A Sermon Preached at Presbyterian Church of Western Springs, IL on June 9, 2013.
Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the stretcher they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, rise! Get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has risen among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country. Luke 7:11-17
As chaplain in a pediatric hospital, this text hits too close to home and is a familiar scene. Since being ordained to hospital ministry, not only have I officiated significantly more funerals than weddings, but my first funerals were funerals for children. And it’s is one of the texts that makes my stomach hurt when I hear it’s about to be preached-because usually when this text preached the emphasis is on how great the physical healing is and how great Jesus is. Now, for the record, I’m in favor of both Jesus and healing. But as a pediatric chaplain, what bothers me about focusing only on the physical healing in this text is that it leaves some of us asking, “What about the mothers and fathers whose children aren’t physically healed? “
As a chaplain, I am often with devastated parents when they receive scary medical news about their children, or hold them after they hold their child for the last time. And that’s why I am unable to focus only on how great the physical healing of this widow’s son is. To focus only on the physical healing gives me theological heartburn as I strive to be an authentic pastor to those who weep for their children, while celebrating with parents who get good news when their child’s surgery is successful. To focus only on the physical, tangible, resurrection of this child seems to somehow discount those who know the eternal, spiritual resurrection of the body.
In the controlled chaos of hospitals, especially while trying to save a child, someone is always being asked to do something or call someone or to retrieve something. And part of the reason I love this text is because, as Luke portrays it, nobody asks anybody anything and there is no chaos. Nobody asks to take the widow’s child to an expert. Nobody asks what went wrong. Nobody asks for a second opinion. Nobody blames anyone. Nobody even asks Jesus to heal him. I love that Luke, the physician, makes sure this scene is that of a reverent funeral procession and is not the least bit clinical or scientific.
As Luke the physician tells it, Jesus and his crowd entered the city, saw the funeral processional, saw the grieving mother and saw the stretcher carrying her deceased child. Jesus saw the funeral procession, and in a fully human moment he saw the mother crying and had compassion for her. Jesus noticed the grieving mother and said, “Don’t cry.”
Now Jesus telling a grieving mother not to cry may seem a bit insensitive, but Jesus’ “Don’t cry” isn’t said flippantly. It’s said out of the same deep compassion that caused him to notice her in the first place. When Jesus says, “Don’t cry,” it’s because he teaches that sorrow and death do not have the last word. When Jesus says “Don’t cry,” it’s from a place of proclaiming there is a divine peace deeper than any pain of this world. When Jesus himself says “Don’t cry,” it’s because he knows healing of all kinds take place on many levels. Jesus’ divinely compassionate version of “Don’t cry,” has the power to comfort even a mother at her child’s funeral.
And after Jesus comforted the mother, he went over to those carrying the child, touched the stretcher and said to the young boy, “Rise. Get up.” Jesus’ compassion for the grieving woman drives him to perform the ultimate act of love by raising her only son from the dead. Jesus calmly and boldly said, “Rise,” and as Luke tells it, the boy immediately sat up and began talking-as children do. Then Jesus picked the child up in his arms and hands him back to his mother. Jesus saw pain in the mother’s eyes and his words had the power to comfort her and his touch had the power to raise the dead. Luke the physician tells us about the ultimate healing from the Great Physician with a focus on the senses instead of science.
Now, Luke often speaks about women and widows, so we could easily gloss over the fact that this grieving mother is also a widow. As a widow, she was already low in society’s eyes, and having lost her only son, she would have been even lower. Certainly that reality likely added to Jesus’ feeling of compassion for her, but there is something else very powerful about Luke’s portrayal of the widow’s son’s funeral procession. What’s just as powerful as Jesus saying, “Rise and do not cry,” is that the grieving widow had a crowd with her at her son’s funeral.
A widow-one of society’s lowest members-had a community with her as she went to bury her child. Culturally for us it may seem hard to imagine that a mother, especially a widow, would be left alone to grieve. But in her society, it was not at all assumed she would have a crowd with her or a community to support her. Something about her community caused them to go against the social orders and do the only tangible thing they could to offer healing to her broken heart-physically carry her child on a stretcher and literally walk with her through her grief.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve done quite a few funerals in my work as a chaplain, and I’ve also officiated countless baptisms of infants and children. I can count on my fingers the number of baptisms that have occurred within the walls of the church instead of an ICU or hospital room. While the baptisms are no less sacred, there is something very different between a sterile setting and a church chancel.
I’ve used just a drop of sterile water on my finger to baptize premature babies in a NICU incubator, and I’ve run my hands through waters of the font for the long-awaited and long-hoped-for child of church members who were finally parents after years of trying. While all the baptisms I’ve done look different, never have I done a baptism with any amount of water in any venue where there wasn’t a crowd.
In our denomination we intentionally celebrate baptisms in public because we take vows on behalf of the person being baptized-often an infant or child- to nurture them and support them throughout their life with God’s help. In the hospital, families often invite extended family members and nurses to bear witness to God’s claim on the child’s life even in the midst of clinical unknowns. We don’t do baptisms without a crowd of some size because we believe that the outward sign of the inward seal is transforming and not ours to keep to ourselves. We baptize with some type of crowd present because there was a crowd present at Jesus’ own baptism to bear witness to God declaring, “This is my child.” We baptize with a crowd so that we, too, may walk away as the crowds walked away from Nain, filled with awe and proclaiming that “God has come to help God’s people.”
