Saturday, June 25, 2016

Calling Down Fire

Luke 9:51-62
Ordinary 13
June 26, 2016
William G. Carter

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is on the go. He “sets his face like flint” to proclaim the message of God all the way to Jerusalem. It is his journey to cross, resurrection, and ascension as the sovereign Lord, and he is going to enlist disciples along the way. Somebody offers to join up, and Jesus says he has “let goods and kindred go.” He invites somebody else to join him, but the funeral of the man’s father causes him to stall. A third would-be disciple wants to join Jesus, and the Lord’s call is so clear that it comes before that person can even say goodbye to his family.

These are the demands of discipleship. If you are going to follow Jesus, you have to do it now. There will be no delays, no distractions, no holding back. As Jesus has committed himself to do his work, he expects the same dedication from those who are going with him. It takes clarity and commitment to follow Jesus and do his work in the world.

And even if you have that clarity and commitment, you still might get it wrong. James and John from the inner circle get it really wrong. They see how a certain village is full of people who want nothing to do with Jesus. It offends them. It angers them. So they say, “Lord, how about if we call down some fire from heaven to blast them away?” What a terrible thing to say!

Now these are James and John, the two fishermen who have left behind their nets to follow him around the country side. Remember them? According to the Bible, Jesus nicknamed them the "Boanerges," or "the Sons of Thunder." That's what they were - all thunder and no lightning, all mouth and no muscle, always going around half-cocked, ready to shoot themselves in the foot. One translator calls them not only the “Sons of Thunder,” but "the Sons of Commotion." James and John were headstrong and outspoken.

“How about if we call down some fire from heaven to away these Samaritans?” Now, why would anybody ever think that a village of Samaritans would ever welcome a Jew like Jesus? Jews and Samaritans had hated one another for centuries. The purebred Jew had no time for the mixed Samaritan blood. The memory of a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim was an affront to the official Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritan mistranslation of the Jewish scripture was repulsive. It would be risky for Jesus to stop there anyway, which may be why he sent an advance team to check it out.

Apart from the racism that probably infected that situation, the Samaritans have broken the unwritten rule of the Middle Eastern world: they are guilty of bad hospitality. If a stranger stumbles into your midst, what do you do? The virtuous person opens the home, serves a meal, and provides a bed for rest. That's hospitality. In the Middle East, you don't offer hospitality because you like the stranger. You offer it because it is good manners.

But these Samaritans tell Jesus and his entourage to keep moving. They can see his face is set for Jerusalem, so they really don’t want him in their town. He is a Jew, his people are Jewish, and Samaritans don’t have anything to do with Jews. Jesus is now dissed by the Samaritans, and James and John take that as a personal insult. So they say, “Lord, let’s call down some fire from heaven to blast them away.”

So what’s all this stuff about fire from heaven? Well, years ago, the prophet Elijah burned up some Samaritans by calling on God to send down great balls of fire. He was a strong and somewhat ornery prophet, so when the king of Samaria sent an army to give Elijah a hard time, he let them have it, not once but twice (2 Kings 1:1-18).

And as everybody in the Gospel of Luke knows, Jesus is another great and holy prophet. Now the Samaritans are giving him a hard time. Never mind it’s nine hundred years later, James and John want doom and gloom, all in the name of God, you understand. They believe in their hearts that anybody who stands up to the prophet of God should be barbecued to a crackly crunch. It makes you wonder, as an aside, what they think is going to happen when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem.

But Jesus won’t have any of it, not at all. He refused to blast anybody away. It’s not his style. He’s been feeding the hungry, lifting up the poor, healing the sick, and teaching the simple-minded … like these disciples, who don’t seem to get it. It doesn’t matter that they have traveled with him from the beginning, doesn’t matter that they have seen signs and wonders first hand, it doesn’t matter that they saw him on the mountain, glowing like the sun and talking with the prophet Elijah. They are offended at these Samaritans and they want them destroyed. Jesus says no.

No way. He’s not going to blast anybody if they turn him away. That’s not the plan of his kingdom, and I think we can take some comfort in that. You may have noticed the last time you skipped out on church, he didn’t call down a fireball to blast you. Or the last time you played tennis on a Sunday morning when you could have been singing the hymns, he didn’t hide behind a tree and blow the ball back into your face.

