Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Rev. Janetta Cravens Boyd
Soon afterward he 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 bier, 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 favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
In the gospel of Luke, one of the writer’s favorite metaphors for Jesus is a healer. It is reported that Luke was a physician, and as a healer himself, most admired the healing part of Jesus’ ministry. Spiritual health and physical health are linked, there is a connection between our worries and our fears and what stresses us, and our faith, what we believe, and understand. Though in Jesus’ day, and in Luke’s writing, they may have made connections between spiritual health and physical health that we would not make today because we have improved our understanding of diseases, for example, mental health we know is not caused by demons, though it was reported as such frequently in the bible. We understand diseases better and know better how to treat them -- and care for people who live with them. However, despite the conclusions that may have been drawn at the time of writing the scripture, the link between our spiritual health and physical health are remarkable. Tom McCormick probably would have a lot to say about that link, but any of us who have ever worried over a child who has come home too late, or stressed over finances, or felt responsible for the well-being of their entire family knows the physical toll that can take place. Even if we know logically, that if our child is harmed at this point there is nothing we can do about it, or that we are not truly, really, responsible for our entire family, it doesn’t fix our deep desire to fix it. Yet, in some ways, these are surface level concerns, deeper down, there is an even harder to explain relationship between spiritual health and physical health. A mystery that unfolds as we learn to place our lives and trust in God’s care and come to understand that we do not carry ourselves by ourselves. In some ways the things that bother us physically are analogous to the problems we carry spiritually. Faith has a role in our health, in our well being as people and as communities, and it was this concern that grabbed the attention of our gospel writer. He believed that trusting in God and following Jesus could make you well, free you from what kept you bounded, spiritually, emotionally, blocked, hemmoraging, tied down, dead.
The scripture we will read today is the second story in a series of stories that Luke tells about healing. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has just preached his longest sermon, in some gospels, we call this the sermon on the mount because it happened on a mountain, but in Luke’s gospel, he brings this sermon down to the ground, where the people. “On a level place,” he says, and so, here in Luke’s gospel, it happens on the plain. But he pours out his systematic theology to the people, Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Some people have called the Beatitudes, Jesus’ 12 Step Program for faith, and that’s not entirely wrong. The first of the beatitudes begins with acknowledging our poverty, how we are poor, that there is poverty, and God works in that situation to bring the kingdom of God. But the sermon goes on after running down a list of blessings --- and Jesus says important things like, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged,” and “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”
Jesus’ first act after finishing his sermon is to start healing people, and Luke gives us 2 stories. The first is a story about a Centurian, a Roman, who comes to Jesus to heal a slave in his house. He isn’t even Jewish, and the power of the story is that he trusts Jesus completely and understands that in order to be healed, he will have to be under his command. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be under the authority of someone who is different from us, which is, I believe, a dynamic being played out at our national level? The Senator from South Carolina who called our President a Raghead, a racial slur for Muslims, couldn’t even get the slur right. Our President isn’t Muslim, and muslims don’t wear “rags” on their heads, turbins are worn by Seiks. And neither of these are black, which our President is. The disease of racism makes white men (and women) have a hard time being under the authority of a black man.
The slave was restored to health, the faith working its mystery in the bones of those who believe, to liberate it beyond the disease that confines it. And here, then, is our second story, immediately, Jesus finishes healing the Centurian’s slave, travels a small distance to another town, Nain, and a second healing happens -- only this one was not just making someone feel better, ridding them of disease, and restoring them to health; it was in fact, freeing them from the bounds of death, bringing them back to life. Only, unlike in the first story, we don’t know the character’s country of origin, don’t know if they were Jewish or Roman, or what else, and don’t really know, why Jesus decided to bring this man back to life. Unlike the first story, no one asks him, no one comes to him, he didn’t come to this town to make this happen, he’s just come to town where he’s greeted by a funeral procession, and he takes action.
I find several things interesting in this scripture, and I wonder what it must have been like to be any number of people in this story. What it would have been like to be a person in the crowd, observing and watching this incredible scene unfold. What it might have been like to be the mother, throat still raw from crying, and get her son back, right in the middle of a sob. What it might have been like to be a casket bearer, and have this man you do not know, with a funny accent, who “wasn’t from around here” tell you to stop what you are doing and put his hands on the casket -- bizarre behavior even by today’s standards -- and speak to it as though he truly expected something to happen.
There are some lessons in this story, beyond the fact that Jesus heals and dead are given new life under his authority. Sometimes we are the mother, and great grief is upon us, and things look dead, really dead. They are dead. And sometimes, we know, things really do die. Death really is real. We really do, loose people we love for reasons sometimes that we do not understand, and the pain of that loss is real.
Jesus didn’t resurrect everyone who died in his ministry. But he did make a point with the people he did bring back from death’s icy grasp. Under the hand of Jesus, dead is not dead, things may turn out really differently than expected. Just because WE pronounce them dead, believe this to be it, may not mean that that’s the way Jesus sees the situation. Jesus can speak powerfully into our situation and turn it around, give it new life, and make us live again.
Another lesson here -- Some of us are casket bearers -- we are carrying death with us, around with us, we have death in our hands. We are walking into board rooms where we somberly pronounce the death to budgets, and future, and even our own story. We are bearing the caskets for people, and places that we love, and shaking our heads that this situation is hopeless. We deliver the news of death like pallbearers for our own story: “I know, we used to be alive, but now this church is just dead, it’s not like it used to be.” Talk about being a kill-joy. But under the hand of Jesus what we thought to be a delivery of bad news, turns out to be a platform of promise. What we thought was a death bed turns out to be a box to step out of. We should be very careful when we are in the presence of Jesus of pronouncing too loudly what is, or is not going on, or possible. A little later on in the story, Jesus is talking to his disciples and they are trying to figure out who he is and what he is -- again, they’re trying to have a definition for what is happening. We want to “define our terms” -- are you John the Baptist, or the Messiah?” And Jesus doesn’t respond to them with an answer, he simply tells them to go and see. Don’t worry about the terms, and get hung up on understanding, just tell people what is happening. Blind are getting sign, lame are walking, the dead are raised. Whatever you want to call it, call it. It’s not the definition that is important, but the reality that is becoming because of Jesus.
Another lesson for us here, is that we should listen to the voices of strangers in our midst. Sometimes, we’re so busy fussing over what we know to be going on, that we don’t recognize the voice of Jesus coming to us because it’s speaking with an accent that isn’t familiar to our ears. Sometimes the people who don’t speak our native language of faith have some of the most relevant things to say to us and we miss it because they do not sound like us. We should listen to the new member and what they say to us, or to our children and grandchildren who may not come to church at all. Jesus because they are new around here, or unfamiliar to our community, does not mean that they cannot be powerful witnesses to the presence of a living God. Listen to the stranger and to the voice of the one who is new.
What I’d like for you to do is to think about how God is speaking to us through this scripture. How is the Spirit speaking through the words of this text into our situation and our life? It may be speaking on several levels, personally something that you are wrestling with, or collectively, something that we are going through together as a community.
What are you learning about God from this scripture?
What is God inviting us to do or become?
How is God speaking through this text?
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