New Life

LK. 7:11-17

Over by the Noroton Heights train station in Darien, there is a side street where one of the householders often changes the flowers and plants in his front yard. Around the time of Memorial Day he had a dazzling display of poppies – resplendent in their orange/redness. They were in straight rows, side by side. In front of each row he put a sign that read, “In Flanders’ Fields the poppies grow, row upon row upon row.” It was a literary reference to the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, which commemorates the thousands of young men mowed down by the guns and artillery of World War I. Each time I passed the rows of poppies, I had to advert my eyes to keep from crying. For my parents WWI was THE WAR, not WWII. WWI scared them as no other conflict. They personally saw and knew the boys who were sent off with a boisterous song  to be massacred in senseless war.

Is there not a mother who would not give her very soul to bring back the life of her dead son? Is there not a father who would not gladly give his life to bring back his lost son? Do we not all wish for the resuscitation of a lost one – a parent, a child, a sibling or a spouse?

Some time ago, in the 1980’s I finished my work at my desk and flicked on the TV to watch a movie. It was late and I caught one of those films that are only shown in the wee hours. My black lab was seated comfortably in my lap and interrupted my concentration occasionally by a well-developed snore. I watched a movie called “Resurrection.” It starred Ellen Burstyn and Sam Shepard. In the movie Ellen Burstyn is killed in an accident, has a near death experience and is resuscitated, or comes back to life. Subsequently she is healed and discovers that she has the power to heal others. This proves successful about 70% of the time. Conflicts arise with her notoriety and the various attempts to attribute her power to heal and resuscitate to various causes. The result is that the blessing of her power becomes a curse and creates deep personal and emotional problems for her. Hence she becomes a recluse and lives a private and solitary life. One day a car stops in front of her house because of engine trouble. The driver asks to use the phone and Ellen discovers that the family has a child who is severely handicapped. Moved to compassion, she lays her healing touch upon the youth, who responds. What fascinated me about the movie was the inner turmoil of the character that Ellen Burstyn portrayed. I found the movie moving and profound. The critics didn’t (neither did my black lab.).

There is a near atavistic desire and fascination with the power of healing and the power of resuscitation. Throughout history, in all cultures, there have always been those who have had the power to heal and to restore life. We have an atavistic urge for healing and the restoration of life. Now days most of that takes place within the realms of the medical profession. Patients are resuscitated every day in hospitals throughout the world. People are given new life. My brother was given a new aorta heart valve. One of my friends was given a new kidney. But there is still healing and the giving of new life within the realms that are far afield from your local hospital or doctor. These are rare instances and often seemingly unexplainable.

Indeed, in the Old Testament both Elijah and Elisha not only heal, but also restore the life of someone who has died. As a result they are seen as true men of God, true prophets. Moreover, in today’s gospel passage from Luke, Jesus restores the life of the son of the widow of Nain. Up to this point much of His ministry has included healing as well as preaching. (Last Sunday we had the story of the healing of the centurion’s slave.) Today’s story goes beyond healing to that of resuscitation. Jesus has compassion upon the plight of the widow. Without a son to support her she is condemned to life of poverty. This is a major tragedy in regards to her well-being and future. Jesus takes pity upon her and raises her son. What is of note here is that unlike many of the other healing acts of Jesus, there is no reference to the faith, or lack of, of the recipient of the miraculous act. By this act, Jesus places Himself in the direct line of the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha. This is important, because they are seen as the fore runners of the coming messiah.

Soon John the Baptist will be arrested and imprisoned. He will send a messenger to Jesus to inquire whether or not Jesus is the messiah. Jesus doesn’t reply, “Yup.” Or “You got it.” Nor even, “Yes.” Rather He says, “Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk and the dead are raised.” In other words, the messianic expectations set forth in Elijah and Elisha are fulfilled. Jesus is not giving simply a verbal assent; rather he is citing concrete incidents as proof of His messiahship.

The result is that the resuscitation of the son of the widow of Nain foreshadows the inquiry of John regarding the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. It also foreshadows Jesus’ physical return from death and His resurrection.

