Sunday, June 05, 2016

A New Lease on Life

3rd Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 5 (Year C)
1 Kings 17.17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1.11-24; Luke 7.11-17
Sunday, June 5, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

There is an expression – “new lease on life.” Originally referring to recovery from illness, by the mid-19th century the expression came to be applied to any kind of fresh beginning. Particularly an opportunity to be successful or happy after experiencing a series of difficulties. While the phrase “new lease on life” was not in existence in the first century, today’s Gospel reading gives that expression a whole new meaning.

Jesus is traveling to the village of Nain, and comes across a funeral procession. A young man has died, leaving his widowed mother. Immediately, Jesus’ attention is drawn not to the dead man, but to his mother. She is obviously grieving. Any mother would at the loss of her child. But Jesus has compassion on her for other reasons, as well. Because of her vulnerability. We may not really pick up on this, as women in contemporary Western society do not face the same vulnerability as the woman in the Gospel.

In the ancient Middle East, woman generally did not own property or to have any assets of their own. A girl was cared for by her father until she got married. Then her care and wellbeing became the responsibility of her husband. If the husband should die, it was customary for the brother or another relative of the deceased to marry the widow to provide for her care. As in the case of the widow of Nain, who had an adult son, responsibility for her care would fall to him. The death of an only son would leave the widow without an heir. All personal property would revert to her deceased husband’s family upon the death of the son. The widow would be left without any property or resources to care for her needs. She would be forced to the margins of society where she would face alienation from the community and deprived of familial care.

So our widow is not just grieving the loss of her only son. She is grieving the loss of her sole means of support. She is now destitute and faces being marginalized with no one to care for her. She is rightly concerned about her future, about her wellbeing. She is now among the most vulnerable in society. It is for this reason that Jesus has compassion for her. The means by which Jesus chooses to show compassion, to address the widow’s particular circumstances, is to bring her son back to life. In this, the lives of both mother and son rely on Jesus’ intervention. And this intervention results in resurrection, in new life. Not just for the man, but also for the widow. She not only has her son back, relieving her grief. She is no longer a widowed nobody, but her son’s mother. She is restored to her previous, more secure, social status.

While this is an extreme case of healing, atypical of what we may normally experience in our own lives, this story, like all stories of Jesus’ compassion and healing, holds a number of lessons for us about what Jesus’ healing power really entails, what his healing power really means.

One of the important aspects of this healing experience, this experience of resurrection and new life, is that Jesus takes the initiative. Usually in the healing miracles recorded in the Gospels, people come to Jesus asking for healing for themselves or on behalf of another. But here, no one asks Jesus for healing. Jesus takes it upon himself to perform the healing. This tells us that Jesus is acutely attuned to our condition and to our needs. That being the case, there are times when Jesus provides what we need even without our asking. Sometimes, he knows that we are in need, and what we need, even before we do. And he acts accordingly to bring the needed healing.

Another related aspect of this healing experience is that Jesus recognizes the need of one who is on the margins of society – a mere widow. She is not a rich and powerful man like in last week’s story of the centurion. She is, in that moment, destitute and without anyone to care for her. Despite this, or rather because of it, Jesus sees her need and has compassion. Compassion to the point that he chooses to take extreme action. This tells us of the particular concern that God has for those who are on the margins of society. This tells us that God’s love is available to all, regardless of who they are – regardless of their gender, their social or economic status. All are deserving of God’s love and of God’s healing power.

This healing experiences also demonstrates that the healing that God provides is not limited to an individual. There are really multiple healings that happen in the story. Jesus obviously heals the young man by bringing him back to life. But it is compassion for the mother that prompts Jesus to perform the healing. The healing is really for her. In fact, she herself is also healed. Her emotional distress over the loss of her son is certainly healed. But she is healed in other ways, as well. With the son’s healing, the widow’s own wellbeing is secure. This tells us that with Jesus, a single healing action can have broader impacts, touching others and bringing healing to many lives in the process.

This healing experience also demonstrates something about the implications of the healing that is provided. We see this in the fact that the healing is achieved through resurrection and new life. That the healing results in resurrection and new life. Both the son and the widow not only receive a healing of their presenting issues. The result is that they now both have new lives ahead of them – new lives that would not have been possible without the healing that Jesus provides. And indeed, this is true of all healings. Healings open the way for new life for those receiving it. Lives with new beginnings, filled with new possibilities.

And finally, this healing experience shows that there is a ripple effect of God’s healings. One that extends well beyond those immediately receiving healing. We are told that the funeral party and those witnessing the healing miracle “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country” (Lk 7.16b-17). The news of the healing miracle is not contained, but shared with others. The word spreads to others so that they too may know Jesus’ healing power and come to believe. We as a community are called to witness to those healing miracles that we witness – sharing them with others, so that they too may know who Jesus is and what he does for us. Even if not our own healings, they touch us as community. They testify to who God is and how God works in our lives in tangible ways.

Now, admittedly, miracle stories, and particularly stories of miraculous healings, can cause discomfort among many post-Enlightenment Christians. We just aren’t used to such things. We don’t often see such things in our own lives. But even more so, it raises for us the question of why such healings don’t happen all the time. Particularly for us or for those we love. Particularly when we might pray so earnestly for it.

What about when healing does not happen? Or at least, the healing we might ask or hope for? I submit that healing occurs nonetheless. I’ve mentioned this before. But I think it bears keeping in mind, particularly when we question why healing that we desire or pray for does not happen. Years ago, I was having trouble praying for healing for people in my parish who were terminally ill, who were obviously near death, and for whom there was no hope for healing. I went to my rector and told him about my struggle. And he told me something that completely changed my understanding of prayer and the power of prayer. He told me that healing takes many forms. Healing is not just physical.

The healing that is needed may be emotional healing or spiritual healing. In the midst of serious illness or infirmity, a person may finally come to grips with some aspect of their own life, with their own weaknesses, with things they have done or not done. To appreciate and celebrate their own strengths. To reassess their perceptions of what their life has been about. This can result in a desire to change one’s life for the better. To turn one’s life around. To live in a better or different way. A resolve to take actions that make a difference in the lives of others.

The healing that is needed may be the healing of relationships. Of one’s relationship with family or friends, bringing people closer together in times of crisis. Renewing strained or estranged relationships through the realization of what is truly important in life. Even facilitating the renewal or strengthening of relationships between other people in the patient’s life. And quite often, a strengthening of the relationship between the patient and God.

All of these are forms of healing. Maybe not in the way that we would think of or would have hoped for. But all are healings, nonetheless. Healings that were needed more than just physical healing. For ultimately, it is not for us to determine the healing that is needed. God may not provide the healing we want, but he does provide the healing that is needed. And in whatever healing is provided, there is resurrection. There is new life.

The healing and new life that does occur, regardless of its form, is merely a foretaste of what is to come. The healing and resulting new life, while sometimes physical, but often not, is precisely what we need because it brings us one step closer to our God. It brings us one step closer to the ultimate healing and resurrection that is promised to us at the end of our earthly life.

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