News from Nain

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 5 – Year C – June 9, 2013

 Kim Baker Glenn
Master of Divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary

Soon after healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 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. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 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!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

                                                                                                                                  -Luke 7:11-17


It’s a great pleasure for me to be back here at St. Mary’s this morning. This is my church home. No matter where I go, I always long to come back here. Thank you so much Eleanor and John and David for asking me to preach. And thank you for inviting me on this special day as we welcome the newest member into our congregation. Every church has its own way of fulfilling the sacrament of baptism and I so appreciate the way that it’s done here; the way the child is held with such love and care and the way the child is brought close to all the rest of the members of the church in welcome. Your way of baptizing infants is as unique to St. Mary’s as DNA is to each human body. And that uniqueness is something to be treasured and held on to.

Baptism is the mark of Christ by the Holy Spirit through water. Hopefully, this is just the first of the markers of Christian identity this child will come to possess. All of us have just made a vow to sustain (her) as (she) grows up in Christian faith. Hopefully in time, (she) will have the opportunity to affirm for (her)self the baptismal promises just made on (her) behalf at Confirmation. We pray that (she) will always know (her)self first as a Christian.

But we all know that this child, like the rest of us, will be known in (her) world in ways separate from her Christianity, too. We have a social system that gives children some identification markers, too. At the moment of birth American children are given a birth certificate and a social security number. These markers follow a person throughout life. As a person grows and matures the number of identity markers grows.  The teenage rite of passage is marked by a driver’s license, with numbers and a photo. In college a person gains entry to secure buildings with a student ID card. A library card is a must. Resumes are built with diplomas and … I could go on. But I think you get the picture. Even if people don’t know a person they can know all about (her).

In my life so far, I have acquired quite a set of unique markers. I’ve orbited the sun more than 55 times so my list of markers is, let’s just say, extensive. Last week, I happened to go to St. Mary’s hospital to get an outpatient test done. (Tests are normal, aren’t they, when you’ve orbited the sun as many times as I have?) When I registered for the test, the man at the registration desk did not ask me for my social security number to identify me. He did not ask for my insurance plan number. He probably already had those. No. He took a digital scan of my right palm. After he scanned it, he double-checked it to make sure that when my palm is scanned, all my medical history is linked to that image. Is that not amazing? Thanks to technological advances the story of our lives can be reduced to a bar code, or a microchip! More importantly, even though we concoct all sorts of schemes with numbers, still the best way to identify us is by means of our own unique bodies.

Twenty centuries ago, people were identified by their physical appearance and their reputation. Reputations were spread mostly by word of mouth since most people could not read or write. In the text from Luke that we heard this morning, we find Jesus entering a small, obscure town called Nain. The news of Jesus’ healing ministry had not yet traveled to this place. This town, as it is called in the text, is probably more accurately described as a village – more like the size of a modern day Richmond subdivision or neighborhood. We don’t know what prompted Jesus’ to visit there. Most likely it was a place he would have passed on his way to the next city. The villagers there did not know about Jesus yet. It may be that Jesus had planned to stop there. Either way, scripture tells us that Jesus was accompanied by his disciples and by a significant crowd of followers. All of them had either just witnessed or heard about Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s slave. They likely would have been chattering as they walked, talking with a great deal of excitement among them about what might come next.

So there they were, approaching the gate of the little village of Nain with Jesus leading the way. As they approached they could hear the wailing and misery of the crowd that was heading out of the village on the way to bury the only son of the town’s widow. These were two crowds of people who were full of emotion. The emotion of one crowd centered on Jesus and the excitement that his presence engendered. The emotion of the native crowd centered on the widow and her grief. These two crowds were about to collide.

Jesus entered the gate first. His attention turned toward the widow. Her identity would have been clear to him. She would have been following first behind the bier that carried the body. It would be plain that he was her son, and not her husband, by his youth. She would be alone, no mourning husband in sight. The text tells us that Jesus was filled with compassion for her. Luke used a Greek word to describe Jesus’ compassion that is loosely translated as gut-wrenching. The word suggests physical suffering. He literally felt her pain and anguish. It was this widow’s suffering, not concern about dying or death that stopped Jesus in his tracks. Jesus said to the widow, “Do not weep.” Then he stepped forward and held up his hand to touch the bier that was carrying the body of her only son. The pallbearers stood still.

Now imagine this scene with me for a moment. The crowd that had been following Jesus would have stopped when he stopped. They would be facing the crowd of mourners. And the crowd following the pallbearers would have stopped when they stopped. They would have faced Jesus’ followers. The emotional energies of these two crowds didn’t disburse. It hung heavy around them like a dense fog. The clamor of chatter and wails of mourning would have ceased.

Then Jesus broke the silence saying, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And he rose – and he spoke – and Jesus handed the young man back to his mother.

Now I don’t know about you, but that would scare the willies out of me. A dead person does not sit up in his casket and start talking. We know that, don’t we? At first, the text tells us, the crowd was frightened. Then they understood. The fact that Jesus was able to make the son rise from death was the startling evidence they needed. It assured them that they could believe it was God who was acting in their lives. They could trust that Jesus was not just another wandering Messiah wannabe. This act set him apart. He did not require potions, elixirs or incantations. His words alone raised the widow’s only son from death.

For this Jewish crowd of mourners, Jesus’ saving act would recall for them Elijah’s actions when he saved the widow’s son. That story was part of their salvation history. The villagers of Nain and the Jewish readers of Luke’s gospel would have instantly identified Jesus as a prophet from that act. Jesus’ saving act that day revealed his identity as someone sent to these people by God. The use of the term prophet as a description of Jesus identity was significant to the first century hearer. It was filled with nuanced meaning for them. In fact Luke refers more often to Jesus as a prophet than any other Gospel or New Testament writer.[1] Traditionally, Hebrew prophets fended for the poor and looked out for the vulnerable. Traditionally, worldly power holders sought to have prophets killed. Luke’s use of that description did not detract from, in fact it added to, their understanding of Jesus as Messiah.

Jesus was moved to act as he did when he realized the widow’s looming social vulnerability. She had no husband and now no son to provide for her needs. His act restored her to a place of stability, a place of wholeness. He was not worried about the dead son. Jesus believed the dead would rest with God. Jesus was deeply concerned about the challenges that human beings face in navigating the social and economic obstacles of this world, the world he came to save.

It was a tough 1st century world that Jesus lived in, and it is a tough 21st century world that we live in. Power struggles, wars, human trafficking, and hunger – they all still exist. But so does the church, the body of Christ. Although the demise of the church in the world has been talked about, especially given the western world’s decline in church attendance, the church is still very much alive. The church continues to play the role of prophet and the role of the healing Christ in the world.

St. Mary’s continues to act as the body of Christ in places where we are called to serve. As members of that body, each of you has a role to play in seeing our church contribute to society’s wholeness. Think about the promises you made today. Each of you can play a part in helping our young people, like our newly welcomed baptized member; grow up knowing that a supportive church family stands behind him and her. Each of you can be a part of the team that helps them to know themselves first as Christians. Like the crowd who followed behind Jesus on his way into Nain, we stand ready to be amazed by the next move of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And we stand ready to praise God with hearts filled with joy when his gifts are revealed. To God be the glory.       

[1] Smyth and Helwys, Luke, p.213