And as Christians we believe that our baptisms are only complete in our death. So it only makes sense then, that at death, we would also gather with a crowd of some kind to bear witness to God’s claim on the earthy and resurrected life. It makes sense that the crowds who helped navigate the waters of baptism would also carry loved ones through the sacred storm of grief. It is the most faithful and practical thing we can do as people of faith to bear witness to baptisms being complete-we show up, we form a crowd, and we journey together.
In my line of work, often I feel a bit like a “death diva,” since I see a lot of death and have many books on the subject. One of my favorite resources is Tom Long’s Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Through theological study and much time researching funeral practices and speaking with funeral directors, Tom discusses that culturally we are not giving death its due when it comes to bearing witness and being the crowd. He notes that we are quick to jump to the resurrection, and while certainly that’s a key aspect of our faith, there is something to the physical death that needs to be shared. He argues that we need better death practices in order to better serve the entire community in the sanctity of life.
A few years ago there was a conference in Memphis for clergy and healthcare workers on the topic of Dying Well, and Tom spoke about Accompany Them with Singing from a theological and congregational perspective. In more informal conversations, other chaplains and I spoke from clinical and military perspectives. And the thread that all of us emphasized theologically and practically-from academia to the battlefield to the hospital room-is that everyone deserves what Tom calls a “royal funeral.” Now by “royal,” he doesn’t mean financially costly or elaborate, but one that includes the “public pageantry” of a crowd gathering because life is sacred and the dignity of life is to be celebrated and well grieved. Certainly those who accompanied the grieving widow in her son’s funeral knew that well, and are an excellent model for us of how to be the crowd of love.
As part of the Dying Well conference, we also discussed ways we can ensure that the sanctity of life is preserved even in the already but not yet time as a person is finishing up their earthly time. We spoke about the importance of gathering as a crowd with them to remember times together and remind each other that death itself it not to be feared. We discussed the importance of healing rituals to remember and healing rituals to make new memories together.
A friend of mine named Charles is currently very much aware of what it means to be the crowd around someone as their earthly life comes to a close. Charles is my age and a few months ago his dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Charles and his wife Erin live here in Chicago, but he flew to Texas to be with his dad for the major surgery to try to remove as much cancer as they could. Once the physicians told his dad he would need extensive chemo and/or radiation, Charles and Erin decided he should stay with them in Chicago and do treatments through Northwestern.
A few weeks ago, he wasn’t so doing well and Charles had to take him to the ER. They learned that basically the cancer is doing the horrible things cancer does best, and decided that drama of chemo wasn’t worth it for the sanctity of his life. So a few Fridays ago, I sat with Charles and his dad and in the hospital room after making the initial calls to get hospice in place so he could be more comfortable. And while Charles was on the phone taking care of the many details, I knelt down by Richard’s hospital bed, held his hand, and said, “I’m so glad hospice will give you all the dignity and autonomy that the beast of cancer is trying to take away.”
With the help of Hospice and the magic of morphine, Richard has been able to stay at home with Charles and Erin, and their apartment has been filled with a crowd of love-friends coming from north and south and east and west to bear witness to the sanctity of Richard’s life.
Charles is an only child, and one of the things he and his dad love most is going to baseball and football games. In fact, they had a quest to go to games at every major league baseball stadium in the country. So, in attempt to make a new memory and keep with their tradition, Charles contacted two of his long-time friends, and on Friday night they flew in town to help Charles and his dad get to a major ballpark baseball game one last time.
So yesterday Charles and his friends packed up the wheelchair and some extra pain meds from the Hospice nurses, and took Richard to Wrigley Field for the Cubs game. They had wheelchair accessible tickets behind home plate for their day at the ballpark and spent it doing what they loved most- watching baseball, together, in one of their favorite venues. Charles’ friends took some priceless pictures of them sitting together at the crowded stadium on what was no doubt a sacred day for them both. And while I doubt the crowds in the stands behind them know anything about their sacred day, I love that there is a crowd behind them in the pictures because I believe that’s who we’re called to be: the visible, tangible crowd of love.
As realistic people of faith, we know healing and miracles come in many forms. Sometimes it’s Jesus saying “rise” to a child in Nain. Sometimes the miracle is the doctor saying remission. Sometimes healing is reconciliation after a fight. Sometimes the miracle is the unconditional love of a parent even after a huge mistake. Sometimes it’s getting the mental health medications regulated. Sometimes the miracle is the birth of a baby after months of disappointment. Sometimes miracles come in a trip to Wrigley Field. Sometimes healing comes in the form of the crowd itself.
Whatever form healing looks like or needs to look like for you this day, I hope you know you’ve got crowds of love with you-those who are closest who know all the details-and those who are father back in the bleachers who pray for you without even knowing exactly why. I hope you know that the same baptismal waters that washed over you and claimed you will carry you and enable to you rise again no matter how deep the chaos or how bad the pain. I hope you know that no matter what happens or what society deems you worthy of, Jesus is there to greet you at the city gate, with divine compassion saying, “Rise. Rise and don’t cry.” May we, like those who witnessed the healing in Nain, go out in awe to share the life changing news that God has indeed come to help God’s people.
For even in the face of death itself and in the middle of a funeral procession, Jesus our hope has the last word. “Rise and do not cry.” Amen.