A Spectacle of Compassion

Jun 05, 2016   •   Luke 7: 11-17

So, as you might be aware, Andrew and I just got back from a trip to Europe. And like a lot of people do as tourists in Europe, we visited a fair number of churches. I have a professional interest, of course, but most people are drawn to the great cathedrals of these cities. They are just so physically impressive, that even the committed atheist can’t help being drawn to them. Centuries of planning went into this building that would be the center of spiritual power – at a time when spiritual power and temporal power often occupied the same space. Whole communities spanning generations created these churches. Master craftsmen contributed the best of their trade, workmen risked their lives to bring them into fruition, and all people looked to these places for a sense of awe, for a connection to the divine.

But as you know, the day when these feats of architecture and art were centers of vital faith has passed, or at least mostly passed. There was a small congregation gathered for mass in the Nave of Notre Dame the day we were there. But the museum goers vastly outnumbered the faithful.

Later in our trip, Andrew and I ate a lovely lunch in a bar in Utrecht. A bar that had been church. It was full of patrons eating and drinking. The organ was still there, but presumably just there for decoration. We guessed at where the altar must have been. Probably right below the screen that advertised the beers on tap.

A recent Guardian article wondered what would happen as Christianity disappears from public life. In England, for every one convert to Christianity, ten leave the church, the article reported1. And most of these converts are from other Christian denominations, making evangelism an activity we do with ourselves. The article fairly places much of the blame for this decline directly on the church itself, and I can’t disagree.

At low moments in my life, I fear this fate for my beloved houses of faith. That through lack of interest and lack of vitality, communities of faith will disappear. In really, really low moments I think of what nice condos St. Mark’s would make, or what an awesome coffee shop. Good things would still happen in a re-purposed St. Mark’s, I think, community and connection. But where, I worry, would people go to touch the divine, to see the divine in themselves, to experience awe or clarity of vocation? Are those places fading away?

But it’s not as if the only spectacle churches can create is their great buildings. Perhaps communities of faith got distracted by architecture. Or perhaps they meant architecture to be a means to attract people to the greater, more important spectacle, but got lost along the way. For Jesus created a spectacle in our gospel reading.

In the story, Jesus and his followers meet a widow and the funeral procession accompanying the body of her son at the city’s gate. And then Jesus raises the boy from the dead to the general astonishment of everyone. This is not a new move on Jesus’ part. As we heard in our first reading, Jesus’ story mirrors the Old Testament prophet Elijah’s story. Elijah also meets a widow in a foreign land and brings back to life her son who has died. Widow is a category that can simply mean, the most dejected and downtrodden. With no support from a male protector, widows were as good as dead. The loss of a son would be a death stroke for them as well. Compassion for the outsider, for the destitute is a thread that runs from beginning to end of the Bible, both Old and New Testament.

Yet while Luke wants to demonstrate continuity between Jesus and Yahweh, the God of Elijah, he also points out something unique to Jesus. When Jesus sees the widow he feels compassion, says our text. Compassion means “to suffer with”, which is pretty powerful, but this is actually pretty watered down compared to the Greek. Luke uses the verb splagchnizomai. Splagchnizomai means to have one’s guts churned; you can almost feel your guts churning as you try to say it. The word has a fascinating history. The noun, splagchna was used in Greek to describe the guts, specifically the guts pulled out of an animal in sacrifice. In fact, the heart, if it was removed for sacrifice was called a splagchna, not akardia. Splagchneo, the active verb can mean to eat the inner parts of the sacrificial victim.2

Luke uses this verb, with its very gruesome history in the making of violent sacrifices, for an entirely different purpose. And, strikingly, he uses it only three times in his gospel. It is used here, in this story, and in the two great parables that are unique to Luke: The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son. The Good Samaritan splagchnizomai – his insides are turned out in response to the victimized traveler on the roadside whom no one will stop to help. The father sees his son from far off and splagchnizomai– he feels his stomach in his throat. Jesus sees a procession of death with more death to come and splagchnizomai – his heart is ripped out. Instead of the passions which demand victims and sacrifices, Jesus invokes passions that revive and save victims. The spectacle of the sacrificial victim is subverted into the spectacle of compassion.

This past Thursday there was a bit of a spectacle in the continuing effort to end gun violence. On June 2, Gun Violence Prevention organizations asked people around the country to wear orange to promote awareness of gun violence. The Episcopal Church participated and encouraged us to wear orange on this Sunday as well. Hence my orange stole created just for this occasion3.

Let me say that “raising awareness” is generally one of the more useless activities I can think of. Most people I know are hyper aware to the point of feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness. But the story behind the color orange touched me. See June 2 is national gun violence awareness day because it was Hadiya Pendleton’s birthday. Hadiya was the fifteen-year-old girl shot dead in Chicago January of 2013. She was just another innocent victim of Chicago’s vicious and relentless gang violence. It happens every day and so her story might have just disappeared into the background of so much death. However, just a week previously she had performed as a majorette with her high school band at President Obama’s inauguration and she was killed close to the Obama family home in Chicago.

Her friends, not wanting to have her story lost, started a movement to wear orange in her memory. Orange was Hadiya’s favorite color and, as they said, it’s the color hunters wear to stay safe. Orange cries out, “don’t shoot”! It’s the color of danger and warning. There is something that needs protection here, be careful.

Another reason it is important that Hadiya’s story became so visible is that most gun violence prevention activism revolves around high profile mass shootings – think Virginia Tech or Newtown. The victims are mostly white, the violence is perpetrated quickly, by one gunman in an otherwise peaceful community. Hadiya was a black victim of black gang violence. The spectacle of orange that filled social media and public squares made an atrocity we usually don’t see and feel, visible and visceral. Episcopal bishops, senators, celebrities wore orange not to make themselves more visible but to make the life of an ordinary child more visible. It was a modern spectacle of compassion – a splagchnizomai for all to see.

The spectacle of the church building, even one with a beautiful Tiffany window and well apportioned office space may not move the modern human being to faith or faithful action. Such beauty can be admired and cared for in a bar or a luxury condo. Even strong community and good music and thoughtful analysis of the problems of the day can be found in a multitude of other places. Christianity as a dominant spectacle of power and strength is fading or has faded and perhaps it will never be visible in the same way again.

However, spectacles of compassion, making visible the passions of love, courage, and solidarity, these are rare, special, and precious acts. What needs to be seen, vividly and brightly, is that there are still so many grieving widows in so many processions of death. And as long as they are there, there will be a need for us to meet it at the city gates with visible compassion.