Sunday, June 30, 2013


Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Joanna AdamsPaul J. Nuechterlein, and Frederick Buechner for their insights in preparing this week's sermon.

Janis Joplin sings, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." It's kind of fitting, when you think of it - when our security and sufficiency is found in Christ, what could we possibly have to lose? Do we not then have all the freedom we need to love - egregiously, abundantly, lavishly and joyously?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

This is the Word of the Lord.

How do you define “freedom?” It’s an appropriate question as we in the United States prepare this week to celebrate Independence Day.

To be sure, the Founding Fathers defined “freedom” as a release from oppressive taxes, levied with no concern for or representation by those being taxed, and above all national self-determination, the ability of a people to control their own national destiny. Within that template of national freedom, there was an acknowledgement of personal freedoms as well, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is a view of freedom as a grand design, and one that has guided this country’s subsequent leaders to do both wonderful and terrible things in its name.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of “freedom,” his focus is both personal and eternal. He sees freedom as the ability to choose among alternatives, or to act in certain situations independently of natural or social restraints. Because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we who are called by His name are no longer enslaved by the Law or by fear of death.

We talked last week about the people who had come into the church at Galatia after Paul left, insisting that the members of that body of believers adhere to a Jewish belief system, embracing circumcision and dietary laws as a prerequisite for following Christ. In effect, demanding that spiritually free men and women enslave themselves to a Law which had been fulfilled and nullified by the blood of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, there is something comforting, something reassuring about being enslaved to a Law or to a code or to an order.  There is a kind of security in knowing that there are specific requirements and expectations, and in return one has assurance of belonging, of not having to think for one’s self.

Under the rule of Great Britain, the thirteen colonies could rely on the protection of King George III. They knew what was expected of them, even if those expectations were unfair and oppressive. There was safety in that enslavement. But there came a point when many realized that security was not worth the price. They determined, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, that “[t]hey who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The Law of Moses taught that we must perform certain works in order to become righteous enough to merit God’s favor. In Christ we learn that we already benefit from God’s favor, that good works aimed at attaining salvation are not only unnecessary, but are in fact a detriment to our relationship with one another and with God. We are free from the Law.

When we move beyond theocratic constructs such as the Law of Moses, we are in uncharted territory, forced to make constant, day by day and even moment by moment choices: choices between giving in to our basest desires, conforming to social expectations, acting as if we are the center of our own universe; or following the Law of Love, where our desires are secondary to the needs of others, where the Holy Spirit rather than society determines our thoughts and actions, and where God and God alone is the center of our universe.

We cannot serve two masters. When we serve the flesh, we see certain things happen, which are the polar opposite of the things which grow from a life whose focus and center is God. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when he writes that the works of the flesh are obvious, he immediately starts with the kinds of things our minds kind of naturally go to when we hear that phrase, “works of the flesh”: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, and let’s don’t forget drunkenness and carousing while we’re at it.

These are the marks of a person whose focus is pleasing oneself, and other human beings are tools, object whose sole purpose is fulfilling the basest desires.

Then there are some more obvious bad things:  idolatry and sorcery. These are the tools of one who seeks to manipulate forces beyond their comprehension, to bend the forces of the universe to do their will.

And of course we who follow Christ know that these things are not marks of a Christ-centered life. These things destroy not only our relationship with the living God, they destroy the spirit. They devour the soul… leaving an unfulfilled, sick, pitiful, hollowed-out shell of a person. We can, if we want to, be kinda smug about it – after all, those are things that other people do, that’s a problem for them over there, not us over here.

But there is more to the list, isn’t there? Paul warns about another kind of erosion, another form of destruction: biting and devouring one another, and he points to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy as core works of the self-interested, self-indulgent flesh.

There is a cartoon where a girl is watching television commercials, and her mom comes in and turns off the TV. The little girl protests, saying, “How will I know what I want?”

We get our desires by imitating one another. We copy each other's desires, or we wouldn't really know what to desire. That's the way we are made, so it's not bad in itself. We have the ability to copy, to imitate, to image God's desire. The problem is that instead of imaging God's desire, we image each other's desires. And when we do that we end up desiring many of the same things. And when we end up desiring the same things, what happens to us? Why, we compete with one another, we envy one another, and we get caught in the conceit of thinking that we deserve what we desire more than the next person. We claw and scratch and bite and devour, because, after all, there is only so much power, so much popularity, so much money, and when it runs out there isn’t any more… so give me mine now, or else!

