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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Jesus Meets Us At The Gate - 06/05/2016

Surely, the widow looked at that gate with some strange toxic mix of dread, resignation and loss. 

Even if we haven't experienced the loss of a spouse or a child, we can probably relate to that feeling of forcing ourselves to move toward something which every inch of our being is screaming for us to avoid.

We all have these gates in our lives, don't we?

You find yourself heading toward some thing or place or person that makes you feel like you have so little control. Like the widow, everything you've experienced so far tells you that ... on the other side of that gate ... is life outside of community ... or hopelessness … pain … even death.

Sometimes though, we're  drawn to these gates, even when it might be risky and makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps it doesn't conform to what is expected by our families or friends. Or it means turning our backs on things that many use as measures of success. But we're drawn none-the-less.

Larry and I experienced something like that years ago when we decided to leave our pretty comfortable lives in the Detroit area to move back up here and go to school at NMU. There were some family members who told us we were being foolish to leave our jobs. There were risks involved. But we felt strongly that walking through that gate, despite the risks, was the right thing for us and our family and where, I can see now, God was calling us.

So when I hear this story of how Jesus raised the widow's son at Nain, I can't help but imagine what that gate signified for her – where she was coming from and where she was going to. How that threshold marked such a drastic change in her life.

 We can try to imagine what life looked like for this woman prior to losing her husband and her son. Maybe she felt a passion for making a comfortable and warm home that was welcoming and nourishing to those who visited. Maybe she felt strongly about living as a faithful, first century Jewish woman. Maybe she was viewed as a wise woman of Nain and had even been asked what she thought of these stories about this Jesus from Nazareth that were spreading in the region. But all of this would have changed on that disastrous day when she lost her son – he was both the child she loved and the man she was entirely dependent on for a place to sleep, food … life.

And on this day, the day of the funeral, all that existed for her – whether she chose it or not, was the other side of the gate. And there was nothing hospitable or live-giving there. It was the dead world of her husband, and it would soon include her and her dead son. She might as well have been on her own bier as she was caught up in the loud and grieving procession of Nain's people as they moved her and her son toward the gate. 

But simultaneously, the gospel writer paints us a picture of a contrasting and larger procession moving into Nain from the other side the gate. They are fresh on the heels of Jesus having restored the centurion's slave and other healing miracles. The are strangely excited and at the same time frightened over the attention Jesus has drawn from the Pharisees and scribes. They are energized by Jesus' teaching and they are questioning everything. They are full of hope … on the other side of the gate.

What a sight that must have been to see these two parades of humanity come together – the inspired people coming into Nain and the despairing people going out of Nain and meeting at the very threshold the widow dreaded. 

When Jesus sees the widow, he has compassion for her. It's revealing that the Greek word for compassion is more about a physical feeling one has in the pit of the stomach. Luke uses the same word when describing how the Samaritan responded to the traveler left for dead on the side of the road, and how the father felt when he spotted the prodigal son coming home. The word denotes a gut reaction.

One theologian (Walter Brueggemann) wrote that showing compassion was not the social norm at this time and so when Jesus did this, it was “a radical form of criticism.” Jesus was following what his gut instinct was telling him to do. By showing compassion he essentially demanded the situation of the widow be evaluated through the lens of loving neighbor and accompanying her, not putting her outside the gate to fend for herself.

And by doing this, Jesus calls our attention to the circumstance of the widow …  and all those who are made poor and vulnerable and powerless for all kinds of reasons – reasons we can understand and those we cannot.

The fact that Jesus was breaking social norms also brings to mind how this scene may have unfolded in another way … there was a socially normative way too. And maybe it would have been a lot easier … at least a lot more familiar. These two parades of people could have simply made room for each other, passing through the gate from opposite directions.

The lively and fired up crowd with Jesus becoming more subdued and they searched the faces of the mourners. Maybe quietly offering condolences and trying to quickly get out of the way.

 The mourners would have continued their loud wailing, but maybe they would have wondered, with a little suspicion and contempt … Who are these chatty strangers walking through the middle of  our funeral procession?

 Later on, when Jesus and the crowd rested and shared some food together, maybe Jesus would have used the example of the widow as a teaching moment on what she really needed from community at this crucial moment in her life. After all, care of widows and orphans is spelled out pretty clearly in the scriptures.

But that's not the way it goes with Jesus and his followers. Here we have interaction, empathy, care, love and a miracle! Jesus raises the widow's dead son. He crosses all kinds of boundaries in what he does when he meets that crowd of mourners – stopping the procession, interrupting the mourners, acknowledging the widow, touching the dead son.

And in doing so, he forever changes the landscape on either side of the gate, not just for the widow, but for everyone gathered in that unlikely collision of hope and resignation.

The procession from Nain merges into the procession from the other side of the gate. They are enveloped in this larger procession and all the energy and curiosity and hope that exists there. They are all brought to life at the very presence of this Jesus who is now right there in Nain with them.

Things change … no doubt … but not in the way they were anticipating that day. From outside the gate has come a better way, the healing ways of the Reign of God that Jesus has just brought in to Nain... and soon to many other small towns and finally to all of creation in all times.

Jesus' reaction to the widow tells us what we can expect of God when we come to gates in our own lives. Imagine what it must have been like for the widow that day. She is peering out into the that inhospitable place outside the gate. And where she expected to see life outside of community,  hopelessness, pain and maybe even death … she sees Jesus.

And he stops … and he touches their lives. Jesus' procession mingles with the widow's procession and everyone is amazed at what Jesus has said and done. They call him a prophet and proclaim ... God has visited Nain! They are taking the first steps in cracking open and questioning whether the widow's reality on the other side of that gate is what they – God's people – really choose for her. In the end, the widow doesn't walk through that gate, but instead joins the growing crowds of people who are talking about this roaming rabbi and how he came into Nain that day, raised the dead and saved the life of the widow. How he defied social expectations by publicly demonstrating compassion for the widow. In that show of compassion he exposed the numbness and sinfulness behind putting the widow on the other side of that gate, outside of community, outside of being cared for, outside of contributing to the lives of her people. 

So where are you and I in this story? What gates are we approaching?

It's true ... peering into the world on the other side of our gates often leaves us with more questions than answers, more uncertainty than sureness. There is a lot we cannot know about what is over there.

But what we do know is that Jesus is there … Jesus and all the impossible things he breathes life into … meets us at those gates with compassion and care and miracles and love and a promise to sweep us into that great parade of humanity.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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