Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 5 2016, 10:30 am
Adam Brown, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Kgs 17:8-16; Ps 146; Gal 1:11-24; Lk 7:11-17
[I guess the weather outside this morning shows that you should never try and predict the weather when writing the opening to your homily] When I was initially writing this homily during the heat of the last week or so, I think the beginning of summer was getting to me a bit; the heat, the bugs, the consistent stickiness, the smog, the unique flavour of Toronto’s air… and when I was reading over the narrative of this morning’s Gospel, I imagined it as a rather hot day. I imagined the small, yet sweltering village of Nain, which still exists today; a good 20 or so kilometres from the Sea of Galilee, and at least double that from the Mediterranean. Not mentioned anywhere else in the Gospels, this small settlement has had, up until recently, no more than a couple hundred residents, all living in community, perched up on the side of a small hill.
We begin our journey, though, wandering southwest along the winding country roads, leaving behind us the small town of Capernaum on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, and we, perhaps, make our way through
similar villages such as the fishing village of Gennesaret, the hometown of the man named Simon Peter, then the city of Tiberias, the newly built capitol of Galilee, and finally, instead of turning northwest towards Nazareth, our group passes under the shadow of Mount Tabor. Eventually we arrive at the village of Nain.
As we approach the gates, our leader, the one who healed the centurion’s servant the day before, stops, and we notice that another large crowd, almost like a mirror to ours, has emerged. Leading their crowd, though, is a young man, yes, but he is wrapped in linens, and instead of walking, he is being carried on a bier because he has died. His mother, the last bit of family he had, is close behind, her body shivering despite the heat as tears water the scorched ground. Though she is simply looking into her hands in grief, she is surrounded by what must have been the entire village, surrounding her in support. With our crowd of travellers paused in the stillness of the scene, Jesus moves toward her, joins in with her community and mutters something. Those closer to the front could probably make out what, exactly, but, indeed, it was clearly a voice of comfort directly from him, directly to her. There is suddenly a sense of heightened nervousness as he approaches the dead man
himself. Leaving behind all fear of being contaminated by the corpse, he places a confident hand on the side of the bier and looks towards the covered face. “Get up.” He says, almost as if he were the young man’s father waking him up in the morning after a restful night. Without pause you can hear the corpse let out a long, pronounced groan, almost like a growl, grab at the linens, and roll over to the side muttering something about five more minutes. Jesus picks him up in his arms, walks over to his mother and hands him to her. The crowds, ours and theirs, can only stare at what has just happened. Sure, we heard that the centurion’s servant was healed when he got back, but today, we saw for ourselves something even more profound. We saw something more than we could have ever imagined, something we couldn’t even ask for, because we never even knew we could ask such a thing. Surely, “a great prophet has arisen among us, and God has looked favourably on his people.”
If we remember back a few moments ago to the reading from 1 Kings, wesee a similar story. Elijah, after travelling, comes to a small house with awidow and her son. After a short while the son becomes ill and the mother angrily accuses Elijah of somehow bringing God’s judgement upon them. He asks for the son, goes upstairs, and yells out to God to revive him. He brings the boy back downstairs and gives him back to his mother. These stories, as similar as they are, have a few key differences. In the Elijah story, it is the mother who pleads with Elijah who then pleads with God. Elijah takes away the boy only to bring him back revived. Elijah, the boy, and his mother, are alone in the house when this miracle takes place. Jesus, however, does not enter any house, does not bypass the weeping of the mother, and without even needing to be asked he immediately meets the young man where he is, even if where he is is en route to the grave itself. All of this happens within a great crowd; a crowd that is composed of those who live with the mother and her son, and those who come with Jesus as witnesses to his work. Two crowds, each strange to the other, and perhaps none from either ever meeting again after this, and yet having in common their shared witness and proclamation of God’s work in the world.
This actually reminds me of an evening a few years ago. It was a context totally opposite of these stories; it was a dark night in Peterborough. We were just getting into winter and the tires of our car briefly spun on some ice as we lunged forward into the parking lot of the Peterborough Hospital. We were visiting someone whom I had never met, but had heard lots about. She was a well known member of Peterborough Singers before I began singing with them, and she became a true mother figure of one of my best friends as well as many others. This woman who was, as a doctor specializing in childbirth, responsible for bringing countless children safely into this world, was now dying of cancer. She had mentioned earlier that she had regretted missing out on singing Handel’s Messiah for the first time in almost a dozen years, and it was one of her last wishes that she could sing with the choir one final time. We congregated in the chapel where she would soon meet us, and as I set up the keyboard a couple dozen more choir members slowly filtered through the door. Everyone got out their music, got in their places; the choir director noodled around on the keyboard to see how it sounded, as a couple nurses propped open the doors so the bed could fit in without too much commotion. Knowing we could only sing one section with her, with a crash
of the piano the entire choir rang in with the Amen Chorus, and though she did not quite have the strength even to stay awake, the music filtered out past the closed doors, past the solid walls, and all around echoed the cry of organic human voices simply proclaiming amen at the end of this woman’s life. I often wonder how many others heard our voices as well; how many ears, above and below, were made witness to the great Amen, perhaps also for the last time, but also perhaps for the first? How many families were gathered around a loved one at that moment? How many lay alone? How many were saying goodbye? How many were saying their first hello? All while a choir of far off voices proclaimed, “It shall be so.” It was a meeting of our family and theirs that knew no boundary, no wall; it was a meeting of communities visible and invisible, all bearing witness to life with God in one community and as one family.
Out of all of this, one could be tempted to simply stop and just read these stories as God raising someone from the dead. We _could, _as many people have, just read these stories as God coming down just to fix people’s problems and then carrying on with His day; all part of a day’s work, but we would be missing the point. We would be ignoring the fact that these young
men, both raised to life, would eventually die again later on. We would be ignoring the obvious question raised from that; the question of, if they are to just die again, what’s the point? We would be ignoring the answer that God is sending us through these works. The message that, rather than being the celestial, cloud-surfing, wish-granting old bearded man of popular culture, this is a God who meets us where we are. It is God who walks beside us along the road. It is the very presence of Jesus in our midst that fuses our fragmented communities together into one. It is the wind of the Holy Spirit who inflates our lungs as we proclaim the Amen Chorus to those beyond the walls of human creation. It is the message that, even if they are beyond where we can go, beyond where our human senses can reach, we are all grafted into the one Body of Christ. It is through the suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that not even the frigid shadow that every living thing has and will experience; not even that thing which we, really, cannot begin to comprehend; can separate us from each other, from God, from life; death cannot stomp out the light that is within us. For in the first chapter of John we hear that the light which enlightens everybody is the light that no darkness can extinguish or even comprehend.
We hear in the 23rd Psalm that we shall fear no evil though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because we are with a God who knows the way. We are with a God who eternally stands beside us and, like a parent with a child, hand in hand, walks at our pace. We are with a God who stands beside us and tells us not to weep, and indeed, as we hear in Revelation, we are with a God who carefully wipes away our tears when we do. We are with a God who we can, when all frustration and anger kicks in, scream at because, trust me on this one, He can take it! And we are with a God who sees us as we are; He sees that we are, perhaps, a life who society has deemed dirty, filthy, unclean, to be buried and put away, and yet He moves through it without hesitation to stand with us, to simply say, “Get up.” for we have work to do. If we have died with Christ through our baptism and have been raised through it to a new life in community, let us take that seriously while we still can; before we, like the two young people in our lessons, once again experience death, only to be raised, yet again, into life eternal. May we pray that God bless us to see those who others ignore, to hear those who have no voice, to hold and lift up those who have been shoved away, and go where others refuse.