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The Widow of Nain, Luke 7:11-17, June 6, 2010, Communion Sunday


Think for a moment about the professions we most value. We might spread the news that we have a great dentist, a fabulous lawyer, or a great butcher, baker, candlestick maker. But there is not one professional that can generate more of a buzz than a doctor who can work miracles. If you're sick, you'll travel the globe to find the healer who has the answer to you physical problem--even if it's an alternative therapy.
 
When someone’s facing surgery, you’ll often hear the medical staff say the surgeon is one of the best in the country. We treat great doctors like gods. They seem to have the power of life in their fingers.
 
Now think of this scene: The crowd, knowing quite well the signs of death, and knowing that this young man was dead, is shocked when Jesus brings him back to life. Imagine the excitement and uproar. And then imagine the buzz on the grapevine.
 
As Jesus walked the highways and byways of Judea and the surrounding provinces, he saw an awful lot of human pain. In every marketplace there were beggars, many of whom suffered from physical deformities no surgeon could correct - cleft palates, club feet, broken bones that never healed properly.
 
There were bands of lepers in filthy rags, fingers and toes slowly eaten away by their disease. There were mentally ill people, lost in their delusions, with no medications to help them keep a grip on reality, and there were those who died.
 
In today’s story we find the ageless sorrow of the world in one short sentence: “He was the mother’s only son and she was a widow.” That’s like a death sentence to her. In short, she would soon be out on the street.
 
To add to the hardship and sense of loss and sorrow was the knowledge that the family line would not continue. With her son, died all her family’s posterity. A large crowd accompanied her showing their sympathy and concern for her situation. The Roman poet Virgil wrote about “the tears of things.” In the nature of things we live in a world of broken hearts.
 
Jesus responds with compassion to this scene of human pathos. The word used for compassion is the strongest Greek word available to describe Jesus’ sympathy for the widow. Jesus is moved to the depth of his being in a society where Stoicism was a virtue.
 
The Stoics believed that God was apathetic, incapable of feeling. Throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us God’s humanity—God’s divine compassion, love and sympathy for our human condition. Christ translated God’s indivisible love into visible evidence by signs and wonders following his teachings.
 
One commentator points out that the term “Lord” is first used of Jesus in today’s passage, indicating his lordship over death itself. No one asked Jesus to do anything. The centurion had sent a messenger to inquire of Jesus for healing his servant. Others requested any number of things of Jesus, but here he took action on his own initiative.
 
God is not an impersonal being. Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb seeing the sorrow . . . Jesus compassion is seen in his giving the young man back to the woman—an intentional, personal, gracious act of the Lord Jesus.
 
Jesus went up to the bier, most likely a long wicker-work basket made for carrying the body to the grave. Not one thought of becoming ceremonially unclean by touching death. Where human need was in question, Jesus didn’t worry about ceremonial trifles.
 
When he touched the bier, they stood still. Jesus tells the widow not to weep (that must have sent some eyes rolling) and then addresses the corpse (more eyes rolling); “Young man, I say to you arise.” At Jesus’ word of power, the dead man sat up—breathing normally and beginning to speak; clear evidence that he was alive.
 
One commentator says, “Jesus claimed as his own  what death had seized as his prey.” Oh, death where is your sting; death, where is your victory?
 
However, do we ever wonder why some people get healed and others don’t? Have you ever been angry with God for not healing someone you love?
 
When we have suffered a tragic loss, 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.  We almost want to say, "Hey, why didn't you have compassion for my child, my spouse, or my parent?"
 
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 receive Christ's body and blood in Holy Communion.  We confess our sins and cry out for the resurrection of our lives.  We pray that the sick will be made well.
 
But 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 cannot not notice the empty seats where once happy families sat in our pews. Nor do we forget the dear saints of God, who by their faithful presence urged us to keep the faith.  They are no longer there, and some of us may find it harder to press on these days.  When we look at the choir loft, we remember a time when it was filled.  And our hearts catch in our throats.  Where have they all gone? When the widowed and the infirmed gather at the altar of God’s mercy, we ache with them.
 
There might be some raw and tender places in someone’s psyche that this story of Christ’s compassion 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 our whole world has been shattered. 
 
How can this resurrection story do anything more than evoke a bitter response to some: where was your compassion for my loved one? The painful part of the story, for us, is that the widow of Nain got those years back that she thought she had lost.  – But maybe we didn’t.  
 
Some have said that practicing the faith is like muscle building or like walking on hot coals to get one's feet tougher.  We don't know beforehand what suffering we, or our loved ones, will have to endure.  We hate to see vibrant lives diminished. We can't help but wonder if we will have the grace to accept whatever our own endgame will be.  Oh, how we hate limitations...especially the limitations of our mortality. 
 
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. 
 
Jesus 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, or our sorrow!
 
God has a Word for the baptized that is more than compassion and more than a temporary reprieve from an inevitable human death. 
 
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.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
 
 
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