She didn’t approach Jesus….she didn’t ask for his help. The widow just walked with the funeral procession alongside the body of her only son…her only family…to bury him outside the city gates. She was so engulfed in her own pain, she would have been oblivious to strangers passing by. You see, she has lost everything at this point. There would be no grandchildren to look forward to. There would be no one to support her in the years ahead. She had become a charity case now, an object of pity among her friends and neighbors.
No, she didn’t notice Jesus, as far as we can tell…but he noticed her. He noticed her…and he had compassion on her. He felt her pain. He felt her emptiness. And even though he was a stranger, he interrupted their procession and stopped those who were carrying his body…and he reached out and touched the bier…the platform they carried him on. He touched the dead man. You have to think it was incredibly awkward for the mourners. But then, he woke the dead man up. With the authority of the God of all creation, to whom death really doesn’t mean anything after all, Jesus woke him up.
It is no wonder people thought he was pretty cool. It is no wonder word spread fast. Death turned into life. Mourning turned into dancing. Despair turned into joy.
I love this story. Who doesn’t love a happy ending? But one of the things I love most is that she didn’t have to do anything. This amazing miracle doesn’t happen because she had enough faith – it doesn’t happen because she demands Jesus’ attention or because her friends did. Nobody invites Jesus into this situation. Jesus just resurrected the dead because HE wanted to. Because he cared. Because he had compassion.
Jesus’ grace and love isn’t dependent upon anything we do…or don’t do…or limited to people of faith. It is simply what Jesus does. Who Jesus is.
But there’s always the flip side to these stories, isn’t there? Because…well…what about all the other widows…the ones whose sons died and stayed dead? What about all the other folks who are still engulfed in pain and grief from one tragedy or another? Why doesn’t Jesus save them?
I want answers to that question. I do. But we really don’t get them here, do we? This story doesn’t answer the question of why some people suffer more than others or why some people go through horrible experiences while others have it fairly easy. It doesn’t help me come to terms with the 1000 plus people who drowned in the past week in the Mediterranean…refugees so desperate to find safety for their families that they risked everything…while most of the world was sipping lattes. It doesn’t help me reconcile an 8 year old girl who died this week on her wedding night this week at the hands of the man her father gave her to….when she should have been playing with dolls or climbing a tree or jumping rope with friends. It doesn’t help me make sense of the reality that millions in this world this week don’t have clean water, or enough food, or opportunities for education…while my girls went to good schools in a safe community and I enjoyed my comfortable home and beautiful yard. No matter which way I read this story…it won’t answer the question of why bad things happen to some people…and not others…in this world.
But what it does do is say … is that when something like THIS happens – when someone dares to touch interrupt the funeral procession and touch the bier…. that is where God is at. When people show compassion, when people care, when people restore hope and make futures possible….that is where you will find God.
As Lutherans, we like to call ourselves Theologians of the Cross. It sounds deep and very intellectual …but all it means is this – that if we want to learn about God…if we want to be “theologians” – which just means people who study and learn about God…we aren’t going to learn much if we are looking where everything is hunky dory. We won’t learn much about God from the people who have all the answers or are in the places where only the “right” people or the “good” people are hanging out. No, we will learn who God is…at the cross. We will learn about God…when we open our eyes to the suffering and pain of the world…when we notice the people who are experiencing grief and cruelty and hatred and abuse and violence and injustice. Because that is where God chooses to be – showing compassion — forgiving sin, healing the broken bodies and souls, and resurrecting the dead.
I do not understand the randomness of pain in this world…but I do recognize the universal holiness that is evidenced in acts of kindness offered by others in the face of that pain. I don’t care who you are or where you live or what your background is….Giving a woman her son back? Restoring her dignity? That is beautiful. It is sacred.
This is the holy wonder of grace people from all around the world recognize in Mother Teresa, a woman born in privilege, who has chosen to spend her life caring for the homeless poor, dying on the streets of Calcutta. This is the sacred beauty of kindness universally acknowledged when people with disabilities are celebrated through Special Olympics. This is the power of resurrection that people from all walks of life experience when they are met by fellow addicts at AA meetings and are accepted and understood and encouraged to live a new life, sober, one day at a time. People who notice others in their pain….and reach out…however awkwardly, at times …to “touch the bier”…people who dare to interrupt the world around them with compassion and kindness ….they bear witness to God’s presence. Whether they are the people who serve as volunteers on rescue ships in the Mediterranean or who are meeting refugees with food and shelter and basic supplies. Or the people who visit nursing homes or volunteer on the crisis line. Or people who serve at the food bank or take time to call people who are ill or lonely. Or people who notice and include the kids who are left out or who take time to listen to people who need to talk.
The fact of the matter is, we cannot know anything, really, about God, without encountering others who are hurting. And that is what the theology of the cross really comes down to. Every deep journey of faith begins with opening ourselves up to the people and places around us and within us…that are broken. And with gentleness…with kindness…reaching out to “touch the bier”…to get involved. And when we do…we will not likely raise the dead, in the literal fashion we witness in our Bible stories this morning. But in ways we cannot always understand…. we will be sharing in the amazing work of God who sees and who loves …who has compassion…and who reminds us again that death is nothing. Really. Nothing. Amen.