In fact, at a time when Jesus is collecting disciples on the way to his cross, here are two of his closest disciples who are righteously indignant at a town of Samaritans. They can say they are offended at the racism, but they have turned a blind eye to their own ongoing racism. And their answer is to call for a horrific act of violence, an act of genocide, all in the name of religion – when it is clear they don’t have a clue about what kind of religion Christ is trying to teach them. And Jesus says no.

If they had been paying attention when he spoke a few chapters before, they would heard him say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28) But they weren’t listening. And if they were, they probably said Jesus was being foolish and unrealistic. The world says you’re supposed to hate your enemies and blast them back into the sand. But Jesus says no.

If they were listening, these disciples would have heard Jesus tell the truth about God, that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish,” and as a reflection of that grace, he says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (6:35-36). Be merciful, he says. Withhold the retaliation. Restrain the violence. This is the clear Christian teaching from Jesus himself.

At the possibility of violence, he says, “No! Put your weapon away.” (22:51). When he is nailed to the cross and insulted by his own people, he does not call down fire, but says, “Father, forgive them, they are ignorant. They don’t know what they are doing” (23:34).

James and John, don’t you understand? The world is not saved by violence. The world is saved because God doesn’t give it back the violence it deserves. God holds back because God forgives. That’s called salvation. Heaven is restrained, thanks to the mercy of Jesus Christ. That’s why we baptize people: to teach them that this is the way God is.

James and John want fire. They aren’t alone in that, you know. Every day, there’s somebody in the news making a lot of noise about getting rid of this group of people or that group of people. Sometimes they plot in sleeper cells, waiting to strike. Sometimes they run for public office. Sometimes they hide out in churches.

I’ll never forget the dinner party in my first congregation. The clerk of session was barbecuing chicken, started to complain about the world, and then came up with an inventive way to remove all the people in the world whom he didn’t like. “Let’s just line them up in front of a ditch, gun them down, and bring in the bulldozer to push dirt over top.” He said this, as he brushed the chicken with barbecue sauce.

Nobody said anything, but I couldn’t let it go. “You know,” I said, “that method was already tried and it didn’t work.”  He looked up with enthusiasm, “It was? When?” And I said, “Nazi Germany.” He looked at me with fury, told me to leave his house. The following day, he put a letter of resignation in my mailbox and vowed never to return to church. He didn’t, until the Sunday after I moved up here and started to work.  Oh well.

Jesus said, “No.” They wanted fire and he said no.

Luke says it was more than a simple “no.” Jesus turned and rebuked them. That’s a super-charged word in the Gospel of Luke. Every time Jesus "rebukes," he confronts the forces of evil. Rebuking is exorcism talk. It is confrontational language that clearly draws a line between what is holy and what is hellish. In Luke’s book, Jesus rebukes evil spirits that drive people out of their minds. He rebukes fierce forces of nature that threaten human survival. He rebukes diseases of the body that damage and destroy.

Here, on the road to Jerusalem, in a Samaritan town where he is not welcome, Jesus rebukes two of his closest friends. In their wish to call down fire, James and John align themselves with the very evil that Jesus has come to confront. So what does he do? He begins his journey to Jerusalem by performing an exorcism on two of his disciples. As he moves toward the city that will act violently on him, he will not take anybody who wants to react with violence of their own. That is not the way of God, or Christ, or the kingdom of heaven.

"Lord, can we call down some fire from heaven?" No, no, a thousand times no. I know James and John must feel frustrated, angry, and rejected. Walking with Jesus, they are in good company. But by the time they get to Jerusalem, there is the promise of another kind of fire. In Jerusalem, Jesus will die, be raised, and ascend into heaven. And his very last words to James and John are these: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria." (Acts 1:8)

The fire will come, but it’s a different kind of fire. It will be the fire of Christ’s own Spirit, the fire that makes us more like him. It’s the fire that pushes us beyond all racial boundaries, so that we would “proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations (24:47)." It’s not the fire of destruction, but the fire of mercy. It’s not the fire of disagreement, but the fire of forbearance. It’s not the fire of self-righteousness, but the purging, purifying fire of the Holy Spirit.

If we’re going to ask heaven to send down fire, let’s pray not for the fires of arrogance, but the fire of God’s love. This is the fire that God gives to consume us, and when it does, we will never feel the need to retaliate, judge, or boast. For if we are filled with love, we will truly be Jesus’ disciples. And we will be able to walk in step with him all the way to the cross.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Get Out of Town, Please!

