Headed out of town, coming from the right, we have a death march. The corpse is probably lying on a board or in hammock between two sticks, carried by pallbearers who are surrounded by what St. Luke calls a "large crowd." They are headed to the cemetery, out beyond city walls, to the Jewish place of burial.
At the head of the procession is a widow. She has already suffered the loss of her husband, enough of a blow, but now she is suffering something much worse: the loss of a son in his prime. Apart from the personal grief and loss, which have to have been staggering, this son was also for all practical purposes her Social Security and her 401(k). Who knows what she will be facing as a woman alone, now that he is gone? This bereaved mother and wife walks in front of her son’s corpse to the tomb, slowly, wrapped in tragedy, with all the mournful dignity befitting the occasion. Think the Funeral March from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony.
Headed into town, coming from the left, we have a very different procession. It’s a bunch of burly fishermen and women of ill repute, dusty from the road. With them are families carrying their lunches, uppity Gentile women who should have been home with their husbands, a couple state bureaucrats looking very out of place, and noisy kids making a ruckus. At the head of this procession is another Jewish man, also in his prime, but this one very much alive. People are watching, commenting, applauding as the motley crew moves towards the city. Think Florida Avenue with the Fourth of July parade passing by.
As today’s Gospel reading gets underway, those two processions meet. Luke tells us each one contained a “large crowd,” and the two groups converge just as our reading starts. So what is the etiquette, here? What should happen, when you come upon a funeral procession? You pull over, right? You show deference. So that’s what we would expect the procession this young Jewish man is leading to do – step to the side of the road, lower their eyes in respect, and wait quietly until the grief-stricken loved ones have passed by.
Maybe a few of them instinctively respond that way, solemnly making way for death, but their leader doesn’t. This is why we have to actually read the Biblical text, rather than immediately abstracting away from it to some trite religious moral of the story. What actually happens? What does Luke say? When the leader of the second procession sees the corpse of one of his contemporaries being carried out on a bier, he doesn’t shake his head and murmur “what a shame.” He doesn’t step aside. He steps in. The first thing he does -- and please don’t miss how intrusive and out of place this would have seemed -- He looks right at the widow and says, “Do not weep.” Order a grieving widow twice your age to stop crying? How dare you?
But it gets worse. He maneuvers into the crowd, towards the corpse, and actually puts his hand on the bier. It is hard to imagine a more tasteless and invasive thing for a stranger to do in the middle of a funeral ceremony. It’s no surprise Luke tells us the pallbearers freeze in their tracks.
But it gets even worse than that. He talks to the corpse. Normal people don’t talk to corpses. Can you imagine the rush of horror and embarrassment when this complete stranger tells the dead body in front of him, “young man, I say to you, rise. Get up.”
And then comes the moment I would love to see in person: everything happens in about 90 seconds. It starts with shrieks of fear – “fear” is the word Luke chooses to describe everyone’s initial gut reaction. The corpse gets up – terror and pandemonium. The noise level goes through the roof as people cry out in horror. But then as the dead man starts to speak, with the voice they know and the expressions they know, they realize this is not a parlor trick, this is not a zombie movie. Jesus is actually giving life to the dead. Only God can give life to the dead. What they are seeing can only be God -- at work, right in front of them! -- and the screams turn to cries of jubilation and praise.
What initially looks to us like an offensive, inexcusable intrusion is in fact the action of God in Jesus to save the weak and defy death. What God so often does in our lives, he does here as well -- he steps into a situation, redefines it by his power, and changes everything. By doing this Jesus shows four things that are unique about him, I think: His unique Insight – his unique Compassion – his unique Initiative – and his unique Authority.
First, his INSIGHT. Rather than stepping aside and refusing to look, he saw this woman and he grasped her plight. He didn’t accept the situation at face value or believe the story that others took as a given; he went deeper into what was really happening and acted on that. He does this with us too. To him all hearts are open, all desires known, and from him no secrets are hid. He sees you more truly than you see yourself.
