First Congregational United Church of Christ
June 7, 2015
Luke 7:11-17 “Cemetery to Celebration”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
It was two weeks ago that I received an email from a member of the church in Minneapolis where I served for ten years as their settled pastor. It told me of the tragedy of Robbie Lehman. He was eight when I began my role as Pastor. And, two weeks ago, at the age of 23, he was killed in a roll over bus accident in Tanzania where he was just starting his work as a Peace Corp volunteer.
I read his blog about how he had been living with a family and sleeping on the dirt floor. He never knew if the children of the household would be sleeping in the same space, or if he would be joined by the family chickens or goats. He spoke about how he was learning Swahili and how he loved the family he was staying with and how he had never been happier.
At 3:00am the next morning, I awoke with a vision like dream recalling my experience with Robbie and his two sisters at our weekly CHOW program…Church on Wed. It was a program for children and youth. I have felt the heaviness of a life cut short, and knowing how the shock and pain of that loss would be so profoundly experienced not only by his family but by his church community—the ones who had gathered around him and offered their prayers of blessing as he prepared to leave the US for his Peace Corps assignment. Writing a letter to his parents and sisters was not easy.
Today’s Gospel lesson begins with the contrast of the life-giving gathering of Jesus and his disciples headed for the gates of Nain. And, on the other side of the gates is the anguished gathering of those coming from inside the town to the burial site beyond the gates. There is no mistaking the near primal sound pouring out of a woman who has lost her child. The widow’s grief is compounded. Not only has she lost her only son, but she has lost her protector and her social security. The law stated that without an heir, all her personal property would revert back to the family of her husband. It was customary for the brother or other relative of her deceased husband to marry the widow. (I admit that the very thought of this option, strikes terror to my heart.) In cases where no male relative chose to marry the widow she would move into the margins of her society and be in the same category as orphans. She has no financial security and no way to keep herself living. She is now homeless.
Jesus steps to the bier, the stand on which the body or coffin is placed while it is carried to the grave. He does not touch the body, which would have broken the religious rules and made him unclean. As he reaches for the bier—the pallbearers stand still, probably in shock, as he addresses the young man, calling for him to rise. The miracle of life, both emotional and social, is granted to the mother when Jesus gives the young man back to his mother. The writer wants us to know with this story that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor with no strings attached. In defiance of the Hellenistic and Roman culture, Jesus has shown compassion for the woman. That compassion was seen as weakness in his society.
I don’t find this text an easy one to grapple with. As I sat with it, I remembered the first miracle I was aware of which took place when I was in high school and living in Bakersfield. The son of the pastor of the church our family attended was diagnosed with leukemia. I believe he was around 9 years old. I remember the hushed way in which it was discussed. The elders of the church had gathered around him in his hospital bed and prayed for him. The whole church community was in prayer for Steven. Within a short period of time, he was considered cured—there was no sign of leukemia. It was profound. It’s also disconcerting because we don’t know what to do with miracles. We celebrate them, but in our humanness, we wonder about the choices that are made as to who receives a miracle and who doesn’t. And, there is often a piece of cynicism that creeps in wondering if the original diagnosis was accurate. It’s hard not to be doubtful and mystified by the whole experience.
And, many years later, I remember visiting with 80 year old Leo and having him struggle to tell me the story of his death, which he had never shared with anyone except his beloved wife. His voice was barely above a whisper as he described heavy red curtains that got pulled a part as he took in the blazing light that came to him. He spoke of how he wanted to go towards the light, but a voice came to him calling him to return to his life on earth. The mystery and awe of that experience was so very present to him. He was convinced that he had died on the table in the hospital during heart surgery and had returned to life because it was not yet time for him to leave this earth. He did not fear death, but looked forward to returning to that place where he had been given such a glorious mysterious glimpse. At the same time, he was grateful to have more time with his family.
As I was wrestling with this text, I remembered a book I read several years ago by Lee Kravitz, titled Unfinished Business: One man’s Extraordinary Year of Trying To Do The Right Things.
