I love poetry. Probably Langston Hughes is my second favorite right next to Emily Dickinson, my first “author crush.” I fell in love with her 37 years ago and haven’t fallen out of love with her yet. But sometimes she has some stiff competition from Maya Angelou—I ask, what is not to love about wise Maya? The hair on my neck and arms stands on end, and my skin tingles when I hear her share, Still I Rise. She talks about people who face opposition and have the wherewithal to say, “Still I Rise.”
And Pentecost 3C is upon us and has brought with it some people who need to rise. They know broken hopes, stolen dreams, a dark foreboding future, death. Loss has them by the throat. The Old Testament reading tells of a widow who is running out of everything from food to hope, and amidst it all her son dies. The Psalm talks about weeping that stays the night; the Galatians text speaks of a gospel—Good News—that doesn’t come from human origin, and the Gospel text is this:
11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17 NRSV)
This funeral is a family affair. More than just the dead boy need to rise. The mother leading the funeral procession is absolutely as dead as the boy she carries to the grave. Three times in my life I have been a pallbearer and no part of the solemn journey purveys hope or inspires joy. Two of those times were for family members.
Thanks be to God Almighty that in none of the processions I was carrying a son. Can you imagine the level of numbed pain the mother feels as the flesh and blood that came from her flesh and blood is moving from womb to tomb? Can you imagine what she is holding inside herself? Every hope tied to that boy is gone. Every promise for stability and security in future days is gone. Death is a natural part of existence. A life of catastrophic financial ruin coupled together with the loss of one to whom love would’ve been given and from whom love would have been received is too much to bear. The weight of the bier might seem small by comparison. So it might prove hard to pity the boy, now at rest. And at the same time, so very easy to have compassion on his mom, whose entire universe is in free-fall.
The action of Jesus in the midst of this is priceless. He is not asked to raise the boy from the dead, no one implores him to work some wonder, no delegation comes forward proclaiming that the widow is worthy, and the text never mentions one word about someone’s faith effecting a miraculous response. Jesus, moved by compassion, says only two things: 1) to the woman he says, “Do not weep,” and 2) to the boy he says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The final word Jesus says is, “RISE!”
What follows next is priceless.
The text records not one word out of the mouth of the widow. She doesn’t look at Jesus and say, “Thanks, mister.” She doesn’t break into a Pentecostal Holy Ghost two-step. She doesn’t shout, “Hallelujah, Thank you Jesus!” She doesn’t even burst into a rousing chorus of, “A Mighty Fortress is our God!” Do you suppose fear had seized her tongue? The text says fear had seized them all and so they glorified God.
I guess we’d all be right there with them—-fear seizing us, too. For when Jesus said to that boy, ” Young man, I say to you rise,” the whole community had to rise. The widow had to rise—no longer sonless widow, someone alive in being-made-newness. The boy had to rise—no longer dead, now alive in being-made-newness. Those in both processions had to rise—no longer held in the grip of death or in the suspense of where God was in the tragedy, they now knew and rose to say, “A great prophet has risen among us,” and, “God has looked favorably on his people!” Yes—ever since that day in Nain word of Jesus has spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
And his command has come to us—and now, by his command, into being-made-newness Jesus bids us rise.
Those broken relationships, we don’t have to let ’em stay broken. In those broken spaces, Jesus says, “Rise!”
Those dead end jobs and toxic life patterns, we don’t have to stay in ’em. In those dead ends and toxic patterns, Jesus says, “Rise!”
Those failures that keep us from dreaming, we don’t have to inhabit ’em any longer. In those failures, Jesus says, “Rise!”
Those addictive behaviors and sinful compulsions, we don’t have to be defined by them any more. In those addictions and compulsions, Jesus says, “Rise!”
Those marriages that tanked and made us too wounded to try again, we don’t have to dwell there. Jesus is in the midst of that woundedness and says, “Rise!”
The miscarriage that took a part of us into levels of despair we’d never known cannot hold us forever. For Jesus is saying in the pain of loss, “Rise!”
Those stereotypes painted on to us, or selected by us for ourselves, don’t have to be our story. For Jesus is right there in that story offering us a new story, by saying, “Rise!”
And those worn out ways of doing things—from the things in the White house, to the things in the Church, to the things in the roadside popsicle stand—to those things that never bring us hope, but to which we feel honorably bound and dutifully obliged to continue, we don’t have to keep doing any of them unless we choose. For Jesus permeates it all and says to us, “Rise!”
And when, by his command, death shudders, recoils, and lets us go, we rise from the bier, and Jesus moves us to our mother—into a future brimming with new identity and fresh hope. ‘Cause that’s the way Jesus rolls. And that’s why we can shout and sing, “Still I Rise!” Are you living? Are you dead? Into being-made-newness, your Lord bids you, “Rise!”