Trinity 16 - October 1, 2017

October 07, 2017

Audio of Pastor Christopher's Sermon

Episode Notes

Have you ever wondered where the term “butterflies in your stomach” came from? Why when you are worried or upset about something it causes distress in your belly? Have you ever had a big thing coming up, usually something that you are not looking forward to, and whenever it flashes into your mind you feel that unwelcome flash of remembrance deep down in your belly? I knew a man in college who would get hit by stomach cramps every day before a big test.

The reason for this is because your gut is, what has been termed, your second brain. Your primary brain, of course, is in your head - it’s like your primary computer. Your brain has about 86 billion neurons – the neurons are like the electric wiring of your body. You have neurons everywhere, in your skin and muscles and eyes and organs, but the second most concentrated area of neurons is in your gut. There are about 100 million neurons in your gut – a higher concentration of neurons than anywhere else in your body besides your brain. There are, in fact, more neurons in your gut than in your spinal chord.

Of course, the neurons would be of no use without the chemical that allows them to communicate with each other. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters. The most important of your neurotransmitters is Serotonin. Imbalances in Serotonin levels cause all kinds of physiological problems, including migraine headaches and clinical depression, which is not a mental illness so much as it is a chemical imbalance in the body. In fact, Serotonin levels in the body control most of your mental and emotional health. And now here’s the really interesting part: while your brain contains about 860 times as many neurons as your gut, your gut contains more than 90% of the Seratonin in your body — which is why so much of your mental health, your worry, your stress, your happiness, is felt in your gut and reflected by how your gut acts.

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” Psalm 139 says. Due to that wonderful chemical called Serotonin, which God created your body to produce and which you couldn’t live without, your emotions are felt more in your gut than in your brain. The Romans and Greeks and Hebrews knew this millenia ago, which is why those cultures believed the gut was the center of human emotions and it turns out, they had it right.

Which brings us to a wonderful Greek word that we find in our Gospel text today: splagchnizomai. It is a harsh sounding word, which is good because it sounds like what it is. Literally it means to have your bowels moved. Splagchnizomai.

“And when the Lord saw her splagchnizomia on her . . .” “His bowels were moved upon her,” and we think “Oh, man, that’s gross!” but remember, for the Greeks and even the Hebrews, the bowels were the seat of love and pity and human emotion, so this word does not mean what we usually understand moved bowels to mean, this is the word the Bible uses for compassion, not just pity that says, “Oh, isn’t that too bad,” but compassion that hits you in the gut and drives you to act.  

Years ago I was sitting at home with my father watching a documentary about the famine that was destroying Africa – this was probably 1979 or 80. Pictures of famine-racked mothers holding their dying babies and children with the big bellies typical of famine victims. My father was getting more and more agitated as he watched the program and suddenly he got up, got his checkbook and wrote out a generous check to send to the aid organization that was sponsoring the documentary. He splagchnizomai on those poor, starving people. Splagchnizomai churns your gut so much that it makes you do something to fix the problem.

When Jesus saw the woman, His gut churned, it was moved for her and He was forced to act on her behalf.

Splagchnizomia, compassion for the widow, moved Jesus to raise her son from the dead. To have compassion is literally to have a gut reaction. Jesus had a gut reaction for a poor, helpless widow – a woman who had nothing. Compassion moved Jesus to do what no Israelite could or would do. To tough a casket in which a dead man lay was to defile oneself. The men who carried that coffin would have had to go through a period of ritual cleansing to be purified from the defilement of touching a corpse. None of the people in that procession would have come near the casket for fear of being defiled by the corpse within. And every single one of them no doubt felt sorry for the widow, but what could they do? Nothing. So they just followed the weeping mother and widow to the tomb where she would lay her only son and put in the ground her only hope for support in this world — remember in Jesus’ day, unlike in our culture, women were completely dependent upon the men-folk to support them. This woman was reduced to the status of beggar when her only son died.

And then here comes Jesus. He saw the woman’s plight and it hit Him in the gut – He had to do something, and only He could do something. He walked right up to that coffin and He touched it. It is significant that Jesus touched the coffin. He could have just spoken and the dead man would have obeyed. But He touched the coffin, just as He touched the lepers and the prostitutes and sinners. He is the God who can and does take the unclean and make it clean by His own righteousness.