Luke 8:26-39
Ordinary 12
June 19, 2016
William G. Carter

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

This is one of the wildest moments in the Bible.

Jesus gets out of the boat, steps out on the land of Gentiles. For a first century Jew, that’s unclean land. A wild man confronts him, yelling at the top of his lungs and not wearing any clothes. Luke says he is overwhelmed by an unclean spirit. Not only that, the loud, naked, wild man lives in a cemetery. For a Jew, that’s unclean soil. To summarize the scene, Jesus goes to an unclean land, meets a man with an unclean spirit who lives in an unclean place.

And what does he do? He throws the unclean spirit out of the man and into a large herd of unclean pigs, and the pigs dash down the hill, plunge into the water, and destroy themselves.

It’s a wild story, and it’s always been one of my favorites. I have stood on the spot where it happened. My dad and I were on a tour. Because Jesus touched down on Gentile land and healed a man that all the Jews could see was a Gentile (he was naked, after all), it was a sign of the days when all Gentiles would be invited into the word and work of Christ.

Dad and I stood among the ruins of an old Christian church, built there 500 years after the event. The building has been an affirmation that Jesus is stronger than the forces of destruction. It stood there for a hundred years, until the Persian army came along and tore it down. Dad and I wondered out loud what kind of demons had gotten into them.

There is so much destruction. A large herd of pigs is lost. Perhaps it was not much of a loss for the twelve disciples, all of them Jewish, who had nothing to do with unclean pigs. But that herd was the livelihood for the herders who raised them. Now those herders had nothing. All their money was wrapped up in that herd, and it’s gone.

Jesus didn’t have to destroy the herd. He could have ignored the demons’ request and sent them back down to the bottomless pit of hell where they belonged. “Don’t send us back to the abyss,” they howled. He didn’t have to honor what they wanted. These are the evil forces, after all. They got into that poor man and drove him off the edge of sanity.

When this story is told over in the Gospel of Mark, there is a description of how the man had become self-abusive. “He hit himself with stones and howled all night” (Mark 5:5). It terrified the neighbors.

When this story is told over in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew says, it was “two men,” not one (Matthew 8:28). Well, it might as well have been. Clearly this tortured man was beside himself. Can you hear it? “Beside himself” – that’s the ancient way of describing illnesses like schizophrenia. A person is torn in two.

As Luke tells the story, he says the people in town did what they could. They would sneak up behind him and wrap him with chains, but he was so wild he would break the chains. They would catch him again and keep him under armed guard, but he broke loose and ran away. It scared all the townspeople and they let him lurk around the cemetery. The first-century diagnosis was “he had a demon.”  When the man speaks, he says the Roman Legion had gotten into his head, infected his spirit, and damaged his life.

Call it what you will, but Jesus is stronger. With his words alone, he sends the toxic energy out of him. That is his ministry: he speaks on behalf of God and makes people well. It doesn’t matter that this man is considered “unclean” by the ancient religion, for he is still worthy of well-being. It doesn’t matter that the man lives in a foreign land or hides behind the tombstones, for the Lord wishes him to have the fullness of life.

And as far as those pigs? I can’t say for sure, but let me say it this way. Sometimes there is a great cost involved in getting well. If you’ve had significant surgery, have you seen how expensive it is? Or do you know what thirty days of drug and alcohol treatment can cost? Or if the family has been to spend a lot of time with a therapist, there are major demands on all your emotional resources just to get to the other side. It can take time, money, and a lot of emotional capital to change and to begin feeling healthy again. That’s what I think about those pigs.

We see it in the great stories of good versus evil. There is always some cost for good to win. Harry Potter takes on Voldemort. They cast lightning at one another as the castle crumbles around them. I recently watched the latest installment of Star Wars for the second time. In the climactic battle scene at the end, the good person is dueling with the evil person. Their light sabers cut down a lot of trees, and then the planet blows up. Call it “the high cost of health care.”

But at the end of the story, even when the man is healed, even when he is freshly clothed, in his right mind, and sitting with Jesus, there is a sad and pathetic message from the people of the town. They come to Jesus, they see the wild man now settled, they hear the story of what has happened – and they ask Jesus to get out of town. “Please leave,” they say with a single voice.

It’s really sad. They had come to tolerate a wild man out there, scaring every new group of mourners who went to bury their dead. But now they are really unsettled when that same man is healed and restored.

It’s worth reflecting on this. Why did they want Jesus to go away?

