a sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5)
The woman had lost everything after her son died…even her voice.
So Jesus spoke for her.
Several years ago, Rindy and I went to New Orleans for our anniversary. As most of you know, New Orleans is a great, big, loud, partying kind of town. Every night there’s live music coming out of every bar, amazing food served at every restaurant; there’s dancing and laughter everywhere you turn. And the jazz! The jazz is absolutely amazing!
Of course, during the day New Orleans is a different place. It’s more or less a city like any other in the south. People get up in the morning, get the kids ready for school, drive to work. People run errands and pay bills. Some get sick and have to go to the hospital. People live and people die.
One afternoon when we were there we came upon a New Orleans jazz funeral procession. A jazz funeral starts out like most other funerals in a church. After the service, the body is carried out to the cemetery to be buried. There’s a band that follows the hearse playing old standard hymns. Nothing fancy. Everything is slow and somber all the way up to the grave. At the grave site, people are quiet. Then, just after the body is lowered into the grave and the final words are spoken, the band suddenly kicks up with a big, bright, loud, joyful jazz medley. They play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Didn’t He Rumble.” The music swings. It’s time to cut the body loose.
In today’s Gospel, we have a story that is similar to a New Orleans jazz funeral. Jesus travels with his disciples from the Jewish town of Capernaum to the town of Nain, far outside of Israel. They had been walking for hours and hours as they covered the 25 miles separating these two places. They were near their destination when they came face to face with a funeral procession. A man had died and was being carried out of town to his burial place, and his mother, who was a widow, was weeping.
One of the most interesting things about this story is what the woman says to Jesus: absolutely nothing. She doesn’t beg; she doesn’t pray; in fact, she doesn’t speak at all. The Hebrew word for widow connotes one who is silent or unable to speak for herself. At that time a woman had status only in relation to the men in her life – her father, her husband, her sons. Women were excluded from inheritance of family wealth – wealth passed from father to son and women could not own property. So to be widowed women meant that you were placed in a very vulnerable position, unless you had a son who could care for you. As far as society was concerned, you had no voice.
So Jesus spoke for her. The lesson says he “had compassion for her.” And as Jesus spoke, the young man was raised back to life, and with his life, the widow’s life was also restored. Her grief was transformed to joy. The funeral was transformed into a celebration.
A few years ago, there was a book written by Elizabeth Gilbert in which she explained how she survived after her divorce. First, she traveled to Italy and learned how to cook and enjoy wonderful food. The she went to India and learned how to meditate and pray. Finally, she came back to the United States and fell in love once again. That book had a three word title: Eat, Pray, Love.
Recently, another book came out, written by Anne Lamott. It’s about the three essential prayers in our lives. The first essential prayer is petition, asking God to help us. The second is thanksgiving, showing our gratitude for the gifts God has showered upon us. The third kind of prayer is adoration, in which we simply sit in wonder and amazement at the grandeur and power of God. This book also has a three word title: Help, Thanks, Wow!
If we were to give a title to today’s lesson, it might also have a three word title: See, Thank, Tell. Because as surely as the young man’s life was restored, as surely as the woman’s life was saved, the crowd was also transformed as they witnessed the amazing thing God did before their very eyes. First they saw, although they didn’t believe it. They are filled with fear and amazement because they don’t understand what’s going on. But then thanked God for the miracle they had witnessed. Finally they went out and told others about the amazing thing God has done in their lives.
See, Thank, Tell.
For us, perhaps the most important part of the story is that simply by witnessing modern miracles, we too can be transformed, if we only choose allow it. How many of us have seen or heard stories of amazing healing in our midst, stories about people who were sick and we were sure would not survive, stories of people who have new life and new hope, and are walking among us today. Stories about people who where healed through the power of prayer. Stories that we, in turn, have told other people about how God has brought them back to health. We see, we thank, and we tell.
The fact of the matter is that prayer changes things. It transforms our reality. Over the past several months, I have visited lots of people in the hospital. All of them were ill, of course. Some of them were very sick. A few have died. But some of them have made miraculous recoveries! And even when death was inevitable, the dying and their families were able to find a kind peace and restoration that comes only through prayer and the support of the people around them. God hears our prayers and transforms our sickness. And in response, we too, are filled with joy and gratitude and we tell other people.
See, Thank, Tell. Even when the woman could not speak, Jesus heard the prayer of the woman. He not only restored life to her son, he also saved the widow from certain destitution. At the same time, Jesus gave the people around him hope, hope that with God, nothing is impossible, no matter how grave the situation looks. God answers our prayers, even when we cannot find the voice to utter a word.
As Christians, we are a people who have seen that with God, nothing is impossible. We have thanked God for these miraculous healing of a loved one, a child, a family member, a friend. And we have told others that the God in our midst works wonders, even when we cannot even find the words to say a prayer for ourselves.
Perhaps the biggest transformation that day was that the people became messengers of God’s healing power through Jesus Christ. They saw, they thanked, and they told. I wonder if might also be called to see, thank, and tell that God transforms our sorrow into joy, and our grief into celebration.
And that might be greatest transformation of all.
Thanks be to God.