June 9, 2013
A widow is walking a dusty road. The sun is in the sky, making shadows on the mud-brick walls and simple dusty streets of Nain. The town sits on the edge of a wide and beautiful valley, but the widow doesn’t notice, because today her life has ended. She has lost her last connection to society, she is about to become a non-person.
She walks behind her dead son. He is wrapped in cloth bands and carried on a simple litter. He died that very day and had to be buried before sundown. The shock is almost too much to bear. She remembers walking this path before, following another man wrapped in cloth bands and on a litter. She remembers following her dead husband to his burial. The pain was great then, but then she could lean on her son, then she only grieved the loss of her husband. Now she can reasonably fear losing her very self as well.
The crowd who follows her knows her well; Nain is not a large town. No doubt they are compassionate. No doubt they are sad. Perhaps some were friends with her son. Perhaps some are other widows or friends. They may be very concerned for her, but a large part of the concern is for her loss of social identity, her loss of connection and power in her small part of the world.
To be a widow at the time of Christ was to have no power, no social standing. It was a world of, and for, and run by men. Women could only be represented legally by men. Women could only be defended socially by men. If her property were attacked – by thieves or greedy landowners – a woman would have little defense on her own, only her male kin could help her. The law did give her some protections. The scriptures they read were clear that widows were to receive special care and attention and were not to be exploited. But religious laws were no guarantee of a woman’s safety in a man’s world. The widow at Nain is in real social danger – she no longer has a husband, she no longer has a son. If she had moved from her kin, she is now socially alone. Each step she takes is heavy – heavy with grief, heavy with fear; each is a step into an unknown future.
Our gospel passage today can seem like a passage about a dead man coming to life. That is certainly the most dramatic part of the story. In the middle of a funeral procession a dead man sits up – no doubt shocking the dickens out of the entire procession – and begins to speak. The crowd is filled with fear, which seems pretty reasonable, anyone would experience more than a small amount of shock and awe at the sight of a dead man sitting up on his funeral bier and talking. It is hard to ignore the resurrection at the center of this tale. It is a vision of the glory of God. It is a vision of God’s triumph over death.
But the glory of God is bigger than just this resurrection. As hard as it might seem to imagine, the glory of God that was revealed that day at Nain was more than bringing a dead man to life. The widow is also brought back from death to life. The story begins with the widow. Jesus has compassion on the widow, tells her not to weep. After the man comes back to life, he gives him back to his mother. By doing so, he brings her back to life. Jesus heals more than a dead man, he heals a woman broken by a society that could not see her as fully human without a man.
The crowd may have been more afraid of this than anything else. The social order had been altered. A woman who didn’t count suddenly counted again. This may have been as awesome, as fearsome, as the resurrection itself.
The crowd would immediately have known what happened. They knew they were in the presence of a prophet because they had read their scripture. They knew God cared for widows, God insisted on the care of widows. They knew that God sent prophets like Elijah to heal widows, they remembered the widow at Zarepath who was near death and who was brought back to life by God’s gift of a jar of meal and a jug of oil that never ran out. Caring for the ones that society wants to leave behind is what God does. Having no edges, no boundaries to the scope of care, is God. God’s very being has no limits to love.
We still live in a world of social divisions. Our society, our now-global society, is full of divisions. Indeed, it feels like we have found many more ways to divide ourselves than could have been imagined by the people of Nain. We can be divided by religion, by ethnicity, by nation, by age, by the kind of music we like, by wealth and poverty. Sadly, we can still be divided by gender.
But amid all this division, God gives us life. God is the source of all being. And God doesn’t just give us biological life, God gives us a full life, a life where our divisions are healed. That is the action that Jesus undertook at Nain – he restored biological life so that a full life could be had by all. That is what Jesus showed the people of Nain, that life means more than simply existing, it means living fully within the web of life. It means being loved by all and loving all.
This is the reign of God. It is a reign of well being, a reign of justice, a reign of abundance, a reign of joyous harmony. It is a reign we recognize when we are fully in God’s presence, and when God’s presence encompasses all of creation. God’s presence has no social boundaries. The crowd at Nain rejoiced because God had looked favorably upon them with a sign of God’s reign.
This is the action of our God. Restoring to the social community, bringing people we push out of society back into love because we need each other.
This is also our action. We too are called to be healers. The mission of the church, our Book of Common Prayer says, “ is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
We do this by refusing to draw boundaries, by refusing to exclude people from the fullness of life that God promises. We do it when we welcome all people into our churches. We do it when we work to ensure that all are fed, and clothed, and housed, and cared for when sick. We do it when we work to transform unjust social structures. We do it when we fix any system or practice that treats anyone as undeserving of a full life.
We still make people of all races and genders powerless. We still try to make human souls into non-people. Our mission is to be people who draw no distinctions. Our mission is to be a people who recognize the dignity of every human being.
After Jesus left Nain, the people went back to their homes and chores, but things didn’t go back to normal. And thanks be to God for that! Normal doesn’t always mean right. Normal can be unjust. The people of Nain weren’t normal anymore. The people were transformed. They had moved beyond what they thought were limitations. They had seen a new world.
Let us open our eyes to this new world and glorify God. Let us be a people without boundaries.
— The Rev. Matt Seddon is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in West Valley City, Utah – the most diverse city in Utah. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and a M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific, with special training and experience in multicultural ministry, particularly Latino Ministry. He is married with one teenaged daughter, reads too much, and is fond of punk rock from the 1980s.