Elijah is a great, old-school, brand-name prophet. His raising of the son of the Widow of Zarephath is one of the really compelling biblical stories. There he is in the upper room, mysteriously battling with God and death to revive the boy. He stretches out upon the corpse—imagine!--and cries out to God. He asks God the big questions: Why did you do this? Why would you bring tragedy upon a house to which you have specifically sent me?
And God certainly did send him, in true prophetic style. Elijah had been living in a ravine and was being fed by ravens, and when the water in that area dried up (as a result of his own prophetic declaration), God told him to go to Zarephath because there was a woman in that town who would feed him.
Ever the obedient servant, Elijah arrives in that town to find that the widow in question is in such dire distress that she has almost nothing to give him. “I am just gathering sticks,” she says, “to take home so I can cook the small amount of food we have left, and feed it to my son before we die.” It’s a mark of Elijah’s vast confidence in God that he can tell her not to be afraid, to give him some part of what she has, for her jar of flour and her jug of oil will never run out. And Elijah’s astonishing prophetic word is true. Elijah is a great prophet.
So when the woman’s son then dies later of an unrelated illness, Elijah is truly put to the test as a prophet. The widow confronts him directly: “What do you have against me, man of God?” And Elijah too confronts God: “Why have you brought tragedy even on this widow with whom I am staying?” His revival of the widow’s son is mysterious and dramatic. He carries the boy upstairs and puts him on his own bed and stretches out on top of him three times, and the boy comes back to life. And the woman sees that he is a man of God and his word it true.
Who doesn’t want to be like Elijah? He is larger than life, epic, legendary. This story is so powerful that Elijah’s protégé, the prophet Elisha, also enacts a version of it, raising a woman’s son from the dead by stretching himself out on top of the body three times. That mysterious gesture, so powerful and visceral, lets us know that these are no ordinary holy men.
By comparison, Jesus’s version of this story is almost understated. He sees the widow of Nain, is moved with compassion for her, touches the funeral bier, and brings her son back to life. I don’t mean to downplay our Lord’s revival of the widow’s son, but this story, which only Luke tells, doesn’t have the wealth of detail and drama that even John’s story about raising Lazarus gives us. There aren’t really any pyrotechnics. It’s just a touching story. Literally a touching story. Jesus is touched by the woman’s suffering and he touches back, stretching his hand out to make contact with her loss. It’s impressive but it’s very simple.
There is one other difference between the story of Jesus and the stories of Elijah and Elisha. Did you notice it? Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. In fact, there is an interesting clash of crowds in this story. Jesus and his disciples and a great crowd of people come to the entrance of the town and they are met by the widow and the body of her son and a crowd of mourners in a funeral procession. And what happens in that crowd feels subtle but it’s really important.
Some of the people there that day think they are part of a funeral, some think they are following a prophet, but nobody is prepared for what actually happens. Nobody is quite ready for new life. We hear that fear seizes all of them and they are amazed by Jesus. And they spread the word “throughout Judea and all of the surrounding country.” Even the son who is raised from the dead sits up and begins talking. It’s what happens in that crowd that grabs my imagination this morning.
You see, I’ve been worrying about crowds lately. I’ve been worrying about what happens when we gather together at, say, political rallies. I’ve been worrying about how crowds clash with one another, worrying about what our political conventions are going to be like in Cleveland and here in Philadelphia this summer. I’ve been looking at crowds and wondering where they are going. Looking and wondering about whether we can hold together as a group. We’ve been feeling the power of crowds a lot, and it hasn’t been good.
And I’m grateful that in this story from Luke there is more than just a compelling performance by a lone prophetic figure. I’m grateful that Jesus is doing more than establishing himself as a holy man. I’m grateful beyond words that in Jesus God is touching us, individually and in groups. And I’m humbled by the sense of a call that comes with this story of new life.
Those crowds outside the town of Nain had come for sharply different reasons. Some thought they were at a funeral and some thought they were following a holy man, but none of them were prepared to be so radically changed by what they saw that day. Nobody knew that at the end of that day they would themselves be evangelists. But they were. They spread that story all around the surrounding country. That story spread to you and me, and it still has the power to catch us up and change us and call us to witness.
How many of us are willing to spread the word that there is a kingdom of heaven forming here on earth, and that in that kingdom it’s possible to know peace and forgiveness and new life? How many of us are prepared to live in the truth of the Resurrection? How many of us are willing to admit that in Christ, even in times like these, it’s still possible to come together and be changed by the touch of God? That it’s possible to reach out and be moved by compassion instead of being deadlocked and polarized and fearful and obsessed with our divisions? How many of us are really ready to see death replaced by life?
Do you want that? Do you really want it with your whole being? Because right now is a really good time for us to be putting the focus on the witness we bear. Right now is a really good time for us to feel that touch and hear that call and see that rebirth happening in our midst. Right now we need Jesus. We may feel that we are in a funeral procession or we may feel comforted that we are following a holy man, but neither stance is enough for Jesus. Jesus needs us to be touched and healed and ready to bear witness. Jesus needs us to be the kind of crowd that can stay with him. Did you notice that about this crowd? They are unusually good. They don’t question Jesus or ask him by what authority he raises the young man. They don’t try to drive him off a cliff or ask him to keep quiet. They don’t question his pedigree or his logic or his timing. They are afraid but they let themselves be expanded by the power of God working among them. And then they come to life and they tell everybody what they’ve experienced.
Maybe you aren’t the prophet Elijah. But you are part of a crowd that has seen Jesus. You’ve seen him time and time again, haven’t you, raising someone to a life that never seemed possible? You’ve known hope in improbable moments, right? You’ve felt yourself moved by something joyful even on the darkest of days. You’ve kept coming back here in spite of suffering and in spite of yourself and in spite of all of us and our woeful inadequacies. You’ve been made into a disciple and given a call and a vision. And now Jesus needs you to tell all the surrounding country. You’ve had that experience of faith for them as well as for yourself, and now they—that world out there, that city, that country, that democracy—they need you to spread the word.
One final thought: we in the Episcopal Church have been asked to bear witness to gun violence this Sunday. We were asked to wear orange to show our solidarity with the victims of shootings in this city and throughout our nation. Our particular liturgical tradition doesn’t lend itself well to orange stoles or other shocking liturgical innovations, but please don’t think for a moment that this “ordinary” green isn’t a statement of compassion and profound solidarity. Gun violence, and our polarization as a country around gun violence, and our despair and our fear and our passivity, are sure signs that we are in need of conversion and new life and the touch of Jesus. Our call is clear, and our prophet is Christ himself.
So let me say it again: Jesus needs you to tell all the surrounding country about the new life you’ve witnessed. That world out there, that city, that country, that democracy, that worrisome crowd: they need you to spread the word.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
5 June 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia