Traditional Sermon, Pentecost 3
This past Monday you may recall that the church office was closed for Memorial Day, and I took the opportunity to travel to a baseball game with my family. The day was spent watching America’s pastime, navigating a toddler through a stadium and seeing David Ortiz hit a home run. It was a good day! And I was blissfully unaware of the world around me…that is till the next morning. I came into the church office and staff and rostered leaders alike were talking about our weekends and what we did, and then someone asked, “Did you hear what happened at the Cincinnati Zoo?”
Perhaps you heard what happened at the zoo. The story of a young child somehow getting into the gorilla area. An endangered gorilla doing what gorillas do. Cries arising for the child. And the zoo keepers having to make a very difficult decision that has led to much speculation. The days following I watched an impassioned Jack Hanna–who I’ve known through late night shows introducing exotic animals to the world–but his interview was not to introduce a new animal it was to commend the life-saving work of the zookeepers. I think a phrase that he used was that the little boy was as good as dead, had the authorities not reacted when they did.
Traumatic moments caught on camera phones can bring out our emotions, can’t they? Many are outraged that an endangered animal was killed…and yet the boy who was as good as dead, is alive.
That phrase “as good as dead” has been with us for a long time. If you’re a word nerd like me, then maybe you look up the etymology of words and phrases, too? If not…here’s something you may not know (or want to know)…“as good as dead” has been in our common lexicon for hundreds of years. In fact, it came our way from the Bible when the King James Version was trying to find the English equivalent to the Greek phrase “having been deadened to respect to these things” which is a mouthful…and so the English translators wisely used the phrase “as good as dead.” And we encounter the reality of this phrase in our Gospel today.
Luke sets the scene for us. A young man has died. A funeral procession marches out to bury their dead. Grief and turmoil fill the narrative. A man is dead. A mother mourns, widowed and left alone. Alone in a time where women with no men in their family means destitution and isolation. A man is dead. And this widow is as good as dead.
And that’s when this death procession encounters Jesus and the lively crowd who is following him. The lively and hopeful crowd of followers who have been watching Jesus as he teaches the wonderers, feeds the hungry, heals the sick and gives hope to the hopeless.
And by all accounts they’re following this one known as the “Son of Man” to see what he’ll do next. Because when Jesus is present, the unbelievable becomes the believable. The impossible becomes the possible.
And so that day a funeral procession encountered a lively crowd and with a word of compassion and a touch the dead man became alive once again and the widow who was as good as dead knew life and hope.
It’s a wonderful story of restoration and transformation. But it leads me to wonder a few things.
One is…we never get to know anything about this young man who died. We don’t know if he was a good man or a bad man. We don’t know if he died from an illness or accident that took him too soon or if he was out gallivanting and succumbed to foolish behavior or climbing over cages and getting beaten by animals. We don’t know that. We don’t even know his name.
We don’t know this widow. We don’t know if she was a good mom. We don’t know to what God she prayed. We don’t know if she loved her husband before he died. We don’t know if she was a productive member of society a role model for others in the village of Nain.
We don’t know any of that.
The other thing is that no one actively seeks out Jesus to fix this tragedy. No villager ran to Jesus asking for mercy on this widow…the widow certainly didn’t leave the funeral procession to seek out this man of God. And the young man was dead. He wasn’t doing any asking, either. Really they are passive actors in this unfolding scene. Passively walking into a future that seemed to be written in sorrow, passively accepting that they were as good as dead. And it’s the unsolicited actions of Jesus. Jesus’ compassion. Jesus’ desire to transform death into life that changes both the young man and the widow’s future.
And this just leads me to ask this Sunday morning: are you passive or active? Do you wonder through life acting in it or is life enacted upon you?
Have there been times in your life that you could have been as good as dead, but something intervened…someone intervened? God showed up and changed your story.
Perhaps you have a time that comes to mind…perhaps it was life-altering or perhaps it was a mere moment, in a day, in a year in your life. Sometimes we are able to see the Lord acting upon our lives and can take a moment to give thanks.
One comes to mind for me that happened this past week. I mentioned that my family and I went to a baseball game on Memorial Day. We traveled down to Baltimore to see the Orioles play the Red Sox (Red Sox won by the way). But it was a long day. As we were leaving with the sea of people from the stands, I had Elsa strapped to my back in a harness. We got out of the stadium and crossed the street and in the heat of the day I was lulled by the many walkers around me. I was dreadfully unaware that I (and my child) were on the edge of a sidewalk of a busy street. A street filled with cars trying to beat the walking traffic departing the game. I was trying to make my way on this sidewalk and my mind thought, I just need to step off to the right. Step to the right…that would be off the sidewalk, out of safety, into the street buzzing with cars. And not a moment later my husband’s hand reached out to my right guiding me closer to the center of the sidewalk…away from danger…away from the accident waiting to happen.
Because with just a moment, I and my precious child could have been as good as dead. But the hand of God intervened…even when I was unaware of the need or the danger.
Perhaps you have moments like these, as well. Perhaps you are blissfully unaware the moments that the hand of God intervened and changed your future from one that was as good as dead to one that knows life.
We know that this intersection between death and life occurred on Calvary. Our eternal salvation was determined not by what we did, what we’ve done, what we’re going to do. God met our humanity in the crossroads and transformed future of death and darkness into life eternal.
And these crossroads moments continue. In fact, you may very well be the face of God to one who is as good as dead. You may not even know it–God uses us that way. I don’t think Erik knew that his hand and guidance was a crossroad moment…but God does.
A long weekend like last week is good because it gives me a little more time to read. And on my list was the revamped Lutheran magazine called LivingLutheran.
But a few stories really jumped out at me. One was of a story of recovery occurring in Nepal. Last spring you may recall St. Peter’s collecting donations for victims of the earthquake that occurred there. The Lutheran World Federation was not only early on the scene, but they stayed and walked with victims months afterwards, and continue there today. Lutherans like you and me reaching out to the poorest of the poor. Their focus has been specifically on the Dalit of Nepal. Those considered to be the untouchables. Marginalized people with no resources and often no hope. One villager who has been helped noted that his people are at the bottom of everything and often forgotten, but in the wake of disaster LWF was the one who came to provide. The untouchable was touched and changed. Jesus is meeting them in the crossroads. Transformed by God, touched by human hands and human hearts.
These moments of transformation, of restoration of life…when one who was as good as dead is given a new future…these are the moments that the veil between God’s kingdom realized and our world becomes translucent. It’s the same transformation for which we pray and support Mark Aho and synod members who travel to Busoka this summer. To see how the Jesus meets us at the crossroads, and not only for the people of Busoka to be transformed, but to see how Mark and his mission trip colleagues will be transformed and changed.
Friends, this is the faith given to us by our Almighty God–given when were were as good as dead–making us alive and active participants of God’s kingdom come.
So I ask you again–are you passive or active?
Perhaps the true (and good Lutheran answer) is: both. So many times God has met you at the crossroads and offered life-changing moments…sometimes you may have been aware. And thanks be to God that we can participate in God’s activity and be the face of Christ to someone who you will meet at the crossroads.
I can think of two occasions when God intervened on Greg’s behalf, such that I have claimed Psalm 91 for him: “He will give His angels charge over you…lest you dash your foot against a stone. I’ll tell you more when I see you, but I know God is living and active and loves us all beyond measure.
That is a beautiful testament. There are many times where I look on the path I’ve been and seen God’s presence and guidance…I hadn’t seen it at the time…but God was still there!