Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
June 10, 2007
Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24
Gospel: Luke 7:11-17
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell, preacher
I have always been terrified of losing my son. Since he was a small boy. Because he was always the heart of my heart. I feared when his fevers were too high, or when he would let go of my hand in the market.
I knew early on I would die for him, if I ever had to.
So when he died, as a young man, of a bad sickness that struck many in our village of Na’in, my pain was beyond belief.
I had lost my husband several years before. Many people say that a woman without a husband is a person of little worth. After my husband died, I was very sad. But at least I still had a son. And then my boy died too.
When I lost my son, I knew I had lost my livelihood, and what was left of my status in Na’in. There would be no one to care for me in my old age. But this is not why I grieved. I mourned because I had lost the heart of my heart.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t always easy to be the mother of a son. There was much suffering and sacrifice, as well as much happiness, in it. Some nights, when he was little, and had a bad dream or a fever, I didn’t sleep at all. And then, the next morning, I would get up and cook for him and his father, and take care of my boy all day, weary to the bones. Those days were hard. As he got older, there were times I suffered with him, when someone or something had broken his heart. There were other times he would not listen to his father or me, and we feared he would get hurt doing something reckless. It was hard to understand sometimes why he did the things he did. But he grew up to be a fine and happy young man. I had many reasons to be proud of him. The joy was worth all the suffering and sacrifices.
The final days of his illness -- when I knew he might not live -- I thought I would go mad. I felt I was possessed of a demon. I begged God to let me die instead of my son. My friends and neighbors tried their best to comfort me, but they could not. Some of the people in Na’in made my pain worse, by saying I must have done something, or my son had done something, to deserve this death. They said God had turned God’s back on us.
Then a man, a stranger, came to Na’in with his followers, and with a crowd. They came just as we were carrying my son out through the village gates to be buried. The strange man saw me weeping and asked one of my neighbors what had happened. One of the man’s followers said to him: “Jesus, let’s not stop – we have to be going.” But the man called Jesus said no, they would stop. He came over to where my son lay. Then he came to where I stood and looked at me.
There was something in the face of this stranger that I’d never seen before. I am not comfortable with a strange man looking at me, and I could not meet his eyes for long. But even in a quick look, I saw that this man understood what it meant to suffer and to sacrifice. And at the same time, there was also the most amazing peace and joy about him. His eyes were so full of life. I don’t know if he was a father, but I sensed he felt what I felt. He knew what it was to give life to another, and to be willing to die so that another could live.
When I looked at him I felt all that.
And he seemed to see something in me. It’s hard to explain, but the way he looked at me was different from how I am usually looked at. Even when I was a young girl, I often had a feeling that when people saw me, they saw only an incomplete person. And when I married, they saw me only as a man’s wife, not much more than one of his animals. When I had a son, they viewed me as someone to take care of a boy child. As if my husband and son – and nothing else – made me a person of value. And when my husband and son died – I lost my value.
But to this Jesus, I think… I was a daughter of God. Even in the lowest moment of my life.
When he saw my son lying dead, and my agony, Jesus wept. And I was amazed by that -- a stranger crying for us! He told my son to rise, and my boy got up right away, saying: “Mother, where are you?” And Jesus brought him to my arms. I was delirious with joy, it was unbelievable. I cannot tell you what I felt. Can one speak when the greatest wish of one’s heart is realized? Can one speak of such a holy mystery? I only clutched my boy close, and we laughed and wept together, as if we would never let go.
The crowd was amazed and overjoyed but also afraid. Some, like me, had no words. Others began to whisper and murmur. Some shouted that this Jesus was a great man. Some said he was a prophet like Elijah, who raised another widow’s son long ago. But I felt that Jesus must be greater even than Elijah. Elijah had to stretch himself out three times on that dead boy of long ago, and Jesus called out but once to my son. And there was something about this Jesus that I have never felt from any human being. If he is a prophet, I think he is the greatest one we have seen here in Judea.
Many in the crowd who saw my son rise said that God had looked favorably on his people. And I too felt that God was holding us in the palm of his hand. We gave thanks to this God who had done the impossible.
I have my son back with me now, and we are very happy. But I will never forget what it was to lose him. And I know that if another woman in my village loses a child -- and if for some reason we cannot find Jesus -- I will reach out to her with the compassion he showed me. I will tell her she is made in God’s image, as the Scriptures say. That God loves her and her lost child. That I hurt for and with her. That in time the pain will become easier to bear. And I will never turn my back on her, as Jesus did not turn his back on me.
I will not say to her – as some said to me – that God is punishing her, or her child who died. What could a child do to deserve death? What could I have done, though I am far from perfect, to deserve the death of my son? This is judgment, humans judging each other, when we speak that way.
In Jesus, I heard something different. When he prayed to restore my son, he spoke to God as if God was his own parent. He prayed as if this God did not want to destroy human beings, but wills health and life for his creatures. Jesus did not judge my son or me; he helped us. He didn’t turn and walk away because he was too busy, or too important. How can I, in turn, call myself a follower of Jesus if I refuse to comfort those who mourn?
Jesus has been gone from Na’in for some time now. I don’t know if he will ever be back. I hear that many seek him, in Judea and beyond. But I will always remember what he did for my son and me. I will remember his kind eyes that knew the best and worst of life. I will remember the tears he cried over my son. And the way he looked at me, not through me. The dignity with which he treated me. As if he understood what it means to love greatly, and because of that love, to suffer, sacrifice, and rejoice, sometimes all at the same time. As if he knew what it was to love the way a mother or a father loves.