Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 5, 2016

2016.06.05 “God is Back!” – Luke 7: 11 – 17

Central United Methodist Church
God is Back!
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 7: 11 – 17
June 5th, 2016

Widow_of_Nain's_Son

Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain, Killarney Cathedral, Ireland. Used by permission. CC BY-SA 2.5.

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, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Today, with our first summer service of 2016 in the Log Cabin, we begin that long stretch in the church year known as “Ordinary Time.” (Actually, it began last Sunday, on Memorial Day weekend, with Rev. Sylvia, but I wasn’t here, so it begins today for me.)

Technically, it doesn’t mean a time when nothing is happening, as in “ho-hum,” as it means that now being past the Advent/Christmas cycle and the Lent/Easter/Pentecost cycle, from now through November the Sundays are listed in “ordinals,” as the “3rd Sunday after Pentecost;” thus the name, “Ordinary Time.”

Practically, for us, Ordinary Time coincides with the start of our short Chicago summer. It’s defined not so much by the liturgical calendar as the calendar on our refrigerator: 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 vacations and celebrations, such as graduations, reunions, weddings, and sadly, sometimes funerals of loved ones, such as Ron Campbell’s funeral 12 days ago. On a national scale, just yesterday, we heard of the death of Muhammad Ali, surely an American original.

Given that no matter what time of year it is, we never escape trips to the cemetery, today life and Gospel blend. As we journey with Jesus and his disciples through Galilee, learning the qualities and skills required of Jesus’ disciples, just as surely as they had to learn them from the Master then, we come upon a funeral procession on the way to the cemetery. Though long ago and far away, though culturally different, we understand: someone has died, some family has lost to death someone they love. In this case, it is a poor widow who has lost her only son. It’s sad enough when children bury parents, but that does not compare to the grief when parents must bury children. It would be my prayer no one in this room has had to do this; but if you have, the hearts of all of us who are parents goes out to you.

When Jesus sees this funeral procession and sizes up the situation, his heart goes out to that widow. Not only does it stop him in his tracks, it grabbed him in his gut. The word used literally means that it moved him internally. 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 her only son. In that time and place, women – and especially widows – had no rights, hardly even an identity, other than through their husband and son(s). So now, that she lost both her husband and her son, with them she has lost her identity, her pension, and her future.  Soon she too may be destitute and on the street.

I wonder if looking at her, part of Jesus’ strong reaction was that he thought of his own mother? I wonder if he knew too well what she’d been through since Joseph died, now being 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, which as we know, would be in Mary’s future. Having seen Michelangelo’s Pieta, of Mary holding her dead son, who can ever forget it?

The reality is, all of us – especially those of us who are parents – would be moved at such a sight as 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 go to the cemetery to bury their children.

Last Monday, Memorial Day, while in Washington, D.C., we went to the ceremonies at Arlington, our National Cemetery. Although we arrived too late to get into the President’s wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown’s, we saw and heard it from a distance. Did you know that for Memorial Day, in about 4 hours time, the U.S. Army 3rd infantry regiment (The Old Guard) places flags on 235,000 graves in the cemetery? Did you know that at Christmas, volunteers place wreaths on every grave?

While the whole cemetery is a sobering place, the one section you want to stay away from unless you want your heart ripped out is Section 60, where the most recent veterans from the wars in Iran and Afghanistan are buried. There you see not only photos and teddy bears and balloons but fathers and mothers, spouses, and sons and daughters visiting the graves of their children, their husbands, and their fathers, some weekly and some even daily, because their grief is unending and so great.

And of course it’s not just military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan that we grief, but the fathers and mothers whose children are killed in the streets of our own cities. Our hearts go out to those parents whose children are killed by gun violence in the City of Chicago. Our hearts go out to them, not only upon the senseless deaths of their children, but at the frustration that thus far, we are powerless to stop it. Poverty and gangs and guns are a deadly mix, stealing even the lives of the innocent.

But here’s the critical thing – at the moment of recognition, Jesus did not just have sympathy for the bereaved widow, he not just feel sorry for her, as we usually do, he experienced genuine empathy. While sympathy may lead us to convey commiseration or pity or sorrow to someone experiencing misfortune; empathy moves us to put ourselves in their shoes, to experience the feelings and perspective of that person, and the empowerment of connection.

A few months ago I came across this video by the author and Professor of Social Work, Brene Brown, on the difference between sympathy and empathy. It has become one of my favorites, and evidently of many others, given that it has some 6 million views. Let’s take a look. (You may view the video here.) I only wish I had seen it many years ago, at the beginning of my ministry. I’m sure many people I have ministered to over the years, wish I had seen it too.

It was such empathy which moved Jesus not just to pass by, but to act. In Jesus’ case, compassion leads to action. That was not only compassionate but courageous, because committing to act – to actually do something – always involves risk: the risk of failure, the risk of embarrassment, even the risk of violating established social and religious rules. But, as Jesus often demonstrated, he was not averse to breaking rules – not even the absolute rules of the Jewish social holiness code – in the interest of compassion. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is trying to teach this to the Roman Catholic Church; who will teach it to us United (Untied) Methodists?  And when will we listen?

And so – with courage and compassion, Jesus acts. His followers intermix with the mourners, as he approaches the widow and tells her, “Don’t cry,” which would be callous if we didn’t know what he was going to do. Halting the pallbearers, disrupting the procession, Jesus touches the coffin – which renders him ritually unclean – and says, “Young man, I tell you: Get up.”

What happened next would likely have produced the same reaction in us as it did those present. On the body of the dead son, an eyelid flutters, a finger twitches, his chest heaves as he breathes, and suddenly he sits up, and starts talking. Don’t you love how it also says, “Jesus presented him back to his mother?”  (“Woman, behold your son.”) Believe me, if raising of the dead was a power to be had, wouldn’t we give anything to have it? I have to say, there were a few times as a paramedic where we raised the dead, and it’s an ecstatic feeling. No wonder it says, as Eugene 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.”

What have we learned? As Jesus had preached in the previous chapter, the Reign of God is present wherever and whenever weeping is turned to laughter (Luke 6:21), the poor receive good news (6:20), one does good to one’s enemies (6:35), showing mercy (6:36), all of which 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.

From that time 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 even in Ordinary Time, in the midst of a Chicago summer, each and every day as we walk by, observe, and become aware of the sufferings of others – whether of parents mourning the death of their child in Chicago, Kabul, Damascus, or Darfur, we become either more apathetic and dead, or more empathetic and alive. With each connection and decision to act, we become more courageous and compassionate, more Christ-like and more God-like, exhibiting the Reign of God not only in our lives, but in the world. I don’t expect to disrupt any funerals, but I believe we should do whatever we can, whatever it is in our power to do.

Through our courage, compassion, and action, may all who suffer have reason to say – as they said that day – “God is back, looking to the needs of God’s people!” Except this time, may it be through us. Amen.

 

 

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