After losing his job, Kravitz, a workaholic, took stock of his life and realized how disconnected he had become from the ones he loved—his wife, children and circle of friends. Instead of rushing out to find a new job, he committed a full year to attending to the most important things in his life: to reconnecting with his inner circle and making amends. His book takes the reader on a transformational journey. Each chapter highlights an amend that he followed his heart in making, such as repaying a 30 year old debt, making a long over-do condolence call, finding an abandoned relative and fulfilling a forgotten promise.
In today’s text, I believe the story of the young man being carried to the cemetery is an invitation to each one of us to search our lives and ask where we are being invited to rise up out of deaths that reside in us in the form of unfinished business. And, what we know about unfinished business is that most of the time there is at least one other party involved, if not more. We need the compassionate touch of Jesus in this process. It calls for us to ask, “What piece of ourselves have we let die due to overwork or belief that other things in life are more important?”
For some of us, the child on the bier represents unfinished business with our own child or another relative. Sometimes we’re called to do the hard work of seeking to make amends and at least desiring to shore up a relationship. Sometimes we’re called to dredge up old wounds that have been in need of healing for years because we finally have the courage to get the help that is needed. As we listened to Pam Marsh last week, who was our speaker on Consecration Sunday, I believe that as the Executive Director of the Ashland Food Bank, she would agree that single moms are often our present day Widows of Nain.
One of the issues on the Church Council agenda this past Thursday was to talk about the numbers of folks in crises who come to our doors each week. Last week I sat with a woman who fit the category of the widow of Nain. She had lost her job, and because she had worked her whole adult life, she wasn’t concerned about getting another job until she began her search and discovered how difficult it is to get a job in one’s 60’s. She had been spending nights trying to find safety in restaurants until she was asked to leave a coffee shop because she had fallen asleep. Her request was for a motel for a night’s sleep, and if I couldn’t do that could she at least get a ticket to Salem so she would have hours to sleep on the bus.
As a church council we wrestled with how to provide help for those in need locally while not overwhelming our church Office Administrator who works part-time and is often caught between the administrative work of this community while wanting to support those who come to our doors. To be a compassionate caring presence, often demands that we have to stop what we are doing, and discern how to build and train a group of volunteers who can help to be a caring and healing presence on Siskiyou Blvd.
As followers of the way of Jesus, we have a responsibility to tend to the places within ourselves that need rising up, but also to tend to those who are in need of supportive help to be able to be raised up. We’re invited to use our own healing to help support others who are in need.
Jesus was labeled a prophet by the people who witnessed this miracle. God was given the praise for providing them with Jesus – Jesus who understood their oppressive lives and came unbidden into the daily-ness of their lives in profound life giving ways.
So, what is God’s invitation to us? What life depleting ways, habits, structure and form are we being invited to leave behind in favor of life giving habits of the heart? What is preventing us from following our hearts? Is there a letter, debt, condolence, visit, apology or community involvement that needs to be tended to in order to free up energy within ourselves? What price have we and our loved ones paid because we have kept a part of ourselves buried?
In three weeks we will gather for our Annual Meeting. We have a short period of time to count up the remaining pledges to reach our needed goal before we set our budget firmly in place.
The Search Committee is trusting that we will reach the number that is needed in order to offer the next Settled Pastor a fair salary. The leadership teams are counting on the pledges to be able to do the work of the church in global ministry, local ministry, environmental ministry, adult education, worship, Parish life and the needs of our children and youth along with caring for our buildings and grounds.
One of the challenges of every church is to discern what policies/structure/traditions need to be let go of and buried because they are no longer viable or life giving—and, what new infrastructure needs to be built into the church systems so that people are encouraged to utilize their talents, interests and abilities. In this transition year, we are at the gates of a new beginning. It is time, once again, to listen for the Spirit’s leading. May we take the time to call upon the Spirit’s help to discern where we are being invited to new life…and may we have the courage to say “yes”.
The spiritual life does not remove us from the world, but leads us deeper into it.