They had been traveling with Jesus for some time now, ever since the word had begun to spread that a great prophet had risen among the people once again, a man who could heal with a touch and drive madness and possession out with a word. Wherever he went, crowds flocked to him, hoping for a portion of his power to rest on them. But he gave them more than that, he paired his healing with teaching, and had just recently gathered them on the plain to explain to them the meaning of his actions. He said things that ran completely opposite to the wisdom of the day, things like
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” and
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” and
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
These were the sorts of things they were used to hearing from the priests in the temple, it was the kind of call to compassion they knew from the words of the prophet Isaiah, who had taught “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17); or Jeremiah, who taught “Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.”
But those men stayed in the temple all day, collecting their offerings of meat and grain, and selling the rights to the temple marketplace to the highest bidder. They were not wandering the countryside of Samaria preaching to people with nothing to offer, and they were not healing people the way this Jesus could heal people. So they had left all they had, and were following him.
They had just left the town of Capernaum, far to the north of Jerusalem, on the far side of Samaria – a land full of mixed heritage Jews whose style of worship offended every decent person living in Israel. There they’d encountered a Roman centurion, a member of the occupying army, whose slave had fallen ill. He’d sent some of the Jewish elders from Capernaum to intercede on his behalf with Jesus. He’d heard that Jesus was a prophet of God, who came with healing, and he assumed that Jesus would not enter the home of a Gentile because that would have made him ritually unclean. So he sent his messengers with a request that Jesus simply say the word, knowing that if he did so, the slave would be healed.
This was the first time since he had taught them on the plain that day, “love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you,” that they’d had a chance to see if Jesus meant what he said. Would he actually heal a member of the household of the people who occupied their towns and controlled their land? Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” and by the time the elders had returned to the Centurion’s home, the slave had been healed.
That was all anyone could talk about as they traveled on, journeying south from the Sea of Galilee through the Samarian countryside, heading back toward Jerusalem. The master had healed the gentile’s boy. What did it mean? What about the law? Many were thrilled by his actions, simply because they were so audacious, but some were anxious, “where will it end? When will he stop? Is there no line he will not cross?”
Then Jesus and his company of disciples, growing by the day now, arrived in Nain and came face to face with another crowd. At the head of the crowd was a funeral bier, carried by the town’s poor. No one came close to it, because it held the body of a dead man, and they were obviously taking it outside the town’s walls so that it could be returned to the earth where it could not contaminate the dwelling places of the living. Behind the funeral bier was a solitary woman, wailing that her only son was dead. Her voice carried across the distance between the two crowds, everyone could hear her plight. She was a widow, and now she had no son to care for her. She was alone, which meant that either her dead husband had no brothers to marry her, or they had chosen not to. There was no one to care for her. She was following her son’s body to its grave, and she was wondering how long it would be before she was laying in the earth as well.
Those who were standing next to Jesus could see from his face that his heart was broken open. As her cries of despair reached Jesus and his followers they remembered his words, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” and as they stood there remembering, Jesus stepped forward and quickly closed the gap between his community and hers.
Approaching the widow Jesus spoke loudly so that everyone could hear him, saying “do not weep.” Then he reached out his hand, and before anyone could stop him he touched the funeral bier. He did what the Centurion thought he would never do. He broke the laws of purity and came in direct contact with the most unclean thing he could possibly touch. He touched death, and he said, “young man, I say to you, rise!” And at once the dead man sat up and began to speak. The people in both crowds were both terrified and amazed. They did not understand how it could be that someone could bridge the gap between death and life. But the mother of the boy, and those whom Jesus had already healed, gave glory to God, because he had saved two lives that day – his and hers – and they said, “a great prophet has risen among us” and “God has shown favor to us, all of us!”
Can you imagine the joy that day?
Can you imagine what it felt like, to begin the day preparing to bury your son and become homeless and to end the day with your son in your arms and a roof over your head?
Can you imagine what is was like to be a part of that crowd of people who had come to Jesus to be healed themselves, who had followed him out of gratitude and amazement for what he had done in their lives, only to discover that this man was not content to save only “his own” people, but even his enemies, even those who were already dead, hopeless cases, lost causes.
I think you can. I think you, the people of St. Luke’s, know something about what it is like to be counted as a lost cause, a hopeless case. I think you know what it is like to march through the years when it felt like no one wanted to touch you, because they didn’t want to catch whatever you had, when you were treated like the death that surrounded you was contagious. I think you know something about the joy the widow of Nain experienced when the child she loved, who gave her a place in the community, was restored to life and given back to her through the power and healing that come from God because you have lived this story.
For the last two days Bill and Judi and I sat in the front ro
w of the conference hall where our annual Metro Chicago Synod assembly was being held out by the airport. Over the course of the assembly we got to hear from various churches across Chicago about the ministry going on in their congregations. As a mission interpreter in the Central Conference, Judi got to give the first mission moment. She rose before the entire assembly and reminded them that eight years ago members of this congregation were voting on whether or not to close their doors. She didn’t have to say it, because the people who knew the story were all in the room, but eight years ago it was assumed that St. Luke’s was laid out on a funeral bier, heading for the cold earth outside the walls of the synod assembly.