This is no healthier for the individual, and it absolutely destroys community on every level. Not only is the individual soul destroyed, family and friendship and fellowship fall under the murderous knife of self-indulgence and self-interest as well. And this is often much harder to detect within ourselves, far more difficult to resist because it is how we have been conditioned by society and culture and media.

There is one remedy, one solution: to choose, in our freedom, to walk in the Spirit of God, to place God at the center of our universe.

Do you notice, Paul uses different words for the effluvia of the flesh and the product of the Spirit? Works are things that are done – effort and toil and sweat and blood and time and immersion to push, gouge, tear and fight something into existence. And such small, insignificant, temporary things, decaying even as they are completed.

Fruit, though… fruit happens. Fruit is the product of soil and temperature and moisture and sunlight and time and patience. A pecan falls from a tree in the right spot if we do nothing at all, in time we have a pecan tree. As the pecans fall from those trees, we again do nothing at all and in time we have more pecan trees, and more and more.

When we choose the life of the Spirit, we choose the law of love: when we choose to love our neighbor as ourselves, we move into a place where our neighbor is the focus, rather than a tool to attain power and security and influence and money. Rather, power, security, influence and money become tools employed for the benefit and enrichment of our neighbor. And make no mistake, the wording Paul uses is very focused, very individual, he means our neighbor, that one, right there right now, whoever he or she is, whoever he or she loves, whatever he or she looks like or thinks or believes, that person right there.

And what grows from the life of the Spirit? The fruit is a stark contrast to the works of the flesh” love, joy, peace, and patience, which nourish and enrich the soul; kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, which enrich and heal and grow family and friendship and fellowship.

Each generation of Americans must learn anew what our Pledge of Allegiance maintains; that civil liberty is a function of fidelity to justice. In the same way, each generation of Jesus' followers must learn anew that Christian liberty is a function of fidelity to the law of love.

This is the kind of love Jesus spoke of – the kind Jesus lived. When he gave us the Great commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was emphasizing ethics over emotion, fidelity to love rather than enslavement to self.

The great 20th- century religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: "Basically love means… being responsible, responsible to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind."

To be free really means to be liberated from the prison of "me, myself, and I". To be truly free is to be able to move beyond the self and, as one wise person put it, to move into the risk of love and to give oneself to the demand of service. To be free is not to be free from responsibility but to be free for responsibility. Christ Jesus had everything in the world going for himself-power, status, safety – he who was and is God chose, freely chose, to empty himself and take on the form of a servant for the sake of the world.

What could we accomplish if it didn’t matter who got credit? If it didn’t matter who died with the most toys? What if we really didn’t care who had the most money or power or influence or security? What if it made no difference who wins, because we finally realized, once and for all that love wins? What if we used the freedom for which Christ freed us to choose to walk by the Spirit, to make ourselves servants of one another?

Would we not then be free indeed?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Feet Washed With Tears

This song played in my head, for some reason, when I was writing this. Perhaps it is the last line.

"Four Word Letter"

I wrote a four word letter,
With post-script in crooked lines,
"Tho I'd lived I'd never been alive."
You know who I am - you held my hem
As I traveled blind
Listening to a whispering in my ear,
Soft but getting stronger,
Telling me the only purpose of my being here
Is to stay a bit longer.

Stealing a bicycle chain,
As the handlebars crashed to the ground,
The back wheel detached from the frame,
It kept rolling, yeah, but aimlessly drifting around.

Oh, doubters, let's go down,
Lets go down - won't you come on down?
Oh doubters, lets go down-
Down, to the river to pray?

"But I'm so small I can barely be seen - how can this great love be inside of me?"
Look at your eyes - they're small in size, but they see enormous things.

Wearing black canvas slippers
In our frog-on-a-lily-pad pose
We sewed buttons and zippers
To chinese pink silk
And olive night clothes
If you can someday stop by
Somehow we'll show you the pictures and fix you some tea
(see, my dad's getting a bit older now and just unimaginably lonely).

