June 6th, 2010 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

I want to start my sermon today by talking a bit about death. Well, not so much death, but about funerals. I have done a bit of research into funerals at different times, and customs vary according to the time, place, and culture of the people involved. One of the most amazing kinds of funerals I have read about is a New Orleans jazz funeral. As you probably know, a jazz band consists of mostly brass instruments, and when someone wants a jazz funeral, a band is hired for the occasion. Of course, funerals are solemn occasions, and in this country, when the procession is going to the cemetery, all is usually very quiet. But this is not the case at a jazz funeral. There would be solemn hymns, such as Amazing Grace, or Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and there would be none of the frills commonly associated with jazz – just the sombre music, as would be appropriate for such an occasion. But after the burial – well, then there is a change. The band would burst into praise songs, such as When the Saints Go Marching in, and the mood would shift to one of celebration – a celebration of someone’s life, rather than a mourning of a death.
I was privileged to take part in a funeral a few years ago that was also a celebration. The person who had died was well known in Montreal’s artistic community, and each of his children became some kind of professional entertainer. One was an actress, one a singer, and one a musician. All of them brought their friends to the funeral, and this meant that we had an amazing choir plus a band to pay tribute to the girls’ father. Even though there was a sense of loss, there was also a tremendous sense of joy. The hymns which were chosen were hymns of praise, hymns of gratitude. All of the people who spoke during the service were able to share some story about how Jerry had influenced what they eventually became.
But not all funerals are celebrations. Some funerals are times of deep sadness, and the one in today’s reading from Luke was one of these. Of course, we know how it ends. We know that Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead, but that is not really what concerns me right now. What I am thinking about is the beginning of the story. We heard: As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. Now, to us, in the 21st century, that is sad, but to the people of Jesus’ time, it would have been much more. In fact, the mother of the young man might as well have been buried with her son. As a widow, the only source of income she would have had would have been what her son could give her. Her son would have been responsible for supporting her, and, if he had married, she would have lived with him and his family until her own death. But now, she had no son. Now, she had no way of supporting herself. And, even though the crowd was accompanying her to her son’s burial, they would soon leave her, and she would have no one. Traditionally, the whole community was responsible for supporting women such as this widow. But all she was entitled to was what was left after the harvest. After the crops had been taken in, then she could go into the field and pick up the scraps that were left.
But when Jesus saw what had happened, we read: His heart went out to her, and he said, “Don’t cry.” Jesus knew that it was more than grief that was motivating her tears. He knew that she could see her own bleak future, and that was why his heart went out to her. If you remember, when he was dying on the cross, he took care of his own mother, when he said to John, “Behold your mother.” He made sure that his mother, who was also a widow, would not be left with no one to care for her. Yes, Jesus knew the fate that was in store for a widow whose only son had died, and he knew that he could fix this. Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.”
In this scene, Jesus violated two laws. First of all, he touched the coffin. According to Jewish law, this would have rendered him unclean, as only certain people were permitted to touch a dead person or the coffin. He didn’t need to touch the coffin in order to raise the young man, but he did. In doing this, he was proclaiming that the old laws did not apply any more, that he had brought a new law. Secondly, he violated a law of nature. What is dead stays dead. But not when Jesus comes along and intervenes. Then even the laws of nature are circumvented, and the young man sat up and began to talk.
Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd? Here they were, mourning the death of a young man. Not only that, they all knew what fate was in store for his mother, and all of a sudden, Jesus comes along and death is no more. The young man gets up, and begins to talk.
In our translation, we are told that the crowd was filled with awe, but the word “phobus” actually is also often translated as “fear”, and I would think that this would be a more accurate reflection of the crowd’s reaction. Here was a man, who had been dead, but who is now alive. I think that a bit of fear would be something to be expected. They do praise God, and they spread the word about what Jesus had done, but they are still afraid. And the young man and his mother? What do they say? Nowhere is it recorded that anyone thanked Jesus. Indeed, the young man sat up and began to talk, but we don’t know what he said. I think that, if he had thanked Jesus, it would have been recorded somewhere, and it isn’t. Remember the story of the ten lepers whom Jesus cured? Only one of them came back to give thanks, but the author of the Gospel recorded this fact. And there is no mention of thanks in today’s reading.
But maybe this reading is not about gratitude.
