Proper 5C June 9 2013
Graduations are happening all around us, friends, neighbors, all sorts of graduations, kids are going from elementary school to junior high school, from junior high school to senior high school, senior high school to college, from college into the world of work, or graduate school. All around us as spring comes to a close and summer takes hold, new chapters are beginning and lives are being transformed by joy and anticipation.
Samuel Davies, long ago president of the College of New Jersey, today known as Princeton University, in one of his commencement addresses said, “There is a kind of death which we all expect to feel that carries terror in the very sound, and all its circumstances are shocking to nature. The ghastly countenance, the convulsive agonies, the expiring groan, the coffin, the grace, the devouring work, the stupor, the insensibility, the universal inactivity, these strike a damp to the spirit, and we turn pale at the thought. With such objects as these in view, courage fails, levity looks serious, presumption is dashed, the cheerful passions sink and all is solemn, all is melancholy.” That is a dark way to begin a sermon at a joyful commencement exercise.
But even in the midst of life, even as it seems so abundant in the lush green of the plants, the deep blue of the waters of our many lakes, even in the midst of life, death is always near. Death’s uncertainty, its randomness, its unexpectedness does nothing to make us feel better about the life we live. If anything, it makes us more filled with anxiety, bringing the reality of our mortality into stark contrast.
Because we often understand life to be short and fleeting we have developed a whole cottage industry around living a full life, how to books abound about how to suck the marrow out of life. We are told to live life to the fullest, to eat dessert first and to do those things that make us happy. If death decides one day to walk into our lives, it simply does, death is scary, it is sad, and it can be completely immobilizing.
Todays Gospel captures death at its most harsh, it most vicious, its most unexpected. Imagine the woman from today’s Gospel walking alongside her dead son, this widow, who had already lost her husband and was knit into the society, the culture by one single strand of life: her son. Imagine, this widow walking alongside the only person left who would take care of her as she waited for her own death to come. Watching as the strand that so tentatively tied her to the people and society she knew well came untied, allowing her to fall into darkness beyond mere death, to the margins of society where she would be ridiculed, exiled as condemned by God.
She in the moments of her son’s death has become an outcast, someone less than human. People would have seen her position as a widow as God’s judgment and would have cut ties ending any relationship they might have had. The last thing the widow would have expected was any expression of compassion. And so, Jesus saw the widow, had compassion, reached out and healed her only son. In this act of compassion, Jesus tied her back to the community and gave her new life.
I often wish that Jesus would show up among us, to each of us who are experiencing illness, to each of us experiencing death and say to us, “Rise” so that we may be made to live again. It is hard to watch so many people in our lives struggle with cancer, with illnesses, with job and vocation insecurity, divorce.
I was recently asked if God gives you only that which you can handle. I answered that I do not believe God doles out punishment; God does not test us or try to make us stronger by bringing great challenges into our lives. But what I do believe is that God is with us. God is present in those moments of despair, of hopelessness; God is there when we think God is nowhere to be seen.
It is in those challenging, dark moments that I understand with greatest clarity what Theresa of Avila meant when she said, “God has no hands but ours.” For it is in those moments of challenge, of hopelessness that the hands of those who love me, hold me up, lift me up, care for me bring the strength I need to stand in the face of challenge, and help me to see that God is near, that God has visited all of us.
God has visited God’s people the Gospel says was the people’s response to their witnessing of the young mans resuscitation. God has come among us; God has blessed all of us by God’s visit and this compassionate act of Jesus. In that moment, for many people, God’s presence was profoundly felt and understood. Death transformed into life, hopelessness transformed into truth. Fear was replaced with joy and singing. Their spirits were awakened, seized by God and made to be on fire.
Some of us need to be healed, and as long as we do not keep our wounds to ourselves, there are people who can heal us. Some of us need to be loved, and as long as we do not hide our loneliness, there are people here who can love us. Some of us are spiritually dead, and if we do not hide our fear or shame, there are people who can seize our souls and breathe life back into us. We are not on the earth to be alone; we are here to be in community, to live and love not as individuals but as people belonging to the one, holy and living God.
In our DNA, our Christian DNA we find a history of healing, a history of loving, compassionate acts that show forth the grace of God in the world. Jesus commanded his disciples to go to all the towns he would come to and once there, heal their sick and proclaim to all the good news of the Kingdom of God. God has looked favorably on God’s people, the Gospel declares, we have been seized and filled with the spirit to bring alive what was once dead, to make new what has been old, to be filled fully with the grace God has given us.