Luke 7:11-17 (NRSV)
Soon afterwards, [Jesus] 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.
Let us walk carefully through this story with Jesus.
This reading picks up immediately after last week’s: Healing Centurion’s servant/slave
No partiality between the most respected and the least important to society; between ethnicities; between political parties; etc.
Jesus enters Nain with great crowd following
Sees a funeral procession: people carrying body of a dead man through the town as they prepare for a burial ceremony. Not unlike how we do burials in church today
He can see that the dead man was the only son of a widowed mother. This was probably obvious because of the type of procession and mourning. Certain kinds of mourning rituals, dances, and size of crowd.
The crowds that follow the body are mourning for death of young man and for the mother. As a widow with no remaining children she becomes one of the most vulnerable people in society.
She is going to struggle to survive. She will have to depend upon the help of others to make it, and we know that others are not always dependable…
Jesus sees her plight and his stomach turns. He cannot help but feel compassion for her in this moment of need.
He runs up to her. He stops the funeral procession, interrupts the service to do something. All the members of the community are present, walking alongside the mourning mother and the coffin, and all of a sudden the walking stops.
Jesus declares, “Do not cry!” He approaches the coffin and touches it.
Touching dead things in Jewish culture made someone “ritually unclean”. It wasn’t a sin and it wasn’t against the Law, but it made you a social outcast. It temporarily put you on the outside of the community’s life.
Jesus voluntarily accepts that ostracizing, that uncleanness, for the sake of his compassion for a mother and her tears. He is willing to be with her in her deepest moments of pain and sorrow, to walk with her through the guilt and shame she may feel from the people around her. Jesus knows. Jesus is present.
But then, Jesus does an even stranger thing. He speaks to the dead man: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
And by the power of God, the boy listens. Jesus breathes his life-giving Spirit onto the boy and death no longer has a hold on him. The youth who was dead is alive.
He sits up and begins to speak. Jesus gives him to his mother. This family is restored to wholeness and health. The poor mother is restored to socio-economic security. Her sorrow has been turned to joy. In a very real sense, her life was transformed – saved, even – from the perils of poverty, loneliness, and death.
Then, yet another strange things happens in our Gospel story. The crowds that surrounded Jesus and the funeral procession respond.
Now, I would expect them to respond with shock and awe, with excitement and joy, maybe even with confusion and disbelief.
But according to St. Luke, the people respond with fear. Why are these people taken by fear after witnessing Jesus’ miracle?
This is my question for you today: Why should we be afraid when God gives new life? What is scary about the power of resurrection?
Fear of the unknown
We hate death and especially the death of a young one… but we know how to handle it. We know how to put on a funeral. We know to bake casseroles and who to call to prepare the meal for after the service. We know how to make phone calls and drop by and comfort the bereaved. We do this all the time.
But what do you do for someone who’s child was dead and came back to life? Do you keep coming by with casseroles? Is there a rebirth service at church? Next year, do we celebrate his regular birthday or the anniversary of the day Jesus healed him?
These are silly examples to illustrate the point that resurrection feels unnatural. It doesn’t follow our expected patterns. It breaks our paradigms, and causes us to question things we thought were unchangeable.
God’s supernatural power to to confront and defeat death is the center of the Gospel. But it’s also the thing that can make us the most uncomfortable.
Jesus shows us a recurring pattern of death, resurrection, and glorious new life.
We all follow that pattern at some point in our journey, when this life ends and we enter into God’s glorious Kingdom. But we also follow that pattern when we descend into the waters of baptism and rise again to new life in Christ. We follow that pattern every time God brings us on a new journey to unexpected and unpredictable places
Right now, God is bringing us on a new journey. We are dying to old habits and about to inaugurate something new here in this place.
God is bringing me on a new journey into the ways of this congregation, the life habits and the personalities of the people that fill this blessed place. It’s even new to work my way through the liturgy and to do so in St. Matthew’s worship space. Who are the families and people to whom God sent me? What new life will you show me?
God is also bringing the people of this parish on a new journey. You’ve got a young, unfamiliar priest with a difficult-to-pronounce name and a strange family heritage. Who is this pastor God sent us? What new life will he show us?
It’s normal to have some fear, but it’s also normal to be filled with excitement and hope, expectation and joy, because our God is compassionate. Our God raises the dead.
Thankfully, we know the end of the story. We know that through the death and through the resurrection comes the glory. God’s goodness shines through in new and unexpected places, in the unfamiliar terrain as we learn together to be the people of God.
We can trust that the God of Resurrection will be faithful to us. Nothing any of us does will separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord. So let us take risks, let us love boldly, let us go together where we are afraid to go alone.
Out of our discomfort, our pain, our mourning, and even our defeats, God brings new life. God brings healing. God brings victory and peace. God will lead us through together, united as one family in the Lord.
So if you feel nervous or afraid right now, that’s okay. But remember that we believe in a God whose perfect love casts out all fear. We might feel a sense of great risk; but God carries the whole world in his hands.
And I believe that in joining together, in growing to truly love one another, we can become a brighter light for Christ in this world than we could ever have asked or imagined.
So, my new friends, arise and take courage. Our God of love is leading the way.
Note: This was Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda's first sermon as Priest in Charge of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Savannah, GA.