We find two stories to fill our souls with hope this morning, two
stories of the dead being brought back to life, two stories of the ultimate
triumph. It is a miraculous thing when new life comes from death. I often wonder
what death was like before the advent of modern science, where was the line
between death and life. Today the line between death and life is kind of murky;
questions as to when life begins and when life ends rage through our religious
communities and our political offices. But I think that there is one thing that
we can all agree on, no matter where we fall on the question of when life begins
and ends, I think we can all agree that life is persistent.
Last week as I was driving to church there was a story I was listening
to on VPR, it was the story of people who were disabled practicing Yoga. Now I
came into this story a little late so I wasn’t able to hear the whole thing, but
I got the gist of what they were talking about. This man who is disabled and in
a wheelchair runs Yoga classes for others who are also disabled. One thing that
he said struck me, as he was talking about his body he mentioned that even
through all the physical damage to his body, something to do with a spinal
injury I believe, his body continued to try and fix itself. In fact he said that
the majority of his injuries had healed. Life is persistent; if there is even a
slight chance, life will find a way to go on.
Even in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth, we still
find life. We find life that has adapted to living in the frigid temperatures of
the Antarctic, and the broiling temperatures found deep underground, we have
even found life thriving at the bottoms of the deepest oceans where even the
light of the sun cannot reach. We are surrounded by life in such a wide variety
of forms. From the small little critters running around underfoot, to the birds
of the sky, to the trees and the plants, to our neighbors and friends, two
legged, four legged, eight legged, even no-legs. We are surrounded by life
because if there is one thing we know without a doubt, it is that life will
We have found bacterium that have survived for 250 million
years, some trees that are nearly 7,000 years old, even tortoises that have
reached that wonderful milestone: 250 years old. Life is quite persistent. Maybe
it is because life is so persistent that we have so many questions concerning
the end of life, what comes next? I think this question more than any other has
permeated the ages, been asked by great thinkers and ordinary folk alike. It is
the question that philosophies and religions have tried to answer from the dawn
of our race. We wonder what comes next, we wonder what happens when the
persistence of life comes to an end.
There is a story of three men who die in a tragic car accident and they
are brought up to heaven. When they arrive they are reached asked what they
would like people to say at the funeral. The first man says he would like people
to say what a wonderful and caring person he was, and that he was one of the
best doctors of his time. The second man says he would like people to say he was
a great teacher and helped shape the minds of the next generation. The third man
thinks the question over but finally says that he would like someone to point to
the coffin and say, “he’s still alive in there.” We are so ready to keep living,
we are so ready to do all we can to live that sometimes I think we forget to
There is an important lesson that I think we need to take from
today’s readings. Never once do the people mourning the loss of their children
ask God to restore their children to life. Elijah asks God on the widow’s
behalf, and Jesus doesn’t even need to be asked, he does so just out of
compassion. These two people are brought back to life not for their sakes, but
for the sake of their mourning mothers. These are stories of God’s compassion
toward the survivors.
Unfortunately most of us are not blest enough to
live in the presence of prophets of Elijah’s stature, and even though some
plants and bacterium can survive for thousands of years, no person I know can
make that claim so we didn’t get to live while Jesus was walking around and
raising people from the dead. When we hear of people coming back from the dead
it is more likely that we are hearing the story of someone revived in a hospital
or by paramedics or some such thing. We very rarely hear any more of the dead,
the ones who have been that way for some time, coming back to life.
Yesterday I went to a commencement for Green Mountain College and I gave a
benediction that included part of the prayer spoken first by a Confederate
soldier during the Civil War. The prayer went like this:
I asked God for
strength, that I might achieve, I was made weak, that I might obey.
for health, that I might do greater things, I was given infirmity that I might
do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy, I was given
poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the
praise of men, I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
asked for all things that I might enjoy life, I was given life, that I might
enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for— but everything I had hoped
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among
all men, most richly blessed.
There is something telling about this prayer.
The idea that you may not get what you want, but you will get what you need is
prevalent in our society and in our culture. We know what it is that we need to
ask for, we ask for everything we think will make us happy, everything we think
will make us content. God acts in a way however that doesn’t give us what we ask
for, but God does give us what we hope for. Sometimes what we ask for isn’t what
we hope for, sometimes we have to wait and see God’s plan to know exactly what
we want from ourselves.
The fear of death grips us. We fear the unknown
and we fear losing that which we hold dear. It is only natural for us to wonder
and to fear because the next life is so filled with mystery, so many questions
cannot be answered for us. Many people have spent many years trying to figure
out ways to extend life. We have pharmaceutical companies that can, given time,
find a cure to problems we didn’t even know we had. People born today have a
longer life-expectancy than people born yesterday; every new day brings a new
advancement that staves off the end for another hour, another day, another
What if we are asking for the wrong thing though? What if we are like
the Confederate soldier, asking for what we think will give us more time, make
us happier, make us better? As a society we spend so much of our time and our
resources staving off death that I think we have come to fall into the myth that
death as something to be avoided at all costs, even at the expense of actually
Bringing people back from the dead is a common theme in our
scriptures, God does it, Jesus does it, heck even Paul manages to do it; but
there is another message that we get from our scriptures, the message of eternal
life. Through compassion Jesus raised the young man from the dead, through that
same compassion we to are kept from death.
Compassion is the central
message of eternal life. The women in the two readings from this morning do not
ask for their sons to be brought back from death, they mourn for their loss, but
there is no expectation that God will intervene. Restoring life to the dead was
not an act to proof the righteousness of the people or to proof the power of
God, it is done out of compassion.
One thing to note from Luke is how
quickly Jesus acts. Jesus doesn’t talk with the widow except to tell her not to
cry. There are no questions as to what the woman or her son believes or if they
are even willing to follow Jesus’ teaching. There are no questions, no
requirements for Jesus’ redemptive power, there is just Jesus noticing the pain
the mother is in and finding a way to elevate that pain. Jesus acts out of
compassion, pure and uninhibited compassion.
We are called not to
question peoples origins, beliefs, theologies, and traditions; we are called to
aid in the persistence of life. We are called to act like Christ, seeing pain
and working to alleviate it. When we separate the deserving and the undeserving
based on ideologies, national borders, and histories of animosities; we work
against the persistence of life, we work to unravel the compassion that our
faith is built on. It is compassion that leads us to help first, and ask
questions second. It is compassion that aids in the persistence of life.
Life is indeed persistent. Life is everywhere we look. Life is a precious
mystery, something that we ponder. But in the end it always seems as if the
persistence of life gives way, death naturally follows all life. But through our
faith we know that death is not the end. Just like life blossoming in the
harshest environments, through our compassion life even overcomes death. Life is
persistent and there is something precious about that. Life is precious, and
that is why our compassion for the living will lead us to everlasting