Sunday, July 21, 2013

Message for July 21st, 2013 on Luke 7:11-17 (The Widow at Nain)

Children’s message:  I passed out small boxes, with surprises inside. Each kid opened theirs and named the contents: Play-Doh, a koosh ball, soft felted rich blue yarn, cotton balls soaked in frankincense -- but also plastic spiders, and sticky lizards, and dirt, and rocks, and one golden box that was empty.

I reminded them (and everyone): There are things that smell good, that are soft to touch, that we want to play with.  But there are also things that are dirty, or scary, or sticky, or hard, or disappointing.  There are things that we have learned not to touch, because we don’t like them, because they get our hands dirty, because our parents have taught us not to touch them.

So let's listen to the Scripture today, and see what Jesus touches.

Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards Jesus 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 frame that held the body, 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 with favor on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

I led the funeral service for my uncle Vern last week. Funerals are a raw space in the lives of those left behind. There is grief, palpable, hanging in the air like storm clouds. We laugh at old memories, and then feel wrong for laughing. We cry suddenly, unexpected, embarrassed. When someone we loved so dearly is suddenly and irrevocably gone, we stare into the emptiness of where they were and say, “What do I do now?”
Funerals are about restoring the balance. Something beloved has been lost, for the rest of this lifetime. Words that weren’t said, forgiveness that was needed, a squeeze of the hand, a tight hug -- what we had relied on and what we had hoped for is lost to us. Grief makes us walk funny. And sometimes we have no idea how to go forward. So funerals are meant to start to restore that balance. To give us space to grieve, to cry too hard, to laugh too loud, to remember that there are promises and hopes for a life beyond this one and for the redemption of all the world. The patterns and traditions -- of a visitation, of a service, of familiar hymns and prayers -- they can give us comfort, help us breathe a little more rhythmically. Funerals are meant to restore our balance -- or at least to give us a start on walking in a new world.

And so it is with our unnamed mother today. Because there was no way to preserve the body, it is likely that her son had died that morning or the night before. She is walking behind the dead body of her only son. She has no husband to cling to, no other children to support her. People from her town had come to mourn with her, to follow their customs to honor the dead: to weep, to wail loudly, to tear their clothes in mourning. Pallbearers had stepped forward, friends of the family who carried the dead man wrapped in linen on a wooden frame. After the funeral, the bearers and everyone else who had touched the body would purify themselves, washing with water to restore their cleanliness before God. The wailing of mourning, the purification afterward -- these rituals gave comfort to those who had just lost a loved one. They restored the balance.
And for the grieving, widowed mother, that ritual was needed. She needed to mourn her son, to bury him properly, to weep with her community, because she was now destitute. Without a husband or children to provide for her, she had few options for an income. She may end up begging, picking leftover grain in someone else’s field. Last week we heard how, seeing the miraculous catch of fish, Peter and James and John left everything and followed Jesus. This woman, this unnamed widowed mother, has now lost everything.
And into this funeral, into these rituals desperately trying to restore balance and hope, walks Jesus. His crowd of disciples and followers meets up with the crowd of mourners. And he breaks the rules.
He says, “Do not weep” -- and then he touches the frame that holds the body.
I can only imagine that the crowd stares at him in shock. They are mourning a beloved son, a mother’s only support, and up walks some wandering preacher from Nazareth who tells the mother to stop her ritual mourning and risks making himself ritually unclean.
Luke doesn’t write it down, but I’m pretty sure there’s got to be someone at the back of the crowd going, “Are you serious?”
And Jesus answers “Yes.”
And with a word he calls the dead young man to rise, and gives him back to his mother. A mourning crowd is silenced. A grieving and destitute mother weeps with joy. And the balance that was lost is now restored.
Several years ago, I was working at a church-sponsored summer academy for urban elementary-age kids, doing math and reading review in the mornings and an art school in the afternoon. And I, as one of the few people on staff without a teaching license, was assigned to lead the Bible portion of the fourth-grade classroom lesson plan. And one day we were discussing Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of his friend Lazarus. One of my kids, Ashauna, leaned on one hand on her crossed knees and said, “That’s not really a miracle. I saw a guy do it on TV once. It happens all the time.”
That day I tried to lead the conversation toward the difference between TV and reality, and how Christians believe the Jesus story is real. And then in college I learned ancient Greek, and in seminary I learned ancient Hebrew, and I was taught about the Bible and church history and theology and practice and how to plan a funeral, and I will spoil you all on the ending right now: I am pretty sure that even in a year when I have a degree called the Master of Divinity I will not know how to raise people from the dead. Not even once.
But in all my studies I’ve also spent time with people. In church. In hospitals. In coffee shops. In classrooms. Even in an elementary school gymnasium, and here is another spoiler: I think Ashauna may have been right.
I know my uncle is gone. And Lazarus, and the dead young man we meet today, and his mother, and everyone in the crowd with them, and all the disciples and followers of Jesus -- they’re all gone. But the more time I spend with people, with God’s beloved children, with people who have faced down their sin and fear and brokenness and are still standing -- the more I see, the more I am certain that Jesus is raising up the dead to life every single day.
Because isn’t that the exact meaning of grace -- that Jesus walks right up to everything that is dead in us, all the sin that is ugly and mean, everything that tries to make us fear instead of love, and reaches out a hand to raise us up.
Jesus walks right up to sickness, to mental illness, to divorce, unemployment, anger, addiction, anxiety, poverty, imperfection, failure, all of our guilt, all of our shame -- and reaches out a hand.
In the face of everything that is boxed up in us -- what is dirty, or scary, or sticky, or hard, or empty and disappointing -- Jesus says “Do not weep. Don’t be afraid.” And then reaches out a hand to restore the balance.
That is the hope of grace -- that everything that feels dead in us can have new life. Everything. Not just the things that are nice to touch or hold or play with. Everything. There is nothing in you that Jesus is afraid of. Nothing dead in you that Jesus does not want to make new. That’s what God offers here, at a table laid with bread and wine: that by eating and drinking, everything might be made well in us.
So today we offer that grace to you. We offer prayer. We lay our hands on you, as a reminder that Jesus reaches out to everything that is scary and fearful and dying and dead, and says, “Do not weep. Don’t be afraid. Rise up.”

(We continued the service with an offering of intercessory prayer for anyone who came forward.)

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