Sermon: Sunday 5 June 2016
Second Sunday after Trinity
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Canon Pastor and Sub-Dean
Raising of the widow’s son
There is no denying it – two of today’s readings can make uncomfortable hearing. God intervening when someone has died: that most raw moment of human grief and longing. No wonder the widow railed against Elijah as having triggered her misfortune. Here is the sharp edge of faith: where is God in her suffering? Or at such moments in our lives? Uncomfortable resonances – difficult questions but ones which, for grown-up faith, we should address. From which none of us are immune. Many here have direct personal experience of untimely, unexpected and gut-wrenching death. We’ve both observed and experienced the pain of separation, of finality where life will never be the same again. And wondered, given today’s stories, where God was in those, our circumstances.
If we take the point of the story to be that God brings people back to life, then we’ll be bitterly disappointed when he doesn’t heal us or our loved ones. And lets them die. If we extrapolate from these stories the assumption that Christ will intervene in our health crises, even to the point of death, and then he doesn’t, where does that put us? Probably disillusioned – fed up, possibly given up with God.
I do wonder what it felt like to be those widows’ sons? Or Lazarus? Or Jairus’ daughter? Having already left this life, to be pulled back? At very least it must have been disorientating. Of course we have no knowledge of life after death: but to re-enter a world – a way of living – from which one has departed – well, at very least not easy. I’m not trivialising, but think about when you’ve left a situation, perhaps a place, community or work team, and then you go back. It doesn’t really work. Everyone has moved on – they in one direction and you in another. So too for those widows’ sons: people would expect them to be the same but, in reality, they cannot be, because of what they experienced. And, of course, they will die again.
While I’ve taken and attended many funerals, not all of which have gone as I expected, none of us will have experienced a funeral interrupted as in today’s Gospel. The intervention feels brutal – surely they gasped when Jesus said, ‘Do not weep’. How insensitive. The rituals are already over: they’re well on their way to burying the young man. Grief is already tempered by the mother’s realisation that her life is irrevocably changed.
In my experience, life very quickly moves on away from the person who has died. No matter how deep the grief. Because the dynamic, the relationships, change as a result of that person no longer being there and the space where the person was starts to close over. There is, however unpalatable, a new reality both on earth and in relation to those who have died. So let’s be cautious about imaging heaven as a place where we shall meet up with our loved ones and continue the relationship as it was. Eternity is something entirely other.
In both cases the widows are unnamed, vulnerable because of their widowhood, now doubly exposed because their son, their only remaining male provider has gone. Each is, therefore, on the edge of society, of little account and therefore not expected to receive God’s attention. Yet they are the recipients of grace in abundance. The widow of Nain asked for nothing: she may not even have been aware of Jesus passing by. God’s grace offered without conditions or expectations but with love. While Elijah’s widow links her son’s death with her sins, the sheer gratuity of the miracle dispels any sense of a vengeful God meting out punishment. Were we tempted to think good deeds might ease our paths and help avoid such calamities, then our Gospel story particularly blows that wide open – no place in God’s realm for pious self-righteousness. There’s a challenge for us.
Beyond the immediate practicalities of ordinary life and death, both these stories tell of the transcendent, of a different reality breaking into the everyday – something is in the air, just around the corner. Christ came forward touching the bier and the bearers stood still. Time stopped, making space for God to act. The same God as of the burning bush, the flaming torch and the silence in the storm. A place of holy mystery. No theologising or explanation – just a simple act of compassion from one who was compassion and love personified. No answers but hope.
In the liturgical calendar we are now in what is called ordinary time. At one level, we are all most of the time in ordinary time: only occasionally does the extraordinary break into this world. A widow mourning her dead son – how many of those across this world today? Especially in war-torn countries. Sadly death is commonplace for many, but still a fact of life for all, even those whose daily lives are more secure. This is not to trivialise the pain: grief is still grief, raw and shocking, which no material security takes away. But stories like today’s, of unnamed ordinary widows of no societal consequence should cause us not to rail against God for not intervening in our lives and deaths, but, rather, to wonder at the miracle of God’s power breaking into the mundane. Jesus was so moved that he enabled the extraordinary to happen.
We may wait in vain for the big miracle yet fail to recognise God with us in the day to day of life, encouraging, supporting and redeeming. In plenty and need, joy and sorrow, loneliness and contentment. Maybe even more present in darkness and difficulty, not needing our recognition but awaiting an invitation to sustain and restore. As the text goes: when the Lord saw, he had compassion. Compassion in vulnerability – think of the unnamed people who help us at moments of sheer naked grief and bewilderment. Unremembered but metaphorically holding our hands. ‘Seeing’ us as did Jesus with that deep Christ-like empathy which leaps across the space between.
Do we really believe in a capricious, fickle God, taking no account of our lives, for good or for bad? Who lets bad things happen, witnesses suffering and grief and lifts not a finger? Today’s stories put the lie to that myth. Time and again Christ was moved to act. No – if we believe in eternity then it follows that we should see this life on earth as part of that continuum with God at the core. If our faith means anything to us, it surely needs to look beyond trite explanations which take no account of suffering or the contradictions of life and death. We are not truly Church if we only smile, sing joyfully and apply metaphorical sticking plaster to the wounds of life. That kind of Church is escapism, offering no help or hope in brokenness. Both we and God deserve better.
And is not the Christian story one of a God fully and truly understanding the messiness and extremes of human living? A God, too, who both understands and dispenses grace in bucket loads. A God who, as today’s stories demonstrate, gets right into the particulars of individual lives like yours and mine. Lives (and deaths) which matter, however transient they may seem, among the millions of others on this planet. A God who weeps with us, both withstands and understands our grief, anger and disbelief – and a God of tender love and utter compassion.