By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we have described in our recent church newsletter and also in our weekly TAB email, your Pastoral Search Committee is hard at work. The eight Committee members and I are reading a book that will help us lead guided conversations with you all about your expectations about the responsibilities and behaviors of your next pastor. Called “Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together,” this book describes how, in the pastor-congregation relationship, there are not only certain responsibilities and rights of the pastor, but there are also certain responsibilities and rights of a congregation. What can you expect of one another in the years ahead?
Today’s scripture reading from Luke raises some perplexing questions about the responsibilities and rights of all of us, the expectations of us as followers of Jesus. To put it bluntly, are we supposed to be raising people from the dead, like Jesus did? This is one challenging story we just heard. When the Wednesday Bible study group and I finished reading it out loud earlier this week, we looked at each other and simply said, “Wow…what on earth do we make of this?” Two different crowds of people approach a city gate in first-century Palestine. A large group of disciples and followers of Jesus, headed into town. A large assembly of mourners, headed out of town to the place of burial. Before attempting to believe this story, let’s see if we can first imagine it.
Tall columns define the city gate and people are trying to push through the narrow opening. Voices clamoring, hot sun, swirling dust and sweat and animal smells fill the air. “Hey, what’s the slowdown?” someone yells. People jostling, straining to see what is going on. And in the silent vortex of all the commotion: a grieving widow who has lost her only son. That must be her child, the dead man, being carried on a funeral bier. Can we see the mother’s tear-stained face in our mind’s eye? Jesus notices her immediately. A word about widows in this culture: besides orphans and maybe lepers, there was no group more disenfranchised and marginalized than widows in ancient society and in some parts of the world today. In a patriarchal culture, if your husband dies, you and your belongings are placed under the “protection” of his brothers. If your brother-in-law dies, you can keep your land and home only if you have a son who will inherit them. It’s no wonder that prophets throughout Israel’s history would judge the nation and the king’s leadership based on how well they actually cared for widows and orphans.
The woman has not only has lost much; she is lost. Jesus apparently reads all of this in a flash and is overwhelmed with compassion. But his next move is so unexpected that the pallbearers skid to a halt, and stand frozen in disbelief. Breaking an important purity law of the day, Jesus touches the bier carrying the dead son, calling out: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
This is the same Jesus who, weeks before, had enraged his home synagogue congregation with references to the breaking in of God’s reign and justice. Why were they angry? He referenced the prophet Elijah resurrecting a dead body some 800 years earlier: a child of a Gentile widow. Ancient Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power of their day and also healed people on the margins of the community. Jesus’ synagogue listeners felt insulted by his implication that they do not care for the widows and the marginalized. They tried to run him out of town and off a cliff.
But provocative Jesus is at it again, enacting in front of this huge crowd the prophetic signs of the in-breaking of God’s reign: the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the poor hearing good news and the dead being raised. Suddenly we have an alive formerly dead son, one startled mother and a stunned crowd of onlookers. Everyone is pretty freaked out by this turn of events. Jesus is proclaimed a prophet and word about him spreads throughout the region.
But really? Dead people coming alive again? Full disclosure: your pastor does not know how to raise people from the dead. My pastoral care training in seminary did not include a course on “Raising the Dead 101.” And believe me, there have been several occasions in the last few months where I sorely wished I possessed this spiritual gift. For many of us here today, we have personal stories of miracles that did not happen, of cures that were not found, of damage that was, in the end, not undone. Experiencing this disappointment and sorrow in our lives and those of others, how do we make sense of biblical stories like this?
Biblical scholar and United Church of Christ theologian Walter Bruggemann has written extensively about the Hebrew prophets. He describes how the prophets’ essential challenge to those in power was that things could be “otherwise.” I wonder if this is how new life and renewed hope takes seed in our hearts. We hear or see or are pushed towards a new possibility in our lives. Perhaps it is something that was unimaginable before that moment, and we see that things can be “otherwise,” that something in the mess is being resurrected. Something might shift in how we picture God. Perhaps we begin to imagine an alive, compassionate God who is more interested in healing than in deadening punishment. Or, stuck in our despair, and feeling cynical about things ever changing, we may catch a glimpse of a decisively different way that things might turn out. We engage it. Resurrection living.
I attended a meeting of some local churches and public school principals the other day, sponsored by a group called Sheridan Story. This nonprofit organization partners with community groups to provide supplemental weekend food for kids with limited family income. Our church now sponsors three such students each week at Falcon Heights Elementary School down the block, and we’ve been collecting cereal and snacks to also tuck in the weekend backpacks. At this meeting, the school principal, Beth Behnke, told us that they had a history at her school of canned food drives to support local food shelves. Last year, at the end of the food drive, a young student approached her and quietly asked, “May I take a few cans home to my family for the weekend?” All of a sudden, Principal Beth began to imagine “otherwise.” How could kids from her neediest families have more food through the weekends? I would call this resurrection thinking on her part. She imagined what might be “otherwise.”
Bruggemann notes (“Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha”) that in healing the widow’s child, the prophet Elijah “enacts otherwise, showing that the world could be and would be different, concretely, decisively different.” A world where marginalized widows and their sick sons are provided for with food and community. He notes that it is no surprise that Jesus reminded his followers of the stories of Elijah: “When the early church pondered Jesus,” writes Bruggemann, “cadences of Elijah rang in their ears, because they sensed that Jesus was an enactment of a dangerous, healing, liberating otherwise that could not be stopped.” Bruggemann challenges us “to reconstrue our own lives out beyond the closed definitions we have too long inhaled.” Don’t “accept the given,” he enjoins us; “seek otherwise.” (p. 27)
In our story from Luke, we see Jesus also taking a huge risk, this time of ritual impurity and rebuke, as he reaches out to touch the body of the dead man. The prophet Elijah healed through fervent prayer and full-body physical touch. In Luke’s telling, Jesus heals with mere words: the command to rise. The similarity of Elijah’s healing with Jesus’ dramatic act is not lost on these two different crowds colliding at the city gates. The young man is up and talking. Awe and fear seizes the onlookers; “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”
I suggest we watch for God’s “otherwise” this week. Be on the alert for that alternate vision of how things might be, close by and far away. This is resurrection living, where we accept both the right and the responsibility as followers of Jesus to help bring about transformed people and changed communities. Yes, life alternates between joy and sadness, gain and loss. But how might we each practice resurrection, new life, together? Ours is to give testimony to the otherwise: to God’s saving, healing possibilities. Amen.