Also, there is no mention that the mother asked Jesus to raise her son. Much of the time, in the Gospels, Jesus’ miracles are requested by someone. At the wedding feast at Cana, his mother asked him to fix things. Lepers and blind people begged Jesus to heal him. The woman who was bleeding knew that, if she only touched the hem of his robe, she would be healed. And just before today’s story, we can read about the centurion who said to Jesus: Just say the word and my servant will be healed. All of these people had faith that Jesus would be able to cure them. But this mother, as far as we know, didn’t even ask. Jesus just happened to be nearby, and he was so moved that he raised the young man without being asked.
So this reading is not about faith, either.
I believe that this reading is about grace, about the gift that Jesus gives us, without our even asking. Jesus didn’t raise the son because of the mother’s faith. He didn’t raise the son because he wanted gratitude. He raised the son because he felt compassion for the mother. His heart went out to her. And his heart goes out to us. Every single day, his heart goes out to us. As far as grace is concerned, we don’t do anything to deserve it. We don’t have to. All we have to do is accept it. We don’t have to have the faith that the centurion had, or the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. All we have to do accept the gift that Jesus gives us.
And I am sure that the young man and his mother accepted the gift they were given. But I have wondered what happened to them afterwards. That is one of the problems I sometimes have with Scripture. We hear part of the story, but not what happens afterwards. Even in fairy tales, we are told that they lived happily ever after, but we seldom know what happens afterwards when we read about an event in the Bible. I would imagine that there were some changes, though. When I hear about people who have narrowly escaped death, I often hear about how their lives were changed by their experience, and that is where I want to go next.
Both of our readings today are concerned with change. And, in some sense, they are also concerned with death. I spoke with the children about the transforming power of God. We saw this on the road to Damascus, when Saul, one of the most anti-Christian people you could imagine, was suddenly transformed because of his encounter with Jesus. His life was completely changed that day, and we know that he became one of the greatest missionaries of the early church. And in the Gospel, we heard about someone whose life was restored because of his encounter with Jesus.
Fine, you say, but that was then. People don’t encounter God these days. Jesus isn’t waiting in the parking lot to speak to me as I get into my car to go home. But, you know, he is. All you have to do is listen. And take what he gives you. The dead young man took the gift of life that Jesus gave, and Saul – well, he took the gift of new life, along with a new name, and finally did what he had been meant to do. So many people are not willing to do this, not willing to accept what Jesus has to offer. And in refusing this gift, they are only depriving themselves.
Now, there are many different kinds of Christians, but I want to mention only two. First of all, there are those who believe that everything is predetermined, and that God never changes his mind. Then there are those who believe that, by praying, they can move God from his original plan. Now, I believe in predestination because, as a Presbyterian, I accept what is taught in Scripture. In Ephesians, we read: In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ ; and also: In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. And in Romans, which has also been called the Letter to the Presbyterians, we read: For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
I don’t claim to understand predestination, but I do know that it is clearly supported in Scripture. So it is part of my faith, part of my personal theology. I know that nothing happens by chance, that everything really is a part of God’s eternal plan.
But I have also read in Scripture instances when God answered prayer, when people’s faith has caused Jesus to do something. Over and over again, we can hear Jesus say something like: Your faith has made you whole; or: Your faith has healed you. When people asked for help, like the centurion I have already mentioned, then Jesus helped them. Prayer, combined with faith, can indeed cause changes. This does not deny predestination, but instead shows the importance of our communicating with God; the importance of our believing in what God can do for us.
In today’s Gospel, there was no prayer; there was no faith. Jesus just happened to be there at the right time, and he intervened. On that day in Nain, there were two processions – one being led by death and heading away from Nain to a grave; the other being led by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Life, and heading into Nain. Because these processions met, death was conquered, and the young man was restored to life. This is not the only time Jesus interfered with death. In fact, if you look at it, whenever Jesus was around death, he managed to change what was supposed to happen. It happened with Lazurus, who was already buried by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany. It happened with Jairus’ daughter, who died before Jesus could get to her. We have just seen it happen in Nain, and it will happen again after the crucifixion, when Jesus himself will leave the tomb. And, in another way, it happened on the road to Damascus. Paul, known as Saul, was dead to the message God had for him. Because of his encounter with Jesus, he was brought to life. New life is possible, and more than possible, it is probable, if Jesus is part of it.
If we take one last look at the Gospel reading, we will see that the people said: God has come to help his people. They did not say that God had come to help only the widow or only the son or even only the citizens of this small town. No, they said that God has come to help his people – all of them. God is here to help you and to help me. All we have to do is let him. Thanks be to God.

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