Oh, pretenders, let's go down
Lets go down- won't you come on down?
Oh, pretenders
Lets go down-
Down to the river and pray?

"Oh but I'm so afraid, and I'm set in my ways"
But he'll make the rabbits and rocks sing his praise.
"But I'm too tired, I won't last long."
No, he'll use the weak to overcome the strong!

Oh, Amanda, let's go down
Lets go down- won't you come on down?
Mama, Nana, let’s go down, down in the dirt by the river to pray?

You struck the match - why not be utterly changed by fire?
To sacrifice the shadow and the mist
Of a brief life you never much liked - So if you'd care to come along we're gonna curb all our never-ending,
clever complaining (as who's ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?)
We hunger, but though all that we eat brings us little relief, we don't know quite what else to do,
We have all our beliefs but we don't want our beliefs,
God of peace, we want you.

I think that this is the cry of all creation: God of peace, we want you.

Luke 7:36-8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation in the Gospels. Yes, it’s a reputation they come by honestly for the way they work against Jesus at every turn. Yet however badly they turned out, the origin of the movement was sincere: to be as faithful as possible to the Law of God, as handed down to them in the Scriptures.

We’ve spoken before about how, in the context of first-century Judaism, to be a Pharisee was to be a liberal, to work against the established power structure of the Sadducees, who held power in the Temple – and who clung to that position at the pleasure of the Roman governor.

Pharisees like Simon strove to be as faithful as they could be, carefully, one might say obsessively, working to observe the smallest detail of those dietary and ceremonial laws passed down from Moses, keeping themselves separated from anyone and anything that might bring uncleanness upon them. They rejected the compromises the Sadducees made with Herod and Pilate for the sake of keeping the peace, for the sake of keeping their hold on power.

Compare this carefully pious man with the woman who came into the dining room just moments after they had reclined on their couches to eat: it was customary, by the way, for guests to lay on their left side, knees bent so their feet hung off the couch behind them. This woman, who in Luke’s account has no name, never says a word. She had her own reputation – Luke calls her merely “a sinner,” and all that means in the context of the Judaism of that day and age was that she was not faithful to God’s law. There isn’t any real point in speculating. All we know is that she had the means to buy expensive ointment in a costly box.

Simon may have heard about Jesus raising the widow’s son, or may have overheard him preaching in the town’s marketplace, we don’t know. I have read some intriguing speculation, though, that what Jesus was doing and saying, at least in the early part of his ministry, resonated with the Pharisees, especially as it pertained with their resistance to the Sadducees.

Apart from their insistence that there was no resurrection, no reward or punishment after death, and the possibility that they recognized only the first five books of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, as authoritative, the Sadducees insisted that worshipping and serving God centered on and emanated from the Temple, and the Temple alone.

The Pharisees, by contrast, believed in the resurrection of the dead, eternal reward or punishment following death, they held that the oral teachings, or Talmud, was as authoritative as Torah, and by their strict observance of Law in their daily lives, believed that worshiping and serving God must be something that was a part of daily life, not simply when one went to the Temple or sat in the synagogue.

So it is no wonder that the Pharisees heard echoes of their own beliefs in Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps, then, Simon took it upon himself to have Jesus over for dinner, so he could get a closer look at the fellow. Was he a prophet, a man of God, was he a Pharisee, or was he just another in a long line of rabble-rousing nutcases who dreamed of overthrowing Roman rule only to set himself on David’s throne in its place?

That’s what I would like to think about Simon, though I must say his actions aren’t those of someone wanting to woo Jesus into his fraternity. Judgmental, inhospitable… I wonder if the Pharisees got together to decide who would invite Jesus to dinner, and Simon drew the short straw?

Whatever the case, I think it is safe to say that when Simon invited Jesus to dinner it wasn’t about extending hospitality, wasn’t about developing a friendship. It was about seeing if Jesus measured up to the hype, to see if he was good enough. To see if he was Pharisee material. And I think Simon had already reached a conclusion about Jesus before he invited him, and it wasn’t a particularly positive conclusion at that.

