Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
I spoke about the framework of God’s divine economy last Sunday, and how this framework is the overarching frame under which all other frames are set. The examples I used were family and education and church as frames or organizing principles that are invigorated and given meaning and purpose when rightly set in God’s divine economy or God’s kingdom. I use these terms interchangeably -divine economy and the kingdom of God.
This morning I’d like to continue that conversation by asking two questions: First, what causes organizing principles in God’s divine economy to thrive or wither? And second, does anything exist outside this economy?
These are two questions I hope we can answer by the end of this sermon.
Why? Why do I hope we can answer them? Because I believe they are fundamental in helping you and me live as we were made to live: as beloved children of God; as unique beings made for purpose and with hope; and as eternal beings destined for life beyond these temporal sightlines.
So let’s begin to answer these questions by going to the gates of the city of Nain. Jesus is approaching them, and as he does a boy who has died is being carried out. He is the son of a widow. When Jesus sees the mother he has compassion for her. Compassion, as used here, means: to be moved from the deepest place of ones being, to be moved from that place were love resides. Jesus reaches into the mother’s world from that place where his deepest love resides, penetrating her fog of grief and finality and fear with the words, “do not weep.”
And as he does, he touches the bier, the bearers stand still, and he says, “Young man, I say to you, rise up.” And the dead boy sits up and begins to speak.
This is a story that has hung in the hearts of Christians since the day it was first told. There is sweetness that comes from Jesus’ compassion, and this sweetness shows us how love works in God’s divine economy. Love acts as the single, unique binding agent that is applicable in all situations. It is the only one size fits all element in the kingdom of God. Everything else is uniquely tailored for a particular context or situation, only love rules as the singular abiding agent through which all things can be approached.
Not understanding the universality of love on the one hand and the uniqueness of every situation on the other hand, can make the story that unfolds at the gates of Nain confusing.
It has been confusing to many in the church for maybe thousands of years, in a way that has caused the church in some respects to wither. Which brings us back to the first question I posed this morning: How do things within God’s divine economy wither or thrive?
To shed some light on this question, I’d like to take us on a quick journey back to 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. That was the time when the Black Death reigned over Europe. 200 million people died in that period of time. The population was decimated. It was a horror that came to frame death as the enemy. Death, of course, had always been around, but during the plague it came to be feared in a new way. The church being the holder of the stories of Jesus, stories like we heard today, set out to defeat this enemy. Pride provoked them to pick up the mantel of this mission as they claimed jurisdiction over God’s divine economy.
The fuel they used to jump start this economy was everything but love. They persecuted non-Christians, they levied great taxes, they built grand monuments, they participated in foreign wars, all in an effort to provoke God to act against the enemy that they now defined as death. And the plague continued.
Finally, after 150 years, it ran its course and when it did, the world, in recovery, rebelled. This was the period of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. It was the age when people fled their homes in search of new lands, including Christopher Columbus’ to America. It was the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims, and the rediscovery of the works of Plato and Aristotle.
Everything was being questioned and this willingness to question previously held truths and search for new answers resulted in a period that came to be known as the Scientific Revolution.
Science built a framework that did a better job in forestalling death, and in the minds of many it became a better religion. To this day we still have people who say: “I am not religious, because I believe in science.” If the enemy is death, then science may well be a better religion.
But death isn’t the enemy, which takes us back to the gates of Nain, where three truths about God’s divine economy are revealed: That death is only one more picture window in the framework of God’s divine economy. Death is no different than the frames of family, education and church. They all fit within the kingdom that God controls; which takes us to the second thing we learn at the gates of Nain. Jesus has full jurisdiction over this economy… even death, which circles us back to the first point that death is only one frame within God’s bigger framework; and third, we learn that love is the singular, unique tool that invigorates every frame within God’s divine economy. Love has power even over death under the jurisdiction of Jesus, as we see at the gates of Nain.
1- Death is only one more frame,
2- Jesus has jurisdiction over this economy,
3- And love is the singular invigorating agent within this divine economy.
This brings us to the second question I posed this morning: if all of these organizing principles live within God’s divine economy does anything then live outside it?
Paul’s letter to the Galatians gives us insight into this question. It is a letter that begins with Paul establishing an allegiance to the kingdom of God.
He writes, “I, an apostle, sent neither by human commission nor human authority, but through Jesus Christ and God, who raised Jesus from the dead, I come to the churches of Galatia.” Translated, this means: “I, Paul, work exclusively under and within the organizing principles of the kingdom of God.”
He goes onto say: “I am astonished that you so quickly deserted Jesus and perverted his message and forgot that he actually came to free you from evil.” (Gal 1:1-3 Para) Following along he says: “You foolish Galatians! Who bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1)
Paul believes that there is a bewitching force that lurks beyond the wall of God’s kingdom. And I believe this as well. It is a power that can infiltrate the divine territory and tempt us, as it tempted the church during the days of the Black Death, to claim controlling authority over God’s divine economy. And when this happens, the organizing principles we idolize wither in our hands.
The church is not the only frame that has acted like it is bigger than the Living God.
Science has done so as well. And while science as a system of understanding the world as God made it has done more good than bad, there have been instances where it has magnified that which it sought to mollify. The camps at Dachau and the Atomic bomb are two such examples.
The singular, abiding agent of the bewitching force that lives beyond the walls of God’s economy is fear.
When fear grips us we are tempted to believe that the framework of God won’t hold. And we act in precipitously, in ways that provoke Paul to ask: “You foolish Galatians, who bewitched you?”
Fear is the one-size-fits-all straightjacket that evil employs: the fear of scarcity, the fear of being wrong, the fear of being right, the fear of losing, the fear of winning, the fear of being rejected, the fear of being noticed, the fear of death. Whatever your fear is, fear is the one size fits all agent that brews outside the kingdom of God. Love is one size fits all agent that paints the kingdom of God. Fear is the opposite of love. When fear worms its way into small frames like family, education, church, science and even death, then these operating principles wither and become much less than God created them to be.
There is a force beyond the walls of the kingdom and its agent is fear. There is a greater force that resides within the walls of the kingdom and that force is Jesus and his agent is love. And this love, held deep in the heart of God, can reach through any fog of grief and finality and fear, as it did that day outside the city gates of Nain, to touch lives, uniquely and particularly, as it touched the life of the widow and her son.