Compassion in the Text and at the Table.
Penetecost 17, Common Lectionary Year C
World Wide Communion Sunday.
Matthew 9: 9-11,25-38
©2019 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones
I was born into a practising Roman Catholic family.
I had a little Missal book which I would take with me to Church, and while the adults all lined up and knelt at the altar to receive the communion wafers on their tongue,
in a moment so holy it was signalled by bells and incense,
I would look at the sepia pictures in my missal,
of Jesus, dressed in white, surrounded by
cherubic little children,
whom he blessed, by hovering his hand above their heads.
I wanted to be in that picture, although cherubic I was not!
I wanted his blessing.
The picture that bothered me though
was the picture of Jesus healing the paralytic
who had been lowered by his friends through the roof
– a story told in this same Gospel.
The man on the bed was emaciated,
his face wracked with pain and pleading,
and the friends who had lowered him through the roof
were dishevelled, sweaty from the hard work
of actually caring for their sick friend.
If I were to name or identify compassion in that image,
it was displayed by the ones who were prepared to lift the sick man’s deadweight up onto the roof,
peel back the thatch, unhinge the roof beams,
and tenderly lower him into the space in front of Jesus,
and not by Jesus himself,
who was still white-clad, calm, and hovering near, not touching.
He was too holy, untouchable, condescending, not compassionate.
Compassion is about being alongside,
dwelling with another in their time of trial and pain, no?
It is, as Henri Nouwen describes,*
about going into places of pain, sharing in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish,
it is the willingness to cry out with those who are in misery,
to mourn with those who are in grief.
It’s about being weak alongside the weak,
it means, “full immersion into the condition of being human.”
Now, God be thanked,
if we’re prepared to move beyond the artwork of a children’s devotional pocketbook, and if we read deeply into this Gospel,
if we turn the text itself,
and really attend to it,
we’ll see that Jesus was more homespun than white-clad,
we’ll see his hands in the mud and spittle of healing touch,
we’ll see him lifting the thatch aside himself
so that the bed-bound man can come as close as touch,
we’ll see a Jesus who is so completely at one with the world
of which his flesh is made.
We’ll see a Jesus who walked the talk of the Dream of God.
At first, I’ll be honest,
reading Matthew can feel a bit repetitive, especially between chapters 8 and 25. Matthew repeats about
7 or 8 times the rhythm of Jesus
teaching, then walking, then healing, or exorcising, or cleansing, then a meal with the wrong people, followed by an argument with the holier- than- thou, before beginning the cycle again,
teaching, healing, eating, reconciling…
so much so that we have no choice but to see him
as one truly, fully, immersed in the fullness
of what it means to be human,
not only in our God-made goodness,
but also in our weakness, vulnerability and brokenness, isolation, loneliness, sense of worthlessness.
And if we’re carefully imaginative in our reading of this Lively Word,
we’ll have no difficulty in seeing that same Jesus in his compassion, walking alongside Kally or Wendy or Noreen down Parc Avenue last Friday, or sitting next to Greta every Friday,
he would be delivering phone cards to the refugee detention centre,
he would be breaking bread at the border,
he would be riding for refuge,
he would be cooking a meal and watching the stars with the NeXt for Youth group,
he would be cooking and baking and collecting socks for the homeless,
and he would be sleeping in Cabot Square alongside them.
He would be the compassion of God
wearing the clothing of the humanity we share.
Which brings me right to this Table,
on this World Wide Communion Sunday,
seeking and seeing that same compassion of God,
wearing the clothing of humanity.
Again, let my Catholic roots show.
I was raised to believe that the sacrament of Communion
was an intensely personal spiritual event or experience.
It is, for many, and remains so for me;
a liminal space in time when God’s heaven touches my earthly lips.
AND, over time, and as I have lived my ministry,
it has become so much more.
In our Protestant tradition the celebration of communion requires four things to be present:
the proclaimed Word of Jesus,
and a gathered community.
In our text today there was bread and wine, and Jesus,
and a gathered community not of the holier than thou, but of that society’s outcasts, ”tax collectors and sinners.”
A table where the compassion of God
creates communion with humanity and with the world.
So, what might happen
when we gather, as we shall in a few moments,
to praise our Creator,
give thanks for our ancestors in faithfulness and brokenness,
and when we join in silently, or aloud, the words of Jesus spoken over bread and cup?
What might happen when we remember Jesus not just that night, but all of his Gospel life,
his walking the talk, from crèche to cross,
remember his healing hands,
his critique of self-righteousness,
his anger at all that mars the goodness of God creation,
his forgiveness of all within us that is broken and ugly?
I believe that what happens is that
we find ourselves in compassionate communion
not only with God,
not only with God’s Son Jesus,
but with the wide world in all its blessed brokenness.
For this table,
your kitchen table, our F4 table,
by the loving mercy of a living God
whose compassionate traits we know
in the cruciform flesh of Jesus,
is long and wide.
Poet Jan Richardson says of this table,
that the welcome will be wide,
and our aching hunger will be met with bread,
All our sorrow
will be met
And we will open our hands
to the feast
And we will turn
toward each other
And we will give up
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
will be the feast.