I Kings 17:8-16; Luke 7:11-17
This morning we heard two stories about widows and their sons who were facing death. Elijah met the first widow in Zarephath, a coastal town north of Israel, in what is now Lebanon. Jesus met the second widow in Nain, a Galilean town just south of the Sea of Galilee. Both stories were about widows’ sons facing death. And both locations were places on the edge, a long way from Jerusalem, the center of life for Israel. Widows always live on the edge no matter where they make their home. In many cultures widows have no rights. In patriarchal societies all the rights belong to their husbands or their sons. So when a widow, who has already lost her husband, faces the death of her son, it is a very serious matter.
Of course, when it comes to the Bible, we have to think about both physical and spiritual death. Believe me, I have been full of physical death this weekend. I attended three funerals and an interment in the last two days. And clearly, it was the physical death of their sons that troubled these widows. But, frankly, when the Bible speaks of death, physical death is not the worst thing that can happen. It is spiritual death that is to be really feared.
How many of us saw spiritually dying or dead people walking around this week? Some may have been walking around Echo Park Lake. Others might have been walking the halls at your work. Some might have been driving BMW’s and wearing Italian suits, while others were boarding a bus in torn jeans. One might have even been a politician avidly reading the latest opinion polls. It’s amazing how well people can fake being alive when we are really dead. We you able to tell the dead from the living as you walked around this week?
In the middle of the CREDO retreat a couple of weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to reflect on the question, When have you felt most fully alive? My mind immediately went to the months after the death of my first wife. During those months my spirit was almost bursting out of my skin. I was totally available to God. I was feeling more courageous than at any time in my life. I was willing to ask God and others for things that I had never dared to ask for before. One example had to do with a spiritual writer I admired. I felt very connected to the writings of Henri Nouwen during those months; so connected, in fact, that I called him in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he was studying Spanish, to tell him that I felt that God was telling me to go visit him. He politely responded that God hadn’t communicated that to him yet, so, no, I couldn’t go see him. That was a little humiliating. But the significant thing was that I made the call. I never would have done that before. I never would have risked looking that foolish. In the end I was able to spend a week with him in Peru a few months later, so not all was lost.
I remember having some guilt pangs for feeling so alive after my wife had died. That didn’t seem like a very human response. Shouldn’t I have been depressed and angry, like I have seen other people after the death of a spouse? But as I reflected back on those months during that afternoon at CREDO, I realized that it was a period of resurrection that took place after facing death up close. Even though it was my wife who died, something died in me as well. Up until that point I figured that I was pretty much in charge of my life and of what happened to me. I felt pretty powerful. I worked hard, studied hard and connected to people well. I was on my way up the ecclesiastical ladder. But cancer had been more powerful than I. So my sense of being in control died when my wife died. I now believe that dying to the belief that we are in control of our lives is an important step in becoming more human.
I need to share another detail of the story to help make sense of that. Two years earlier, right before my wife had been detected with cancer, I had offered a prayer of desperation, giving God permission to do anything it took to get me out of a depression. When I learned of the cancer diagnosis, I was convinced my wife would not die, because surely the cancer was the test God had sent my way as a result of the prayer. When she did die, I spent a while being angry at God because I didn’t need THAT big a test.
But then my spirit just started to come alive. I didn’t do anything to resuscitate it. I didn’t talk myself into being in a good mood. It just happened. Two words came to me as I reflected on it at CREDO: resurrection and edge. I realized that throughout my life, I have felt most alive when I have been in periods of resurrection, which have followed periods when I had been living on the edge, facing the death of something I cared about. In the story I shared, the depression that led to my prayer of desperation was the edge, my being in control of my life is what died, and my spiritual vitality was the resurrection. There have been a few other times in my life when I’ve lived on the edge, faced some kind of death, and experienced resurrection life being fully alive. I've concluded that to be spiritually alive is to live on the edge and experience resurrection after all the little deaths of life.
In today’s Gospel reading, we heard a story about the corpse of a young man, the only son of a widow, being carried off for burial. The compassionate soul of Jesus was deeply moved. He told the widow to stop weeping. Then he stepped up to the bier, touched it and said: “Young man, I say to you, rise up.” The youth sat up, and began to speak. Luke intended us to see Jesus literally waking a man who was physically dead. At the word of Jesus, the dead would live again. But remember that the death to be most feared is that of the spirit. So it's also true that Jesus meets us on our way to the cemetery of our spiritual lives, has pity on us and says: “Young man/old man, young woman/old woman, I say to you: Rise up!” Come back to life. Leave behind the path of death. Dare to live on the edge.
What I relearned through my reflection at CREDO was that it is when I am willing to live fully on the edge, with all the risk that fills edgy places, facing the possibility that my job, my reputation, my marriage, what I know, what I believe and what I control - all of that might die - that is when I am open to the resurrection life that comes after death. If one of those spiritual areas of my life does die, God promises resurrection life. If nothing has to actually die, I am still living life to the fullest by facing the possibility.
When have you felt most fully alive? What part of your life do you need to expose to the risk of death in order to experience resurrection? Jesus of Nazareth still comes to us wherever we are, touches the bier on which we find ourselves being carried along by our culture, and speaks to us: “Young man, young woman, old man, old women, I say to you rise up.” In our weakness and weariness he comes to wake the dead. If we become puffed up, confusing self importance with life, he comes. When we sink into resentments, bitterness, or apathy, He comes. In our pride, our twenty first century technological inspired hubris, he comes. In our flirtation with a life devoid of firm ethical values, he comes. He hates to see death claim us. He comes to all those biers and coffins which we foolishly may have decorated, and pretended were “the good life,” and says to us: “Young man, old man, young woman, old woman, rise up.”
The story of the widow’s only son is a universal story. Jesus strides over long centuries and across continents and islands. All souls matter. No dying or dead person is dispensable. All people matter to this Lord of grace, mercy and peace. Jesus comes and says,“Young man, old man, young woman, old woman, rise up.” What will you do when you hear his voice?