These words from today’s Gospel reading could be true in any age in human history:
“… a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.”
It could have happened here, in South Hadley, yesterday. Or two thousand years ago in a town called Nain in Galilee.
We don’t know how the only son of the widow died. It could have been disease. Or it could have been an accident. Or it could have been violence at the hand of a neighbor or a Roman soldier. All we know is that a mother’s only son is being carried out, and that her community has come to mourn with her.
And Jesus tells her not to weep. And with a touch, he rises again.
But I can’t help thinking of the mothers who don’t get their sons given back. Who don’t experience a miracle. Of all of us who have lost loved ones. What about us?
Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow tells a story from the point of view of a young seminarian. He has this conversation with a professor:
“So,” I said, “what I reckon it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don’t have any answers?”
“Yes, Mr. Crow,” he said, “How can you?” …
“I don’t believe I can,” I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.
He said, “No, I don’t believe you can.”
….I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”
“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
Here is a mystery that may take longer than a lifetime: where is resurrection for the rest of us?
We have two resurrection stories in our texts today: in the Old Testament and Gospel readings. Two beautiful stories where God transforms death into new life, which the Church believes is only the foreshadowing of what’s to come. But I always struggle with these texts because I’ve seen enough death that I can’t preach optimistic, feel-good grace anymore.
I admit that I wrote two sermons this week. The one you’re hearing is the second.
I’ve talked quite a bit about the vocation of preaching lately. And I realized that I’ve been talking about it in part because I love my own vocation, but in part because I believe that openly struggling every week to put words to the Story that guides our lives helps build up the church. Because while you all may not stand in front of people and give an organized talk about Jesus every week, you have to struggle with the exact same things I do, and you also may have to occasionally talk about why you keep coming to church and believing all this Jesus stuff. And you probably worry about the same things I do.
Like when I was lying in bed on Friday night and got hit with a wave of existential dread: the stark realization that tends to come to us only in the dark, after we’ve turned off the TV and everything has gotten quiet and it’s just us and the darkness and you think about things you’d rather not think about: namely, the end of it all. That death is a reality that is coming for us and everyone we love and yes, we have resurrection hope in Christ and we talk about it every Sunday, but none of us knows exactly what lies beyond. The Bible gives us fairly vague ideas, but as Paul says, we see now only through a glass dimly.
I’ve always admired and somewhat envied people with such strong faith that they never doubt, never waver, never wonder. People who know exactly where they’re going when they die. And admittedly, I do too, but less perfectly. I tend to be a little more stumbling than sure.
One of my favorite descriptions of the life of a preacher is from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber who in her book Accidental Saints describes her role and mine this way: “Yeah, I’m a leader, but I’m leading us onto the street to get hit by the speeding bus of confession and absolution, sin and sainthood, death and resurrection — that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m a leader, but only by saying, ‘Oh, screw it. I’ll go first.’” (29)
So I’ll go first: I have to struggle constantly with the reality and seeming finality of death. Whether it manifests itself in fearing for ourselves or our loved ones: when we barely avoid a terrible car accident on the pike, when we wait for a loved one who should’ve been home already, when we worry about a loved one or friend with a serious illness, when we get called to the ER in the middle of the night. Because we love strongly, we worry, too. We don’t want our loved ones to come to harm.
And by the same token, there are those who have been taken from us too early. We’ve all gotten the out of the blue call at noon on Tuesday when we thought everything was fine. We’ve all felt the gaping hole left by the death of a loved one.
The widow in this story got her only son back thanks to Jesus, and that protected her from what would have certainly been not only sadness, but abject poverty without him — ancient Israel was no place for a woman to be alone in the world, and there wouldn’t have been many prospects for her to make a living without a son or husband to provide for her. We celebrate how Jesus protected her and gave her son and her security back to her.
