Luke 7.11-17
June 5, 2016
“Dying Well”
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

I am 67 years old and I am reluctant to admit that I am middle aged. The math is pretty easy. If I admit that I am middle aged, that means I will live to be 134.  In the 1600s a preacher named Richard Baxter said, “I preach like a dying man to dying people.”  Our old friend John Wesley bragged on the early Methodists when he said, “Our people know how to die well.”  He believed that when Christians lived out their Christian faith, they died well.

Is that your experience?  Not the dying part. When your Christian friends die, have they died well?  I do not intend to sound skeptical about this, but my experience is, at least, mixed. When a couple has been married for 50 – 60 years and one dies, I often hear the adult children wonder aloud, “I don’t know if Daddy can survive without Mama.”  I understand that what the son was doing was expressing his own difficultly in accepting his mother’s death, but is that dying well?  When we die, will our children or grandchildren be so lonely and grief stricken that they cry out to God, “I can’t go on.” 

One of those experiences is indelibly etched into my memory.  A family rushed to the hospital Emergency Department because they had been told that their “Mama” had collapsed and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. The family that arrived was composed of the grown daughter, her husband and two sons, about 8 and 10 years old. The “Mama” died. After the family was told of her death, the daughter began to weep and wail. She fell down on the floor. When anyone attempted to hold her, she pulled away. I remember her repeating, through her sobs, “I ain’t got nobody. I ain’t got nobody.”  After about 30 minutes of her sobs, interrupted only with the refrain, “I ain’t got nobody,” her husband said, “Honey, you’ve got us.”  It was as though she awoke from a dream, looked at her husband and two sons and realized that her life would continue.

Living in the deep south we think we have a monopoly on strange and colorful characters. The characters that southern novelists turn into icons of literature. Most of us know some of those characters. Some of us are those characters. As I have lived in different parts of the country, I have come to believe that we are more alike than we are different. Maybe those of us who live in this part of the world just have a peculiar style of expression, when it comes to telling our stories. That introduction is to say, it may not only happen in the south.

Long, long ago in a town far, far away, I had the grave side service for a man that none of you know, or anyone in his family. Whenever I think about dying well, I remember this experience. After the service, which had proceeded without incident, the cemetery staff began to lower the casket into the grave. As the casket started down, the widow began to moan audibly. Then another woman’s weeping grew to be so loud that it drowned out the widow’s weeping. The widow began to moan louder.  The other woman cranked up her volume. About that time the funeral director leaned over to me and whispered, “We may have a problem.” 

If you have much imagination, you may have already guessed that the other woman weeping was in fact the “other woman.”  But it did not end with the weeping contest. Once the casket reached the bottom of the grave, the widow jumped into the grave, on top of the casket screaming, “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”  Not to be out done, the “other woman” also jumped on top of the casket. I will not continue the dialogue that ensued at that point. There are children present. There may be men who hold a phantasy of women fighting over him, but was that a good death?

 As the pastor of this congregation I am aware of the needs of many of you. But sometimes I forget that those of you who seem to be the strongest; the ones I know I can count on as the backbone of this congregation; you who serve on clusters, committees and boards, you teach

Sunday school, you prepare Wednesday night classes; you may even be a member of our hard working staff; the simple but often unrealized truth is that sometimes our strength can hide our need. Sometimes our resilience and faithful service can hide our vulnerability.

We read that Jesus had compassion for the widow in the funeral procession. This is the same word Luke uses to describe the feelings the Samaritan felt when he saw the man stripped and lying beside the road. It is the same word Luke uses to describe the prodigal father’s feelings when he saw his son far down the road. Jesus can meet our needs even when we are so torn apart that we cannot ask for help. Perhaps the big difference between the compassion of Jesus and our feelings is that Jesus’ compassion leads to action. When Jesus says to the widow, “Do not weep,” he has the power to change the situation.

Who among us has not prayed for a miracle at some point in our desperate lives?  Who has not shaken your fist at God in a challenge to all things faithful that a truly compassionate God would not make us suffer so?  It is in these moments that miracles seem to be a sign that God is working to set things right in a world gone very wrong. Things like illness, death, financial ruin, chronic pain, divorce, depression, addiction, injured children, violence and abuse, and massive disasters – the list is long with reminders of circumstances in life which dismantle our belief that the world is as it should be.

Jesus demonstrates to both crowds, the ones following him and the ones in the funeral procession, that God loves those on the margins. His compassion is extended to the mother who lives, not to the son who died. Jesus is compassionate toward her for her sake. Perhaps there is a foretaste of the compassion he will feel toward his own mother from the cross. Jesus sees a woman who lives on the fringes and as such is invisible to most. Perhaps if we had been there on that day we would have stood respectfully on the side of the road as the funeral procession passed by, avoiding eye contact. Jesus sees people as God sees them and responds to them as God responds to us.

To be a witness to such divine compassion is almost more than we can bear. Those who were witnesses on that day were seized with fear. They sense the divine presence and were undone by it. We live in the quiet gap between the sorrow that seems as if it will last a lifetime and God’s promise of joy in the morning. God knows what it means to lose a child. Jesus raised the son of the widow at Nain, as God raised Jesus from the grave. It is that compassionate hand of God that still reaches out to us, to all of us.

This miracle story describes what appears to be a random meeting of a parade of life and a parade of death. Jesus and his followers come down one road and the widow leads the funeral procession down the other road. They meet at the crossroads. What happens at that intersection reveals the reign of God. God through Christ transforms mortal existence into new life. The dead are raised.

Jesus can hear our cries hidden in the deepest crevices of our despair. Jesus wraps his arms around us to hold us when we are in our greatest pain. Just as Jesus reaches out to touch the funeral bier, Jesus steps into the chaos of our unpredictable, overturned, and shattered world to bring meaning from even the most desolate suffering. On this communion Sunday, once again we are reminded of God’s love for us.

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