My mother told me that I learned to talk in complete sentences at a very early age. And she taught me basic spelling before I ever went to school. And as a very young boy, I used to write and illustrate original stories. I suppose it’s no surprise that I ended up in a career made out of words.
In 21st century America, we place a very high value on words; on our words. We blog and Facebook and Twitter to our heart’s content. We are regularly encouraged to tell the whole world exactly what we think about everything. Everyone is an expert. We are swimming in a veritable sea of verbiage. And frankly it feels pretty good.
Words are powerful. They can inspire deeds of beauty and goodness. Words can lift us out of the morass of daily life and carry us away. But words can also be imposters. Words can easily disguise themselves as action. We talk and somehow come to believe that that talking is taking action. We talk about the evils of corporate greed and racism and sexism and heterosexism and wall- building and Muslim-bashing, and somehow feel satisfied that we have taken a stand. But words alone never changed anything. Words alone certainly cannot change the world.
But this thing we have signed up for – this being a follower of Jesus thing – is actually about changing the world – not talking about it, but doing it. The Gospel calls us to walk right into the sludge and mire and pain of the world, and to put our time and effort and money where our mouths are. Talk is cheap, but following Jesus will cost you something.
Jesus and a rather large group of followers had traveled to the town of Nain, just a few kilometers south of Nazareth. As they approached the village gate, they were met by a funeral procession for a young man. Luke tells us that this young man was the only son of his devastated mother. Oh and by the way, she was a widow. Now that’s a sad story in any day, but in Jesus’s day, it was also a story of economic desperation. In a highly patriarchal culture, with her husband dead, this widow depended absolutely upon her son to provide for her material needs. Biblical scholar Bruce Molina reminds us that this is a (portrait of a) woman in trouble. Since no family connection remained, such a woman's life expectancy was extremely short. Her son was dead and she would soon follow.
When Jesus saw her, he had compassion on her. Well, who wouldn’t? When we think of compassion, we usually think of something akin to pity. We all feel pity about the suffering of others. But pity can be quite remote. Pity can actually be used as a self-protective wall between us and “that poor person, over there.” But the literal meaning of compassion is “co-suffering.” To have compassion, then, is to enter into another person’s pain and to take some of it off his or her shoulders and put it on yours. The Greek word translated as compassion is stronger still. The word is “splanchna” and is only used a few times in the entire New Testament. By using it here, Luke means to tell us that when Jesus saw this broken, desperate woman, it ripped his heart out. It shook him to his core. It cost him something emotionally, and we all know that emotions have physical effects.
Jesus walked right into her pain. He approached her and whispered: “Don’t weep.” And then Jesus did the unthinkable. He touched the bier upon which the young man’s lifeless body lay, causing a gasp to go up from the crowd. Jesus had come in contact with a dead body and now he was unclean too. You see, that compassion cost him that.
Jesus looked at the heart-broken mother and at the cold, lifeless son and at all the people gathered around. And I imagine that it became very quiet. Then he screwed up his courage and said: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” And the young man did. And so did his mother. Mama was raised to new life just as surely as he was.
Luke doesn’t tell us how Jesus felt after all of this drama, but I suspect he was physically depleted. Why do I say that? Well, you might remember that Luke tells another story of a suffering woman, one who had been bleeding for 12 years. She heard that Jesus was in town and fought her way through the crowd so that she could touch the fringe of his garment. And when she did, Jesus asked: “Who touched me?” Luke says that Jesus knew someone had touched him because he felt the power go out of him. Her healing cost him something.
The Hebrew Scripture lesson of the day is a parallel to the Gospel text, an older story about another widow and her son. There was a great famine and the prophet Elijah asked this poor widow for something to eat. But all she had was a little flour and oil, just enough for one last meal before she and her son both died of starvation. Incredibly, she gave Elijah the last of her food and in return for her generosity God provided flour and oil for her household for the duration of the famine. Happy ending! Well, not quite.
In a cruel twist of fate, the son subsequently became sick and died. Grief stricken, the woman railed against the prophet. And so Elijah entered into her pain. He took the boy in his arms and laid him down on a bed and then did a very strange thing. He laid his own body over the top of the boy’s body three times and each time he prayed: "O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again." In laying his body on top of the boy’s, it was as if Elijah were tying to infuse the dead boy with some of his own life. It cost him something.
And that has always been the way that God saves the world – through the sacrifice and generosity and self-giving of those who claim God’s name. It costs something.
Now let me tell you, in a world in which people are abandoning organized religion in droves, it’s very tempting to keep your mouth shut about this part of the Gospel. It is very tempting to lower the bar; to make the Christian faith as user-friendly as possible; to turn it into a self-help program – just another way to improve your life. But that’s not the way it works. The Gospel is not so much vertical as it is horizontal. It’s about costly connection to others.
Our brother, Walter Manley, whose legacy we honor today, loved words. He loved to speak them and sing them and hear them, in all of their infinite variety. And he loved one word perhaps more than all of the others. Ubuntu is an Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to "human kindness." But over time it has developed into a philosophy about how people can live well together. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it like this: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished...”1
And it is to those humiliated and diminished ones that Jesus, Ubuntu made flesh, sends us. Christ sends us to stand in the gaps of the world; to use our bodies to shoulder the burdens of others; to be nothing more and nothing less than the church.
1 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness