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The Second Sunday after Pentecost, 06/10/2007

Sermon on Luke 7:11-17, by Samuel Zumwalt

Luke 7:11-17 [English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

  11Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. 13And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." 15And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!" 17And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.


In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This story strikes some very raw and tender places in my psyche.  In the past year, our parish has buried two beloved girls, ages 5 and 8, that died from brain tumors.  We have also buried almost twenty people.  All of them were someone's child or sibling or spouse or parent or grandparent.  Within such a setting, it is hard, at the most basic level, to hear that the Lord Jesus was moved to compassion at the widow's grief over her only son.  And we want to say, "Hey, why didn't you have compassion for the parents and spouses and children and siblings in our parish?"

Day in and day out, week in and week out, we practice our faith.  We read our Bibles and say our prayers.  We assemble around Word and Sacrament.  We confess our trust in the Triune God.  We look forward with a hope that will not be disappointed.  We kneel with empty uplifted hands to receive Christ's body and blood.  We confess our sins and cry out for the resurrection of our lives.  We lay hands on heads and anoint with oil praying that the sick will be made well.

But this suffering continues to surround us.  Yes, we know that we are materially blessed persons.  We know that we don't have terrorists blowing up improvised bombs all around us.  We know that we don't have thousands of orphans whose parents have died from AIDS.  We know that we don't have to wonder where our next meal will come from or whether we will have a roof over our heads.  But we are not strangers to suffering.  We see the haunted look in the eyes of sisters and brothers and even in our own mirrors.  We are materially blessed, but what is that compared to having our dear ones gathered around us living blissfully ignorant lives?

Unlike those days after the 9/11 attacks, there is no rush to the Lord's house - no hungering for the Word of the Lord in the midst of inexplicable acts of brutality.  There is instead this brave going through the motions of normal parish life.  Yet, we cannot not notice the empty seats where once mostly happy families sat or where dear saints of God, by their faithful presence, urged us to keep the faith.  They are no longer there, and their dear ones find it harder to press on these days.  When the children's choirs sing, we remember two smiling faces that are no longer there.  And our hearts catch in our throats.  When the widowed and the parentless gather at the altar, we ache with them.

Attendance at worship is down, not only because some of the saints have been translated to heaven, but because there is a combination of grief mixed with an irrational fear that perhaps death is catching.  Some wonder: perhaps we can run to that place, wherever that may be, where happiness never flags, where death takes a long holiday.

By way of contrast, I think of my wife's comments about the church she was attending when her mother died.  It was always such a happy place, she said, that the grieving were really not welcome.  There was no Word of the Lord for those that could not smile and dance before the Lord.  It was a parish for young, healthy people whose material blessings were cause for celebration.  Their Bibles were notably thin as was the canon of their worship songs.  In short, it was that sort of unreal place to which people try to escape, but, in fact, offers no help or hope to shattered lives.

So, yes, there are some raw and tender places in my psyche that this story grates against.  We are not the peaceful dead upon whom Light perpetual shines.  We are the grieving widow in the story, the desolate parent who walks behind her dead and wonders how we can go on now that the whole world has been shattered.  For how possibly can this resurrection story do anything more than evoke a bitter response: where was your compassion for us, Lord Jesus?

How hard it must have been that day when this rabbi interrupted the funeral procession to say to the grieving widow: "Stop crying!"  Did she look at him with the kind of disdain we feel for those insensitive people that won't even pull their cars to the side of the road when a funeral procession passes by?  Did the pious mourners gasp when Rabbi Jesus made himself ritually unclean by actually touching the stretcher on which the body was being carried?  How did the mother feel to hear the rabbi talk to her son as if he were alive?  Did she want to shout: "Shut up! What kind of rabbi are you?"

Yet, for all of her discomfort in the moment, for all of Jesus' seeming insensitivity to her, the widow still got her son back in this world.  Death took a holiday.  Presumably, before it was all said and done, they even got to reverse places in time and the son got to follow his elderly mother's body in procession to the cemetery.  And perhaps he even thought to himself: "So, I got to live again in order to suffer the loss of my remaining parent?  Where is the blessing in that?"

