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.

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