That young man died because he was a sinner; sinners die, that’s why you and I must die, for the wages of sin is death. But here was the only one ever born into this world without sin, therefore here standing in their midst was the God of life, of eternal life; the God in whom and by Whose own blood that would be shed makes the unclean clean and in Whom the unholy becomes holy. Jesus took this young man’s sin and death upon Himself when He touched that coffin and spoke to the dead man and the dead man heard and obeyed. Compassion moved Jesus to this.

We see in this event a foreshadowing of Jesus cross where He not only would touch the unclean one, but He Himself would become unclean, bearing the sin and death of all people, suffering under the divine wrath over your sin and mine and doing for you and me and everyone else what no other human being would or could do: Go to a cross and die for the sins of the world.

Jesus has a gut reaction for poor, helpless, dead people; people who are dead in their sins; people who have nothing to offer to God, people who, like the dead man in Nain, are completely helpless to do anything for themselves. The Holy One becomes unholy for you; the sinless one becomes sin for you; the ever-living one sinks into death for you; the righteous one becomes the curse for you so that you can become the righteousness of God through Baptism, where God Himself pours Christ’s righteousness over you and gives you the Son’s place while the Son goes into death and hell for you who deserve those things because of your sin.

Compassion is God’s pure grace, His undeserved love for you in His Son, Jesus Christ. The Holy One has visited you in the washing of Holy Baptism, in the Word of Holy Absolution, in the Holy Supper of His Body and Blood. He has looked at your situation and splagchnizomia - His bowels were moved toward you, His compassion was poured out upon you. It is by compassion that the unclean become clean. The unholy become holy. The dead are made alive. Weeping is turned into rejoicing. Compassion makes mute people talk, people who are dead in sin and unbelief alive toward God, filled with new life in Christ, life that never ends, life that is spoken to and poured out upon and fed to you in the Means of Grace by which Jesus touches your coffin and commands you to rise from your etnernal death and live forever in His light and glory.

All of which means that God’s compassion is seen chiefly in His forgiving your sins and giving us the blessed opportunity and power to be merciful to others. No one can have compassion like God does, and certainly our compassion cannot raise dead people to life, but our compassion for others, empowered by God’s compassion to us, uses our ability to serve our neighbor’s needs with our vocation, to live a good life toward others, so that, by God’s will, we may be given the opportunity to bring them to Jesus who can and does still raise the dead to life in the forgiveness of sins through His Word and Sacraments.

But here is where we need to be careful. While our compassion for others is certainly a small model of Christ’s compassion for us, no one person has enough compassion for everyone. There is a phenomenon widespread among pastors (not only pastors, but in the Church we see it a lot in pastors, especially pastors who have been in the office for a while). It is called “compassion fatigue.” It happens when there are so many people in need of help, in need of care, in need of a visit that you simply can’t get to them all and you can’t help them all, so you get overloaded by all the need in the parish and the community and you start to shut down and close off from everyone because, unlike God, you and I only have so much compassion to go around.

That’s why God has given us the Church, we are here to serve each other, to watch out for each other, to put the needs of others above ourselves and so bring others to Christ. Any congregation or parish that puts all the work of compassion on one or two people is asking for problems. But working together as the Church, we can reach out to many with Christ’s compassion, and that compassion reaches out to not only supply what they need for this life, as Jesus did for the widow, but to supply what they need for eternal life — which is also what Jesus did, isn’t it. Your neighbor needs you to not just be neighborly and treat them well and be friendly and help them out in their need, but they need you to bring them to Jesus who has borne their sin and is the only one who can give them eternal life.

So who are you punched in the gut about? For whom do your bowels church and move? Just take a look around, there are plenty even within our own parish who need you to bring them to Jesus. You can’t get to them all, but maybe you can get to one or two, maybe you can help them in their earthly needs and God will give you the opportunity to say to them, “Can I pick you up on Sunday and take you to church with me? I would like you to see the God in Whom alone there is forgiveness and life and salvation. I would like you to see Jesus.”

Splagchnizomai. Compassion. With Jesus’ compassion for you in mind, may your guts move with compassion for those around you who need you to watch out for them, who need your visit, your time, your care, who need you to bring them to see Jesus in Word and Sacrament where He still raises the dead and gives eternal life through His own death and resurrection. Amen.

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