We forget that the son was fine so long as he was part of the peaceful dead.  That's the way it is for all God's children that have left us behind.  We tend to project on to them the sadness we feel that we won't get to experience so many of our dreams with them.  We even say to ourselves: but they didn't get to do this or see that.  We forget that they are beyond pain and beyond death.  But, in our grief, we say to ourselves: it's so unfair that they didn't get to do thus and so.  When, in fact, what we mean is that it is unfair that we didn't get to experience those things with them!  It is not their loss that we feel.  It is our loss.  It is our pain.  It is our sense of deprivation.

The painful part of the story, for us, is that the widow of Nain got those years back that she thought she had lost.  Let's be honest.  She wasn't at all concerned about whether Jesus would die or rise.  What mattered to her was that her son was raised.  In short, the widow of Nain was overjoyed to get her boy back.  And it may well be that later she responded to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection with: "Isn't that a nice story!"  Indeed it may well be that the widow of Nain spent the rest of her days in a community of faith that was all about how good it is that God has been so good to us!

Some of our parishioners had some important things to say this week.  They said that practicing the faith is like muscle building or like walking on hot coals to get one's feet tougher.  They said we don't know before it comes what suffering we will have to endure or what that suffering will do to us or our loved ones.  They said how much we hate to see vibrant lives diminished and that we can't help but wonder if we will have the grace to accept whatever our own endgame is.  Oh, how we hate limitations...especially the limitations of our mortality.  So necessary it is that we exercise our faith that we learn to walk on the hot coals of suffering.

The Christian story is good news not because the widow of Nain got her son back.  No, the Christian story is of a down to earth God who becomes truly human with us in Jesus Christ.  He suffers with us and for us.  He dies with us and for us, so that, by His dying, the ultimate power of sin, death, and evil is undone.  Indeed Good Friday and Easter are Good News, because they answer the deepest hurts and the greatest fears of human experience.

Some dear friends in Christ said this week that they don't know how anyone can go through suffering and loss without faith in Christ Jesus.  He has a Word for the baptized that is more than compassion and more than a temporary reprieve from an inevitable human death.  Looking to the Crucified God who was raised from the dead, we have a hope that speaks to our greatest hurts.  In Christ, we have a peace that sustains us when we are wounded by the separation from loved ones that death brings. 

He has promised that we are His and He is ours.  In Christ we have the promise that we are going to be alright.  In Christ we have the promise that says we don't have to be afraid.  For the Crucified and Resurrected Lord Jesus is with us to lead us through death to life, to carry us through those times we are overwhelmed by our weakness!

I think of a dear saint from another parish who came to worship week in and week out when her son was dying of cancer, when her daughter was diagnosed with cancer, when she found out that her alcoholic husband had molested a grandchild and on and on. 

I think of a dear saint in yet another parish that came to worship week in and week out when her beloved mother died, when her oldest son died of AIDS, when her youngest son committed suicide, when her husband died suddenly, and when her remaining son went to prison from repeated arrests for drunk driving.

I think of a dear saint in another parish who came to worship week in and week out when her three year old died suddenly and unexpectedly from leukemia.

Each of those saints taught me what it means to practice the faith, to walk on hot coals, yes, to take up one's cross and follow Jesus.  And when I saw them lift up their empty hands to receive the body and blood of Christ each week, I knew I was standing on far holier ground than I often allowed myself to imagine in my frantic preacher's busyness!  They showed me what it meant to sing: I am weak but He is strong!

The Lord Jesus still raises the dead.  We trust that promise each time we go to the cemetery and say those words: "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother or sister, and we commit his or her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

The Lord Jesus still raises the dead.  We trust that promise each time we bring another person to the waters of Holy Baptism and say those words: "Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever."

The Lord Jesus still raises the dead.  We trust that promise each time we bring our shattered lives, our broken hearts, our anger, our depression, our deepest hurts to the table of the Lord and hear His sure and certain words: "This is my body and this is my blood given and shed for you!"

And so we pray even when it is misery to do so:

"O most loving Father, you want us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing except losing you, and to lay all our cares on you, knowing that you care for us. Protect us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds in this mortal life may hide from us the light of your immortal love shown to us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."                        [Prayer for Trustfulness from the Lutheran Book of Worship, 47]

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Samuel Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net