The Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 5, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Look at that, the scaffolding is gone! All y’all got your seats back. But look at that, the scaffolding is up. All y’all lost your seats. You win some, you lose some…now the folks on this side can feel what it felt like for the ones on that side. Now at communion we’ll be running into each other on this side of the church instead of that side. Good to shake things up a little bit, get the traffic going in other directions – even if we wind up getting in each others’ way.
Which sets us up nicely to look at our gospel reading for today. Picture the scene: It’s a heavy traffic day on the road into Nain. One large crowd is approaching the town, following a teacher/healer/leader, some guy named Jesus. Another large crowd is going out of the town carrying the body of a young man to his grave. One crowd is joyful and excited, surrounding their leader; one crowd is sorrowful and weeping, surrounding the widowed mother of the young man who has died. And there on the road they run into each other, and traffic comes to a halt.
The traffic stops because the person at the head of the joyful crowd strides forward and stops the procession of the weeping crowd. And before everyone realizes what he is doing, he reaches out and brings the dead young man to life. And the weeping crowd becomes a joyful crowd, in fear and amazement.
The crowd of mourners had only been doing what is appropriate under the circumstances. The young man had died; his mother was a widow; he was her only son. She was grieving his loss; she was completely without support in a world where only men in the family mean financial security. The custom of the day was that they must bury the body immediately, and so off they set, fresh and raw in her grief and loss, to go through the motions of the burial rite.
The crowd around Jesus was doing something different. They had seen him cure people with diseases, heard him teach in sermons, watched as he healed the centurion’s slave from afar. They were wondering what he would do next and speculating about who he was, and as he steps forward to the bier, their suspicions are confirmed. The resurrection is beginning; this is the Messiah they have been waiting for. They are in the presence of God’s anointed one.
So, I wonder: which crowd are you in today?
You may be in the crowd of mourners today, in your heart and soul. There are times in our lives where we all are in that place; when all we can do is weep. When we are mourning the loss of a loved one, fearing for our financial security besides – as the widow in today’s story. When we hurt and can’t find relief from the pain, physical or mental or both. When we are isolated and alone and afraid, because our child isn’t like other children, because our own childhoods weren’t like other people’s childhoods, because the gray fog of depression or the dark grip of addiction just won’t let up. In such times, all we can do is weep. Weep and go through the motions, follow the rituals of routine, do what we can to get through the day. That may be what you’re here doing today.
But there are other times when we find ourselves in the other crowd. Walking along the road following Jesus, being his people, watching to see what will happen next. Not sure what the journey will require of us yet but interested, intrigued enough to participate in the movement along the road. Part of the Jesus movement, like our Bishop Michael Curry says. Or at least on the outskirts of that, watching to see what God might do. If he is God. We’re still waiting to see what we think.
And moved with compassion, Jesus stops us all. Jesus interrupts our journey of curiosity, interrupts our going through the motions of ritual, interrupts our wretched grief – and brings unexpected life. The weeping ends. Something else is happening – suddenly, we know we are in the presence of God.
And here’s the thing: we are in the presence of God. In a way that demands everything of us.
As those in the Bible study on the letter to the Ephesians know, we are the body of Christ. It’s language that we use a lot and throw around in church, but we may not always think through what it means. Before the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, being Jesus’ followers meant trailing along behind him, watching and puzzled, maybe compelled by what he was doing. After Pentecost, where we find ourselves, being Jesus’ followers means something else entirely. It means being Jesus – being Jesus’ body at work in the world about us, now, today. Doing what Jesus did, now, ourselves. Stepping out of the role of idle onlooker or despairing mourner, and joining the work of the body of Christ in this world.
It’s not something we do on our own, separately, each of us. I am not the body of Christ, nor are you. We are all together the body of Christ – all of Jesus’ people, his followers in the world. All together, not separately. But even so, it’s a big job. Big shoes for us to fill. This story today tells us how to do it.
First thing we do, we have to have compassion. Jesus has compassion, over and over again, in the gospel stories. The Greek word for compassion in the gospels means something like having our guts ripped out – a visceral, physical sensation in the core of our being. Jesus can feel what it feels like to be other people. Compassion is the motivation for his actions. He has compassion on people who are ill; he has compassion on people who are hungry and lost; he tells stories about the Good Samaritan having compassion on the stranger and the father having compassion for his prodigal son. And in today’s story, he has compassion for the widow, and so he acts. Compassion, meaning caring, genuinely caring, for the lives of others we meet in the world.
The second thing we do is we stop the train. Jesus could have looked at the grieving widow, felt compassion, clucked in sympathy, and kept going. That would be a normal and reasonable thing to do. But he turns and stops the procession instead – barges into that funeral and engages with the people in grief. It’s a radical break in the status quo – something totally different from the expected, not the thing that is usually done. We the body of Christ can’t just go along with the world as it is. We can’t just go with the flow around us, doing as we have always done. We have to engage and make things different.
And what kind of different? That’s the third thing: we bring forth life where before there only seemed death. We come into the dead ends and show a way out. We lift up what had been cast down – we extend the welcome to people whom others despise, we cross racial lines to embrace our sisters and brothers, we work to end gun violence that never seems to end. We bring hope to the dying and freedom to the prisoner and healing to the sick. Us, the body of Christ. We do it. Together.
There’s no room for the consumer of religious services in this: “the church” doesn’t do something that we can choose to partake of or not – we, all of us, are the church. If we choose to join it, that is. So which is the crowd you are part of today? Is it the crowd of those lost in their grief? Is it the crowd of those waiting and watching for God, or somebody, to make things better? Or is it the crowd of Jesus, the body of Christ, the ones who love and reach out and bring life? Whichever crowd you are in today, this is a good place for all of those crowds to meet, for the procession to come to a halt and the traffic to get heavy. Because this is the place where your weeping can turn into joy; where your skepticism can be met with faith; where we can become who God desires us to be.
This is the church – the great traffic jam on the road of humanity. The wonderful and sacred mystery that is also just us, all of us, in this place. May God work in us and through us to bring about the reign of God’s grace and love in this world. Amen.