Pentecost 3 - Year C
Kings 17:17-24, Luke 7:11-17
Therefore my heart sings to you, O Lord
“Soon afterwards (Jesus) went to a town called Nain.”
This story in Luke 7 is the only biblical mention of the city of Nain. This town still exists. It is about 4 miles from Tabor and 25 miles southwest of Capernaum. I also discovered that the Hebrew meaning associated with the town’s name means “green pastures”, or more simply - “lovely.”
A lovely place. Lush green pastures. What a great place to find oneself.
The name would suggest a place very similar to the one in which we find ourselves. Isn’t this lovely? The beauty of the lake; the cherished shade from the trees; the clear blue skies above us. The lush green pasture through which we walked has been a bit too often visited by geese – let’s all admit. But hopefully you were able to tip-toe through the piles without getting any on the cuff of your pants.
This is a lovely place. This place in which we find ourselves.
Lovely for other reasons, too. Would you not agree? Lovely because of the folks who are gathered here with us. Lovely because of food waiting at the top of the hill. Lovely as a result of the yard games yet to make their way out of the trunks of our cars.
Jesus went down to the town of Nain, and we have come to our own lovely place. This beautiful green pasture.
But the lovely setting has a blemish. As one procession makes its way to the lovely place, another procession is departing. No amount of beauty can prevent us from seeing the weeping and wailing of this widowed woman who now walks alongside those who carry her only son. It may be a lovely place, but there is nothing lovely about the scene which Jesus encounters.
It is amazing, the amount of detail given in this short story. The central character isn’t the man who has died, it is his mother. And about her we learn many things. First, we are told that she was a widow. Anyone here a fan of “Game of Thrones”? Kalessi becomes a widow in Season 3. It takes to the current season for her to be returned to her designated place – to the smelly hall in which past queens are held. Even once powerful Queens, when they become widows, are totally without resources or recourse. And so it would have been for this woman. The death of her husband literally meant no home, no protection, no assurance of the next meal.
Here is a bit of sidebar: We speak of the reforms of Martin Luther. You may not know of his impatience with the pace of reform – in the civil world. Even as recently as the 16th century, women could not own property. But Martin thumbed his nose at the system by leaving his home to his wife Katie. The courts did not know what to do. But out of respect for Martin they let it stand, so long as Melanthan would sign off on Katie’s management of the house.
In Luke 7, this pitiful widow had been relegated to the care of her son. The death of her husband meant she moved under the protection of her son. We can only hope there wasn’t a jealous daughter-in-law. Downtown Abby fans? Remember the new wife of Lord "Dickie" Grey's son. Who tries to marry him off to Isobel Crowley.
In Nain, in this lovely place, all the love has gone out of this woman’s life. Her only son has died.
Another detail, one which would have pricked the ears of the first hearers, but perhaps gone unnoticed by us. They are carrying this man out on a bier, a stretcher. The burial custom of the day would have called for a casket. Caskets were simple, come more plain than others, but none-the-less a container. Where is this man’s? Was he too poor to afford one? This is a possibility. Another thought may be that his death has just occurred and they are only now carrying him to the place where his body would be prepared for burial.
Another part of the custom was to bury immediately. Combine these details and the scene which is described is one of recent and raw grief. Here is a woman who has lost everything she had hoped for and hoped in. She is herself in the death-grip of grief and despair.
The place might be called “Nain,” but there was nothing lovely about her experience there. Maybe this is why she is departing, making her way out of that which would claim to be loving.
It is a lovely experience to be with all of you today. But the glorious procession to this place brought me back to the realities of processions made the last two times I gathered with this community of faith. I have been away for four of the past five Sundays. But I came back twice, on two Saturdays, in order to offer prayers and commendations for fellow travelers. Don Monn and Arn Jensen have both been carried away by the weeping widows.
This community of faith is a lovely thing. One of its strength’s is its refusal to allow the painful processionals be ignored. We will speak of this lovely place; lovely because it is prepared and eager to change direction when necessary.
