Sermon
May 10, 1998 - Fifth Sunday of Easter
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran
Note:  Rev. Moran was ill with laryngitis and Rev. Hamilton masterfully presented his sermon on very short notice.

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Scripture


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.

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Text - Have you ever brought someone back from the dead?

The gospel lesson this morning tells the story of a chance encounter between Jesus and a widow from the town of Nain. Jesus and a group of followers are on their way into the town. Their mood is happy and triumphant - for Jesus has just cured the son of an important Roman official in a near by town and his fame is going before him. This widow, however, knows nothing of this. She is on her way out of town, heading for the burial grounds, bearing the body of her only son. Her son has died, and his body has been washed and dressed for the grave. Perhaps she does not even notice the other group heading towards her, she is weeping and does not hear their excited chatter.

But suddenly there is silence. A man has broken away from the other crowd and made his way towards her. He speaks to her: Do not weep. Then he moves towards the body of her son and touches it. The bearers stop in shock. It is completely contrary to all custom for anyone to touch the dead - and this man is a total stranger. Then he speaks: "Young man, I say to you, rise!"

The dead man sits up and begins to speak, and Jesus gives him to his mother. Fear seizes all of them; and they say, "A great prophet has risen among us!" And word about him continues to spread throughout the country.

In this story Jesus reveals a particular sensitivity to the situation of widows. Jesus also reveals this in his teaching, where widows are models of humility and generosity. Perhaps he has gained this sensitivity because his mother was widowed. When he is dying on the cross his last thoughts are for the care of his mother: "Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home."

Jesus had to provide for the care of his mother, because in the Jewish community of that time a widow without children was a person without a place. When Jesus gives the care of his mother to the beloved disciple, he makes sure she has a home and a place among the living. When Jesus gives life back to the child in our lesson, he does the same for the widow of Nain. She is rescued from being outcast and alone, judged as being without value and usefulness in her world.

The story also serves as a moment of revelation for the community, for Jesus is recalling the great work of the famous prophet Elijah who 800 years before did for the widow of Zarapeth what Jesus did for the widow on Nain.

The story of Elijah is this - during a great drought and famine, the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand."

But the widow says she has nothing, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; "I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."

So Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth."

She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.

After this the son of the woman became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, "O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, "O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again."

The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth."

The familiarity of the people with the story of Elijah explains their reaction to the raising of the child of the widow of Nain: Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!"

We might wonder why the people called him a prophet, since he didn’t predict the future. In biblical thought, predicting the future was really only a consequence of the prophet’s role, not the essence of it. The primary role of the prophet was to reveal the heart and mind of God - to reveal what was pleasing in the sight of God and what was displeasing - to point out the boundary between good and evil, justice and injustice. The prophet understood the way of the path of righteousness, and amidst the twists and turns of life, the job of the prophet was to keep the people on that path.

What would be the landmarks of the paths of righteousness? How could people know if they were on the right road?

The prophet would point to certain markers in the road as most important; the Prophet would say - look at how the weak and vulnerable in your society are being treated. Look at the condition of widows and orphans, outcasts and strangers. Are they honored and protected, are their rights defended and their well being secured?

The concern Jesus shows for the widow of Nain, the power he shows in bringing her child to life, these are examples of the prophetic task of revealing the heart and mind of God and of leading the people in the path of righteousness.

Megan McKenna is an author who has examined the story of the widow of Nain from this prophetic viewpoint, and she writes:

Jesus saw a woman, a widow in the larger context of a society that cared nothing for her, a woman lost and forsaken, soon to be excluded from the life of the community and city. Jesus saw her, a widow with no support system, a woman in grief, and he saw the effects of a social order that would do nothing to help her and he had pity on her…. The funeral procession has called forth from Jesus strong emotion, righteous indignation, and the power of resurrection. New life, birth, hope, relationship to another in service, honoring the poor, acts of mercy, and acts that resist death and defy injustice are called forth in the life of the prophet and the prophet’s followers.

But do we, as the followers of this great prophet, have the power that Jesus had? Can we place our hand on the death bed and say to the child: , "Young man, I say to you, rise." We cannot. But we may very well be able to do everything short of that, we certainly have the power to comfort the widow and give her an honored place in our community, and we may even be able to do things that keep children from dying and bringing mothers’ to grief in the first place.

McKenna tells the story of how she was teaching on the widow of Nain story when someone called out harshly: Have you ever brought someone back from the dead?