Certainly there was the money lost by the pig farmers. They faced a huge economic loss, to say nothing of a good portion of the food supply for that Gentile town. If Jesus is going to stick around and heal somebody else, what’s he going to destroy next? And considering that the herd of swine was very, very large – in one account, there were two thousand pigs[1] - we can guess those farmers were probably pretty well off. That suggests they had some influence in that region. “Jesus, get out of town. You’re not good for business!”

This comes up in other places. In the book of Acts, some of the first Christian missionaries were making a difference. They were preaching Jesus as the love of God and the life of the world, and people started to listen and believe. The Gospel was especially effective in the enormous city of Ephesus. Paul preached about Jesus for two years and many people came to faith. It so effective that they burned up their books of magic spells and incantations. There was a movement of people believing in Jesus (Acts 19).

Problem is, Ephesus was also a tourist town. They had the temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the world. It was surrounded by gift shops that were run by silversmiths, and all of them started losing money because of the Gospel! People started believing in Jesus, and they didn’t need the magic books, the pagan temple, and the silver knick-knacks any more. So what did the silver smiths do? They stirred up a riot against the Christian preachers. Whenever the Gospel confronts idolatry, it shakes up the local economy.

Remember that big herd of pigs? They cost a lot of money! We can’t have any more healings like that. It would hurt us in the pocketbook. Certainly that was part of the conversation.

At the heart of the response, Luke says there was fear. Great fear, or in the Greek phrase, “mega phobia.” The people were afraid. They may have been scared of the wild man, or more specifically, scared of the illness inside of him. But now they are downright terrified of the power of Jesus to make the man well. They want him to leave, because God has come way too close.

When Jesus first meets the wild man, remember what the illness that inhabits has to say? “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” See, the illness wants to call all the shots, because the illness knows that the Son of the Most High God is stronger, holier, healthier, and kinder than the parasitic hold that it has on its host. The illness calls it “torment,” but for Jesus it is healing and restoration. Christ comes to make people well.

Does he ask permission before he starts to heal? Not in this case. He simply goes to work, for the work of the God of Life is to give abundant life to those who are infected, inflicted, and shackled by something they cannot control. True healing is disruptive. The sick man cannot howl and whine any more. He will have to put on some clothes. He will have to grow up, give up his status as the wild man, and move away from the tombs and back among the “normal” people.

Meanwhile the so-called “normal” people aren’t so sure that they want him healthy and back among them. It might make them look not so normal. One thing’s for sure, they sure don’t want Jesus the Healer to stick around any longer. Get out of town, please.

We read the Bible, but it is the Bible that reads us. We read how Jesus comes to heal and restore in every corner of our lives – today, it’s a healing most likely of a man with a troubled mind and emotions. Christ comes to heal. We read that. But what the Bible reads in us is the stronger aversion to the only One who can heal us and what we would have to change to get well.

If the world really wanted to be healthy, it would have made that decision long ago. Somebody would have gotten rid of potato chips, cigarettes, and other addictive substances. All those things would be sent back into the abyss. And every week or two, we hear about some tormented soul that shoots up a building full of innocent people with a weapon that should only be in the hands of the military. We lock our doors, pray for mercy, and murmur, “I’m thankful it didn’t happen here.”

You know, we really don’t have to live like that. We don’t have to be fearful, held captive, immobilized by a “mega phobia.” We could live with freedom. We could live with grace. We could make decisions every day that create life, that enhance life, that declare that Jesus is more important than pigs, or money, or beating ourselves with stones, or living among the tombstones. We don’t have to push him away or ask him to get out of our town. We could say, “Lord, stay among us, and make the rest of us well one at a time.” Because that is what he wishes to do. It is the will of God to make us well.

That day in the land of the Gerasenes, it was the townspeople’s fear that pushed Jesus back into the boat and back across the sea. But that’s not the end of the story.

Did you hear what he did?  The man who was healed wanted to get in the boat and go with him, but Jesus said, “No, stay here. Tell these people what God has done for you.” Tell them about the change in your health, about the change in your perspective. Stay right in the middle of them. Go right into the center of the community. Tell everybody you meet that it is God’s great desire that we live by health, freedom, and faith.

