Death is not the End – A Sermon on Luke 7:11-17

“The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” (From Luke 7:11-17, Proper 5C). I can only imagine. I can only imagine what it was like for this mother and, believe me, I have. Thousands of times. I picture it in my mind. I feel the shock, the joy, each hug and kiss. I see tears of sorrow that now flow with happiness. I hear the silence of grief shattered by words of thanksgiving and celebration.

I’m glad for the widow and her son. I’m glad they got their lives back and I do mean “they” because I know that in some way she also died. It wasn’t just the young man. It was his mother too. With his death her future was forever changed, lost, dead. I know how that feels and I know many of you do too. Anyone whose loved one has died knows what that’s like. So I am really happy they got their lives back but I have to be honest about a few things. I also feel a bit angry, sad, and confused. Mostly, though, I am jealous. I wish Jesus would come and give Brandon back to Cyndy and me. I wish Jesus would come and give us back our lives. I want to hear him say, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

Surely, you know what I am talking about. Surely, you understand how I feel. Surely, you too have imagined and pictured what I have. Hooray for the widow and her son, but what about me? What about you and the deaths of those you love? What about all the other widows, parents, children, siblings, and friends throughout history whose loved ones have died and were not given back? What about our own deaths? What about those who look at their life through the eyes of death and see no future?

Today’s gospel answers none of these questions, at least not in the way we most often want. We cannot rationalize or explain death. We cannot gloss over it, deny, or ignore it. It is real and, regardless of when or how it comes, it is always painful. No logic can satisfy. We can never make sense of the loss that comes with death.

That has been and continues to be my struggle with this week’s gospel. It hits too close to home. It’s personal in a way that hurts. It raises questions I would rather avoid and not talk about. It challenges me to examine what I really believe about death and resurrection. I don’t think I am the first, the only, or the last one to feel this way or ask these questions. Some of you have sat in my office with the same feelings and asking the same questions. I know others who have kept silent and kept to themselves but the feelings and questions are no less real and no less present. We all weep and struggle with the mystery of death.

Beneath our questions and feelings lies a great fear. It is a fear that in many ways dominates and drives not only our lives but our entire society and culture. Despite what we know about the Christian faith and tradition, despite what we say we believe, despite what we want to believe, we fear and believe death to be final, the end, the ultimate reality. We have been deceived and convinced that death leaves us no future.

That’s why we so rarely talk about death openly and honestly. That’s why when we do talk about it we don’t know what to say. What do you say to or about one who has no future? That’s why we put a curtain around the grave and fake grass over the dirt that will fill that grave. Then we walk away before the body is lowered into the grave. It’s too much to see, too much to bear, when you believe that’s all there is and it is the end. It is one reason why, for much of history, children were so important. They carried on the family name and presence in this world. It is, at least in part, perhaps unconsciously, why we work to make a name for ourselves, to achieve, accomplish, and leave a legacy. We fear that with death our time has run out. We will be forgotten, no one will remember, and we will be no more. It is why a man once told me we could not ask the saints to pray for us. “Because they are dead!” he exclaimed. It is why I, and perhaps you too, hear today’s gospel and are jealous of the widow. We see her as the exception to the rule. Hidden within all these examples is the belief that death is the end.

Despite all my imaginings about the widow, she says nothing in today’s gospel. She does nothing. St. Luke tells us nothing about her response to her son’s sitting up and talking. That’s not because she has no response but because St. Luke wants us to see and focus on something else. In some ways the real miracle and the amazing thing about this story is the response of the crowds, not only what they say but what they do not say.

Everyone stopped walking when Jesus touched the bier. The crowd of mourners heard Jesus say, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” They saw the dead man sit up and heard him begin to speak. They saw Jesus give the young man to his mother. Never once did they say to Jesus, “Do that for us.” Not one of them asked, “What about me? What about those I love who have died?” That was no longer in question. Something changed for the crowds. They were changed. The rising of the young man was also their rising, our rising, everyone’s rising. They are not jealous and they do not seek more time for themselves or their loved ones who have died.