She paused, she hesitated, and then she answered: Yes. Every time I bring hope into a situation, every time I bring joy that shatters despair, every time I forgive others and give them back dignity and the possibility to a future with me and others in the community, every time I listen to others and affirm them and their life, every time I speak the truth, every time I confront injustice - yes - I bring people back from the dead. Yes.

I wanted to read the story of the widow of Nain because of Mother’s Day. This is a day to honor mothers, and that may seem a natural thing to do since we live in a world that speaks so highly, and so often, of family values. But in spite of all the ideals we hold about the role of mothers, there are many social and economic pressures that devalue the work of mothers and the time and energy that such work takes.

We see this conflict between the ideal and the real value of motherhood in the debate over working mothers, the economics, quality and availability of child care, the feminization of poverty, the priorities of welfare reform, and other front page issues.

If we were to examine our world through the prophet’s lens, would we see signs that we are on the path of righteousness, or would a close look at how the most vulnerable among us are honored and protected, how their rights are defended and their well being secured indicate the need for a change of direction, a change of heart?

I suppose that regardless of how you might answer that question, none of us would find it difficult to imagine ways that our world could better reflect the righteousness of God and do more to honor and protect mothers and their children. All of us would want to do this if needed for our family, friends, or neighbors.. But sometimes it is hard to see how to make an impact beyond our narrow sphere of influence.

This morning, we see two avenues open to us through the world wide fellowship of the church. The Mother’s Day Blankets are an immediately practical way to bring a little of that resurrection power into the lives of men, women, and children around the world. Whether the blankets given end up wrapped around the shoulders of someone forced from their home by hurricane or flood, or they end up shielding a mother and her baby from the fierce mid-day sun in a refugee camp, they bring a blessing and the prophet’s power of hope and resurrection into a moment of need and despair.

And also today there is the opportunity to learn more about policies and laws that can, with a few strokes of a pen, shape the destiny of a continent. In your bulletin is a request for an offering of letters. We have had offerings of letters here before in support of the WIC program - the domestic program that provides food and health counseling for women, infants, and children in the United States. This morning the offering addresses an international issue and asks for you to inform yourself and involve yourself in support of a bill before the US House of Representatives: HR 3636, Africa: Seeds of Hope. This bill seeks to provide resources for Rural finance, Agricultural research and extension, and food security in Africa. It has a special emphasis on women farmers, and while it is not as immediate as the gift of a blanket, it has the potential to do a great deal of good for a great number of people. It, too, can be an instrument of the power of resurrection.

The widow of Nain met Jesus at a critical moment in her life. She and the funeral party for her son were making their way out of town towards the burial place as Jesus and his followers were coming into town fresh on the heels of a great success. The high spirits of the one group must have been in stark contrast to the somber darkness that hung over the other. But Jesus notices, he interrupts his celebration and walks over to the widow. Do not weep, he says, and touches the her dead son. He does not turn his face from sorrow, he is not intimidated by death, he will bring all the power of his being to serve her in her need, to save her from being outcast and alone, to give her a place in the community of the living.

Such is the work of the prophet.

Such is the challenge of the church.

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Let us pray:

By your grace and love, O Lord, you have brought us to this new day, the beginning of a new week, and you gather us here to bless us with your presence and power. What this week will bring, none of us can tell. Only we know that in all things you will be God with us, and by the wonder of your love you will sustain us and bring us through every trial and difficulty. In your love you will multiply our joys and soothe our sorrows, and, if we allow, you will abide with us and grant us peace.

As we gather our thoughts in prayer, O God, we think not only of ourselves, but bring to mind also the needs of others.

We pray especially for

We ask you to be with all who mourn the loss of those they love, especially with the family of Bertha Beardsely

In the quiet of our hearts we remember before you those we know who are in need of your healing and comfort.

Thank you, God, for the happiness and hope brought into our lives by remembrance of our mother’s and the dedication of our gifts of blankets. We ask you to bless the lives of mother’s and children everywhere, and we pray for all who face the challenges and joys of family life.

Give Peace, O Lord, to all the world; guide us in a way of justice and mercy; Let not the needy be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor be taken away. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and sustain us with your holy spirit.

Remind us daily, by your grace, to pray for one another and when we lack the words to express the depth of our prayers, may we experience the presence of your Holy Spirit with us, interceding on our behalf and bringing us your peace.

Keep our lives and the lives of those we love in your care, and thank you for the invitation to offer our prayers in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

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