Proper 5c, June 5, 2016

June 6, 2016

The Intersection of Life & Death

Luke 7:11-17


11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, 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. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.


It’s important to take note of the movement that’s going on in this passage. We’re told that Jesus and the crowd that was accompanying him was moving toward the city as this funeral procession was coming out of the city. One group was moving toward the place where people lived and the other group was moving away from that place. One group was filled with great expectations – the other group was agonizing over the loss of possibility. Life was moving in one direction. Death was moving in the other. And when they met a miracle occurred and life prevailed.


What took place on that road was a powerful portrayal of the life-giving power of Jesus, but as we all know, you just don’t run in to the miraculous power of Jesus every time you leave the house. Clearly the events of this story were extraordinary, and they raise our expectation level of what Jesus is able to do, but we need to glean the right message from this story. It’s important for us to keep in mind that Jesus didn’t bring back to life every only son of every grieving widow, but there’s something we can learn about Jesus from this story, and there’s some hope for us all to be found in this story.


I wish I could say this passage provides us with a clear formula for the way to experience miraculous healing and restoration of life when we are in the midst of devastating illness and loss. I wish I knew where to tell you to go in order to gain access to the miraculous touch of Jesus, but it’s not so simple. As we all know, inexplicably painful things happen and relief is usually slow in coming. I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing as instantaneous restoration. Life is much more complex and surprising than I know to describe, and miraculous things continue to happen, but unfortunately they don’t happen on demand.


In some ways it’s sort of frustrating to read how someone’s pain was instantaneously removed. It’s hard not to want that kind of relief for ourselves or the people we know who are living with deep pain, but that’s not what generally happens, and that’s not the message we should extract from this story.


I think one of the important messages for us to gain from this story is the importance of not counting on Jesus to fix all of our problems. When you hear what Jesus did for someone it’s hard not to want that for ourselves, but Jesus never was one to perform a miracle on demand. I think this story of what happened as he came near to the city of Nain stands in stark contrast to the story of what happened when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. We don’t know much about Nain, and that’s probably the most significant thing about the place. It was unknown. Unlike the residents of Nazareth, the people of Nain had no idea who Jesus was or what to expect from him.


Jesus didn’t respond well to people who expected to be granted the favor of God – Jesus was the most responsive to nameless people who had no expectation for relief. This is not to say that those of us who love Jesus and seek his grace are disqualified from receiving his attention, but the healing grace of Jesus is not something we should ever expect to receive – it always comes as a gift.


Jesus was guided by nothing but compassion, and this is a good lesson for us all to remember. Not only was the man who perfectly embodied the love of God motivated by compassion – he revealed how powerful compassion can be, and this is good news for us all. Compassion is always powerful medicine, and sometimes it changes everything!


One of the podcasts that I will occasionally listen to is a show called Snap Judgement. It’s a show that highlights stories that involve life-altering events or decisions. One of the most memorable stories I’ve heard on that show was told by a woman who’s life was altered by the arrival of an injured cat. She shared the story of how her son was brought to life in a significant way by their experience with this stray cat.


This story was told by a woman who never intended to have a cat because her mother was a nut about cats. She said her mother kept nearly 30 cats in their house when she was a child and she felt like her mother cared more about her cats than she did her children. So when this woman got out of her mother’s house she never wanted a cat.


But she had a baby, and this baby was troubled. He was a miserable baby and he couldn’t bear to be touched. He never smiled and he would never even look at her. She said the only time she could caress him was when he was in a deep sleep. He never spoke, and at some point the doctors diagnosed him as having a form of autism. That was good information, but it didn’t help in regard to communicating with him. It was a hard situation, but she came to accept George for who he was and she dealt with it the best she could.


She spoke to him all of the time, but he never spoke to her until he was 7 years old and this injured cat came in to their yard. She told George that they needed to help the cat, and as she was reaching down to get this bloody cat George said, “Baboo”. And he just kept saying it. “Baboo, baboo”. This woman called her mother and other family members to come over, and they did because they couldn’t believe that George was saying anything. They thought maybe she had lost her mind, but they were all amazed at what they saw and heard.