Instead, “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’” They knew, believed, and experienced this event to be as true and real for them as it was for the widow and her son. It was for all of them. In the raising of the widow’s son they recognized God’s favor and visitation upon themselves and those they loved, upon all God’s people.

The crowds are our witnesses that Jesus has already given us everything he gave the widow and her son. Death is not the end, the final or ultimate reality. Life is eternal and love is immortal. Life is not bound or determined by time, but by God.

As long as we see death as the running out of time, the end, the grand finale, we will always be jealous of the widow. We will always be looking for just a little more time, an encore. That’s why it so easy and tempting to identify with and focus on the widow and her son in today’s gospel. Their story is not, however, unique or particular to them. It is also our story, a shared story, and it has nothing to do with time.

This gospel is not about getting more time but about being given greater life. Isn’t that what our burial liturgy says? “Life is changed, not ended.” Isn’t that why “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia?” Isn’t that why Jesus can stand before this widow, feel in his gut her pain and loss, and still say, “Do not weep?” Isn’t that why every week we stand and say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead?” Isn’t that why we can join “our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” to proclaim the glory of God’s name?

I wonder if we sometimes treat these words as pious superstitions to make us feel better rather than the truth of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We ought to be looking and listening. We ought to look for the resurrection of the dead and see our loved ones standing next to and surrounding us. We ought to join our voices with all the company of heaven and listen for the familiar voices we have missed and longed to hear again. Why would we settle for feeling better when we and those we love are alive?

I know this is not easy. I know how difficult this is. My struggle with this week’s gospel, with Brandon’s death, with the deaths of all those I love and miss has yielded no answers. I have no answers for you or myself. This struggle has, however, given me better questions.

The question isn’t whether this story is true for Brandon, Cyndy, and me, but what keeps me from believing the truth of this story. The question isn’t how can I get what the widow got, but what prevents me from seeing I already have it. The question isn’t whether death is the end, but why do I persist in believing that lie? They are questions for everyone who struggles with death, questions reminding us that a great prophet has risen among us and we have been visited and looked upon favorably by God.

Icon of the Widow of Nain and Her Son

Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain (source)

30 thoughts on “Death is not the End – A Sermon on Luke 7:11-17

  1. This couldn’t have come at a better time. A couple of hours ago, I received word that a woman I had been friends with since first grade, had apparently committed suicide. While trying to deal with the unanswered questions that will always be there, I needed to this to see the bigger picture. To rejoice in and be thankful for the time that we did have, and to be reminded once again that death is not the end. Thank you

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    • Jan, I am glad this post was timely and helpful for you. May your friend’s soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

      Mike+

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  2. True and lovely words. I was a guest preacher this morning and struggled with this passage as well, especially since there are recently bereaved people in the small congregation. I concluded that the witnesses who passed this story to us knew that miracles like this were unusual. They weren’t counting on them either. But they told the story anyway because it told them who Jesus really is. And this young man’s resuscitation is a prediction and a sign for Jesus’ resurrection and his promise for us all. Pain and death could not hold Jesus – and ultimately they will not hold us either. I also said that the story shows us how God-in-the-flesh met human pain: not with satisfaction, not with approval, not with denial, not with vengeance, not with disregard, but with compassion. As you said, Jesus raised the young man because his insides twisted with the pain of the devastated mother. There was no request, no statement of faith, just the overwhelming compassion of God. And while I still have a lot of questions, somehow that helps. Peace to you – and to us all – Karen Jones

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    • Thank you Karen. I appreciate your words and focus on compassion. I think that, at some level, most everyone lives with grief. There are rarely answers and even then they do not satisfy or relieve the grief.

      Peace,
      Mike+

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  3. Beautiful post, and honest…those issues we all struggle with. Yet when we have the knowing that life never ceases, just changes…we are freed to live as we should; free of fear, truly alive throughout.

