Sermon

Luke 7:11-17

Interfering with Death

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

It’s been said
that in the biblical tradition
the function of a prophet
is to interfere.
Specifically, the prophet interferes
with the powers of death.

• This holds true
of the Old Testament prophet Elijah,
as we see from the pair of stories about him
that comprise today’s first reading.

• It holds true of Jesus,
who is a prophet and far more than a prophet.
His victory at Easter
puts death to flight forever.

• It holds true for us,
for as Christians
we are a prophetic people,
a resurrection people,
whose job it is
to interfere with death,
to reveal it, in theologian James Alison’s phrase,
as “a bark without a bite.”

Consider today’s gospel.
Jesus is visiting Nain,
a small town located off the main road
and some ten miles
from his hometown of Nazareth.
Jesus is surrounded by a teeming crowd of people;
he’s the celebrity of the moment there.

But his crowd soon runs into a different one:
a funeral procession.
The chief mourner is a woman
past the prime of life.
No man accompanies her:
neither husband nor son nor grandson.
The body lying on the bier
is that of a young man, too young for death.
She is a widow, going out to bury
her only son.

Perhaps the worst tragedy that can happen
is for a parent to bury a child.
But in that place and time,
for a widow to lose her only son
is not only tragic,
but an economic and social catastrophe.
A woman there and then derives her identity
from some man in her life:
father, husband, child.
Because her only son now lies dead,
this widow has become an non-entity.

Jesus sizes up the situation in a moment.
Today’s gospel asserts
that “he had compassion for her.”
Compassion as the Bible understands it
and as Jesus feels it that day
is something that happens on the gut level.
He takes into himself
the affliction of this woman.
He makes it his own,
he feels it.
This becomes his basis for action.

Jesus tells the woman to stop crying.
By itself, this remark sounds insensitive.
But then he approaches the bier
as it is carried toward the city gate.
He touches the bier.
Not knowing what else to do,
those carrying the bier stop in their tracks.
Jesus addresses the corpse.
“Young man, I say to you,
rise!”

The people gathered about him
stand still.
They do not speak.
They barely breathe.
“What is going on here?”
they ask themselves.
“Who does he think he is?”

The body on the bier starts to move.
The young man sits up,
utterly astonished at where he is,
but no more surprised
than the crowd surrounding him.
Jesus guides the confused young man
to his sobbing mother.

The bystanders are awestruck.
Suddenly everybody’s shouting;
nobody’s listening.
“A great prophet has appeared among us!”
“God has shown favor to his people!”

These onlookers recognize a prophet
when they see one.
They know that the function of prophets
is to interfere with death.
The death interfered with that day in Nain
is the untimely demise of a young man,
but also the blotting out of his mother
in a world that has no place for her.
Death goes down to a double defeat that day.

Our reading from Galatians
is St. Paul’s own account
of his conversion to Christ.
He admits that he was
a violent persecutor of the church
when Jesus confronted him–
this Christ once dead and now alive,
more than a prophet
yet doing what prophets do:
interfering with death.

For on that occasion
Jesus interferes with the death
that holds Paul captive,
the death that makes him
an enemy of the Gospel.
Paul is then as dead
as the young man in Nain had been,
but Jesus summons him back to life.
And the message Paul proclaims
from that day on
itself amounts to interference
with all the forms that death takes.

Guess what?
Christians today are called to this task.
We are here as the Church
to interfere with death,
to call its bluff.
Insofar as we do this,
people will be shocked
as much as people were that day in Nain
when the young man got off the bier,
as much as those who knew Paul as a killer of Christians
found hard to accept
how he went around advocating the faith
he once tried to destroy.

Insofar as we interfere with death,
people will be shocked.
After all, death organizes the world.
It’s something you count on.
Show death to be unnecessary
and so much else is up for grabs.
Resurrection in all its variety
makes us reassess
whatever we take for granted.

We can interfere with death
when it threatens other people.
And you know what?
We can interfere with death
when we are the target.
We can demonstrate toward ourselves
the same compassion we show to others.

David Goetz offers help here
in his book Death by Suburb,
which is subtitled
How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul. 1
His suggestions actually apply
to all of us,
whether we live in a suburb, a city,
a small town, or the countryside.

Goetz identifies a series of toxins
and then indicates for each one
a practice to counteract it.
What he does
is repackage some practices
of traditional Christian spirituality
in a contemporary container.

The first toxin he identifies is
I am in control of my own life.
The practice to counteract this
is the prayer of silence
where we are not in charge,
but where we experience what this author terms
“the thicker life.”

Another toxin is
I am what I do and what I own.
To counteract this one,
Goetz suggests what he calls
the journey through the self,
where we live for something more
than ego satisfaction.

Still another toxin is
I want my neighbor’s life.
The author proposes instead
friendship with people who have
no “immortality symbols,”
his name for possessions or achievements
that promise what they cannot provide.

Goetz invites us
to interfere with death.
We can do this as death threatens others.
We can interfere as well
when death threatens us,
even when it does so
through attitudes and habits
that are socially acceptable
and even socially imposed.

Here this contemporary author,
himself a suburbanite,
points us back to wisdom
found in the Christian tradition
and the Hebrew prophets
which Jesus puts into action
when he calls a young man from Nain
back to life.

We all face opportunities
to interfere with death,
to act as prophetic people,
people of the resurrection
willing to demonstrate
that death is,
again in James Alison’s phrase,
“an empty shell.”

How awesome it is
that any of us can be a prophet,
interfering with death insistently
in service to the Lord of life.

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1 David L. Goetz, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

Copyright 2010 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.