Second, his COMPASSION. Having seen what is happening, Jesus moves to touch the bier, which in Jewish law makes him unclean. He could have raised this man from a distance, with a word; but he prefers to get dirty. The way God chooses to do business is through bodies, touch, presence. He becomes incarnate. He moves to be associated with us in our messes, and even to take them on.
INITIATIVE: Jesus takes all the initiative. They don’t know enough to ask, they don’t know there is any way their plight can change. Who would ever have thought that a man you ran into on the street could raise the dead? It would never occur to you. In Martin Luther’s sermons on this reading, he says Luke recorded the story “that we may see what kind of a God we have.” And he goes on, “All the merciful deeds of God…overtake us without our merits, even before we seek them.”
And then finally Jesus speaks on his own AUTHORITY. The prophets before Jesus cited a source to back up their words: “Thus says the Lord.” That’s the characteristic phrase of a human being speaking for God. But Jesus speaks differently. He says “I say to you.” In this reading, and throughout the New Testament, Jesus speaks, comfortably and naturally, from a place of being rooted in and identified with the wellspring of life that is God. God is his home. He’s known this divine life from before creation but he came to offer it to us, to invite us out of our procession of death.
David Ewart, a United Church of Canada minister, describes the widow’s son as the image of someone who “prefers obeying Jesus to staying dead.” And then he says, “Meanwhile, I'm left wondering how often I prefer [staying dead to obeying Jesus.]” I can’t answer for any of you but I can for myself: All the time! Even though I have made a foundational decision for Jesus, and he has claimed me in the waters of Baptism, in the day to day working out of that commitment, I use all the normal human evasive maneuvers to try and stay dead. We’re so predictable, all of us, the ways we over and over avoid having to receive what God wants to give us.
Myself, I use all the predictable excuses:
"No thank you, I’m fine, I don’t need any help."
"No thank you, being dead is working pretty well for me."
"No thank you, I just don’t have time this week. But feel free to try me again later."
Or even easier: When God reaches out, I simply don’t take the call. I know that number. Let it go to voice mail.
Or the most insidious evasive maneuver, when we say: “well, if you insist, God, I’ll just have a little. Please give me a veneer of comfort, a pause for some inner peace. Help me out, but without actually getting in the way and raising me into new life. Please, God, just make my old life more pleasant.”
....All the normal evasive maneuvers. So predictable.
And yet, Jesus is somehow not dissuaded when we do this. He constantly intrudes just as he broke into that death march this morning. Constantly takes the initiative. Constantly invites me to hear the good news that, in his Cross and Resurrection, he has already given everything I need to live his new life. Luther was right: All his merciful deeds have overtaken me without my merits even before I sought them. Would I maybe want to act as if that’s true?
No matter how many times we engage in all the normal evasive maneuvers humans use to resist God, Jesus never gives up. If you join with us in our Emmanuel parish read this summer, the book “New Clothes: Putting on Christ and Finding Ourselves,” you’ll have ample opportunity to think about how that works and what it means for you. You can order the book online or through our office, and it’s a very approachable look at what it means that Jesus is constantly inviting us to hear the good news that all his merciful deeds have overtaken us without our merits even before we sought them. Jesus never takes our resistance and evasion of his gift at face value. He keeps breaking in. He’s constantly seeing us, constantly putting his hand out, constantly facing me, you, us with -- well, everything he showed in this story -- that insight, that compassion, that initiative, that authority nobody else has, and speaking his word: I say to you, Get up. Here. Now. Rise.
One day we may actually have to do it.
The section referred to from Martin Luther's sermon on this passage: "She never thought of such a thing that Christ should come hither; yea, she did not at the time know Christ nor did she know anything of his helping the people. Here all merit and preparations for meeting him are out of the question. Now all this has been written to the end that, just as here this deed of mercy befell this widow freely and entirely of grace, only because it solicited Christ's sympathy, so from this we can draw the general rule that applies to all the merciful deeds of God, that they all overtake us without our merits, even before we seek them. He lays the foundation and makes the beginning."