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 funeral 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
Have you passed by a funeral procession recently? The cars inch slowly down a busy street, each tagged with a small orange flag or guided through the fog of grief by a decisive police escort. These parades hush the distracted pieces of my heart and change the rhythm of my day. Loved ones are in those cars; they’ve already moved through most of the practical tasks of death: obituaries and luncheons and lawyers and booking flights. They have remembered and laughed and cried and embraced and sang. Now they creep outward to the cemetery where there are only a few words left and the dust of goodbye.
This is the kind of scene Jesus and his followers stumble upon as they approach the city gates at Nain. His caravan steps aside for the somber crowd that escorts the man’s body from society, commerce, and life itself.
But Jesus is not especially taken with the dead man. His gaze and compassion rest on the man’s mother, a widow, who is as good as dead. Without a close male relative, her future is without status or income. Her work and home, relationships and identity also find exodus with this march. She is now a social refugee, even though she is surrounded by a great crowd taking the journey to the graveyard. She is drowning with company, but she is also completely alone.
Jesus says, “Do not weep”, which might be the most inconsiderate and unhelpful thing people say to us when a loved one dies. But those words fall out of our mouths because we’re uncomfortable with emotions or we’re equating faith with piety and stoicism. When we utter these words, it’s because we long to fix what we cannot and instead our good intentions scold or shame.
Jesus says, “Do not weep”, but Jesus does weep, at the end of his life for the sins of the world and the pain of his own death! Jesus says, “Do not weep” because he sees the injustice and isolation and pain of unbelonging and he is about to restore her humanity with the rising of her son.
And if you think I’m reading too much into this line, “Do not weep”, remember that Jesus physically stops the procession with his approach and his own hand on the bier. He cannot let the caravan of despair move on, burying not only the man but his mother out there in hills. He objects with his words, his feet, and his hand, touching what is unclean and sick and dead.
Death is routine. It’s none of his business. He doesn’t even know her.
But he will not stand for it.
With his clean hand on the unclean cart,
the bearers and the whole procession stop
the rhythm of death, loneliness, and unbelonging is interrupted
the Kingdom of God breaks into the mundane pain of this world
and Jesus makes this his business.
Young man, I say to you, rise!
Not because you have earned it by faith or works.
Not because resurrection is a party trick.
Rise so that your mother knows value, place, belonging, and love.
Rise so that the crowds can witness the achy beauty of relationship restored.
Rise so that now every breath is filled with awe and wonder for this life.
Rise so that this caravan can move from despair to hope, from death to life.
Fear seized all of them and they glorified God saying, “A great prophet has risen among us! God has looked favorably on his people!”
Don’t be fooled like the crowd, brothers and sisters. They have seen with their own eyes and are willing to settle for a prophet and God’s favor.
We know that they have witnessed our inbreaking, indwelling God, who sees the people we can’t bear to look at, who speaks the hope we can’t manage to muster, who touches death with his holy hand, who restores life where there only dust was promised!
Jesus shows up where caravans collide, where gates dismiss us with our pain and suffering. Christ steps out of line and makes these things his business, changing the momentum and giving us back to each other.
Perhaps some of you heard that the pitching coach for the Gopher Baseball Team died last week after a four year battle with leukemia. He left behind three sons, a loving wife, and eighteen rosters of young men who got to see him fight with faith and courage. When he showed up to the field, both his body and spirit invited deep vulnerability from the players and staff. They watched his physical transformation with great fear and grief as cancer ate away at his strong frame. And they watched his spiritual transformation with great awe and hope as he emptied himself into Christ’s care more each day.
I spoke with Todd twice last spring during Gopher games and addressed him with the rote greeting, “It’s good to see you!” Both times he leaned forward, locking eyes with mine, and said with deep sincerity, “It’s good to be seen.” Todd kept showing up where caravans of despair and hope collide, grateful that the truth about his body and spirit would be seen by the Gopher community and by God.
We know there is great injustice in loneliness and unbelonging, but Jesus has given us the power to push back on that. He uses stories and sacraments, relationships and rituals to unhinge us so that we, too, might step out of line and speak for the sake of life.
Restoration happens whenever caravans collide, when what’s deemed clean dares to gets dirty, when we change the momentum with our fierce and compassionate presence. And this wild and miraculous work is only possible when, before anything else, we see each other – more deeply and more distinctly than a passing glance - so that our caravans do not slip politely past one another but, instead, dovetail into belonging and breath and hope that do not fail.
Jesus is at the gate. He is looking at you with compassion in the midst of your despair and hope. He is inviting you to get out of line, to change the pace, so that no one has to march into unbelonging and loneliness again. Keep your eyes peeled, brothers and sisters. For it’s good to be seen.