This woman, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, might have heard Jesus at the same time as Simon. She may have seen Jesus at a different time, though, speaking with her friends, eating with sinners like her; perhaps she had seen sight restored to the blind or a sick person healed by a touch from Jesus. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus had healed her, or her child, we can’t know because (like so many times in the Gospels) we aren’t given her name. Whatever the case, this woman knew that it wasn’t a question of Jesus measuring up to her expectations – the fact was that, deep down, she knew it was her who didn’t measure up, who had had no hope of measuring up to such hope and love as Jesus personified. This wasn’t about measuring up. It was about worshiping.

There are so many things in the Gospels I wish I had been able to witness. To just stand in the corner that day, watching as Simon’s servants brought out the food, probably meager fare for someone so well off as Simon, but he wouldn’t have bothered preparing the really good stuff for Jesus and his band of raggedy Galileans. Not much is said, I suppose. Simon’s friends at the table would have talked softly among themselves, eyeing the smelly and road-worn disciples, and those disciples would have been softly speaking to each other, trying not to show their discomfort. The undercurrent of tension and Simon’s disapproval would have been palpable.

She entered the dining room quietly, yet knowing she hadn’t entered unnoticed. Every eye was on her – well, I can imagine a couple of the disciples looking up, looking at one another, shrugging and going back to their food. Stuff like this happened all the time, after all, but good eats were rare.

She held that alabaster jar in both hands as she knelt behind Jesus, who was still dusty from the road. Already weeping, her tears landed on his feet as she reached behind her head, and to the shock of almost everyone watching, let her long hair fall down her back. Taking the long tresses in her hands, she used her hair to dry where her tears fell, then picked up the jar and, with a soft crack, broke it open, the perfume filling the air. Simon watched, agape, mortified, as she anointed his feet with ointment, kissing them as she wept.

There were certain things that a good host provided for his guests in first century Judea. Guests would have been greeted in the traditional Middle Eastern fashion, a kiss on each cheek. There would be water, and perhaps a servant to wash their feet. Olive oil would be provided for their hair. This is why I think Simon had reached every conclusion he needed to before inviting Jesus, why else would none of these basic expectations were met?

In that moment, Simon was convinced that his worst expectations about Jesus were correct. This man wasn’t Pharisee material – why, he wasn’t even a good Jew! How dare he allow such an unseemly display, with a woman, in his home, at his table! Why, if he were really a prophet, he’d know the kind of woman he’s allowing to act that way, and he would certainly not allow the likes of her – let alone any woman – to touch him! Horrifying!

Jesus could feel the disgust and rage radiating from Simon. I imagine Jesus speaking softly, barely above a whisper, his tone level, calm, no sarcasm or accusing edge to his voice.

“Simon, let’s talk, you and I.”

Through clenched teeth, I imagine Simon replying, “So talk, ‘teacher.’”

“There was this banker who had two debtors; one owed twenty-nine thousand dollars, and the other twenty nine hundred dollars. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon looked at him a long time, trying to figure out what he was getting at. Finally he said, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

“Exactly, Simon. Exactly.”

Jesus sits up and turns on his couch, his hand extended toward the woman, but his eyes never leaving Simon. “See this woman? She did or me what you couldn’t be bothered to. I got no water for my feet, she washed them with her tears. You didn’t greet me, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Sure, maybe her sins were many, but those sins have been forgiven, and she knows it. So she shows great love. And there is the difference. You don’t think you need forgiveness, so you don’t show a whole lot of love, do you?”

That long look Jesus had been given Simon finally broke, and he looked instead at the woman, perhaps lifting her chin with his fingers until she looked him in the eye. “Your sins are forgiven,” is all he says.

Simon’s friends are of course scandalized. “Well don’t this beat all? Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”

Jesus doesn’t even blink, never breaks eye contact with the woman, who smiles, just a little. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

By their very nature, the Pharisees depended on their superior knowledge of the Law, their careful habits and attention to minute detail, over against the ritual and sacrifice and showmanship of the Sadducees, to keep them in a place of acceptability toward God. Since they were, in effect, doing everything themselves, there was, in effect, not much need for God to help them. They had things under control just fine, thanks. Whereas they had originally sought to please God by their piety, their efforts had in fact become a replacement for God – they could be good enough, they didn’t need forgiveness!

