June 9, 2013

“Despair Interrupted”
1 Kings 17:8-16
Luke 7:11-17

Easter faith is indeed revolutionary in the world. The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of new life, the force not stopped, even by our fear of that newness. ~ Walter Brueggemann

What wonderful images we have in today’s passages. We have prophets, raisings from the dead, a never-ending supply of food, onlookers being both amazed and terrified. It’s the Easter story over and over – amazing and terrifying for the people of that day.

In the text from Luke’s gospel, the woman loses her son; she has already lost her husband. It’s great that her son comes back to life. It’s great that she’s likely saved from living on the streets. It’s great that the crowd rejoices and glorifies God…and that the celebration is heard all across the countryside, from Nain, throughout Galilee, and even on down to Judea. It’s just great.

But there’s one thing about this text that, if not troubling, is at least a little annoying.
I am a bit annoyed that Jesus intervenes in death only three times, according to the memories of his friends. All four gospels tell the story of the restoration of Rabbi Jairus’ daughter. Only John tells the tale of the raising of Lazarus from his grave. And only Luke tells the story assigned for this week, of Jesus raising the son of a widow from the pall on which he is being carried to his grave. People were suffering and dying all over the place in Palestine and only 3 get the special recitation treatment.

Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke. He interrupts despair here, there, everywhere. A woman approaches him at a dinner party and pours perfume on his feet. Another woman battles through a crowd to touch the hem of his garment. Just before today’s story, a centurion sends word through his friends that his servant is ill. “Just give the word,” the man says, “and I know he’ll be healed.” Jesus praises all three people and attributes their healing to their faith.

But the woman in today’s story? She doesn’t ask Jesus to raise her son. She has given up to the realities around her, as she sees them. She doesn’t fall on her knees and beg for her son’s life. All she does is cry. That’s what realists do. They cry.

Of course, maybe the reason she doesn’t ask Jesus for a resurrection isn’t from a lack of faith. Maybe she just thinks it’s too late. Her son is dead. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t she at least say “thank you?” Or if she did say “thank you,” why doesn’t the gospel writer record her response? Or what about the woman’s son? When he sits up on the bier, the gospel writer says that the man begins to speak. But if one of the things he said was “Thank you,” we don’t have a record of it. It could be that mother and son joined in the celebration with the rest of the crowd. More than likely they did. But why didn’t the gospel writer tell us that? In other stories in Luke, people’s healing is attributed to their faith. Or if the healing happens without a request for it-like the bent-over woman a few chapters later-they at least say thank you or begin praising God.

But in today’s story? Not one word about faith. Not one word about gratitude or praise. Just a mother’s tears before the raising, and a son’s random talking after it.

So, maybe this story isn’t about faith. Maybe it’s not about gratitude. Maybe it isn’t even about those of us who are such unadulterated realists that we simply accept the bumps and grinds of life as the predominant ‘fact of life’ and those who go on their way even when grace kisses them on the forehead.

No, this story is about grace-pure, unadulterated, undiluted, unbidden, unearned, un-asked-for grace. Here we have one of the worst case scenarios we can imagine. This woman faces absolute destitution. Beyond the fact that these two men, whom we presume she loves, are dead; society in the ancient world will put her out on the street. All she can do is cry, and who can blame her.

This raising doesn’t happen because of a mother’s faith or her son’s worthiness. It happens because Jesus has compassion for her. Period. The mother didn’t have to act faithfully. The son didn’t have to live gratefully. It could be that both mother and son were faithful and grateful. But my point is that the point of this story is not the mother and her son. The point of this story is Jesus’ compassion. The point is that when grace comes into our lives, it requires nothing of us but a choice: to receive it or not.

Now notice, with me, the crowds response: “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This is the key to understanding this text. God has come, in this person Jesus, to help his people.
In the wake of hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Alice Walker was so moved by the scenes on her television she packed up and went to New Orleans. She said, “I decided that I would try to go there, to make clear to the people who were suffering so deeply that the slander of them was not just insufferable. We couldn’t get into New Orleans, but we got as far as the Astrodome in Houston. We took money, books, and things for an altar ~ we created an altar in the Astrodome…If that had happened to me, I would want people to come and say, you are very dear to me, and whatever they say about you that is hurtful and damaging, I am here to nullify that impression. It was the joy of my life to walk around and hand out envelopes with money in them, because this is what you do with money; you give it to people who really need it. We had a wonderful time – in the midst of all the devastation – talking to people, hearing stories, eating oranges.

The help that comes to God’s people, I believe, is when we find the strength to refuse to sink into ignorance and unawareness of God’s presence. The help comes to empower us to bring a glimmer of God’s love to a desperate situation. I am not talking about raising the dead here. But this help allows God’s people to be the bearer of love, to offer an orange, to be a brave and courageous flower in the desert.

The church word for that is ‘incarnate,’ as in the ‘incarnation.’ So when we do these things, we will not only be a reminder to someone else that God is good, even in the most difficult of times, but also, in action, remind that the “beauty of the world is much more present than the evil of the world. The evil of the world is so big, but at the same time the beauty of the world overwhelms it. When you participate in beauty, in the grace of God, you’re not necessarily healed, but the world will be changed.

There are plenty of scriptural texts that point us toward hope in the midst of despair. Yet, because I do not want to sugar-coat the tragedies in these texts, or the texts of our lives, I admit that I struggle with these stories. I have conducted too many funerals, been at too many bedsides, been called to too many accident sites, to suggest there is something good to say or some perfectly faithful thing to do in situations like these. I cannot write instructions on a 3×5 card describing what to do. But I can tell you my favorite line in the story of the widow of Nain, I repeat it in my head: “And the bearers stood still” (vs.14). May my heart stand still.

If somehow we can avoid becoming calloused and indifferent by the 24 hour cable news cycle; If then we are moved to become people who are diminished by the suffering of others, we may begin to understand what it means to be but one of God’s children among many. And we may also learn what it means to be bearers of the grace of God, by being prayerfully still with those who grieve or suffer, peeling the rind off an orange, and offering what we have: ourselves for another.