What comes next in the Luke story is probably the worst example of pastoral care ever offered. Jesus walks up to the process and interrupts. He actually chides this defenseless woman for doing the only thing she is capable of doing. Jesus inserts himself into this large crowd and interrupts their attempts to care for their neighbor. The text says Jesus has compassion on her, but I wouldn’t suggest you start your expressions of compassion by looking at a grieving mother and telling her to “Stop crying.”
Of course, he is Jesus and he probably already knows what he is capable of doing and is going to do. But none-the-less, I think he could have found other words with which to greet her.
I know that some folks don’t like it when I suggest reasons to be critical of Jesus. Such insinuations make some uncomfortable, and they tend to tell the Personal Committee about it in the annual performance reviews. I do appreciate those comments, and please don’t stop submitting them or failing to speak of ways in which I might improve my preaching and teaching.
Some folks don’t like it when I suggest reasons to be critical of Jesus – but this is not one of those times. I am not being critical of Jesus here, I am being critical of all those who think that when Jesus’ way intersects with our way that this means things are going to become all warm and cozy.
But Jesus does not arrive like that. He doesn’t take what we have or pretend to have and make it even better. Jesus interjects himself into whatever it is that we are doing and tells us to “Stop it!”
Jesus may have compassion on this woman; but he has no patience for folks failing to realize the opportunity which is set before them. Jesus is compassionate toward us, but eager for us to drop the façade and live the life he (and maybe only he) knows is possible for us.
Jesus is going to change everything about this woman’s view of reality. He is going to restore to her the one whom she thought she had lost. He is going to turn her mourning into dancing. What is that line from the Psalm? “Weeping lingers for the night, but joy comes the very next morning.” Jesus is going to change everything about her life – but that change comes in the aftermath of an abrupt halt. You don’t get to the blessing without this awkward and possibly uncomfortable encounter and exchange.
We have been allowed to believe that God will sort of come along beside us and help us as we venture down paths of which we cannot see the ending. That is a warm and cozy sentiment, but it isn’t the way things happen in the Gospel. The grieving procession runs headlong in to the compassion procession. Compassion is given, but only after the well-intended supporting crowd has been jolted to a stop.
This is one of the stories in the bible which brings together two very important aspects of God’s relationship with us. (Notice the order in which I put that – God’s relationship with us. We create problems when we start from the perspective of our relationship with God. The relationship is there because of God’s coming to us.) This story brings together two very important aspects of that relationship.
First, and always foremost, it is a relationship defined by compassion. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It is by grace that we have been saved, lest anyone might boast. Jesus acts in this story because he has compassion for this woman. Jesus is compassionate and caring; Jesus is loving and carrying.
Jesus loves us SO MUCH! Too much, in fact, to leave us as we were before he encountered us. And that is the second important lesson contained in this story.
Jesus’ compassion will not allow him to take notice of us and then do nothing to re-form us. Jesus is eager to encounter us and save us. But just as Abraham and Sarah were blessed so that they might be a blessing, God’s compassion toward us transforms us. We are changed, in the twinkling of an eye, into a vessel capable of continuing to receive his grace and capable of living the life which is eternal.
This is a lovely place. And we have come out here hoping to encounter Jesus. Our great procession of cars and trucks made its way down Highway 118 and Biggerstaff Road. Jesus has surely taken notice of this procession. We might even claim that he has stopped us in our tracks. How will he change or lives? Will we allow him to change our lives? Do we dare ask him to bring the dead back to life? Or will we whimper out a request that he will comfort us in our grief?
This is one of those days when I am envious of faith communities in which there are altar calls. Don’t panic – I am not going to start one. But altar calls do allow for persons to make real their openness to being transformed. Martin Luther instructed us to remember or baptism each morning when we wash our face. Recall the promises made to you and renew your appreciation for God’s grace. Start anew, each day. Altar calls allow faith communities to support those who splashed water on their face and saw a new person. Altar calls make visible the change which comes in our lives when the funeral processions are changed into restorations and resurrections.
This is a lovely place. And we are a loving people. Made so by the grace of God. And may that grace continue to form us and re-form us. May the compassion of Jesus take root in our lives and prevent us from remaining where we were before Jesus came.