Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)
I’m writing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I’ve been among some amazing people to reflect together on the deep connections between art and spirituality. The fruit of those conversations will find their way into future posts, but meanwhile here is what I’m preaching this morning from the pulpit of Hattiesburg’s Trinity Episcopal Church, based on the gospel text from Luke 7:11-17.
Watch out! There’s going to be a collision.
Here comes a funeral parade, with a dead young man, his grieving mother, and a whole crowd of mourners, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth.
And from the opposite direction, pretty as you please, here comes the Jesus parade: the holy man everybody’s talking about, along with his passel of disciples and a whole bunch of folks who’ve just seen Jesus cure the centurion’s slave in the blink of an eye and who want to see what in heaven’s name he’s going to do next.
The Jesus people are all laughing and talking and telling stories, but suddenly Jesus raises his hand and they all stop, because he’s seen the widow, he’s heard her crying—they can all hear her crying—and Jesus is so moved by her tears, his heart just fills up and overflows with compassion. and whatever he was on his way to do no longer seems all that important.
He knows that moments like this are why he came into the world. So he heads straight across the town square to meet that funeral procession, with all his folks trailing after him, wondering what’s going to happen.
What is going to happen, in the middle of that dusty little country town, is a great cosmic showdown: the parade of death running smack into the parade of life. And here’s how it goes.
Jesus reaches out to touch the coffin, and the pallbearers come to a dead stop. Everybody gets real quiet. Maybe the widow recognizes Jesus. Maybe she’s heard stories about his miracles. But she’s not asking for any help. Her son is dead. She knows his story is over. Nothing Jesus can do about that, she thinks. She’s long since resigned to her grief.
And the only thing Jesus has to say to her is, “Do not weep,” because it’s her son that he wants to talk to. Then Jesus speaks the words he has been given the power to say:
Young man, arise!
And the dead man sits up, opens his mouth, takes a breath, and words start to spill out, words of wonder and joy, and he is alive again. Then Jesus gives him back to his mother. And all the people standing round don’t know whether to be scared or whether to start shouting “Glory to God! Glory to God!”
And as for all of us who listen to this story today,what do we do with the strangeness of it in a world where too many young men and women die and parents weep and there is no resurrection parade that shows up to make everything all right again?
Can we still take hope from this story, or is being snatched from the jaws of death only for the lucky few, like winning the lottery, while the rest of us can only dream of such a happy fate?
This would be a cruel story if it were about a blessing which most of us will never know. But what Jesus did that day in the village of Nain wasn’t a promise that we all now get a free pass to escape the human condition. Jesus didn’t really go around raising up everybody who died. It only happens three times in the gospels. Jesus didn’t come to give everyone a few extra decades of earthly existence. That’s not why he was here.
He was here to show us God, and to show us how humanity is made to become like God—not by grasping power and glory, but by embodying compassion, which is one of the dearest of God’s names.
It wasn’t God’s plan that Jesus spend all his time putting funeral directors out of business. But on that particular day in Nain, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He felt compassion for the widow, and as the incarnate Author of Life, he returned the widow’s son to the sensory world of dust and sunshine just so death wouldn’t get too uppity. Sometimes death needs to be reminded that it never gets the last word.
But Jesus didn’t mean for us to place our own hope in such temporary reprieves. The resurrection of the dead is a mystery more ultimate and profound than what happened to the widow’s son. Dying and rising are inseparable partners in the same transformative dance. It’s the way the story goes, and we just have to live with it. That is why, even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
So what does this gospel story want to tell us today, wherever you and I happen to find ourselves on life’s journey in the year of grace 2016? I’ll tell you what I hear.
The first thing is, our God is compassionate. Our God is moved by our tears. And in the end, as poet Jane Kenyon said before her own untimely death, God will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”
Secondly, I am struck by the power of the voice of the Divine Beloved, the voice of Jesus, speaking to us the word of life: Arise. And I don’t think we have to wait for the Last Day to hear it, either.
We are being called back to life every day, every moment, if we only have ears to hear. On her wonderful website, The Painted Bird, Jan Richardson has posted her poem inspired by this gospel. “Blessing for the Raising of the Dead.” tells us that ‘while this blessing / does not have the power / to raise you, / it knows how to reach you. / It will come to you, / sit down / beside you, / look you / in the eye / and ask / if you want / to live.’ You can read the whole poem here.
Finally, I hear this gospel telling me one more thing. It is not enough simply to hear the voice that blesses and revives. I believe, now that the tongues of Pentecostal fire have settled on our own heads, that you and I are called to speak that voice as well, to be ourselves the voice that blesses, the voice that calls the dead back to life—dead hopes, dead neighborhoods, dead dreams, dead souls.
The word of life is not something we ourselves possess, but God has empowered us to speak it nonetheless: to be Christ’s voice for those in need, to be Christ’s voice to a broken and longing world—
the voice which speaks the word
uttered for all eternity
in the heart of God:
Arise, it says. Arise.