Jesus isn’t teaching in the synagogue, there are no scrolls, no animals to be sacrificed, incense to be lit. There’s no Sunday dress code and designated places for men and woman to sit. There is him, his disciples and whole bunch of people sitting around on the grass. A whole bunch of people who thought the best thing they could do that day was go hear what Jesus had to say. They’d heard he’s saying and doing a lot, but let’s go see for ourselves they said. And they heard some things, and they heard them said in a way they may never have heard before. Things like:
- Count your blessings
- You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all then God’s kingdom is there for the finding
- You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry, then you’re ready for the holy meal
- You’re blessed when the tears flow freely, joy comes in the morning
- But if you rest on your laurels, think you’ve made it, what you have is all you’ll ever get
- And its trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long.
- And its trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
- Love your enemies
- When someone gives you a hard time, pray for them
- No more tit for tat
- Live generously
- Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously even when we’re at our worst.
- Be kind, God is kind.
- Don’t criticize people or jump on their failures, don’t condemn those who are down. That hardness can boomerang.
- Be easy on people, you’ll find life a lot easier.
- Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing.
- Giving not getting is the way. Generosity begets generosity.
This is from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message.
And after this summary of essential doctrine given to the people who crowded around Jesus on the plains outside of Capernaum that day, Jesus headed down the hill to town and but before he could get there some Jewish elders who were asked by a Roman soldier, a centurion, to meet Jesus and tell him about the centurion’s slave who was gravely ill and to ask Jesus to come and see him. Perhaps he could help the sick slave. Jesus didn’t even get to the slave, the centurion meets him and says, Lord, don’t trouble yourself. Just say the word and my slave will be healed. And his slave was healed. This was a Roman military officer, the oppressor, part of the ruling class, a gentile, who had only heard about Jesus, heard about the miracles of healing that Jesus was performing and Jesus tells the crowd following him, not even in Israel, among my own people, have I found such faith.
Luke follows up the account of the healing of the centurion’s slave with our story from Luke’s gospel today. Soon after, the next day Jesus is approaching the city gates of Nain. A small town about 25 miles south east from Capernaum. Walking. They walked. 25 miles. He’s approaching with his disciples and a crowd. The ones who followed Jesus after the sermon on the plains. The ones who were like, yeah, that all sounds good, and what have we got anyway, a whole lot of nothing compared to what this guy is offering. And Jesus, the disciples, the crowd are hot, dirty, tired, and hungry. I would be if I’d just walked 25 miles on a dirt road. And as they approached the gate to the city a funeral procession is coming through the same gate. The pall bearers are carrying the body of a man wrapped in linen, ready for burial on something like a stretcher called a bier, and the man’s mother, a widow, is following and a crowd from the town is part of the procession. In the ancient world, funerals were public events, and it was customary for the burial to take place within a day of the death. So it’s fresh. The death of this man, the widow’s only son, we’re told. The grief is fresh and very public. There would have been crying, wailing, moans. Snot and tears, and broken spirits and broken hearts. It wasn’t a polite thing, death and burial. It wasn’t sanitized, and crisp, like the satin lining of modern coffins. It was messy, and dirty, loud and emotional. And this is what Jesus sees when he approaches the gates of Nain.
All these stories of raising the dead to life, that isn’t the point of the story, as Father Jaime talked about on Easter Sunday. The focus of our story this morning is the widow. The one left behind, who, as a first century Jewish widow who’s only son died, would, for the rest of her life have to rely on friends and strangers for her livelihood. She would have been financially destitute, no way to take care of herself, no land, no money, no children, and if she had daughters they were part of their husbands’ families now. It was the job of the sons to take care of the widowed mothers.
And the story says: 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.
The Greek word that we translate as compassion: almost unpronounceable: Splagchnizomai I feel compassion, have pity on, am moved. splagxnízomai – “from splanxna, ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler entrails – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. These gradually came to denote the seat of the affections”
Jesus was moved by compassion, he felt it in his guts, his heart, his lungs, liver and kidneys. He was so moved by this woman’s loss, her grief, the precariousness of her economic status, that he touched the bier, an act of defiance and solidarity, because, in the ancient world, it would have made him ceremonially unclean.
God meets us where we are, offers restoration no matter what needs to be restored. God doesn’t play favorites. Jesus was as moved by the Roman centurion, part of the ruling class, a powerful gentile’s faith, as he was by his own compassion for the destitute, grieving, Jewish widow who’d lost her only son.
No matter how emotionally dead, how spiritually sick, how mentally vulnerable, how full of grief, how much loss we have suffered, God offers restoration. It’s not easy. Sometimes we have to ask for it, like the Centurion, and just believe that it will happen. Sometimes we have to cry, and process, and feel a lot. We might have to pay a therapist, or go to 12 step meetings, or find a spiritual director, or cry on our friend’s shoulder, and eat a pint of ben and jerry’s or smoke a cigarette with the homeless guy at the 7-11 on the corner of Hollywood and Gower before God speaks and we hear what we need hear, and experience what we need to experience for some kind of healing to take place. For our hearts to be haphazardly stitched back together after being broken in a million pieces. Before we experience some kind of healing or raising from the dead. We are never the same afterward. The slave was healed, the son raised. But it was the centurion and the widow who were restored to life, and faith, and community. They were the ones whose hearts were healed and lives truly restored. Because the lives they lived before their encounters with Jesus would never be the same. They were healed, and could enter back into their communities and say to their neighbors, their friends, their families, strangers on the street, and enemies not spoken to in a very long time: let me tell you what happened to me. I experienced this amazing thing, a love and compassion and welcoming and recognition that I had never experienced before. And it’s happening right now. I was restored to life after being afraid and broken. I was a recipient of this miracle and that miracle can be transmitted from me to you. Come in, sit down, tell me your story, and I’ll show you how it’s done.
— June 5, 2016