For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
My grandfather Reid Chilton was a great storyteller in the old Appalachian tradition of starting out with something believable about one of your relatives that suddenly becomes both unbelievable and unbelievably funny. A couple of those stories had to do with funerals in which the corpse apparently came back to life. My favorite went something like this.
“Back yonder before the first World War your great Uncle Arrington was preaching a funeral over to the Primitive Baptist Meetinghouse in Dry Pond. The lady what died, she was like your grandma here, she had the arthritis so bad she was all scrunched up. Well, when this here lady died, they didn’t have no undertaker around to do things right, so they just stretched here out as straight as they could and then they tied her down with some good, thick twine that we used to use tie up to tobacco for curing.
Well, the day of the funeral come and the lady was laid out nice in the coffin and the lid was open of course – we didn’t used to shut it until we was ready to take the body out to the cemetery. Your Uncle Arrington got real hot in his sermon, talking about the resurrection day, and how we all need to be ready, and how we need to be ready anytime and anyplace, and about that bright morning when the trumpet will sound and all the dead in Christ will come right up outer the grave; and people were nodding and smiling and shouting “Amen, that’s right!” when, all of a sudden, that woman’s strings broke and her muscles contracted and she sat straight up in that coffin and Lord – people went wild. They was crawling out windows, and piling up around the door, trampling on each other and pulling each other back whilst they was trying to get out. And your Uncle Arrington, why he just crawled up under the pulpit and sat there and kept mumbling, ‘Not now, Lord. I didn’t mean now. I don’t want to go now.’”
Two of today’s Scripture lessons deal with miraculous returns from the dead, with unbelievable, incredible stories of corpses being brought back to life through the power of God. Each story has a widow, an only son, and an act of compassion by a man of God.
The Elijah story is a little like Grandpa’s tale about Uncle Arrington – Elijah is a somewhat comic figure. He too is a bit peeved with God. “What are you doing to me?” he says. And he’s somewhat desperate in his efforts to heal. It’s almost as if he’s making it up as he goes along. “I know what I’ll do – I’ll lay down on top of him, maybe that will help?’” But, eventually, the boy is restored to life.
The story in Luke is very clear and straight-forward: A man is dead. A processions is on its way out of the city to bury him. Coming out of the gates of the town, the body is preceded by a group of professional mourners, playing on cymbals and wailing like Banshees.
Jesus and his followers would have been expected to step aside, to clear the way, one last act of respect for the dead and for those who mourn them. But they didn’t. They didn’t because something happened to Jesus, something Luke tells us about in a few spare words – “He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; . . . when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”
A sonless widow in that time and that place was facing a life of poverty. With no man to provide for her and no social security or life insurance or inheritance or employability, she was dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Her future looked desperate, perhaps hopeless.
Jesus reached out and touched the funeral platform on which the dead man was being carried. By doing so he broke religious and cultural rules; seriously shocking, scandalizing and confusing all those around. Not stopping there, he broke the rules of science and common sense by commanding the young man to get up, to come to life, to return from the dead; and miracle of miracles, he did.
Throughout his ministry, opportunities for healings came to Jesus but he didn’t go looking for them. Every time he worked a miracle it happened because of those three little words: “he had compassion.”
Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus’ compassion and love spills over and he does a miracle for someone in need. It is a great sadness to me that so many people don’t believe that God is love, that God is forgiving and kind and merciful. Too many people in the world believe that God is eager and willing to send us all to hell. In the story about Elijah, the woman turns on the prophet with the assumption that God has come to her house with judgment and punishment: Verse 18: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” In the Gospel lesson, when Jesus worked his miracle, the immediate response of the crowd is anxious fear. The text says “Fear seized all of them . . .” In my Grandpa’s tale, the humor plays off of the contrast between people’s joy at the prospect of a theoretical resurrection and their fear and panic in the face of a real one.
We live in a world full of fear. People are afraid of rising prices and falling incomes, we are afraid of first one presidential candidate and then the other one, we are afraid of failing health care systems, we are afraid of immigrants, and disease, and forest fires, and drought, and drugs, and tornadoes and hurricanes, and terrorists, and, and, and . . .the list is long and growing. And in the midst of all this fear, there are many people who are afraid of God. Or who believe that God doesn’t care what happens to us. Or believe there is no God to help us.
The Gospel for us today is this – into this bog of sadness, cynicism, and unbelief, God intervenes to shatter this cycle of fear and violence with words and deeds of compassion and healing. God intervened not once but many times in the days of the Hebrew scriptures – through patriarchs and matriarchs, through Judges both make and females, through prophets and seers and women who spoke truth to power, through kings and queens and shepherd boys.
And God in Christ intervened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Whose words told us who we are and what we are called to do and whose life showed us the way, the way of the cross.
And God continues to intervene through us. We are invited to join the Christ in having compassion; in overcoming fear with love, in overcoming sorrow with joy, in overcoming death with life. Christ is risen.
And, I do mean now. We should do this now.
Amen and amen.