Read the Gospel Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
A. and I spent the last few days down in Kenosha, at the Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly. For the second year in a row, the Assembly was held at our ELCA church college- Carthage. It’s a beautiful campus, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan is an anchoring space for me. The soft rustle of the waves receding speaks, “home,” to my spirit.
Up the coastline from Kenosha is the Wind Point Lighthouse. During my school years, it was this light that I would see shining through the fog. Under its light, on the night of my high school graduation, I looked out over the unending blue of the lake, watching a distant lightening storm, knowing that who I was as student, child, and friend, would be changing as I moved away, started college, and ventured onward into the unknown.
Place has always been an important part of my identity, and revisiting those anchor spaces reminds me of who I am- helping me to take stock of where I am in relation to the person I dreamed of becoming, grounding me for new trials ahead.
Our Gospel today is a story of place and identity- of leaving and returning, of losing and being restored.
It starts outside the city walls, where things are more dangerous and unknown as the certainty of the city is left behind. One group is coming out from the city. They are moving slowly, reluctantly, propelled forward by necessity and yet unwilling to reach their destination. They carry a heavy burden, the dead body of a son, and all the grief and fear that has taken up residence since he left.
His father is gone, he has no brothers, and his mother is left alone. If you’ve been through the funeral of a loved one, perhaps you know something about what she might be feeling. Staying upright takes all her energy, it seems impossible that she’s even able to put one foot in front of the other. Does she even see the ground under her feet, the faces around her, as she is softly pulled along by the tide of neighbors and friends moving towards the burial place?
They are not the only group outside the walls that day. Jesus and a crowd of people are on their way into the town. Certainly, they must have made plenty of noise, too, but I cannot imagine that mother heard anything but her own cries and the dizzying thump of her heartbeat that somehow, unfairly, has continued on while her son’s has stopped.
She’s not only consumed by grief, but she has lost her identity and her security. Do people still see her as a wife without a husband? Will they still call her a mother without a son? She is without a man to define her, to provide for her, to protect her, and in her time, that means she is very alone and vulnerable.
The woman may not have noticed or cared for anything beyond her grief, but Jesus sees her. Jesus sees her and has compassion on her.
Jesus walks right into the procession and touches the bier on which the dead man is being carried. Then Jesus commands him to rise and restores him to his mother. In this miracle, she is restored.
The mother hasn’t asked for this. Unlike so many in the gospels, she hasn’t gone out searching for a miracle, or begged at Jesus’ feet. Maybe she was so lost, she didn’t have room for hope or miracles, she couldn’t have possibly found the power necessary to seek Jesus.
Jesus isn’t only the one who responds to prayer, but the one who seeks us out to know us. He has compassion – suffers with us. Jesus sees her suffering. Jesus goes right to the place of suffering to lift her out. Jesus is the life-giver, the restorer of identity, the one who holds within Godself all the joy and suffering of our real lives, so that we are known.
In restoring this man’s life, Jesus restores the widow’s identity as a mother to a living son. Her direction is changed. She had exited the city, leaving behind the title of mother, traveling to the resting place of the dead, planning to return to the city, but to what? She has lost all sense of identity and all connection to space. Her home was her son’s- without him, where is her place?
Jesus changes the mourner’s direction and destination. With his gift of life, Jesus reorients the community of grief. Jesus points them towards God, the one who gives life, and they return changed.
Jesus comes to see you, to know your pain, and to restore you. No matter how long a child has lived, his mother will always be a mother. No matter how often others tell you your suffering isn’t really a big deal, Jesus knows your pain. That’s how Jesus begins to heal us- not by denying our lives, but by seeing them. And then he brings life to us, life that sustains us through the deaths today because Jesus’ life isn’t held captive by death.
The mother returns home, restored. But her home isn’t the same, she’s been changed by the journey. She’s met Jesus, and now everything- even the big things like death- have been changed.
Coming home is a beautiful thing, as we are wrapped in memories and familiarity. Hiding in home’s comfort, however, can keep us stagnant. We need to encounter what is outside of ourselves- whether that’s through physical travel or simply conversation. Sometimes we need to leave the safety of home in order to be willing to trust in God. Twelve of us are preparing to travel to a new space – the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation- in a couple weeks. Certainly, there are many affected by poverty in our own community, who share our daily spaces, but sometimes it takes stepping out of the familiar to discover more about who we are- and who Jesus has prepared us to be. Against a new backdrop, our own ideas and convictions come into clearer focus. Out in the space beyond our own city, we might find ourselves more open listeners to what Jesus has to say. Then we return home, changed by our new relationships with the people we’ll have met, changed by a new encounter with Jesus, so that we can live as a transformed people for the sake of our own communities.
As I drove to Synod Assembly, I passed a street and suddenly remembered, this was the turn to my friend’s house. I drove a bit more and my body knew it was time to take my foot off the gas as I neared the turn lane to exit the highway to my own street. If you’ve also been away from a place for a long time, and returned, maybe you know the flood of nostalgia. Maybe you also know the feeling of returning to the familiar and finding it not so familiar any more. New buildings have replaced the old, friends no longer occupy their homes.
The joy of being at synod assembly was to be reminded that we are a church bigger than ourselves, with voices of praise and hands of service that extend all throughout this region and around the world. We know that we are entering a time of reformation, realizing that the way we’ve been church isn’t working any longer and we can’t simply go forward coasting on cruise control. The church you remember is not the church of today, it’s not the church of the future. We can’t go home to the way it used to be.
For some gathered here, Cross is an anchor space. These walls and this carpet have watched over your baptism and confirmation, your marriage, and the funerals of your loved ones. You may feel the same disconcerting pain I feel returning home, noticing places I loved changed. If so, then I invite you to remember what it is that makes this an anchoring space. The voice that whispers “home” doesn’t come from the furnishings or words of the liturgy- it comes from the living and active Word: Jesus.
When you come here, it’s to remember who you are so that you can face the days ahead restored in your identity. It’s to take stock of how you measure up to who you’re called to be and repent so that God can direct you towards that self.
In this place, Jesus clothes you with his image. Without any act of faith, the bereaved widow receives her restored identity from Jesus. Likewise, you have received your primary identity from Jesus.
You are a beloved child of God. No matter how long you’re gone from this anchoring space, no matter how different you’ve grown from the image of a mature Christian you described yourself becoming during your confirmation speech, Jesus continues to hold your identity and your relationship in God.
People of Cross, remember Jesus has made us who we are and Jesus holds our identity firmly. We are one community in Christ Jesus. Baptized. Beloved. Fed. Sent.
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