June 9, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Luke 7: 11-17
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 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. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 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!" 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
I’m so glad to see this scripture come up in the lectionary, because it has this wonderful Greek verb in it, a word that has no direct translation in English, but is so descriptive that I wish we could adopt for our everyday use. The word is splagnizomai, (splang- nee-tso-my) and it describes how Jesus felt when he saw this woman. Luke doesn’t use the word very often. He used it in the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe the feeling that the Samaritan had – when he saw the man who had been beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road for dead. He felt this– splagnizomai – and stopped to help the man, to bind his wounds. He used it when he told another parable, too, the one about the boy who squandered his inheritance on riotous living, then came dragging up the road to ask if he could come home. When the father saw him – the father who had been waiting, watching for him – when the father saw his boy, Jesus said, he felt this -- “splagnizomai.
It is a powerful word.
It means a deep feeling of compassion, so deep that your bowels and innards move. It is an intense emotion – sympathy, and mercy, even pain, on behalf of another who is suffering.
Down South every now and then at a funeral, an elderly lady will say with tears in her eyes,“Oh, honey, my heart just hurts for you.” That’s splagnizomai.
When we saw those Oklahoma neighborhoods in rubble, and the people racing to that school to see if their children were alive, -- splagnizomai.
When we saw the faces of those parents looking for their little ones outside the elementary school at Sandy Hook, -- splagnizomai.
When the news broke about the Boston Marathon bombings, and we watched the faces of those who were there, those who did not know what happened to their loved ones,
For a man to feel that way in Jesus’ world was a sign of weakness. Men especially, in Roman culture, were supposed to be invulnerable, impervious to such feelings as mercy and charity and compassion. A man is strong and powerful not supposed to feel this – not supposed to be tender hearted. But Jesus did.
He felt it for the mother, not her dead son, and he felt it because it knew what it meant, that the only son of a widow had died. It meant that she was at the margins of society, a woman with virtually nothing left to live for, and nothing left to live on. On top of the unspeakable grief of her loss, there was the unimaginable sorrow of her future. Even if she’d had any estate, any personal wealth, it would now belong to her nearest male relative, not to her. If there was land or money, a house or livestock, it would go to a brother-in-law, or a cousin, or an uncle of her husband. Not to her.
Maybe someone would take her in - - a sister, perhaps, with a generous husband, a brother.Maybe not.
Jesus, as he passed this funeral procession, looked at her with great compassion. She didn’t say anything to him, or ask anything of him. She didn’t need to. He could see her pain, and he could feel it, too. He could see and feel all that she had lost, and would lose. “Do not weep,” he said to her. He touched the body, laying there, touched it and said “Young man, I say to you, rise” And he reached out and gave her boy back to her.
He was recognized immediately by the people as a great prophet. After they overcame their shock, they glorified God. They saw what he had done for the miracle it was, and they understood who he was and how he had raised the widow’s son through the power of the one true God.
The one who held in his hands all the power of the universe, reached out to restore the life of one who had absolutely no power whatsoever. We can only imagine the joy of that mother, the amazement of that son. We can only hope that they thereafter treasured every day of their lives.
In fact, that is easier to imagine than what had come before. Contemplating the crushing grief of the loss of a child is not a place we can linger for long without some cost. For those who have lost a child, the place where that sorrow dwells is too tender, no matter how long it has been.
For those who have a child, of whatever age, it is a deep and abiding fear. For anyone, to have such a loss, to have a child taken from you, whether by death or estrangement or addiction or, God forbid, abduction, such a loss is unimaginable.
Others among us have known other losses, had things taken from us. That pain is also excruciating. We don’t carry those losses out into the streets, and no public ritual observance like a funeral marks the event, invites the sympathy of others, or offers any closure. The pain stays buried within us, the loss goes disregarded, at least by most people who know us. We weep privately, if we can even allow ourselves to think on it.
Perhaps it was a deep humiliation, a taking of dignity that can’t be restored.
Maybe it was a dream broken, shattered beyond repair.
Often it is a false sense of the world, a naïve belief that if we are kind and helpful, others will be kind to us. Very often, we cling to childish beliefs that being nice and doing good will result in a life that is nice and good. When trauma or loss or disasters happen, as they do to everyone in some way, we are shocked, as if we should somehow have been exempt. Then we wonder, “why did this happen to me?”
In our better moments, of course, we know that life is not fair, and that bad things happen. In our calmer moments, we can easily say that we trust in God, and that we know Jesus is with us, come what may. But when we are suffering, we are not looking in the direction of the one who has the power to raise us up. Our eyes are downcast, our thoughts turned inward.
Still, Jesus comes down the road, sees the funeral procession and sees us,
brokenhearted, faltering, grieving,
struggling with loss or shame,
weighed down by how we look or who we are,by our name or race or class or station or condition,
puzzled by teasing and wounded by words,
abandoned by someone who said they would love us forever,
researching the diagnosis to see if there could possibly be a cure,wondering how it happened, that our lives have come to such a pass.
Jesus sees us, and he feels compassion – splagnizomai.And the power of the world to hurt us does not go away, but somehow, his being there with us, the love in his eyes, the quiet and knowing presence helps us to persevere. Jesus lifts us up from the dusty roadside. He takes us by the hand and says, “Do not weep.”
We remember that with him, all things are possible; with him, the blind can see, and the broken are restored, the lame walk, and those who were dead find life.
Because of him, we get up, we dry our tears, we take the hand of the person next to us, and we continue our journey.
Because of him, we understand that the kingdoms of this world, even the lives of those we love, may be temporary, but the kingdom of God is bigger, encompasses more, and lasts forever.
Because of him, we understand that the world’s evils, that principalities, that death and disaster and malignancies may take from us, but that we do not find our meaning in those losses.
We find our meaning in knowledge that there is a hope beyond today, that there is something bigger than our lives, that there is a power greater than all the earthly powers combined.
That hope, that something bigger, that power, is the eternal, cosmic existence of a love and grace so great, so all-consuming, so extravagant and forgiving, that there is no person who is out of its reach.
That power, switched on in us, gives us the power to walk in Jesus’ footsteps – healing, caring, visiting, raising up the lowly, and offering comfort to those who suffer.
It’s what he came for, came to that town where that widow-woman wept on the road to the cemetery, came to make the blind see and the lame walk and to bind up the broken heartedand to show us what real power looks like, and to empower us to make the power switch in his name, so that we’d do the same, and everyone who sees us would see him, and say “God has looked favorably on us!"
That’s why he came!Thanks be to God!