But during our Tuesday morning clergy meeting this week, someone mentioned the constant conundrum for nearly every reader when we read these resurrection stories — what about my loved one? It’s great, we think, to read these stories where God performs a great miracle to bring someone from the dead. We understand the value of such a story and the hope that it gives. But nearly all of us live in pain from having lost someone. It’s especially hard to preach texts like this one when sitting just feet away from the pulpit has often been the single mother who lost her son who did not meet Jesus in the flesh, and who had to go through the unfathomable pain of burying her child and facing the world alone.
How do we preach resurrection in light of that? Do we dare?
A hospital chaplain colleague of mine once accompanied a family to the morgue in the middle of the night. It was a frequent duty for us when family is not present at the death of a loved one. The procedure in our hospital is for the chaplain to receive the request for the viewing, then the chaplain calls the nurse administrator who contacts the morgue staff who prepares the body. The chaplain also contacts a security guard, which may seem harsh, but it was a safety precaution while emotions ran high. As soon as my colleague had done all this and received confirmation from the staff that all was ready, my colleague met the family at the hospital entrance and escorted them to the morgue where the staff and security were waiting.
Upon entering the morgue, one family member began to shake and pray. At first, my colleague couldn’t understand her, but then he realized that she was praying for resurrection. Right there in the morgue, she was praying for her family member to rise.
At first, my chaplain colleague didn’t know what to do. After several painstaking minutes of praying, getting louder and louder over the protests of her family members, she crumpled to the floor in a heap of tears and shouts of “Why?”
My colleague, a Christian pastor himself, waited and held her until she calmed. He admitted he didn’t know why her loved one was taken, but offered calm assurance that someday even this will be swallowed up in victory. That maybe the answer to the prayer for resurrection was not “No,” but simply, “Not yet.”
In a world filled with death I have to believe that resurrection has come and is coming into the world, and that our job is to care for each other and hold each other until we dare to believe it, then to remind one another whenever we forget.
To remind each other, through actions and words, that the Kingdom is at hand.
The one thing that I noticed this week in the Gospel texts was the two crowds that swirl in the text. One is around Jesus; the other is around the widow. Mourning was, in that world even more so than today, a community event. The crowds swirled, and resurrection was in the midst of them. There is a reason the Bible knows very little about faith in total solitude. Especially in the face of the constant fear and awareness and threat of death, we need each other, lest we forget, lest we lose hope permanently. I know I need you to help me remember: that resurrection has come and that it is coming. That the kingdom is at hand. Resurrection and new life are in the midst of this crowd — at once obscured from our view and so close we can taste it in wine and bread.
As she ends her book Searching for Sunday, author Rachel Held Evans talks about the kingdom — the ways that it has arrived, “not with a trumpet’s sound but with a baby’s cries, not with the vanquishing of enemies but with the forgiving of them, not on the back of a warhorse but on the back of a donkey, not with triumph and conquest but with a death and a resurrection” (253).
Beloved, God turned the world upside down when God became flesh, suffered the death we all dread with all its finality, and then shocked everyone by rising again. And so we continue to live into this mystery, to find resurrection hope in the midst of the crowd that is us: in bread, wine, water, words. Healing oil. Deep friendship. Meals cooked for the hurting. Arms of love wrapped around the grieving. In hot dogs and hamburgers after church, and frequent high fives. Beloved, we are here to remind each other that resurrection and new life are at the same time in the midst of us and well on their way.
The kingdom is at hand.
What Scripture gives us in these two resurrection stories is not simply a record of things that happened a long time ago, read so that we will be impressed with God. It’s far more important than that. It is a glimpse of the kingdom, a glimpse of what is possible even if we find it hard to believe sometimes. It’s a glimpse of resurrection.
Rachel Held Evans’ last words of her book are also my prayer for us together: “Even here, in the dark, God is busy making all things new. So show up. Open every door. At the risk of looking like a fool buried with his feet facing east or like a mockingbird singing stubbornly into the night, anticipate resurrection. It’s either just around the bend or a million miles away. Or perhaps it’s somewhere in between.
Let’s find out together.” (258)