Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 6, 2010

2010.06.06 “What Happened on the Way to the Cemetery”

Central United Methodist Church

“What Happened on the Way to the Cemetery”

Luke 7: 11 – 17

Pastor David L. Haley

June 6th, 2010

“Not long after that, Jesus went to the village Nain. His disciples were with him, along with quite a large crowd. As they approached the village gate, they met a funeral procession — a woman’s only son was being carried out for burial. And the mother was a widow. When Jesus saw her, his heart broke. He said to her, “Don’t cry.” Then he went over and touched the coffin. The pallbearers stopped. He said, “Young man, I tell you: Get up.” The dead son sat up and began talking. Jesus presented him to his mother.

       They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them. They were quietly worshipful — and then noisily grateful, calling out among themselves, “God is back, looking to the needs of his people!” The news of Jesus spread all through the country.” (Luke 7: 1 – 17, The Message)

     Today we begin that long stretch in the church year known as ordinary time.  

      Technically, in worship, it doesn’t mean a time when nothing special is happening, as it means “non-festival” time. We’re past Advent/Christmas, past Lent/Easter/Pentecost, and from now through November the Sundays are listed in “ordinals,” as today, the “2nd Sunday after Pentecost, and thus the name, “ordinary time.”

      Practically, for most of us, ordinary time is where we are now, starting our Chicago summer. It’s defined not so much by the liturgical calendar as our day planner or the calendar on our refrigerator: when school is out, days at work and days off, when and where to shuttle our children around. For most of us, summer is a time of family vacations and celebrations:  graduations, reunions, weddings, and sadly, perhaps even a funeral.  I say this as someone who’s done three funerals and one wedding in the last three weeks.  (Isn’t that close to the name of a movie: Three Funerals and a Wedding?)

      In such a context, today life and Gospel blend.  As we journey with Jesus and his disciples through Galilee, we come upon a funeral procession on the way to the cemetery.  Though long ago and far away, though culturally different, still we understand: someone has lost someone they love. In this case, it is a poor widow who has lost her only son.

      When Jesus sees this, not only does it stop him in his tracks, it reaches into his very soul. The word used means literally, that it moved him internally, that it grabbed him in his gut. Eugene Peterson renders it in our idiom, when he says, “When Jesus saw her, his heart broke.”

      Why?  It was a poor widow, a woman who at some point lost first her husband, and now lost her only son.  In that time and place, when women – and especially widows – had no rights, not only has she lost her son, with him she’s lost her identity, her pension, her Social Security.  Soon she too may be destitute.

      I wonder if looking at her, Jesus thought of his own mother? I wonder if he knew too well what she’d been through since Joseph died, now dependent upon him. I wonder if Jesus saw in the poor widow his own mother weeping on the way to the grave, to bury her son, should anything happen to him?

      Truth is, all of us – especially those of us who are parents – would be moved at the sight Jesus saw: any parent, father or mother, mourning the death of their child, wherever and whenever it happens.  How many times, do you think, this scene is being played out around the globe today?  From the cornfields of Iowa to the hills of Afghanistan to the savannas of Africa, mothers and fathers grieve and head to the cemetery to bury their children.  Hearing it, seeing it, our hearts are broken by it.

      My son has reached the end of his time in the Marines, safely, thank God.  This last weekend he got married in his Marine Dress Blues.  I have to tell you that as a Father, for the last four years those dress blues have made me nervous.  In fact, after his first official picture in them when he graduated from boot camp, I couldn’t bear to look at it until recently, because then and now, it was the obituary photo of too many young men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

      I think, for example, of the funeral of Sgt. Thomas Gilbert in Naperville in 2006.  Sgt. Gilbert was killed in Iraq, and his father was an officer in the Naperville Fire Dept.  Like Jesus when he saw that woman, when I saw the death notice in the paper my heart when out to him. I wore my Class A fire department uniform, and went to the funeral.  I waited in line for an hour and a half.  When I got to him, all I could say was “My son’s a Marine too.”  He grabbed me and gave me a hug, and I him.

