11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As 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. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
I was speaking to...well, to one of our church members about today's text, a resurrection story, and they said, “not to sound anti-religious or anything, but stories like this one sort of creep me out.” That set me to thinking, “what is it about this story and ones like it that might creep us out.”
Well, I think a good place to start would be the line, “The DEAD man SAT UP and START TO SPEAK!” As far us most of us are concerned, that just isn't supposed to happen outside of TV shows like Lost.
But in the Bible, it happens no less than 10 times. People who are supposed to be dead, people who's lives are supposed to be ended, getting up and going on with life. Endings that aren't endings. Most of us just aren't comfortable with that and neither were the people who witnessed the resurrection in this story. Their first reaction wasn't amazement or celebration or joy. No, it creeped them out...more specifically, the text says that after the dead man sat up and started to speak, “Fear seized all of them;” well, of course it did! There's a dead man talking!
We probably would have had the same reaction, it's probably part of why that person told me stories like this creep them out, dead people are supposed to stay dead...of course they were creeped out. In our scientific world, endings are final.
When you think about it, the things that scare us, disappoint us, bother us, and sometimes offend us the most are not actually the things themselves, but rather, it is partly about how those things represent an ending to us…and our human instinct is to react negatively to endings. Endings seem so final. Which may end up being why biblical resurrection stories like the one we just read are so important.
Some endings, some deaths are the obvious ones - we loose loved ones, an important relationship ends, an institution that was significant to us closes its doors, a building where we worked is boarded up. Beyond the sadness connected with the permanent absence in our lives, there is also a part of us that morns the ending itself.
Then there are the endings, the deaths that are less obvious to us – like when things change. We are not just upset about the new way of doing things, we are, in part, morning the ending of the way things used to be. When we are not able to achieve a particular goal, we are not just upset about our inability to attain the aspiration, we are, in part, morning the death of the self we believed could achieve those goals.
When you think about it, the things that scare us, disappoint us, bother us, and sometimes offend us the most are not solely the things themselves, but also how those things represent an ending to us…and our human instinct is to react negatively to endings – they just seem so final.
We don’t like endings, dying. We avoid them (pardon the pun) “like the plague.” The funny thing is… death is an important part of life. The truth is, parts of us are dying all the time. Since I began this paragraph, you probably lost a million cells or so. We all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Death is an important part of life. In some ways, like with our cells, it is only in dying that we live.
In today's text we see a real life parable of the power of life over death that comes through God. A widow's only son has died. A widow's only son. Much like we might feel at times of loss, be they actual losses or perceived losses, this woman is utterly alone. In her day-and-age, the things that probably gave her life the most meaning are gone, the things that gave her life...well, life were dead. At the very least, spiritually, her life seems over.
The lesson in today's scripture though isn't about endings, it is about beginnings. Specifically, it is about how to find new beginnings in endings, how to find new life in death.
Examples of new life through death surround us in the world that God created. Looking at God's creation, it is difficult to understand how we ever started to believe that endings were final. A great example of this new life in death is the the life cycle of the salmon. (So, you see, they are not only delicious, they are educational).
A salmon has an instinct inside of it to bring it back to the place of its birth. After spending a year or two or three out in the ocean and swimming thousands of miles back up to the stream of their birth, the salmon prepare to die. They embrace endings. Their instinct is to search it out. Even in the face of obstacles such as rocks and dams and waterfalls, they do not falter in their instinctual understanding of death as an important part of living.
They finally, at the end of their long laborious journey, dig a hole, lay their eggs and die. And out of those eggs comes new life. For it is only through dying that there is new life among the salmon.
We can see it in the example of our own cells. As I’ve said, we all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, in a healthy body, at the same time those are dying just a many cells are being reproduced. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we actually fully regenerate all of our cells every seven years. When this natural cycle of life, this dying to live pattern, is interrupted or altered, that is when we have problems. Apparently, cells that don’t die off in the normal cycle are a real problem. These cells are related to diseases like cancer and become problematic because they get in the way and block the healthy development of the body. Death is an important part of life. In some ways, like with our cells, it is only in dying that we live.
That’s on microcosmic level; on the macrocosmic level we see the same dying to live pattern. The universe itself is locked into this essential cycle of life. The elements that are needed to make life possible are produced by the death of a star. How much more proof could we need, that endings are not bad? How much more proof could we need, that new life from death is just the way God designed this thing we call life?
Endings are not bad. They are possibly the opposite of bad – they are essential. Endings are not the death of something, they are simply the markers to the beginning of new possibilities – new life.
In today’s scripture reading we have one of the most extreme biblical examples of the fact that with God, endings are not final; that when there is a God there is a way; that nothing in this life, not angles, rulers, things present, things to be, not powers, height nor depth nor DEATH can separate us from God.
It is interesting to consider that, just like we have been learning in conformations class, there are only two sacraments in the Presbyterian church – anyone know what they are? Right, communion and baptism. Both of them, both of our sacraments are centered around the very idea, that new life comes in death. In communion we celebrate the resurrection, a reminder that because of God's love for us there is life after death. And in baptism we die to our old life and as we cross through the waters of baptism, the old life is gone and the new life has begun.
You see, today's scripture is not just about the way that the widow's only son was brought back to life; about how he got back his physical life. It is also not just about how in getting him back she got back her spiritual life. It is also about how our spiritual and emotional lives are sometimes not all God intends for them to be until we die to what we once knew and are born again into the new life that God has waiting for us.
If we want to continue growing in our relationship with God, we have to see the importance of dying in order to live – not just the reality of the death/life cycle that God imprinted into even the furthest reaching corners of Creation, but the reality of the spiritual and emotional deaths we all must die everyday – dying to ourselves and finding life anew in the grace of God. And trusting that God is always on the other side of death – be they physical, emotional or spiritual deaths; trusting that with God, endings are not final; trusting that when there is a God there is a way; trusting that nothing in this life, not angles, rulers, things present, things to be, not powers, height nor depth nor DEATH can separate us from God.
If we can do that, if we can trully trust God, even when facing physical, emotional and spiritual deaths – if we can trust God so much that facing deaths does not cause “fear to seize” us as it does those who witnessed the resurrection in today's scripture, then we can begin really living our lives for God.
It is a difficult lesson, but if we can learn it, if we can live it, if we can trust in God fully, even in the face of death – then earthly endings that creep us out, scare us, disappoint us, bother us, and sometimes offend us the most - well, they become just that “earthly endings,” but in our relationship with God, in following the teachings of Jesus, we can see them for what they also are “markers to the beginning of new life” – new possibilities in Christ.
We don’t like endings. We avoid them “like the plague.” The funny thing is, death is an important part of life.
Jesus once said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains only one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds and small seedlings of love which then grow into great love.”
St. Francis of Assisi knew this law of life well when he wrote his prayer for peace; “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”
The Apostle Paul knew it well when he said: “We will not be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, unless we are first united with Christ in a death like his.”
I would like bring this message to a close with a riddle that I've asked before in a similar sermon. What does a cell, a seed, a salmon, a star, and our lives have in common? If you understand the answer to that riddle, you have the key to growing your relationship with God even deeper.