“A generative space” 02/05/2017 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Isaiah 58:1-9a

Luke 7:12-17


Let us pray.

“Holy one, touch us with your word.  Awaken in us your compassion.  Raise us up to newness of heart, mind and action so that we may every more faithfully perceive and walk in your Way.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen”



Today, we open the Gospel of Luke and find that Jesus has left region around the  Sea of Galilee and has headed south walking a day’s journey to the town of Nain.

It now is late in the day.  It has been a long, 25 mile at least, walk and the crowd, those following Jesus, I imagine are tired.   I imagine that they are ready to wash up and rest. Eat and then perhaps a bit later, gather round to tell stories and to hear more of what their teacher Jesus has to say.

They were almost there, quite close to the town gate when they began to hear the wail of the mourners and then saw the funeral procession.  I wonder what they thought?     Did some in the crowd following Jesus turn away and avert their gaze?  Were others filled with pity? Were others more caught up with their aching feet and the restless stirrings of hunger in their bellies to take much notice of whatever else may be going on?  We don’t really know.

But what we do know is what Jesus did.  Jesus did not avert his gaze.  Jesus did not pity the woman and wonder what will become of her.  Jesus was not concerned about his feet or when his next meal will be.

Instead, Jesus takes it all in and has compassion for widow, and in having compassion, he engages, and in engaging, he draws near and in drawing near he touches, and in touching, he says “Young man, I say to you, rise!”.

And suddenly what was a funeral procession is one no more.  Where there was despair there is now awe.  Where there was only a dead end there is now a new beginning.  And all of this all of this was set in motion by —  compassion.


It is an extraordinary scene — the coming together of these two crowds, these two processions.  One full of life and hope and wondering what new thing tomorrow will bring.  The other, deep in grief, suffering and despair.  But instead of passing by each other, each locked in their own experience, instead Jesus steps out.  He steps out and is filled with compassion and it is this compassion that creates a generative space where something new arises that neither the crowd following Jesus or those mourning the dead young man could have possibly imagined.

And what is so striking is that after experiencing this generative place that compassion created and where new life had arisen, there are no longer two different groups of people.  Instead, the text uses the third person plural — “them” and “they”.  It says “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God.”  There are no longer foot sore but heart happy disciples following Jesus and world weary, despairing others following the funeral bier.  Now there is just one people, in awe, giving glory to God.


Compassion.  Elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us “Be compassionate as your [God] is compassionate” Luke 6:36.  Compassion — what is this compassion that moved Jesus so?

The Greek word for compassion, (you may remember that the Gospel of Luke from which we are reading was originally written in Greek), the Greek word the author uses is translated as “to be moved from the inward parts” — the guts.  Compassion in its Biblical sense is understood as something visceral, “a deep suffering with.”

And this Compassion brings movement.  Compassion draws one out of where one was and into a new place.  Pity, and empathy even can be felt from a distance.  We can feel for the homeless man asleep on a frozen sidewalk as walk by.  But the fact that we are walking by names what we are feeling something other than compassion.  Jesus was moved with compassion for the woman.  Going on in his walk into town was now impossible.

Compassion you see is not a passive emotion, it is an active one.  It is generative and opens a generative space where the Spirit of God shows up in all her inspiration and where bold, creative, life giving action arises.  I believe it is what the word of God spoken through the Prophet Isaiah is summoning God’s people to when he asks them “Does God want you to fast and starve your bodies all the while going along thinking about your business?”  No!

What God wants is that we:

unlock the chains of wickedness,
untie the knots of servitude.
Let the oppressed go free,
their bonds broken.
Share your bread with the hungry,
and welcome the homeless into your home.
All  action words.
What God wants the Prophet asserts is what I see Jesus doing.  It is letting compassion draw us out of where we are so that a bold new, divinely led and inspired action may arise for us to enact.


I wonder if you know the work of Karen Armstrong?  Karen Armstrong is an amazing scholar who is captivated by the world religions and her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions.

I was recently listening to a 2009 TED talk that Armstrong gave on the universal primacy of compassion and was struck by a statement she made.  She said. “Religion for the great majority of human history had little to do with belief as we think of it today.” Instead, she says, “religion had everything to do with behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.”

And then she goes on to say “It is an arresting fact that right across the board, in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.”

And she concludes by saying that “what is an important point is that one cannot and must not confine one’s compassion to one’s own group:  one’s own religion or one’s one nation.” [1]


I think our founders of this Church knew exactly what she is talking about for they insisted on this being an inclusive faith community.  And Today, here we affirm in our Covenant (which is printed on the back of your bulletins every Sunday) and in the opening our opening words of welcome week after week that a core value of ours is practicing the inclusive and I would say compassionate love of Jesus which means welcoming not just people that look alike, love alike, vote alike and believe alike but that we practice letting compassion (which I believe is the Spirit’s presence among us but unpacking that is for another time) lead us to embrace and welcome all — trusting that in doing so our life together will be more than we could have possibly imagined!

We welcome all not so that we can sit in our own pews apart and tolerate each other from a distance.  We welcome all not so that we may feel pity or empathy for each other from a far.  We welcome all in this inclusive, compassionate love of Jesus so that we can come together and create something new.  We hug hello and pass the peace, we ponder and pray, sing and cry together so that in this our life together, this compassionate space of community something new may come alive; not only enlivening us but leading us to enliven the world by doing as the Prophet spoke to

“unlock the chains of wickedness,
untie the knots of servitude.
Let the oppressed go free,
their bonds broken.
Share our bread with the hungry,
and welcome the homeless into our home.”

I am convinced that compassion is the key and I hope we can dig into how to cultivate a ready disposition of compassion in the weeks to come.

But for now, let us not avert our eyes to the suffering of those around us.  Let us instead follow Jesus who see the widow and has compassion for her, and in having compassion, engages, and in engaging, draws near and in drawing near touches, and in touching, enacts new life.

Let us “Be compassionate as our [God] is compassionate” Luke 6:36.

May it be so and may we do so.  Thanks be to God.


[1] http://www.ted.com/talks/karen_armstrong_makes_her_ted_prize_wish_the_charter_for_compassion?utm_source=tedcomshare&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=tedspread