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.This morning we encounter two processions. One is going into the town of Nain and the other is coming out. Nain is a town in the South of Galilee, a short distance from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.
At the head of the procession going into Nain is Jesus. The procession coming out is led by a coffin. What will happen when these two processions cross paths at the town gate? Which one will give way?
Jesus sees the grieving mother. What does He do? How does He respond? His heart went out to her. He feels compassion for her. He chose to share in her sorrow.
Moved by compassion, Jesus acts. "Young man, I say to you, get up!" he shouts. And the dead man sat up and began to talk. The compassion of Jesus led to something amazing happening, something unexpected. Death was trampleddownby the Lord of Life.
This is our Christian hope. Through Jesus Christ, death, our ancient enemy, has been cast down and trampled underfoot. Death has been swallowed up in victory. We no longer have to live in fear of death.
But, sometimes, we do anyway, don’t we? It's difficult not to fear death. I’m not just talking about physical death. We die many little deaths throughout our lives. Many of the changes we face feel much like a little death. We grieve the loss of the familiar. We long to relive days from our past.
But the reality is that if we are to continue to grow, we must accept these little deaths. We must allow ourselves to be transformed into the full stature of Christ. And for that to happen, we have to let go of some of the baggage that we are dragging around with us; those old grudges, those past regrets, and those character flaws. There are aspects of ourselves that we have to allow to die.
In our Epistle lesson, Paul speaks about his earlier life in Judaism; about how he was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. You may recall when St. Stephen was stoned to death, it was Saul, who later became Paul, who held the coats of the stone hurling crowd. When Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, he was transformed. But that transformation required a little death as well; the zealous persecutor of the Church had to die.
Congregations have to pass through these little deaths as well, if they are to be transformed and follow the call of God. I was an interim priest for a few years. I would be assigned to serve in a congregation while they made their transition from one spiritual leader to another. Sometimes their former priest was the beloved rector. Sometimes he or she was not so beloved. Regardless of the case, there was always some element of a grieving process going on in that congregation. Interims were expected to allow that process to happen, and attend to any pastoral needs that might result from it. It was only when the congregation faced that that particular chapter in their life was now over that they could begin to dream about the future. There had to be a little death before there could be room for new life.
Sometimes, we fear these little deaths so much, that we are a bit too cautious. We hesitate to do anything new or risky. What if we fail? What if there isn’t enough? What if we make a mistake? We stick to the familiar, to the comfortable, because we are afraid of dying.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an author and an Episcopal priest, recently wrote a thoughtful article in the Christian Century entitled, “The Poured-Out Church”. I want to share part of it with you:
…when I consider my life of faith, this world is clearly where my transformation has taken place. It is in the world that I have met the people who have changed me—some of them believers, but far more of them not—people who have loved me, fought me, shamed me, forgiven me, sanding down my edges on one side while they broke whole ragged chunks of me off the other. The world is where I have been struck dumb by beauty, by cruelty, by human invention and greed. The world is where my notions of God have been destroyed, reformed, chastened, redeemed. The world is where I have occasionally been good for something and where I have done irreparable harm.
The reason I know this, however, is that the church has given me the eyes with which I see, as well as the words with which I speak. The church has given me a community in which to figure out what has happened to me in the world. It has given me a place to love and grieve, within a tradition far older and wiser than I. It is the church that has poured me into the world, in other words—which is counterintuitive. How can a church survive that keeps pouring itself into the world? I cannot possibly say. All I know is the gospel truth: those willing to give everything away are the ones with anything worth keeping; those willing to look death full in the face are the ones with the most abundant lives. Go figure...
“…those willing to look death full in the face are the ones with the most abundant lives.” Can we look death full in the face? Are we willing to pour ourselves into the world? Will we risk much for the sake of the Gospel?
We can. And we will. Because we are Christians. Because we do not live in fear of death. Because we are those who proclaim the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I’m not suggesting we be foolish. There’s a difference between being bold and risking much and being foolish. We are certainly called to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us.
But we must always remember that our mission field is out there in the world. And to be effective witnesses for God, we must pour ourselves into the world, even if it seems risky; even if it seems deadly.
How do we know where to pour ourselves out? In this morning’s Gospel, when those two processions met, one led by life, and one led by death, it was at the moment that Jesus was filled with compassion for the widow that everything was transformed. Life overcame death. Mourning was transformed into laughter and joy. This transformation began with compassion; with Jesus opening his heart to the grief of the mother. Where do we begin to pour ourselves out? In those places where people are hurting; in those places where we find ourselves moved to open our hearts and reveal the compassion of Christ.
Let us always remember that we do not exist for the sake of the Church. We exist for the sake of the world. We are called to pour ourselves out, driven by compassion for those who are hurting in this world. If that means we have to look death full in the face, so be it. Cannot God raise up something new from the ashes of our vanquished dreams?
Let us not live in fear of death, or the little deaths that each of us will face as we walk together with Christ in our midst. Let us be willing to risk much for the sake of the world, and proclaim with our every word and deed the healing power of God’s love.