Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
June 6, 2010
Luke 7:11-18
"The Transition is Underway"

Sunday after Sunday we put ourselves in a faraway place thousands of years in the past.  We attempt to glean divine wisdom for our lives today by deciphering a text written for people in a different culture and a distant time.

Today's Scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Luke, and on the surface, this morning's Scripture reading is an ancient tale of a miracle performed by Jesus early in his ministry.  Jesus and his disciples are heading into a town called Nain and, as they reach the gate of the city, they are unable to enter because a large procession is flowing out of the gate.  They quickly recognize that it is a funeral procession.  They learn that a widow's son has died, and he is being carried out for burial.  Most likely, six or eight men have hoisted the coffin up onto their shoulders and they are leading this solemn procession to the young man's final resting place.  We picture the mother of the young man walking alongside the coffin, barely able to walk and head in hands as she weeps.  Other women are wailing, joining her in her grief.

Our story is scarce on details.  We are not told what caused the man's death.  Had he been ill for years?  Was it a terrible accident that took his life?  We do not know.  However, we do know that his mother has now been placed in a dire situation.  Her husband had already died, leaving her as a widow and single parent.  Now, her only son has perished.

We can imagine her grief in losing her partner in life.  Some of you know that kind of loss all too well: the emptiness inside, the longing to hear your mate's voice once more.  A few of you sitting here this morning know the searing pain that comes with the death of your child.  The rest of us are speechless in the face of such a tremendous loss, but our hearts go out to you.

In the ancient world, this widow's situation placed her life in jeopardy.  Women were second-class citizens who lacked the same rights as men.  Women were dependent on men for protection, support and security.  Scholar Rachel Adler notes that the Hebrew word for widow means, literally, to be unable to speak.  Adler says, "the man who spoke for" her is gone, and, in his absence, the woman has been silenced.1

The widow in our story had been fortunate.  She had not lost everything after her husband died, because she had a son who could care for her.  However, with the death of her only son, she has been robbed of her security.  It could spell the end for her.  Yet, our story informs us that when Jesus lays eyes on the woman, he feels a deep sense of compassion and says to her, "Do not weep."  He touches the coffin and calls for the young man to rise, whereupon the dead man sits up and begins to talk.  The crowd is awed and begins to shout, "A great prophet has risen among us!"

What message can we pry from this passage?  On the surface, it is an ancient tale of a miracle.  Jesus, the wonder-worker, brings a dead man back to life.  A tragic story takes a dramatic turn and climaxes with a Hollywood ending.  Beneath the surface of this story is something more.  The story is not simply a miracle story designed to add to the credentials of Jesus.  It functions as a metaphor of God's realm breaking into the world and transforming the old categories of death into life.

This story, like other miracle stories in the gospels, signals that with the coming of Jesus, something new is happening.  The ministry of Jesus demonstrates that there is a transition underway.  The transition is from the old world to a new world.  The old world, marked by illness, poverty, injustice, greed, conflict and death is undergoing a transition to a new world.  This new world, the realm of God, is characterized by healing, compassion, justice, generosity, peace and hope.

To state the obvious, the realm of God is not fully present.  The old world still has a grip on people's lives, but Jesus signals that a new day is coming and signs of it can already be seen surfacing here and there.  When Jesus heals the ill, when he forgives the sinner, when he welcomes the outsider, when he opens the eyes of those who are blind, when he lifts the plight of the poor, when he brings peace to people's lives, the realm of God breaks into the world.

Well, that's wonderful that Jesus revealed the realm of God during his lifetime, but what happened after he was crucified?  Did the transition from the old world to the realm of God come to a halt?  It is painfully obvious that the old world is constantly making its presence known.

We see it in homeless families who struggle to find affordable housing so that their children can grow up in a safe environment.  We see it in toxic assets when the Wall Street wizards make themselves fabulously wealthy at the expense of wrecking the economy, throwing people out of work and spreading suffering to millions.  We see it in a hole punctured in the earth a mile beneath the ocean's surface, spewing millions of gallons of oil into the sea and doing untold damage to God's creation.  We see it in Palestinian homes being leveled by bulldozers, people being driven off of their land and settlements being built in their place.

The old age has not yet been vanquished and it's not only out there.  It asserts itself in our own lives when we seek revenge against someone who has harmed us, rather than forgiving.  The old age asserts itself when we become so focused on our own personal wants that we are blinded to others who have genuine needs.  The old age asserts itself when we become so cynical that we no longer see the value of extending kindness or pursuing justice or being generous.  The old age asserts itself when we become so apathetic that we are insensitive to suffering and deaf to God's call to alleviate pain.

With so much hardship in our world; with so much corruption, deceit and violence, we have to wonder: Is the transition to a new world still underway or are we hopelessly mired in the old world?

Professor and preacher Fred Craddock shared a personal story about his father.  He said his mother took him to church and Sunday school, but his father would not go.  In fact, his father would complain every Sunday that he had to eat a late dinner because they were off at church.

Occasionally, their pastor would call on his father and his father would say, "I know what the church wants.  The Church doesn't care about me; the Church just wants another name on its rolls and another pledge.  Right?  Isn't that the name of it?  Another name, another pledge."  That's what he always said.

Sometimes their church in Tennessee would have a revival and the pastor would bring the evangelist to Craddock's house to see if he could make any headway with the father.  It only made his father more cynical.  Sometimes the atmosphere became tense and his mother would get upset.  His father would verbally smack down the evangelist and repeat his favorite lines, "The church doesn't care about me. The church just wants another name and another pledge."  Craddock says he must have heard his father say that a thousand times.

One time his father did not say it.  He was in the Veteran's Hospital, and he was down to 73 pounds.  Doctors had removed most of his throat and said, "It's too late."  They inserted a metal tube and the radiation burned him badly.  Craddock flew home to see him.  His father could not speak and could not eat.

When Craddock entered his father's hospital room, he was surprised to see potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, and next to his bed, there was a stack of cards twenty inches deep.  All the flowers and all cards were from people or groups from the church.

His father could not speak, so he picked up a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare.  He wrote, "In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story."  Craddock asked, "What is your story, Daddy?"  And his father wrote, "I was wrong."2

The transition from the old world to the new world has not ceased.  It continues through the work of the church.  God's Spirit urges us and challenges us to become partners in spreading God's realm in the world today.  Theologian Philip Jacob Spener said, "We are to be different because Christ is in us.  The world is to be different because we are in it."3




1.         Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1998), 149.

2.         Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p.14.

3.         Roger Gustafson, "Change the World!  Yes, you!" in Lectionary Homiletics, June-July 2010, p.17.