Throughout the New Testament there are four major themes: repentance, renewal, resuscitation and resurrection. John the Baptist presents a message of repentance and renewal. Jesus goes beyond John and presents a message of resuscitation (new life) and resurrection (eternal life). Obviously there are other themes and motifs within the New Testament. But I think these are the dominant ones.

Today’s passage focuses on the theme of resuscitation (new life). Scholars wax eloquent about compassion of Jesus in this passage, but it does not strike me as showing Jesus’ compassion any more than many other passages in the gospels. Rather, I think the blatant image that practically screams at us is “new life.” The act of the resuscitation by Jesus of the son is important in and of itself, but it yields itself as a metaphor of what happens to those who are touched by Jesus, or who Jesus is. In Him is life. The disciples find new life in Jesus. The apostles and the early Church experience new life in Jesus (initially through the Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit). Christians are called not only to repent and to be renewed but also to have new life – life that is totally different from life without the presence of Jesus in their lives and their presence in the life of Jesus (He lives in us and we in Him, as we say in the liturgy).

So the function of the Christian is to look for and to bring new life to those around him/her. Secularly that can be done through teaching, through medicine, through charity, through sharing one’s faith and through simple, godly presence. Sharing one’s faith, overtly or inadvertently, is the role and obligation of the Christian. We all know the hymn, “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.….” We do this when we take a stand for what is right. We do this when we commit ourselves to the life and work of the Church. We do this through our tithing, our piety and our charity. Over and over again you and I are given opportunities to bring new life into the lives of our family and our friends.

As a parish our task is not simply to survive. It is to bring resuscitation, new life, to this parish and to our community. That takes imagination, dedication, co-operation and just plain hard work.  You and I as Christians do make a difference in the lives of others and in the world.

In closing, let me tell you a story. In 1989 I was working as a chaplain assistant in the CPE program at Stamford Hospital. One night I was called up to the third floor to be with a family whose ten-year-old daughter had suffered pulmonary complications. I don’t know what she had, but I think it was cystic fibrosis (whatever that is). The doctors and nurses were gathered around the bed of the girl and working furiously on her. The mother sat in a corner weeping and the father stood in the doorway absolutely beside himself. The father was taller than I and was a state trooper. He wore his side arm. I tried to keep out of the way and not impede what was going on. Finally the doctors and nurses drew back and said, “She’s gone.” The mother sobbed uncontrollably. The father grabbed me by the arm and thrust me towards his daughter. “Go in there and pray for her.” Since he had a small canon on his belt and was visibly upset, that seemed like a good idea. I went over, laid my hands on her head and prayed for her, much as I do each Sunday for many of you. My heart was broken for the family and for the loss of a girl so young. I then repeated the Lord’s Prayer and took the father by the arm and marched him down to the end of the hall, just to get him out of the room and to try to bring the overall anxiety level down. I said to him, “Now you and I are going to pray.” Just then a nurse appeared in the doorway and said, “My God. She’s alive!” The father bolted down the hall and I sat down for a while.

The next day I went down to the supervising chaplain’s office and said to him, “I’ve got a problem.” “You always do.” He replied. “This is different,” I said. “A young girl died last night and I prayed for her and she came back to life.” He looked at me and said, “Well, what did you expect?” “I expected her to be dead.” “Well, perhaps you ought to rethink that,” he said. He then turned and left.

I decided then and there that things were too complicated for me as it was and not to push things nor exploit them. Nevertheless, over the years I have felt it important to include prayers for healing and anointing when possible after a service. I have been careful to keep myself out of the process and to focus on the prayers and upon the recipient. Has it made a difference? I think so. But I have done it because I think it is the right thing to do. I have rethought my experience and I think that you and I are called as Christians to pray for new life in the lives of ourselves and in others:  be it new life from dead dreams, dead emotions, dead thoughts, or s dead faith. Daily, as Christians, you and I are asked to witness to and to live out the compassion of Jesus Christ in our relationships with others.

Through Jesus Christ you and I are given new life. Let us always and everywhere share that life. Thanks be to God. Amen. – Fr. Gage