You know why he did that? Because the one thing they will not be able to dispute is the presence of someone who has come back from the tombs, and lives to tell about it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Mark 5:13

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Not Captive to the Death Business

Luke 7:11-17
Ordinary 10
June 5, 2016
William G. Carter

Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

To hear Luke tell it, Jesus is on a roll. Momentum has been building in Galilee. Jesus has speaking the truth about God and gathering enormous crowds. He has healed a man with a terrible skin disease, lifted up and restored somebody whose bones didn’t work, and healed a young servant of a Roman centurion who was near death.

Now he interrupts a funeral. There is a procession moving out of the village that he is passing. There is a large crowd of people following a casket. Jesus pushes his way through the crowd. He sees the body of the man who has died. He says to the man’s mother, “Don’t cry.” Then he stops the whole thing, and you heard what happened.

That’s not the sort of thing that happens every day. Sometimes there are interruptions in the middle of a funeral. I’ve told some of you about a moment that I endured at a local funeral home. I’m up front, trying to find something nice to say about the deceased, and one of his relatives pulls out his cell phone and answers the call. I mean, there’s a funeral going on, and this guy is having a conversation. He doesn’t stop, so finally I stop. In a funeral, you only need one person talking at a time. When he was done, I sprinted toward the benediction.

Trust me when I tell you, the man who interrupted us was definitely not Jesus.

But today, we have a Bible story about Jesus stopping a funeral in its tracks. He stops it. And if I am honest, I can think of any number of reasons why. There is no fun in funeral, not at least if you take the death seriously.

We are living in a season when a lot of baby boomers are facing the final curtain. So to avoid their anxiety, they may do whatever they can to soften the experience of an actual loss. Stand at an open microphone and tell some jokes. Pipe in some classic tunes from the Doobie Brothers. Pull out a glass, lift it, and propose a toast to Brother John, “wherever he is.” Presume that the afterlife is only a continuation of this life, and declare sister Sarah, the scratch golfer, is now teeing off on a cloud. Fill the casket with knick-knacks and a bottle of booze, just like the Egyptian pharaohs. I’ve seen all these things.

They sound like fun, but all of them are an enormous distraction from what is really going on: that somebody has died. Somebody has ceased to live any more. They aren’t coming back, not in this lifetime at least. The familiar voice is silenced, the companionship has been is cut off. We don’t like that. Nobody likes that. A lot of people want to soften death or pretend it isn’t real … and six months later, one of might stop by to see the pastor and confess., “I haven’t been sleeping very well.”

Death is hard. Let me tell you how hard it was for the woman in our Bible story. She had a son, her only son, and he died. She was a widow. Not only does that mean she had experienced death before, and quite possibly the current loss is stirring up the feelings of the previous loss. It also means she was about to lose everything – not just her son, not just her father, but her entire livelihood.

That’s how it was in the time of Jesus. Women could not hold jobs in ancient Israel, unless they were disgraced and worked in the shadows after dark. They had no income, there was no such thing as life insurance, and nobody had a savings account tucked away just in case. For most people, it was a hand-to-mouth existence. And if your husband died, you better have a kid to earn some money, because otherwise you weren’t going to eat.

And if you only had one child and he passed away, you had nothing. Yes, that sounds grossly unfair, but that’s how the culture was. So for centuries, the Bible had taught, “Take care of the widows and the orphans.” They are the most vulnerable people in the whole town.

So here’s this woman who has lost her only son, and Jesus said to her, “Don’t cry anymore.” The Gospel of Luke said it’s because he had compassion. He knew what it was like. His feelings were impacted by her feelings, and he suffered with her. That’s the definition of compassion: “com” (with) “passio” (suffer). He suffered with her – and he probably didn’t even know her name.

The compassion was deep inside his gut, says Luke. He was deeply moved. So what does the Lord do? He stops the funeral, touches the case of the casket, and says, “Young man, be raised.” With that, the man in the coffin sat up and started to talk, so Jesus gave him back to his mother.

It caused quite a ruckus. We can imagine that. I’m pretty sure the mother stated crying again, but she was crying a different kind of tears. Some of the people standing nearby didn’t know what to do: they came prepared to weep, but now the situation is changed.

Back at that time, too, there were professional mourners. Did you know about that? In Middle Eastern cultures, there were people employed to weep and grieve,[1] especially if the family was small or the deceased person was unpopular. For some people, that would come in handy. Don’t have any friends? Call 1-900-Tear-Jerkers-R-Us, and a team of professionals will show up in black, carrying wet Kleenex. Some of these people are there when Jesus disrupts everything; are they going to get paid?

