Worshiping communities who use creeds – ancient statements of beliefs – often share together the words of the Nicene creed on festival days and for the season of Easter. The Nicene creed is is like the fine china of creeds, for more common Sundays the Apostles' creed is recited, but on holidays and extra fancy worship services the Nicene creed is pulled out. In the third article of the Nicene creed we confess this bold claim, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life... We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” We look for the resurrection of the dead...this is something confessed by the apostolic church since the year 325, and we are still looking today.
I have seen death and these are not moments that one forgets or images that quickly go out of mind. I can remember the face of the old women in the hospital, I had to pull out her chart multiple times on the way to the room because she was a stranger to me and I wanted to get her name right as I entered the room. I remember the oppressive medical equipment and her swollen and discolored skin. Though I had never seen her before so I did not know her any other way. I remember the loud gasps of the machines, and the sniffles of the people gathered. I remember two sisters holding each other and talking about their awareness of standing in the thin places. We prayed and held silence until the machines were finally still and the moment of death had come.
I have seen the death of my mother, though in my innocence I did not know they were her final moments and yet I remember how especially foreign she looked to me in my last glances. I have seen the death of young people in caskets, I have seen the dead in hospital beds and nursery cribs. I have seen death, it is burned into my mind's eye...and still, I look for the resurrection of those dead.
Tonight our scripture readings bring us face to face with death. First Elijah is visiting a widow when her only son falls gravely ill. Elijah takes the boy into his room, cries out to God and then restores the breath of life into the boy. Elijah looked death straight in the eye, carried death into his room, wept and was given the new breath.
Fast forward to the day of Jesus and we have a similar scene. A widow, marching in the funeral procession of her only son. Jesus sees the procession coming down the road and interrupts as only Jesus can. In the passing on the street he saw death and the scar it was already imprinting. Jesus had compassion on the widowed women and brought new life to her son.
I find these stories of Scripture to be both inspiring and defeating. Inspiring because I believe in the Word of God and the promises it witnesses to. People raised from the dead, Jesus having compassion on the grieving – these stories are inspiring. Yet, they are also defeating because of all the times we have looked death square in the eye, all the times we have felt the grief of these widows and our loved one have not been miraculously raised before our eyes. Still, we are looking for the resurrection of the dead.
A physical resurrection is something I have never seen. Both of the sons of the widows lie dead and were brought alive again – I have never seen anything like it, I have never witnessed a funeral procession stop in its tracks with miraculous life. I have never seen a funeral end with anything but a burial. Yet, it is not only the bodies of these young men that were offered new life on these days of tragic death and unbelievable life. On these days of death the widows lost their only sons, which meant the last remnant of family and stability was gone.
The loss of the male in the family also meant that any economic or social protection was gone.
With the rising of the young men the widows were given new life, too. With the life of the son came the hope of steady income, food for the table, protection from the harsh injustice of a society that did not have any value for a women in her own right. On these days of death there was also a resurrection of the living! Grief turned to laughter, despair turned to hope, death turned to life again.
There were many others present when Jesus raised that young man. Luke tells us that those carrying the body were still, they did not move. The crowd was paralyzed with fear at the sign of new life...and many recognized the power of Jesus and the presence of God within him. Jesus looked death square in the eye and brought life, not just to the dead, but also bringing new life, new sight, new understanding, new faith to the living.
Jesus walked right up to the hopeless widow and changed her path in every way. Moved with compassion, Jesus had the audacity to approach the grieving mother and not let her life be scarred by death and oppression. Because Jesus saw her, had compassion for her and moved in the widow received hope.
When I left the hospital room of the now-dead woman, I walked with her sisters who spoke of a peace that had not felt in years. Years of caring of their sick and suffering sister were finally brought to a close and in that death they felt a certainty of Divine presence. I did not witness a physical resurrection that night, yet most certainly there was new life being breathed into two elderly women. When we care for one another, when we see one another as Jesus saw that women and when we step into the places and faces of death with compassion we have the authority of God and the grace of Jesus to speak new life to one another.
We still look for the resurrection of the dead – but we can trust that our loved ones, our dead are resting fully and peacefully in the hands of God. What about the living? How many days do we walk covered in death? How many times has pain of the past or the disappointment of the future steered us in ways of destruction and harm? Consider those we love? And those we do not? Do we see the death scars on their souls, or the darkening of their faces and do nothing? Say nothing?
Jesus sees us all too well. Jesus sees us when we are in the funeral processions of our lives, heavy with suffering and grief. Jesus has seen us, had mercy on us, saved us and raised us to new life – this is the stuff of miracles, people. As Jesus moves towards us with compassion, so do we move towards one another. Speak a word of new life, have the audacity to enter the place of death and see life there, too. Be courageous as children of God and imagine a future for yourself, for your families, for this village, for the next place you find yourself and imagine it has brightly has Jesus imagines it. Imagine living resurrection with the joy and wonder of the resurrected widow. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the dead places within.
After my mother died I heard may phrases that were meant to be comforting. “God needed another alto in the choir...imagine her singing...she is your special angel now.” In all these years I have not taken comfort in these images. Yet, when a dear friend came close during a dark hour of my life and looked me square in the eyes and strongly quoted a movie of all things... with all the authority she could muster, “There is strength in you, I can see it.” I knew that hope was possible and the future just became a whole lot brighter.
Tell your stories of resurrection. They are as powerful as the breath of Elijah, they are as God-ordained as Jesus' words...and there are so many broken hearts, so many injustices, so many grieving souls that needs to hear them.
Thanks be to God for new life in our most hopeless places. Amen.