      But it’s not just military deaths, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, children are being killed here in the streets of our own cities. How our hearts go out to those parents whose children are killed by gun violence right here in the City of Chicago. Our hearts go out to those parents, not only upon the senseless deaths of their children, but at the anger that apparently we are powerless to stop it.

      But here’s the critical thing – at that moment Jesus decided not just to have empathy, not just to feel sorry for the widow, but to act. Too many times, that’s the difference between Jesus and us.

      Because, committing to act involves risk: the risk of failure, the risk of embarrassment, even the risk of violating established social norms. 

      But then, as Jesus has already demonstrated in these early chapters of Luke, he is not averse to violating any rules, even the rules of the Jewish social holiness code, when it is in the paramount interest of compassion. 

      There was that sermon in his hometown that had gotten him into so much trouble, when he pointed out how in fact the prophets had reached out not to Jews but to outsiders, quoting our Old Testament reading today, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.  There was that incident of his harvesting of grain on the Sabbath, and of his healing on the Sabbath, both in violation of the Law, in the interest of compassion.

      And so, on this day, in the interest of compassion, Jesus acts, as within his power.  The crowd of his followers intermingles with the crowd of mourners, as Jesus approaches the widow and says to her: “Don’t cry.” Yeah, right, that’ll go over well. Surely that’s a stupid thing to say, to a woman burying her only son? Then, completely disrupting the procession, halting the pallbearers, Jesus touches the coffin, and says, “Young man, I tell you: Get up.”

      What happened next would likely have produced the same reaction in us that it did them.  On the corpse, an eyelid flutters, a finger twitches, his chest heaves as he breathes, and suddenly he sits up, and starts talking. This is the stuff of zombie movies!  No wonder it says, in most translations, “great fear gripped them all.”  

      But don’t you love how it also says, “Jesus gave him back to his mother.”  Believe me, if raising of the dead was a power to be had, we’d give anything to have it.  (I have to say, there were a few times as a paramedic where I/we raised the dead, and it’s a pretty sweet feeling.) 

        The point is, Jesus acted in that situation as he believed God would act, as he was empowered to do so.  As he had preached in the previous chapter in the Sermon on the Plain (better known as Sermon on the Mount in Matthew), God’s reign is one in which weeping is turned to laughing (Luke 6:21), the poor receive the kingdom of God (6:20), one does good to enemies (6:35), and shows mercy to them (6:36). All these things happen in this story. When just after this story, Jesus is asked by John the Baptist’s followers whether he is the one to come or they should look for another, he replies, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:21 – 22)  In other words, these are the signs of the kingdom of God.

      And, in fact, the crowd understood it that way. As Peterson puts it:

      “They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them. They were quietly worshipful — and then noisily grateful, calling out among themselves, “God is back, looking to the needs of his people!” The news of Jesus spread all through the country.”

From those days until now, the church has echoed Israel in doxology to the God who gives new life to prisoners, the blind, the bowed down, strangers, orphans, and widows (Psalm 146:8–9) As Walter Brueggeman, the Old Testament scholar and modern day prophet puts it, “Such practices, in neighborly action and in broad policy concerns, exhibits God’s way in and intention for the world.”

      So, folks, here’s what I’ve come to believe. I believe that each and every day, as we walk by, observe, or read about the suffering of others, whether it is a mother mourning her child in Chicago, Kabul, Des Moines or Darfur, we become either more apathetic and dead, or more compassionate and alive. In each decision to act, we become more Christ-like, more God-like, the whole purpose of our existence.  I don’t expect to interrupt any funerals, but I do believe we should respond as we believe God would respond, by doing what we can, whatever is in our power to do. 

      Walter Brueggeman calls such compassion a radical threat to the numbness maintained by the dominant order, and says that it’s not “triumphant indignation” that will “undermine the world of competence and competition,” but “passion and compassion.” (The Prophetic Imagination)

      Through our compassion, our passion, and our action, may all who suffer have reason to say, as they said that day, “God is back,” clearly at work in the world.   Amen.

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