed,
I can’t take it no more
I just want to get high
Till I die.
Hard to even listen to that kind of pain, that degree of killing loneliness, isn’t it? She is brutally honest about her life, her feelings, her sense of isolation. No covering up, no polite, tight-lipped “I’m fine.” One gets a sense that the Ranae life trajectory is on its way out of the city toward the graveyard, as was the young man’s funeral procession.
Ranae’s situation is extreme, but hardly unusual. Loneliness is a widespread plague in human life. Mother Teresa, who spent her life working with desperately poor and dying people, came to recognize loneliness as a wicked kind of poverty. She wrote, “There is much suffering in the world–physical, material, mental. The suffering of some can be blamed on the greed of others. The material and physical suffering is suffering from hunger, from homelessness, from all kinds of diseases. But the greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, having no one. I have come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.” Being unwanted, or feeling unwanted is the worst disease—do you agree? It seems like feeling unwanted was at the root of the juvenile poet Ranae’s pain. She felt unwanted and isolated: “Why I’m in here, deserted?…and why don’t people ever listen to me?”
Being isolated when one is feeling low adds insult to injury. There’s a well-known poem titled “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that will probably sound familiar:
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.
Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.
This poet nails our human tendency to avert our eyes from the pain of others. She must have been in a sorry state when she penned that poem. She’s probably right that many people find themselves filing singly “through the narrow aisles of pain,” feeling both lonely and deserted. But the “narrow aisle” of loneliness is not our universal fate, it’s no one’s unalterable destiny—not as long as there are compassionate people with their eyes open still roaming to and fro on the face of the earth.
Christians, if we imagine ourselves in the procession of people following Jesus on his journey, we are in the procession full of life, bearing good news. We’ll have no shortage of meet-ups with people on the road heading out toward the city of the dead, bearing their grief and pain. It’s crucial at the moment of encounter with someone’s pain that we do what Jesus did—see the person who is suffering, and then, rather than keeping our hearts locked up in safe and comfortable obliviousness, let our hearts go out to them. Let compassion stir, rise up to meet the person in their pain and loneliness.
Meeting someone who feels squeezed into a narrow aisle of pain with compassionate action need not be as dramatic as bringing someone back from the dead. Playwright Oscar Wilde told a story of a simple gesture that meant the world to him. In his day Wilde was a real celebrity but all that evaporated once he was convicted of sodomy and indecency in 1895—basically, sentenced to hard labor for being openly gay. Whenever the prison authorities moved him in public he was spat at and jeered. On one occasion when the crowd was particularly hostile, a friend of Wilde appeared and made a simple gesture of friendship and respect that silenced the crowd. What did he do? As Wilde passed by, handcuffed and head bowed, the man simply raised his hat to him, the smallest of good deeds. Wilde later wrote: “Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with the mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek…I do not know to the present moment whether my friend is aware that I was even conscious of his action. It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words. I store it in the treasure house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I can never possibly repay. When wisdom has been profitless to me, and philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who sought to give consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that lowly silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity, made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken and great heart of the world.”
If a simple gesture like a tipped hat can rescue someone from the bitterness of lonely exile, imagine the power of our simply seeing someone’s pain and reaching out in whatever way we can, letting our hearts go out to meet them where they are. This mission field is everywhere all at once; no need to traverse the earth to the scene of a disaster or famine. As Mother Teresa wrote, “There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives – the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them.” There is great potency in reaching out to someone with a card, a phone call, a cup of tea, an invitation to supper, a pause in the street to listen to someone’s tale of woe. Imagine the impact of going to the school to tutor, or going to the nursing home to visit, or going to the prison to teach, or going to the funeral to pray and reach out to embrace the bereaved. In all these gestures one is showing oneself to be in the great multitude of Christ’s followers who are carrying the good news of unquenchable love into every corner of the land. Even if it’s just you and one lonely person, you are in Christ’s company; Christ promises “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20]
Here’s a beautiful thing about our faith. We find that when we bear love to others, some always spills over on us, rescuing us from our own loneliness and despair. Here’s one more poem that expresses this beautifully, “Touched by an Angel” by Maya Angelou:
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity.
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Beloved, the procession of death meets the procession of life on your street and mine. God’s power is still being revealed and we are all—givers and receivers of love alike—being raised up to new life.
 What Every Guy Tells Me: Writing by Teenagers in King County Juvenile Detention Richard Gold, ed. Seattle, WA: Pongo Publishing, 2000, p. 56
 Wilde, Oscar quoted in Creative Brooding by Robert Raines New York: Macmillan, 1966, p. 96