June 9, 2013 – Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17
Listen to the sermon here
As some of you know, I had a short vacation. I booked the last week of May for a little stay-cation and we had all sorts of plans for the week. Unfortunately, those plans all came to naught because Carol was sick with bronchitis. So, in between playing nurse-maid, I was able to read a few books and catch up on all sorts of movies and tv shows. One of the most incredible dramas that I was able to watch happened toward the end of my week off, when I watched 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali win the 86th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Spelling Bees always freaked me out when I was a kid, because I have never been able to spell. I used to come down with a mysterious version of the flue whenever a spelling bee was scheduled and the symptoms of this strange flue always convinced my mother to keep me home from school. But I’ve really been missing out all these years because spelling bees are really incredibly exciting. Now even though young Arvind is only 13, this was not the first time that he has been a finalist. Arvind finished in third place in both 2011 and 2012 and both times he was eliminated on German-derived words. So, after correctly spelling “tokonoma” a Japanese derived word that isn’t even in my spell-check, Arvind was the last speller standing when his inquisitors announced the word that stood between him and the championship: “Knaidel.” When Arvind asked for the derivation of the word his quizzer revealed that it was German-derived-Yiddish. The audience groaned. But Arvind was prepared. Indeed, when he was interviewed after the competition he revealed that he had indeed studied this word. Which you can see in the instant reply of the event, when Arvind smiles and nods slightly when the definition of the word was given to him. The roar that went up from the crowd when Arvind correctly spelled a word that would have surely stumped me.
I have always been a lover of words. As a young child, I loved learning new words. Each new word opened up a whole new way of expressing reality. To this very day I like nothing better than learning a new word so that I can better express myself and the world around me. Selecting just the right words each week with which to comment upon the connections between the written words on the pages of scripture with our reality is one of the joys and the torments of my life’s vocation. When I discover just the right words to shed some light on a particular text, all is well in my world, and there’s such relief when I can string together the words. But there are also those days and nights when words fail and I am left staring at a blank computer screen. Fortunately for us, our worship does not stand or fall on the quality of the words I string together in a sermon. Our liturgy is filled with music and the words of the songs we sing are all designed to shed light upon the connections between the scriptures we read and the reality of our lives. So, whenever I can’t find the right words for a sermon I often find myself review the music I have chosen for our liturgy.
Yesterday, when my blank computer screen caused me to begin to sing, the African American spirituals that we’re singing today, sent me on an internet search for a song I remember from my childhood. It’s a country and western piece that I hear in my head being sung by none other than Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter. The words go like this:
I was standing by my window
On a cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by Lord, by and by
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky.
Well, I went back home, home was lonely
For my mother she was gone
And my family there was cryin
For our home felt sad and alone.
Undertaker, undertaker, undertaker
Won’t you please drive slow
For that lady you are haulin
Lord, I hate to see her go.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by Lord, by and by
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky.
In the face of death, words tend to fail us. In the face of death, we must move beyond the words to images and stories so that we can begin to imagine living in the face the pain that comes from losing someone we can’t imagine living without. I have been to a few funerals where mother’s have been left to bury their sons and I can tell you that every mother in that situation would strike a bargain with the devil himself if only she could trade places with her child. No words can ease the pain of a parent who loses a child. Death is one of those realities that leaves us struggling to find words precisely because the reality of death is beyond words. When reality is beyond our ability to capture with words is the time when the power of metaphor comes into its own. The word metaphor comes to us from Greek words meaning: to carry or to take beyond that can be literally translated as “beyond words.” A metaphor is a word or phrase or story that carries us beyond words. To use a metaphor is to describe something using an image to describe something knowing that the image itself isn’t literally what it is that you are describing. So, when Shakespeare says that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” he’s using a metaphor because we all know that the world isn’t literally a stage, but we also know that it is a stage. There aren’t really words that can sum up the reality of the world but the metaphor carries us beyond words to images that help us to talk about that which words cannot begin to describe.
Death is a reality that requires metaphor because metaphor has the power to move us beyond the words so that we can dwell if but for a moment in the realm of the inexpressible. The best songs are full of metaphors; metaphors upheld by music have the power to carry us not just beyond words but beyond our abilities to hold our emotions in check as the musical notes work upon our psyche to carry us to the realm of our emotions and open us to the experience of loss and the power of hope for life beyond our loss.
If I were to ask you to turn to hymn # 781, Children of the Heavenly Father, and we began to sing it soft and low, many of us would be transported back to a funeral where a tiny coffin laid in waiting while we tried to imagine how in the world we would ever be able to make it to the grave side and bear witness to that tiny coffin being laid in the ground “…nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e’er was given. God his own doth tend and nourish, in his holy courts they flourish.” When faced with reality beyond our ability to express; when trying to express the inexpressible, we will always resort to metaphors that take us beyond words to images of that which lies beyond our reality.
So, as we journey to a funeral procession long ago and encounter the widow of Nain, we will have to move beyond the literal words if we are to have any hope of grasping the reality that the gospel writer of this morning’s text is trying to describe. The first step beyond the words on the page is to get over our obsession with the literal words on the page. Jack Spong warns the modern thinker that: “reading the New Testament as if it is literal history is one of the least edifying things that one can do spiritually and one of the most naïve things that one can do intellectually.” So, I’d like us to take a long hard look at this morning’s Gospel reading to see if we can get beyond the literal and experience the metaphor of this story. Let’s forget about whether or not this actually, historically happened. Let’s not worry about whether or not the man known as Jesus of Nazareth could actually raise another human being from the dead. Let’s assume for a moment that miracles don’t actually happen, but rather that the laws of the universe remain intact and that life and death unfold according to the natural order of reality. Let’s not try to bend our 21st century minds around a first century story. But rather, let’s allow a first century story to move us toward a new reality.