The text gives us plenty of reactions. Some people saw the whole thing. They gasped and started stammering out words about God. “God has raised up a new prophet,” was one of the exclamations. What did they mean by that? Well, centuries before, the prophet Elijah had raised from the dead the only son of a widow (1 Kings 17:8-24). Here, Jesus had just done the same thing. He gave that grieving woman a new future by giving her son back to her, completely alive.

So some said Jesus is a new prophet, while others present burst out with a different exclamation: “God had looked with favor upon his people.” That’s the sort of thing that a lot of people said when Jesus came to their town. Good things started happening when there was no other reason for good things to happen. It was a sign of grace, a sign that God loves his own people and does good by them.

Grace is the work of God’s good heartedness, and that’s precisely why Jesus doesn’t ask permission to interrupt the funeral and raise the boy from the dead. He simply does it, for this is a sign of God is toward us. God gives life, specifically or spiritually. God doesn’t wait until we shape up before acting with kindness toward us. God doesn’t wait until we are perfect before feeling compassion for us and then doing something with that compassion. This is what Jesus reveals about God as he stops a funeral from proceeding.

But here’s what I want to know: how come the first response from the people standing by is fear? Sure, there is a lot going on at the moment. The widow mother is hugging her boy and sobbing for joy. The townspeople, at least the religious ones, are blurting out good words about God. Yet the first and most visceral response is “phobia” – fear! It “seized all of them.”

They were immobilized, not out of reverence, but of terror. Why do you think that is?

Certainly it was a creepy moment. Seeing a dead person sit up in a casket is a good bit terrifying, and then hearing him talk again is probably going to make you scream. Any of us who have lost a loved one to death still want to hear that voice one more time. Sometimes I call a family a week or two after a funeral to see how they are doing, and they haven’t taken the old voice off the answering machine. It can set you back a little bit… and I understand why they haven’t deleted that voice – because it would be like deleting the person, and we wouldn’t want to do that.

When it comes to death, there is a whole lot of creepiness in our culture these days. We don’t have to wait until Halloween to see it. Every year or two, we survive a few more zombie movies. Or there’s an end-of-the-world scenario and death sneers at us with yellow teeth. Or what’s up with our ongoing flirtation with deadly drugs? They lie about making people feel better and enslave them with a kind of despair that is worse than death.

So my hunch is that the powers of destruction were served notice that day, as Jesus interrupted the funeral. The fears and phobias and spine-tingling feelings that get into us all were told loud and clear that there’s another player on the field. “They were paralyzed by fear” says Luke. I think that’s the Gospel writer’s way of saying Jesus has come to town and he won’t have any of it.

He has no time for this addiction to deadliness that we’ve never been able to shake. So he comes to interrupt it. He comes to chase away the professional grievers and doesn’t care if they don’t get paid. He comes to confront an unjust economic system that robs a poor widow of living when her only son passes away. He comes to serve notice on Death with a capital “D” that it does not rule over us. No more fear, no more

God has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the One through whom all things were created and given life. That’s why he will not give in to death. Not now, not ever. Even when the powers of destruction nailed Jesus to the tree, he breathes forgiveness that cancels fear (Luke 23:34). There is always a new beginning available wherever Jesus is.

For those addicted to fear, Jesus comes to break the chains that paralyze us. He embodies that great line from a sermon in the early church: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18). He comes on the lips of the Harlem poet Zora Neale Hurston, who said, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place”

Anybody here want to live by fear? No, it’s not for us. We are the people that Jesus brings alive.

And I suppose that’s why Christian people do some of the things they do. They take seriously those old commandments about caring for the widows, and they confront an economic system where most women are still paid a lot less for doing work identical to men. Because that’s what we do if Jesus brings us alive.

Christian people sit with those who grieve. They don’t flood them with empty words. They don’t tell them stupid jokes. Before they say anything at all, they go along side in compassion, to “suffer with.” Some losses can’t be fixed, but every loss can be accompanied. Our compassionate presence with others is a visual announcement that death has not won. Because that’s what we do if Jesus brings us alive.

Wherever there is hunger, Christians offer food. Whenever someone has no bed, Christians open their homes. Whenever a victim is demeaned, Christians lift them up. Whenever a person is abandoned, Christians go alongside. Whenever death laughs its hellish cackle, Christians point to the empty cross of Jesus and say, “Death, you have no more power over us.”

Because that’s what we do if Jesus brings us alive.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See Amos 5:16 and Matthew 9:23, for instance.