This is a portion of my sermon from today, with some commentary at the end….thanks for reading.
The little town of Nain. Have you heard of it? It’s between Nazareth and Bethlehem. If you blink you will miss it. It’s a remote, little town. Nobody lives there. It’s never mentioned again in the Bible. It’s obscure and insignificant, except for the fact that Luke tells us Jesus passed through it. And on the day he was passing through, a funeral was taking place. A young man had died and a funeral procession was occurring on the one road in the town. There were women wailing and pounding their chests and there was a woman, his mother, who was beyond despair. She had recently lost her husband and now faced the death of her son. These circumstances would be tragic today – imagine losing your spouse and then your child. But in antiquity, the truth is there were two funerals that day, because upon the death of her son she now has no identity. She could not own property or care for herself. Without a male relative to latch on to, she would have no social or economic standing. She is automatically homeless and destitute. She reminds us of one of those stories you hear, maybe it’s your story, about the person who just can’t catch a break. Who seems to have every ailment, every misfortune and you think, how can this person keep going? She represents one of the stories that causes us to think, I can’t imagine going through that.
This is the woman Jesus meets on the road in the little, insignificant town in Nain. Jesus sees her and he has compassion for her. He is moved and compelled to act. He goes to the boy, touches the briar and tells him to rise, and the boy comes to life. Everyone who witnesses this is awestruck and they cannot help but glorify God.
This little story is found only in the Gospel of Luke. It’s obscure and easy to miss, like the town of Nain. It’s one more person who has all the bad luck, who is down and out and completely worn down by life. Yet Jesus comes to this small place and looks upon this bereft person and restores life.
You might take note that the woman never expresses her faith . In fact she never says anything. She never asks him for help. She never expresses her belief that he could heal. None of this seems to matter to Jesus. He does not go to her because of her faith, he goes to her to because he simply has compassion.
In “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” the poet and essayist Christian Wiman writes about his religious faith, which intensified after he met his future wife and then intensified again when he was afflicted with a rare type of cancer at the age of 39. It’s a wonderful book that explores both the intellectual and the mystical sides of faith.” Wiman makes the comment that “there must be a shattering experience” in order to “build a vocabulary of faith.”
“Everyone has shattering experiences. It may be falling in love or having a child. It may be the death of someone you love or thwarted ambition. It may be just some tiny crack in consciousness that deepens so slowly over the years that, by the time you notice it, it only takes a spilled drink or missed flight to tear it — and you — wide open. One way to look at this is: no one is spared. Another way: everyone is gifted.
We all have shattering experiences that redefine our existence that put the cracks in us, so the light can shine through. We may not want to admit how cracked we are. We may not want to confess our suffering or our anxieties, or our anger, but we rest assured while we may hide these cracks under a tough exterior, Jesus sees them.”
“Be Kind,” The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, “for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
In her book, Still, Lauren Winner writes about faith after dealing with a divorce. She tells a story about a going to church alone one Sunday. She writes, “there was a time when I hated this, hated being alone in church but those feelings have left and what once felt sorry and painful has come to feel tranquil. However, it’s unlikely you ever find yourself alone in the last pew; it is more likely that you will find yourself with the halt, the lame and the new mothers. Just as I thought I would have the whole pew to myself, a woman sidles up to my left and says, something like, is there space here? I scrunch my legs in so that she can squeeze past me, but she doesn’t move, and I come to realize that she want to sit where I’m sitting. She wants the same spot at the end of the pew. Perhaps she is claustrophobic. Perhaps this is where she sits every week. What choice do I have? I move over. She looks like she has seen better days. She has a suitcase with her, and she keeps a hat and sunglasses on through the service and she smells like rotten apples and streets. She seems, oddly entirely comfortable. Then, in the middle of the sermon the rotten apple woman begins to tap her right index finger rapidly on her knee. There is a rhythm to this tapping and makes the whole pew shake. I glare at the woman , hoping she will take a hint and top. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Then unaccountably my left hand shoots out and I close my fingers over her hand , squeezing her fingers to stop the tapping, as a mother would still a child. In an instant, I am horrified. I can’t believe I have actually done what I did. And then, as I am blushing, thinking I want to vaporize, I realize the woman does not seem offended or confounded, or even surprised, and she has not shrugged off or let go of my hand. In fact she seems to be holding my hand. We hold hands for the rest of the service.
Winner concludes, “and that is part of what I mean when I say it is life inside this Christian story that has begun to tell me who I really am.”
When Jesus sees this woman and has compassion, he gives her life. – Not just physical life to the boy, not just financial security to the mother, but life that is restorative in every sense of the word. She is another person in the Christian story who is claimed for who she truly is – seen by Christ.
This week I was asked to do a funeral for someone who had no faith. They asked me to not mention God, or read scripture, or do anything too churchy. They didn’t want any religious talk. I felt my profession compromised. I imagine this the way it will be in the future. There will be more and more people wanting send off’s with God language in the mix. I decided that the only thing I could was look upon this family with compassion. The only thing I could do was tell them that while this person did not see Christ, Christ always, always, always looked upon him.
If you are struggling with your faith, or wondering what this whole being part of organized religion means, or wondering how your faith life fits into the rest of your life, remember this. Jesus sees you. He sees you for who you are in all your brokenness and places of pain. He sees the places where your soul is cracked and places where you are lonely and most vulnerable. He sees you when you feel unnoticed or unheard. Rest assured it is in those places, where you feel the least noticed, you are seen. We all will have times when we are the person from nowhere with nothing and when people shake their heads at us and think, how will they ever survive that? When we are pretty much a mess, someone will take our hand. Trust and believe that you are seen. Jesus looks upon us with compassion, suffers with us and restores our life.
Trust and believe, you are seen.
…..After I preached this sermon a woman going through hell came out of the sanctuary. I asked her how she was doing. “Well, I’m sick, my son’s a drunk, I’m a shattered person, but somebody will hold my hand and make it all better…..” Then I went to see a mother whose teenager daughter had ran away from home. Then I visited a woman with a tumor in her brain. Then learned of another parishioner with cancer, and a couple facing divorce….and my heart felt heavy.
Sometimes the words I say, and the faith I believe can feel so small in light of the pain and anguish of daily life.
Sometimes there are no words.
May the light shine through our cracks.
Still: Notes a Midfaith Crisis, by Lauren Winner. Harper Collins: 2012
My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, by Christian Wineman. New York: 2013