This was the sermon I preached on June 9 on the “Widow of Nain:” Luke 7:11-17.
Jesus has just come to Nain, a village southeast of Nazareth. He’s traveling with his disciples and a large crowd after successfully healing a centurion’s servant. As they come up to the gate of the village, they encounter a funeral procession. There are crowds shuffling slowly and people weeping for the man who has died and is now being carried out of the city on a bier. In the heart of the crowd, Jesus sees this man’s mother and tells her, “do not weep.” And without another word, he touches the bier, halting the procession in its tracks. The widow and the crowds are waiting, silent and tense, not knowing who this man is or what he is doing. What might he do? Might he actually have the power to do something?
Jesus stands next to the bier and says in a clear voice, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” Suddenly the man sits bolt upright and begins to speak! As Jesus hands him over to his mother, the crowds begin to glorify and praise God, calling Jesus a great prophet and saying that God has looked favorably on them. From that small village of Nain, stories of a great prophet ripple out, eventually reaching John the Baptist.
This morning’s Gospel reading is a very short story. There’s very little dialogue and, although a man is raised from the dead, it’s not one of the better-known stories we hear in scripture! But as I was reading this story again, I was struck by the phrase, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…”
Now, if there’s one thing you all should know about me, it’s that I am a huge language nerd. Actually, I’m a huge nerd in general, but let’s just focus on the language part for now. I love learning different languages. I enjoy learning about where words come from and the ways in which languages reflect cultures. So when I heard this phrase about having compassion on the widow, I thought back to Greek class.
You see, there’s a really fun Greek word for what gets translated in our Gospel reading as “to have compassion on.” The verb used is splanchnizomai – if you’d like, I invite you to try saying it because it’s really fun! Splanchnizomai. This fun foreign word connects to the word for guts. That’s right, Jesus saw her and his guts were moved. Weird, right? Well, in many cultures of the day, the guts were thought to be the place of deep, tender emotion. Love, compassion and affection were not matters of the heart, but matters of the gut. I think “I ❤ New York” works much better than “I gut New York,” but I digress.
Jesus is walking in the village and he sees a sight that hits him in the gut. It stops him in his tracks and causes him to reach out and to address the people and the situation in front of him. He sees not only the widow’s sorrow, but also her glaring need. He knows perfectly well that in his culture a single woman without a husband or son to care for her would lose her place in society and would have to rely upon charity to survive. He knows that she not only weeps for her son, but also for the dire straits she’s now in – for the uncertainty that lies ahead. He sees this and it hits him hard. And so he acts, speaking a word of hope and promise, telling her not to weep. And then he raises her son with only a few words, restoring not only his life, but the widow’s as well. Both of them are restored to life and also to their places in the community.
Jesus’ response to the situation – the compassion he feels upon seeing this sad sight – isn’t just a miracle story. It helps the people of Nain, the people hearing Luke’s Gospel, and us, today, to identify Jesus with God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is described as being a God of mercy, compassion and faithfulness. God’s character is one of love and justice – of caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and all of those who have been marginalized. Jesus’ compassion on the widow signals that he is connected with God. Through Jesus’ movement of love to the very center of death and the miracle of raising this young man, the villagers identify him as a great prophet, as someone who is bringing God’s favor and mercy to them. God has visited them and all of them have in some way experienced not only God’s favor, but new life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ encounter with the funeral procession. They were on their way, participating in a difficult part of every day life, when they were stopped. They were interrupted by God enfleshed. But even Jesus was powerfully impacted by what he encountered. His compassionate, divine gut told him to get involved and to act.
I know there have been times in my life when I have seen situations and felt compelled to reach out. But I also know there are just as many times I’ve ignored these promptings. How often do we go through life, checking off things on our “to do” lists, moving along and doing our own thing, ignoring, intentionally or not, the widows around us? Ignoring those in need of tender care and also justice? What does it take for something to hit us in the guts and cause us to sit up and pay attention? Do the situations we see around us or in the larger world – the poverty, problems with bullying, lack of clean water, malaria, violence – move us with compassion to do something? Or do we walk on by?
A few weeks ago, a photo posted online hit me in the gut and stopped me cold. It was a picture of a couple embracing in the rubble of the garment factory that had collapsed in Bangladesh in April. It was a shocking picture because they looked peaceful, like a couple in love with the backdrop of a horrific tragedy. It was a picture that saddened me, but also made me upset that so many, 1,100 people, died due to unsafe working conditions. It was also a picture that made me uncomfortable because the garments made there could easily be the ones on my back. As I was looking at the photo of the couple buried in the rubble and now thinking about the gospel for today, I wonder, how might God be calling me to respond? Might God be calling me to a greater awareness of the high price of my clothes? Might God be calling me to speak up for better working conditions at garment factories?
Like the widow and the crowds in Nain, God through the Holy Spirit interrupts us along our way, inviting us to participate in what God is up to in the world. The difficult thing is being open to being interrupted – letting ourselves be moved by compassion to do something that maybe was never on our radar screen. Letting ourselves be moved by the Spirit to take risks for the sake of the gospel. Letting ourselves be moved out of our comfort zones and beyond our fears to follow Christ, the one who gives abundant life.
The young man in this story is not the only one who has died and been brought back to life for a second chance. In some ways, we may be dead to what is going on around us in the world, hesitant to get involved because we fear we do not have the skills necessary, or because we wonder what others might say if we stepped outside of the box. Maybe we doubt that we could even make a difference. But just as Jesus brought the young man back to life, he stands before us, beckoning us to rise and to live in the fullness of the life he longs to give to us.
Every day we can remember that, in baptism, we too, have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him. We have been marked with the cross and gifted with the Holy Spirit. We have been given the incredible opportunity to go out, led by the Spirit, to participate in the work of sharing life and hope with others, especially those in need like the widow of Nain.
And one of the fantastic gifts we’ve been given is that we’re never in this alone! We have the community of faith to help us discern how God may be leading us individually, as a congregation, and as a larger church to respond to those stirrings of mercy and compassion we feel.
With stories of violence in the news or the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma we know all too well that we will see and hear difficult or even downright awful things in the world that hit us in the gut and move us. The question is, how is God calling us to respond? Is it with prayer? Is it with donations of clothing, food, water or money? Is it by giving of our time? Is it by learning more about the situations and discerning with the community how to respond?
Christ has given us new life through his death and resurrection. And we have been generously invited to share that gift of life with others in his name. What an amazing opportunity! May the Holy Spirit continue to interrupt our lives, to shake us up and stir in us, moving us with compassion and driving us to actively participate in God’s work in the world. Let’s just say I’ve got a good gut feeling about it. AMEN.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.