Preacher: The Rev. Todd Foster
Once upon a time there was a certain woman. She lived in a small town called Nain in the region of Galilee.
This was a vulnerable woman. In our story she was so bereft of substance and agency that she doesn’t even have a name. This was a woman who was only defined by her relationships with men: she was a wife and a mother. But now her men have died, and she has been left alone. She is a ghost, immaterial, without impact in the world. She is without protection or provision. She has suffered loss upon loss upon loss.
As this nameless, grieving woman followed her son’s body out to burial, passing through the gates of her small town, a most unusual thing happened. There was a traffic jam! Procession met procession as the mourners mixed with Jesus’ disciples and traveling companions. The path of this twice bereaved woman intersected the path of Jesus. Jesus saw what was going on with her and was moved with compassion. That compassion moved Jesus to speak words of comfort to the bereaved mother: Don’t cry. This matter is not final; death is not the last word here.
Jesus touched the funeral bier. But instead of Jesus becoming ritually impure, contaminated by death, as happened to good religious Jews when they touched dead bodies, instead death fled from Jesus, lest it be contaminated by life! As Jesus spoke to the corpse, God in the flesh gave life to clay just as God in the Spirit had done at the Day of Creation and, depending on how you see things, every day since then!
This is a story so concise, so stripped bare of any details, that it leaves us with all sorts of questions. It may not be to hard to guess about the grief, the bitter heartbreak the widow felt before she met Jesus. It’s a bit harder for me to imagine what she might have felt afterward: can you even conceive of the violent whiplash of emotion that she experienced that day? And if the widow’s experience that day was unusual, how much stranger was the experience of her son! What was his experience of life, of death, and of resurrection? Did he see a light at the end of the tunnel? Did he meet his father who had died before him? As he lived once more, how did this shape his life and thought for the rest of his days? How did this shape his very identity? What fascinating questions to consider!
Unfortunately, the Gospel lesson today doesn’t speak to any of those questions! We’re told nothing about the experience of the widow and of her son. Instead, the text speaks only of the neighbors: Everyone was filled with awe and glorified God saying, ‘A great prophet has risen up among us; God has visited his people.’ (Lk 7.16 NJB)
The neighbors recognized right away what was happening, what this child’s resurrection meant. They had read their Bibles: they knew Elijah had done a similar thing for a widow way up North in the town of Zeraphath. They knew that much closer, just a couple towns over in Shunem, Elijah’s protege, Elisha, had done the same thing! And now it had happened here in their own town and the people of Nain knew exactly what it meant: God has visited his people! They saw this sign as bringing good news: God was present to them in their little town and active among them. In the midst of war, conflict, death, change, loss, grief: God was here.
God was present. God’s people could cling to a bigger reality than their present hurt. The hurt wasn’t the last word: it was temporary, passing. The signs Jesus performed didn’t remove the problems of the world. Instead, through those signs God expressed solidarity with God’s people’s pain. God offered hope. God invited God’s people to an allegiance that was larger than their moment to moment experience.
It is fascinating to me that when God chose to put on flesh and come into the world in power, God chose not to do so with huge assertions of political influence or military might. Jesus did indeed demonstrate mastery of rulers, kingdoms and death, but Jesus didn’t abolish these things. Still today we lose children, parents, siblings, friends, and lovers. What Jesus, God in the flesh, did was to bring us good news. Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated and confirmed the presence of God with us and God for us. Jesus showed us that the death and loss, the sadness and hurt we experience isn’t the final, defining word in our lives. There are more fundamental forces at play in our existence even than questions of life and death. We are invited into a larger reality, and an allegiance that transcends the here and now. We are invited into a relationship that is bigger than life itself.
If you look up our Gospel lesson today in Luke 7 and keep reading, you’ll find that our story is a part of a larger section. Immediately following today’s passage, John the Baptist is in prison, so he sends messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?” Now we know how John the Baptist’s story ends: his head is cut off at the command of a foolish king. But John is not asking Jesus for freedom, for his life, or for any personal favors. John simply wants to know, “Are you the one? Is God really present to us? What is the good news?” So while Jesus’ works did not institute a massive change in the natural order (Jesus only raised one widow’s son to life that day in Nain), still the things Jesus did were signs, symbols, evidences of God’s presence in and through and behind the circumstances of the day-to-day lives of his contemporaries. These signs have been passed down to us in Holy Scripture so that they might continue to serve the same function for us today.
Last week Emily spoke to us about change, and change always involves a certain degree of loss. What have you lost? What are you losing now? What do you fear you might lose soon? Big or small, every loss hurts: loss is like a little death. So what does it mean when your loss intersects the resurrection power of Jesus? How does your baptism, the activity of the Holy Spirit, that Comforter Jesus promised to send, influence your experience of loss and its meaning? How does the good news that God is with us and God is for us, this bigger picture of reality, how do these things change perhaps not so much the quantity but certainly the quality of your grief? Maybe the Gospel won’t take away our pain; but God the Comforter has promised to be present with us in our pain, and God calls us to a greater perspective that can reframe our grief and alter our experiences of it.
And, if we can’t fix the world, if we can’t solve all its problems (or perhaps not even any of its problems?), then how can we follow Jesus’ example and perhaps bring healing and comfort to one specific individual? How can we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us when we walk out the backdoor of the church today in procession with Jesus, and we encounter a world full of people experiencing grief and despair? How today will you answer the call to “go forth in the Name of Christ” shouting “Alleluia, Alleluia”?