Sunday, June 5, 2016
New Testament scholar R Alan Culpepper writes regarding this gospel passage from Luke, “If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.” So, people of God, people who call ourselves Christians, what would you say to this widow? What do you say at a funeral, at a hospital bedside, when you bring over a casserole to someone who’s going through a tough time? And how does our religion, our faith in Jesus Christ make a difference?
A few of our lay visitation folks at Bethel were able to go to a half day Stephen ministry training about a month ago to learn how to minister to people better when they are grieving, ill, or homebound. One of the learnings they were able to bring back to the larger group was a list of phrases to avoid saying. One good rule of thumb, for example, is to not make any promises you yourself can’t keep, like: “I’m sure you’ll be back to feeling better in no time,” or “Everything will be alright.” Another good rule of thumb is basically to remember less is more – less talking, that is. Sometimes we feel like we should say something and then end up saying something that is hurtful rather than helpful at the time – like, “God has another angel in heaven,” or “God has a plan.” Simply being present and listening to where someone is at and what they’re feeling is usually the best but hardest thing to do when trying to be there for someone we care about who’s going through a tough time.
So imagine the audacity of Jesus – a stranger to this community of Nain, who basically interrupts the funeral procession to tell this widow, “Do not weep.” Yeah, that’d be on my list of things not to say or do when trying to be a helpful, healing presence in the midst of a grieving family! Stop crying! And then Jesus has the audacity to talk to the dead body saying, “Rise up!” For anyone else, for any of us to do this, it would be outrageous and totally socially unacceptable. But Jesus looks on the widow with compassion when he speaks to her, and the young man does sit up! Jesus through his actions and words changes the widow and her son’s life, and in a very public way so that others around them who witness this miraculous event are also transformed.
Ok, so we are not able ourselves to go around bringing back the dead to life, but what does our faith in Jesus Christ have to say to the grieving widows and widowers of our time? Because of sin, there is not one of us here today that hasn’t experienced some kind of loss: death of a parent, child or spouse, divorce, unemployment, physical or psychological ailments, loss of mobility or loss of our independence. What does our faith have to say about the death of the way things are, the loss and grief we experience along life’s journey? My guess is that Jesus looks at us, too, like he looked at that widow, with compassion, and asks us to rise up, with the hope in the promise that life defeats death. Jesus asks us to rise up and care for those who are vulnerable in our society today – seniors on fixed incomes with limited housing options, single parents, people with mental and physical disabilities. Jesus asks us to rise up and be present for those who are dealing with grief and loss with the compassion of Christ.
These past few days I was able to spend time at our Nebraska Synod Assembly with Sam & Ellen Schroeder, Bethel’s voting members, and about 700 other voting members and visitors in Kearney worshipping together, learning more about the ministries of our church, hearing reports from our Bishop and Churchwide representative, electing synod council members, and so on. Probably the highlight for me was being able to meet and listen to Pastor Peter Marty, who has written a column for the Lutheran magazine for several years, leads St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, a church of 3500 members, and is just an outstanding preacher and teacher. Peter Marty reminded us that Jesus lives. He said that sometimes we act as Christians as if Jesus is a stuffed mannequin at the front of our church sanctuaries, a guy who lived 2000 years ago who did some pretty cool stuff – but not anymore. We behave like Jesus is just a historical figure of the past, not the son of God incarnate and active in the world still today! The truth is, that Jesus today looks a lot less that image in our window and more like a guy in jeans and a T-shirt, someone you might pass by without even noticing on the street.
I like words, and what I love about this gospel passage is that the same word that Jesus uses to speak to the widow’s son the crowd uses to speak about Jesus and glorify God. Jesus says to the man – “Rise up!” and the crowd seeing this says, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” The crowd goes on to say that “God has visited his people.” Certainly this gospel story is partly about Jesus the Son of God using his lifegiving power to raise a widow’s son from the dead—in doing so he gives life back not only to the young man but also to his mother because he IS her long-term insurance plan…without a husband or child to care for her she is one of the poorest, most vulnerable people in that society. What is even more powerful about this gospel story is this man who is able to raise others from the dead has been raised up by God to be God’s walking, living, and breathing presence with us here on Earth. Jesus is not just a man who healed the sick, the lame, the blind and even raised the dead back in bilblical times. Jesus is the person of God who continues to walk and live among us now today, giving us life and calling us to rise up to give hope to those in hopeless situations, too.
When we read the Bible like a history book, we forget to look for the power of the living Word of God among us today. In a few minutes during our celebration of Holy Communion, we will say together ancient words of faith that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. That’s present tense – Christ IS risen. God has visited his people…right here, today, even now. What does religion have to say to a grieving widow? Christ is risen. Christ is with you, even now. Christ is with you in your darkest, most dreaded moments, not dead words on a page but living in the flesh among us.
Peter Marty shared another story that I’d heard before but I thought I could share again with you today in my own way because it illustrates what I mean. A monastery was struggling to survive with the changing times, and as the brothers began to age and finances became tight, they went to the local rabbi to seek some wisdom about what they could do to save their monastery. “I’ll tell you the secret, but you must never tell anyone else what you know,” the rabbi replied. “Yes, of course,” they promised eagerly, leaning in intently. “The Messiah is living among you,” the rabbi said. The brothers went back to the monastery, wondering which of them the Messiah could be. As they began to treat one another like Christ, because they knew Christ was in their midst, the monastery began to flourish again. They got over their petty arguments and started engaging in their work with renewed purpose and vigor. They enjoyed being with one another, because they knew the Messiah was among them. The Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, is among us. A great prophet has arisen among us! God has come to visit us. This impacts our lives right now, it’s not only a promise of life eternal that can comfort us when we die, when our loved ones die, but Jesus is a present reality, whom we have the privilege to encounter daily if we can assume that attitude that that wise rabbi called those brothers to. Rise up! Christ is arisen! Amen.