When faced with the harsh reality of death, words fail us. To cope with that reality, we have to move beyond words. When you think about those old songs, you can feel that movement to a realm where we can cope a realm where loved ones fly away to the great celestial shore, and feast in paradise at a party without end, full of all sorts of amazing reunions. For generations, mournful grievers have thrown themselves into the ritual and been moved through the various stages of their grief toward the celebration of hope. Imaging a “Closer Walk” with Jesus. Having our “Precious Lord” take our hand. Sharing a meal at the “Welcome Table”. When the “Saints Go Marching In,” knowing beyond a doubt that you and all the people you love with be in their number, cause “Some Glad Morning, we’re all gonna fly away, Hallelujah by and by.”
The music opens us to that which we cannot express in mere words. I suspect that the people of the first century, who were every bit as human as we are, had similar heartaches, sadness, and hopes. When faced with the inexpressible they did what we do, they resorted to metaphor to try to express that which is beyond words. I suspect that the writer of the Gospel of Luke, did his darnedest to express the Jesus experience in words and stories that would move his listeners to a deeper understanding of what it meant to take Just a Closer Walk with Jesus. I suspect that those first century listeners would have been able to do something that is much more difficult for 21st century listeners, because their familiarity with the stories of their ancestors would have thrust them into the heart of the matter in ways that would have opened them to the wonders of their own traditions.
The Gospel writer who gave us this story provided for his first century listeners a “midrash.” It was common practice for Jewish writers to use the scriptures from their tradition to help them interpret more recent events. The writer of this story used the story of Elijah to help him tell the story of what had happened two generations before when the writers own forebears experienced life with the living Jesus. The writer of the Gospel of Luke used the power of Elijah’s image to explain the powerful experiences of Jesus’ followers. By telling the story this way the writer of the Gospel conjured up images of the prophet Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son and helped them to see that Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet with the ability to reveal the very nature of reality; a reality of life in with and through the power of our Creator.
But while we fuss and bother about whether or not Jesus actually raised the widow’s son, we miss the point of the story entirely, which is to assure us that even in the face of our worst fear, even in the face of death all will be well. You see when you have the courage to contemplate your worst fear, words will inevitably fail you and you will have no choice but to rely on metaphors that point beyond the words to a reality that you cannot express.
Now I don’t actually believe that when this life is or, I’m gonna fly away with the saints. But I know without a doubt that when my life is over I will pass from this life into God. I don’t know how. But it’s not about knowing, its about trusting, that’s why we call it faith. I trust that the God that I have known in this life, the One who made me, the Ground of my Being, the One in which I live and breathe and have my being, I trust that in this God, all will be well, because I trust that neither death nor life, can separate me from the love of God that I have come to know through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All will be well; all will be exceedingly well. And so, I know that I can, when the time comes embrace death, and in faith put my hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.
When the procession left the widow’s home in the town of Nain, her son’s body was lying atop the funeral bier, she wasn’t planning for a celebration. No one was. Her only child was dead. What appears to be her last living male relative—is gone. Not only was she without the consolation of family, she was also without any means of support. So there was no expectation, no hope of celebration for the woman or the entourage that followed her. They mourned, they wailed. They made their slow way to the cemetery outside of town, the keening of the mourners piercing the daytime din of village life. As it emerges from the city gate, the funeral procession meets another entourage entering the city. A man leaves that crowd and approaches the mother. He looks at her and says, “Do not weep.” If the crowd hadn’t hushed before that, it does when the man touches the bier on which the woman’s son lies. And when he bids the dead man rise—and he does? More than one or two jaws must have dropped. Once the shock wears off, wailing gives way to music, and the celebration begins. They cut loose with some singing, maybe even some ancient version of country music, who knows?
“A great prophet has risen among us!” they sing.
“God has looked favorably on God’s people!”
Will the circle be unbroken?
We can break out the guitars, and the old familiar songs, pound on the piano keys and let the images of glory flood our imaginations. There’s no need to keep the horns and drums muted, we can let loose with a riff to make the angels dance. So remember to pack your party cloths and to be ready to dance! Cause when Jesus comes with compassion in his eyes, to lead you to through the sweet bye and by, grace will abound and the dancing and the singing will be like nothing you’ve ever seen cause the saints will be marching in! Praise the Lord! Grace abounds! And there just ain’t no words that can express that joy!
So, I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away! When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away confident that every atom in my body was manufactured in a massive explosion in a star billions of years ago.I’ll fly away believing in a Spirit of Life at work for billions of years who finally brought human form to the stardust of which I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I’ll fly away knowing that the Spirit of Life and Love came to visible expression in human form when I loved you, when I called you my friends, when I laughed, when I cried, when I did whatever you loved about me. I’ll fly away to a place where I will continue to dance with the Spirit of Life and Love in ways beyond words, metaphors and images. But I will be with you always, as this Spirit continues to move in our lives. I will be with you and you will be with me in the Spirit of Life and Love. I’ll fly away, to love and to be beyond, the beyond and beyond that also.Halleluiah by and by, I’ll fly away.
Benediction: Remember Children:
NEITHER DEATH NOR LIFE,
NOR ANYTHING AT ALL
Can separate you from the Love of God,
In the SWEET BYE AND BYE,
As we lay our troubles
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE,
JUST A CLOSER WALK, with God.
In the meantime,
All well be well, all will be exceedingly well,
For you are blessed,
By our God in whom you live and breathe
and have your being,
now and forever! Amen.