Sacred Soil

Our lives at the gates
June 9, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11–24
Luke 7:11–17

This widow, the widow of Nain, was stuck in an impossible place as she watched her only son carried out on a bier that day. A bier is much like a stretcher, an open span of canvas wrapped around poles. Her son’s body would have been wrapped in cloth, his form exposed in this funeral procession. This woman, this widow, watched her child, her livelihood, carried bodily out of her life. Through the gates of the town. Her grief must have consumed her, knowing that her son’s life was cut short, and knowing that it meant the same fate for her. In the ancient world a woman with no son and no husband had to rely on charity to get by—and much like today charity was no way to thrive. At that gate, her former life was gone, all she could see going forward was death.

And so often we find ourselves at a similar gate. Now the stakes may not be so clear for us. We may not be able to point at the stretcher and say, this is my child whom I raised. Though, some of us could. Our passage at this gate may not put us at risk for losing our very livelihood—though it might. For some it’s just a medical bill, or foreclosure notice away. But, most of us do know what it is like to see our lives changing, our dreams dying—never to be the same again—and wanting to hold on to familiarity, to the real joy of that former life, to grab onto the bier and say: No. You do not get to take it all away.

And sometimes, we grab onto that bier without even knowing we’ve done it. Death is insidious and sneaks in, setting up camp. Like the creeping business of our daily survival: we get so consumed with meetings, commuting, getting our kids to school, the incidentals of life. The job we wanted doesn’t come through, the surgery didn’t go as planned. And then there is the challenge of money. The bills, the mortgage, the credit cards, fines, fees, all contend with our need just to make ends meet. The cycle is endless, the pace is impossible. And before we know it, we are at the gate of the town watching the life we hoped for, where everything is whole, being carried out on bier—its form exposed. Lifeless. And our response is to grab on tightly, hold on for dear life—but it’s already gone.

It is precisely at this moment that Jesus sees the widow. And Jesus has a special way of seeing. Somehow he is able to know that this woman is mother, this woman is widow, this woman has lost everything. As this bier is carried out of the town, she has been declared by society to be nothing. But, he sees the whole of her. Knows she is something, and he is moved. Moved to compassion. There is no test of faith here, no argument about merit or just desserts. Jesus sees her in the midst of swarming crowds and says to her: Do not weep.

Jesus sees us too. He sees us mother, father, brother, sister, man, woman, child. Beloved child. He sees each of us in our entirety too—with the same compassion. With clear vision, Jesus looks through all the crowding around us and sees us whole. For who we really are. The good, the bad.

It is this Jesus who reaches out to touch that bier, that death. Stunning everyone. Freezing the entire scene. He grabs on, taking the rotting corpse of this Widow’s life into his hand. And his grip, unlike ours, transforms death. He says to the young man: Rise. And he does. He sits up in that stretcher and begins to speak. And Jesus gives him back to his mother.

Now this is not merely return as if the procession suddenly dropped everything and reversed back into the town. This woman, her son and the crowds cannot simply turn around and re-enter the gate of the city and resume as if nothing had changed. And neither can we. In our baptism, each of us has also been touched by Jesus and commanded to rise. In those waters, we are at once the widow and the dead man, so burdened by the brokenness of this world that it is as if we are dead. But then, through the power of God’s overwhelming love, we rise from those waters raised to new life. New life. Not the old one. New.

But what does this new life look like? It’s a personal question—a question we answer with our own lives. For our widow, and the crowds, well they respond with what the text calls fear. But Biblical fear is a bit of a different thing– certainly it evokes a sense of terror in the face of something so much more powerful than us. But it also takes on qualities of awe and amazement: reverence caught them all. For the second time in our text, the whole scene stops, everyone completely stunned. First when Jesus touches death, and then when life is returned to the widow. Of course they’re afraid—but their response is to worship God. And this is not unusual in the Bible, particularly in Luke. In those moments of profound awe, the response is to glorify God.

We know this fear—Jesus’ touch doesn’t make sense. It breaks every rule that the power death declares. As we know it, death is final. That’s it. Both physical and metaphorical. The body is done. Nothing will save it. And, when death is found in the functionality of our daily survival, and we are caught short, giving into busyness, having no way to make ends meet. Death tells us that there is nothing that can save us. We are doomed to failure, and we are defined by it. Death would say to us, you are your failure. But Jesus comes, touches our death and claims us alive and whole, a child of God. We have a new identity—it is death transformed into life. We are right to be afraid when God can come so near to us, see us so clearly. We are right to fear the God who touches death, even dies, turning death itself into life. Life abundant. We are right to be caught in reverence, and awe.

But fear and awe do not simply return us through the gates giddy with the prospect that all our losses have been restored. It’s not that easy. The loss is still very real. And to deny our losses would be foolish. There are widows among us, there are parents who have lost their children, there are people who have lost their livelihood and who know a world that cannot see them in the midst of their pain. Nothing will ever be the same. But we know, we have this promise which is most certainly true, the finality of death was swallowed up by Jesus’ touch; the funeral procession stopped. Death no longer has the final say.

And so it is for us. As we cling to that which kills us—as we watch our lives being carried out on a bier—God comes to us, sees us, grabs hold of us and says again: rise. Be lifted up—know the reality of death and know that God is more powerful. Know that life will never be the same.

And from this touch, this moment of life, we are filled with awe, and are compelled to praise God. Indeed, to live our lives as praise to God.


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