George and his mother nursed the cat back to health, and that cat became George’s first and constant playmate, who he named Ben. He would speak to the cat and he would tell his mother what the cat wanted. And of course the mother would give them whatever they wanted just to hear her son speak.


One day George noticed the cat rubbing up against his mother’s legs and he asked why he did that. She told him that that was how cats showed affection to their mothers, and George began doing the same thing to his mother. That was the first affection George ever gave to his mother. On another day George told his mother that they wanted a trampoline and she said Ben the cat would get on the trampoline along with George, and that was the first time she ever heard her son laugh.


There is more to this story, and it’s documented in a book called The Cat Who Came Back For Christmas. As the mother told her story there was no mention of Jesus, but I think this story is very connected to the healing power of Jesus because this story illustrates the power of compassion. The first obvious act of compassion came from the mother and her son toward the poor bloody cat, but that act was connected to the years of love that the mother had shown toward her troubled son, and it was an act that opened up so many other opportunities for them all to show their love for each other. That simple act of caring for the cat woke something up within George, and the way in which he learned to interact with the cat and his mother was nothing short of a miracle.


Sacrificial love doesn’t always produce documentable miracles, but I do believe acts of compassion always touch people in healing ways. The exercise of self-giving love doesn’t always change things immediately, but I believe that such love always pays off in profoundly good ways. I think it’s worth noting that this child was 7 years old before this cat came in to their yard and transformed their lives. But George’s mother had been deeply caring for her child for years and she had been agonizing over the deathly condition that seemed to hold him hostage. Miracles are rarely quick to arrive.


There was a retired man in my previous church who was the unpaid superintendent of the building. That building was in perpetual need of repair and I was always amazed at what Karl was willing and able to do to keep it operational. He was also known for his sayings, and one of the things I heard him say more than once was that he could take care of hard things quickly, but miracles take a while. Miracles do take a while. Most of us are still waiting for one.


But it helps to know that things can and do change. I don’t believe any of us need to sit around hoping for a miracle to drop in our laps, but I believe there is this possibility of encountering life-restoring experiences in our own lives. It’s rarely automatic – they usually happen while we’ve been on painful paths for longer than we think we can bear, but that’s where we generally encounter the saving grace of God. Sometimes they occur when we are too devastated to take another step, but as long as we can I believe it’s important for us to do what we can to help ourselves and to help others.


Jesus encountered the grieving woman on the road. She was devastated, but she was doing what she needed to do, and that’s what we all must continue to do as well as we can. It helps to believe that things can change. If you don’t believe that anything can change you aren’t inclined to do anything that will bring about any kind of change.


It also helps to trust in Jesus. Jesus doesn’t provide us with any kind of magic potion. At least he’s never provided me with any of it, but one of the messages I get from this story is that good things happened to people who encountered Jesus. The woman who was on the road toward the grave of her son had no idea who Jesus was – she wasn’t looking for him, but she very fortunately encountered him, and that changed everything for her. We might not have the good fortune of serendipitously running in to Jesus on the road, but we have the good fortune of knowing who he was and what he offered, and this is a great gift for us.


What we know is that we have a God who loves us so much that we are never removed from the possibility of new life on earth or the promise of more abundant life beyond this small planet. What Jesus did by restoring life to the son of the woman who had lost everyone who was most important to her was to reveal the desire of God to provide all of us with hope.


The circumstances of life can become unbearably hard. It’s not unusual for our troubles to multiply and our hope to wane. It’s not unusual for us not to get what we think we need when we think we need to have it, but the message in today’s story is to trust that we do have a God who hears our cries.


It’s a horrible thing to be on the painful road away from the place where life is known to happen, but that’s the very place where we may very well encounter the life-restoring touch of our living God. You can’t expect it to happen when you want it to happen or predict how it will happen, but you can trust that God will provide a way for it to happen. We may never fully understand the extent of God’s love for us as we go about our lives in this world, but one day we will all be at the intersection of death and life, and that is where we will fully encounter and celebrate the power that Jesus Christ has over the empty grip of death.


Thanks be to God! Amen


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