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we are good enough – that because of where we’re born, or how often we attend church, or which sins we do not commit, we are somehow acceptable to God. We find ourselves thinking, like Simon, that we measure up when, in fact, we should be sharing the floor with the weeping woman, sure of nothing except the fact that we need forgiveness.

Simon thought he was good enough, thought he was part of the “in crowd.” If this was so, why not look at this woman, who needed forgiveness and acceptance and redemption and see someone who could be guided, loved, restored?

This is our task, our calling: for those who think they’ve done too much, are too far gone to be forgiven, outside of the reach of the grace of God, we who are the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in this world today, remind ourselves that, in the words of Paul in the book of Romans, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and we reach out to them, shining the light of God’s grace into their dark corners. No matter who sees us, no matter who disapproves of our actions.

We love, because Christ first loved us. That is our calling, that is the Gospel.

You see, no matter where we start from, Jesus meets us, and always at the place where we lay down our right to claim social status, or religious purity, or birthright. Kneeling at the feet of Christ, crucified with Him, and yet we live and move and have our being in Jesus Christ. Like that woman, we are forgiven much, we are restored, we are alive in Him.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Breaking The Rules...

My deepest appreciation this week to the thoughtful work of Jeannine K. Brown, Bruce Epperly, and the Rev. David Grant Smith.

There is an artist named Kutiman who takes unrelated YouTube videos and edits them together, creating new songs from the works of diverse musicians, speakers, and other artists.

This is more than just a fun video, and a great piece of music, it is a picture of how breaking the rules can creatively change things for the better.

Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards he 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 is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus broke the rules. This isn’t news, I know: he healed on the Sabbath, he made it a habit to hang out with Samaritans and tax collectors and sinners, he touched unclean people all the time, he talked to women, he seemed to look for ways to antagonize the purists and elitists in his culture…

Now, as fun as it might be to think of Jesus as breaking those rules just for the sake of rule breaking, just to afflict the comfortable, there was always a greater motive to everything he did. If Jesus broke the rules, it was because to him, people were more important than propriety. Nowhere is this more visible than in our reading today.

Just like in our culture, there were certain rituals and expectations surrounding funerals. The dead were buried the same day whenever possible, professional mourners were hired and the body was placed, sometimes shrouded, on a board and carried in a procession to the burial or entombment site. One stood aside when they came by, maintained a respectful silence as the professional mourners shuffled by, wailing and banging cymbals. I expect that, at first, Jesus and the large crowd following him did just that, at least until the bier came by, anyway. It wasn’t the corpse of the young man that caught Jesus’ eye; it was the woman walking beside it, an older lady, pretty obviously the young man’s mother, as it was carried slowly out of the gate toward the tombs.

There was only her – no husband, no other children. She was alone in the world, and that wasn’t just a sad situation in that day and age. Women could not own property, could not hold a traditional job… without this son to provide her support, she would certainly have to resort to either begging or prostitution to eat, and she may well end up homeless.

We lose loved ones, and it feels like a part of us has died… we wonder how we can go on without them, with that gaping hole in our existence every day. But we do go on, we make a way, we put one foot in front of the other and shuffle through and we eventually make it somehow. Friends and family help us through the hard times, hold our hand and give us a shoulder to cry on. But the point is that we make it, and deep down we expect other people going though similar grief to do the same. Monday after the funeral comes, and we take a shower and get in the car and go to work, and we expect everyone else does, too.

But what if Monday morning comes and there isn’t a shower or a car or a job to go to? What if, once the piles of food folks bring over after the funeral are eaten, there isn’t anything else to eat? No money to pay the power bill or the housenote…

That is the plight of the childless widow in first century Judea. Not only has this woman lost the person dearest to her in the world, she now has no support, no home, no future, no hope.

So it isn’t a surprise that Jesus felt compassion for her. Who wouldn’t look, feel our heart go out to her, maybe even weep with her as the funeral went past…

Then we’d move along. Things to do, places to go, people to see. That’s what everyone does, and what every person living in Nain did that day, and every person going in and out of Nain as well…

Every person, save one.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has a Prayer of the Day for this week which reads, in part,  “...Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them...”

