Think about those two crowds of people in today’s gospel (Luke 7:11-17). One crowd was headed into town; the other headed out, each crowd passing the other at the town gate. Those heading in were Jesus, his disciples and a large multitude of enthusiastic believers, eager to see him bring his healing work to the town of Nain. Coming out through the gate were a tearful widow, her son’s body, carried on a bier or stretcher, and a large following of mourners. A crowd of missionaries and a crowd of mourners. What would happen as they passed each other?
I’ve always been interested in what goes on in groups, crowds, committees, and all kinds of gatherings, especially from a Christian perspective. Groups of people have personalities, just as individuals do. They can be joyful, sad, angry, frightened, confused. And all of us are involved in them. Some of them we enjoy, like a crowd at church or at a ball game; some we put up with, like a waiting line at the DMV; some can really test our Christian charity, as mine was tested recently in a massive, frustrating traffic jam!
But think this morning about how that crowd heading in to town might have reacted to the one heading out.. How do you react if you’re driving in traffic and you encounter one of those long funeral processions? If they pass by easily, you give them scarcely a thought. If, on the other hand, they cross in front of you and hold you up when you’re already late for an appointment, you may have a different reaction! I can honestly say that unless by some quirk I knew the person whose body was in the hearse, I have never given a thought to the feelings of grief or sorrow in such a procession of mourners. But that may change as I think about today’s gospel reading.
How very different was Jesus’ reaction to that mournful procession at the town gate. He immediately left his own crowd and went over to the other one. His attention was riveted by the grief and tears of that widow whose only son was being carried out to be buried. He could do no other than go to her, and pour out his compassion upon her, and raise her son to life.
Now you may say, well, that’s different! There’s no way you can stop and get out of your car in the middle of traffic and go over to a bereaved family and comfort them! True enough. (Talk about how to create an angry crowd of drivers!) But I’m talking about attitudes here. You know, it’s awfully easy not to care when you’re caught up in a multitude of people. Each crowd at the town gate that day had a clear and pressing agenda: Jesus and his followers bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom to the townspeople; the widow and the mourners giving her only son a proper burial after his tragic death. It’s easy not to care when you’re intent on what you’re doing.
Some among us seem more naturally to care and reach out than others of us, just like some tend to be givers rather than takers, as Randy said in his sermon last Sunday. Thank God for the givers! Thank God for the carers! God calls all of us to dare to step away from the crowd, step away from our agendas, step away from our comfort zones and pour the love of God upon the bereaved, the poor, the hungry, the broken in body and soul. We have a shining example of just that in the mission team from our church at work right now among broken men and women and boys and girls in the Sudan.
But how do you step away? A sociologist named David Riesman wrote a book in 1950 called The Lonely Crowd. It was such a landmark study of American character that it was reprinted in 2001. Riesman says there are three main personality types among us Americans: those who are tradition-directed, those who are inner-directed and those who are other-directed. Tradition–directed people live and act by age-old rules and definitions that have come down from their forebears. Such are the ways of the Old South, for instance—and they’re very much a part of my own ancestry, even though I grew up in the North. Most of my ancestors were southerners. People who are directed by tradition have a lot of trouble with change. “But we’ve always done it that way,” they are apt to say. Have you ever heard that?
Inner-directed people, on the other hand, says Riesman, have discovered the potential within themselves to live and act not according to established norms but according to their own inner inclinations. They take direction from their inner “compasses;” they’re not afraid to be different, to stand out from the crowd. Inner-directed people tend to be self-confident, even rigid. A lot of truly converted Christians are like that, in my observation.
The third type are those who are other-directed, says Riesman. They adapt themselves to the ways other people live. They want the things other people buy, they want the clothes others wear, the kinds of homes and cars and vacations other people enjoy. They are willing to accommodate their time, their opinions, their politics, to what will win them approval with others. If Riesman were writing today, I’m sure he would marvel at how politicians have picked up on his insights, as they target their campaigns toward the middle classes, two-income families, soccer moms, small businesses, etc. I think he would also marvel at our lack of principled leadership today. How badly we need leaders who will stand courageously for justice and peace.
So, which type are you? I ask myself the same question. And as I do that I have this uneasy, gnawing feeling that much of the time I’m caught between being tradition-directed and other-directed. I don’t like to change, I’m set in my ways (just ask my wife); and I am very aware and affected by what other people do, say, buy, wear and think. Going back to that scene of the missionaries and the mourners at the gate of Nain, I’m awfully afraid I’d be part of the silent majority. Jesus was the only one of that crowd of eager believers who stopped and had the sensitivity and compassion to go and comfort that poor, grieving widow. If there was ever an inner-directed individual, it was Jesus. I do love the Lord, passionately, but I crave the grace and courage to be more inner-directed more of the time!
And that’s where the Holy Spirit gnaws at us, yearns for us, aches for us to leave the lonely, frightened crowd of the tradition-bound, the convention-bound, the comfort-bound, and to go forth boldly in the company of Christ to heal our broken world. Not all of us are called to join a medical mission in the Sudan, but every one of us who bears the mark of Christ by our baptism is called to be a healer and reconciler in whatever we do in life–homemaker, lawyer, teacher, shipbuilder, student. I hope you’re praying for our sisters and brothers on the mission team, Dana and Mark and Chris and all the others. They’re part of our family!
The reports Dana is sending back are exciting and deeply moving. They’ve given life-saving shots to hundreds of adults and children; they’ve cleaned and treated wounds, infections and snake bites (and she says Mark has added a special talent for cleaning wounds to his repertoire, “Or maybe it’s just a perverse fascination”) They’ve traveled by Jeep over impossible roads in 100 degree heat. Chris and Mark have cooled hot tempers among Sudanese and Kenyans by playing guitars and teaching them songs. “We’ve all lost weight,” says Dana. But: “Each of us feels this is by far the best, most intense, most nourishing mission trip we’ve ever been on.”
And that’s the way God works: We’re always nourished when we break away from our comfort zones and serve others in the name of Christ.