It was nobody’s fault. Like the widow of Zarephath, who faithfully gave the last of her flour and oil to the prophet Elijah so that he would not starve, only to have her son die while the prophet stayed in her home; the people at St. Luke’s were giving their all, even using the same story of the widow of Zarephath to name their pantry after the prophet she fed. But still, despite their amazing faithfulness and generosity, it seemed that their child was dead. The congregation was down to a very faithful few and some were beginning to wonder, echoing that widow’s words, “what do you have against us, God, that no matter what we do, no one comes to our aid?”
It was nobody’s fault. Like the widow at Nain, whose husband was dead and whose son was heading to the grave, who nobody would take in. Then, with a word that called him back from death, Jesus spoke to the young man and he was restored. The widows were secured. The whole community shouted praises, “Glory! Hallelujah! Jesus has lifted them from death!”
I think we know something here at St. Luke’s about that kind of joy, the kind that comes at the last possible moment, that surprises those who trail behind us waiting to see us in the ground, and leaves us all celebrating with each other new life that we could not have imagined, shouting, “Glory! Hallelujah! Jesus has lifted us up from death!”
But I think we also know something about it in our own lives, I know I do in mine. I remember receiving St. Luke’s paperwork when I was still living down in Atlanta. I had been kicked out of the ELCA’s candidacy process. I had just come through a messy, painful breakup with someone I thought would be my partner for life. I had moved out of our home to a city where I knew less than a handful of people, and into a basement where I could see and hear the rats living under the front porch, because they would come scratch on the window in my bedroom. Nothing in my life was going according to plan. Every dream I’d had for myself had been crushed under the foot of faceless forces, powers and principalities, and I did not know how I would find the energy to even get up in the morning.
But then I began working again, after almost a year of unemployment. I began organizing in cities up and down the East Coast, educating people about the plight of runaway and homeless children, and teaching them how to do outreach that was safe and supportive for all involved. I watched as the people I was training discovered how significant they could be to a homeless young person, even if it was only a few hours a week. And as they discovered their significance, I remembered mine. I could see that God was using my shattered dreams and my wreck of a life to reach out to people whose lives were even more wrecked and shattered than mine, and I began to feel hope and purpose flow back into my soul like blood returning to a foot that’s fallen asleep – slowly, with lots of awkward, prickly moments when you’re not sure if it will bear your weight – but life restored nonetheless.
I remember, and so does Judi, a phone call I received after a training for outreach workers in Philadelphia when she called to tell me that the call committee at St. Luke’s had decided to recommend me for the call to serve here with all of you. We remember that moment a little differently, but I’ll tell the story the way she does just to save her the time. She says that after she told me the committee’s decision I said, “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to hear someone say they wanted me.”
Then we celebrated an ordination and installation that packed the house, and we began a ministry together that lifted me up from the depths of hopelessness that had claimed me. I had laid down on that funeral bier, and it seemed no one wanted to reach out and touch me. I assumed I knew how my story was going to end, with my dreams and my call just one more dead thing buried in the cold ground outside the church’s walls. But then, as I connected with people in need, on the streets and in the sanctuaries others left behind, Jesus reached out and touched me and said, “do not weep, but rise up and live!” And now I am living in a moment I never thought I’d see as my colleagues and I on the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries clergy roster are being approved for and received onto the ELCA’s clergy roster, and I can say with all my heart, I am so glad that Jesus lifted me!
Many of us have these stories – the ones where it felt like life had ended, like you were laying on the funeral bier, and then something happened. Maybe it was a gradual reawakening to your life, or maybe it came like a flash of lightening as you heard the voice of Jesus in a friend or a family member, in a work of art or the lyrics to a song, or a stranger who found a way to break through the grip death held on your soul and you heard Jesus saying, “do not weep, but rise up and live!” If you have had this experience, like I have, like St. Luke’s has, then you know what it is like to be filled with awe and gratitude for the power of God to bring life back to people and places left for dead.
But perhaps you do not. Perhaps you are still lying on the funeral bier. Perhaps you are still shouting your grief at a loss that leaves you stranded in your life, waiting for the worst to come. Perhaps you still feel as though no one will draw close enough to help, as though you carry the contagion of failure or the disease of death. To you I say, along with the psalmist, “weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning!” And I encourage you to follow the recipe for new life that our Savior has shown us. Look for opportunities to reach outside your own despair. Watch for those whom God has prepared you to assist. Jesus who left the pious places of the world behind to travel the countryside of Samaria, who healed the very people who oppressed him, who broke the laws of purity to bring life in the midst of death needs you, even with all your wounds, even with all your pain. In fact, it is because of those wounds, because of that pain, that God needs you. You are uniquely qualified to connect to those who have given up on life. This morning Jesus is reaching out to you with a terrifying command, saying “do not weep, but rise up and live!”
On this 110th anniversary, we give thanks for all who have gone before us – in good times and in bad – and we praise God for the gift of life together. We know that our future and our good fortune are not a reward for our good works. Like the widow of Zarephath, who fed the hungry with the last of her riches only to watch her child die before her very eyes, we know that there is no ward against suffering, there is no charm against death. But like that same widow, and the widow at Nain, and the women and men of this congregation, we also know what it is like to travel in the company of God’s prophets, to respond to the sound of our Savior’s voice, to leave the walls of the sanctuary behind us and to spread out into the streets with the good news of God’s healing power for us and for the whole world. We have heard the voice of God calling us from
death to life, commanding us to stop our weeping and rise up. We have seen life return even to this place, once left for dead, which is why we can sing this morning along with all the people of God, “I am so glad that Jesus lifted me!”