Thinking right things is relatively easy. Feeling compassion is normal. Jesus acted on his compassion.

The crowd was silent, as was the tradition, but Jesus called out to the widow, and said something ridiculous. Ludicrous. Impossible. “Hey, don’t cry!”

Then he actually walked out from the crowd and – I cannot possibly tell you how shocking an act this was – he touched the bier that held the dead man and stopped the procession! He purposely made himself unclean, counted himself among those who, for the sake of helping a woman bury her last living hope, would be cast out of the community until a time of purification had passed.

I wonder if the widow looked at him like he was crazy, or if the crowd stirred in discomfort and fear? These were not things a sane person did or said, after all, and it only got worse from there. Jesus actually spoke to the dead man, and spoke nonsense at that!

“Hey, dude, I’m talking to you. Get up.”

I said that Jesus never broke the rules for the sake of breaking the rules. He never did shocking things simply to see the look of fear and revulsion in people’s faces. There was always a deeper motive behind everything Jesus did.

First there was the people’s reaction following the understandable fear – how would you react if a dead person sat up and talked, after all?

Those that hadn’t fainted or run away in terror saw Jesus take the young man’s hand and put it in his mother’s, watched as the pallbearers lowered the bier, and the young man stood and walked with his mother back to his home.

The Scripture reading tells us that “…they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’” And it didn’t stop there, people talked! “This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.”

So first, Jesus’ rule-breaking points both to his role as a prophet, meaning one who speaks the Word of God, and to the fact that, in him, God’s restoration has begun.

Next, in touching that funeral bier, Jesus placed himself in that widow’s circle. He was unclean now just like the pallbearers and the widow and whoever else had helped her prepare the body for burial. In that act of solidarity with the mourning, he worked with God to affect change.

The dead son’s life was restored to him, and then he was restored to his mother. The restoration of life to this man was about more than his ability to “live and move and have his being” once again, of course; it was about the restoration of the woman’s place in society. This vulnerable woman was once again secure in her ability to live into her old age cared for by someone.

That this woman would have had to resort to begging or prostitution was a symptom of a society that had lost its way, had rejected the spiritual principles upon which it had been founded. The Jewish Scriptures were filled with directives to care for widows and for orphans and for foreigners in their midst. It was a basic expectation for living a faithful life.

That crowd saw what Jesus did, and perhaps, at long last, they remembered. They recalled that loving God wasn’t about keeping rules at all. Loving God was about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. So no wonder the people called Jesus a prophet. After all, part and parcel of speaking the Word of God is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; and all of that had taken place right there, undeniably, in front of them.

Jesus saw someone who was voiceless, helpless, who through no fault of her own had become vulnerable and bereft of hope. He felt compassion and he acted.

And what does that tell us, the ones who in this day and age call ourselves by his name? We who have responded to the call to relationship and restoration with God through Jesus Christ have a responsibility to act like Jesus, to break the rules, to cross the lines, to speak out to and for the forgotten ones, to touch the bier.

We must ask ourselves, then, who are the ones among us, in our community, our society, our world, who are voiceless, helpless, vulnerable? In our individual lives, in whatever context applies, how are we called on to touch the bier? How might we place ourselves in solidarity with those who are suffering? What risks might we have to take, and are we willing to be like Jesus and take those risks? How can we work to restore all those who are forgotten, endangered, oppressed and marginalized to the safe, caring center of the community? How might we be a prophetic presence in our society, calling it to embody compassion – to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God?

Every moment in every day provides opportunity for us to discern how best to participate in God’s creative transformation, to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes through the spiritual practice of compassion, to repeat that line from the Book of Common Prayer I mentioned earlier:  

“...Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them...”

No, we may not be called on to raise the dead. But we are called upon daily to live in solidarity with those whose life circumstances are more vulnerable than our own, and to help make their lives better in some way. To pray for the discernment to see things God’s way, and to act accordingly. To live like Jesus is to break the rules whenever those rules stand in the way of compassion, whenever they bar the door to God’s ongoing work of creative transformation.