See. Feel. Act.

john philip

Pentecost 11C

August 7, 2016

Luke 7:11-17


And Jesus gave him to his mother.


This is a difficult story to hear and to preach

because most of us have lost loved ones,

and Jesus has not given them back to us

like he gave this mother back her son.


Annaliese was ten years old and she wanted to be a cheerleader.

Not just any cheerleader – she wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

And so when she was dying with AIDS,

the Make a Wish Foundation arranged for some of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to visit her hospital room in Springfield, MA where I was working as a resident.


The visit never happened though.

Annaliese died just a few days before it was scheduled.


Annaliese’s illness and her family’s reaction to it

Was complicated to say the least.


Her mother, didn’t want Annaliese to know her diagnosis.

It was in the mid- 90’s and even the word “AIDS” was filled with shame and fear.


Annaliese’s mother was afraid that if somehow the word got out,

Annaliese would have difficulties at school –

Maybe children wouldn’t want to sit next to her;

Maybe parents wouldn’t want their children to sit next to her.


The thing is, as I sat with her one evening , Annaliese told me that she actually knew she had AIDS.

But sensing how important her mother thought it was that she not know,

Annaliese pretended she didn’t.


Mother and daughter,

Living parallel stories of illness, loss, and grief.

Each holding a deep secret.

Each afraid of what would happen if it – if they – became known to the other –

if they were really seen by each other.


And Jesus gave him back to his mother.


Whenever I hear this story, I think of Annaliese.

Because as much as I would have loved to have been able to give

a healthy ten-year old cured of AIDS back to her mother,

I couldn’t do that.


But there was another way for Annaliese and her mother to be healed…

there was another way for mother and daughter to be restored…

and this is the part of the story where I failed.


As a junior resident, I didn’t stand up to Annaliese’s attending physician–

who decided to let things be – to let the secret remain.


Sometimes healing is more than cure.


Sometimes healing is the freedom to be seen as we are without any secrets

and to feel grief and fear and sadness with someone else…

no matter how painful those feelings are.

Even when there is no cure,

there can be healing.


Last week when I was away at Chautauqua Institution,

the preacher of the week was John Philip Newell,

a minister in the Church of Scotland and a student of Celtic spirituality.


One morning he spoke about compassion.

There are three steps to compassion, he said.

The first is the courage to see.

The second is the courage to feel.

And the third is the courage to act.


He said that sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to see,

because it causes us to feel – it makes us weep.


Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to feel,

because when we begin to weep,  it will lead us to action.


Newell said, “St. Columba put a rule in his (monastic) community

that we should pray until the tears come.

When the tears come, …we know that something deep in the soul is stirring us to action.”




See. Feel. Act.

Three steps of compassion.


In this one little passage – seven verses –  Jesus does all three.


Jesus first sees the widow.


She’s in a funeral procession heading out of the city of Nain.

Today it’s a mostly Arabic town

about 5 miles southwest of Nazareth.


They’re heading out of the city to bury the body,

because ritual purity laws did not allow bodies to be buried within the walls of the city.


Just outside the city,  two groups meet:

Jesus and his “large crowd” of followers

meets a widow and her “large crowd” of mourners.


In the midst of these crowds of people,

Jesus’ eyes go directly to one person –  and it’s not the dead son, but his mother.


Unlike the other stories of healing in the gospels,

the widow doesn’t come to Jesus to ask for healing.

Jesus sees her;

he reaches out to her first.


And this is what he sees:

he sees a woman who has lost both her husband and her only son;

and he also sees a woman whose life ahead in that day and age is one of destitution.


There was a pastor from Tanazania studying in the US

when I was in seminary.

He was writing a thesis about the pastoral care of widows.


When I asked him why he was particularly interested in widows,

he said that like in many countries, widowhood in Tanzania is often really a living death.

It means being shunned because of superstition.

It means a lifetime of poverty and loneliness.


Even in the United States,

poverty if not necessarily a ‘widow disease’ is often a ‘female disease.’

Households headed by women have far greater poverty rates

than those headed by men.


Jesus sees this woman, a widow,

and then he feels – we’re told he is moved with compassion.


And it seems as though St. Columba is correct…

“When the tears come, …we know that something deep in the soul is stirring us to action.”

Jesus is moved to act.


He brings about an unusual healing.

It’s an unusual resurrection.

It’s not just the resuscitation of a dead body.[i]


Jesus gives a son back to his mother and both are healed.

Jesus gives a son back to his mother and a community is healed as well.

They become witnesses to justice and freedom.


Let us have the courage to see.

Let us have the courage to feel.

Let us have the courage to act.

Then we too can be healers.







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