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    • I am always finding how my fear constricts and narrows my world and relationships. In some way fear, not death, is the opposite of life.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  4. Mike, I, too, have experienced this kind of grief with the death of my grandson. And I, also, have trouble with ‘miracles” as one who didn’t get one. Thank you so much for your thoughtful insight into this potentially troublesome story.

    Diane Thrush

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  5. “Life is eternal and love is immortal.”
    “This body is not me.
    I am not limited by this body.
    I am life without boundaries.
    I have never been born,
    and I have never died.
    Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
    manifestations from my wondrous true Self.
    Since before time, I have been free.
    Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
    sacred thresholds on our journey.
    Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
    So laugh with me,
    hold my hand,
    let us say goodbye,
    say goodbye, to meet again soon.
    We meet today.
    We will meet again tomorrow.
    We will meet at the source every moment.
    We meet each other in all forms of life.”
    [Poem by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh]
    xxx

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  6. Thank you for writing with such honesty about this subject… After Jesus said, “He that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die,” He asked Mary and Martha “Do you believe this?” (John 11:26) I wonder what would have happened if the sisters had responded in the negative. For the reader, this question just hangs there in the air. We all must ask ourselves this question of whether we really believe Him.

    Peace & Grace be with you,
    Sister Olive

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  7. Absolutely the questions I hear again and again from the bereaved. I know that they will struggle with what seems at first the final exit. It is such a comfort to have another perspective to offer. It provides hope. Thanks Mike for making yesterday’s liturgy come alive with hope for a better understanding of what’s to come. That’s the ultimate gift!

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    • Charlotte, I suspect they are universal questions. I ask them and like you have heard others ask them. I sometimes wonder if the real work is not to settle on an answer but to clarify and ask better questions. Thank you for your affirmation and encouragement.

      Peace,
      Mike+

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  8. My condolences to you and your wife on the death of your son, Mike. He was a handsome man I see. Am moved by your commitment to being real and vulnerable, and being in the enquiry, esp one so close and painful. All my best wishes, Narelle x

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    • Thank you Narelle. It has been about 3 1/2 years since he died. I don’t know that things are any easier, just different. As difficult as this text was/is it would have been more difficult and dishonest to deny or avoid it. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  9. Pingback: Greater Life | As the Deer

  10. Beautiful sermon. I especially appreciated this line:

    “The question isn’t how can I get what the widow got, but what prevents me from seeing I already have it. The question isn’t whether death is the end, but why do I persist in believing that lie?”

    Thank you.

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    • Thanks, Ryan. I think those questions, in some way, are the faith journey. Maybe we are always learning and trying to live into them.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  11. Thank you for this posting. I just stumbled upon it. We lost our 28 year old son to suicide three years ago. I struggle with my faith, with hope, with all the questions and pain that has come to live in our house. We lost a daughter to cancer years ago too. And I am jealous of the woman whose son Jesus restored to her now, in this present age, in this world. But mostly, I fear that death may be the end. My faith was so strong before. And our son struggled so badly with depression – but I believed God would protect and heal him – here. When that didn’t happen – I don’t know this God now. I don’t know how to be with Him. I don’t know how to trust Him. Our son left no note, but an unsent text on his phone: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. My grief counselor told me it was our son’s way of telling us where he believed he was going, and God’s way of telling us He took him home. I guess I need to work on believing as the crowd did – “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’” They knew, believed, and experienced this event to be as true and real for them as it was for the widow and her son. It was for all of them. In the raising of the widow’s son they recognized God’s favor and visitation upon themselves and those they loved, upon all God’s people.” Losing a child is the worse death. I am bereft most of the time, but one hides it because the world gets tired of hearing about it or seeing one’s grief. I re-read this posting often and believe it will bring me some peace.
    Again, thank you.

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    • Carla, I am so very sorry for your losses. They can and often do leave us not knowing what to believe or even if we believe. And yes, the world moves on in a way we do not. In the moments when I do not know and I do not see what the crowds saw or believe what they believed I let them see and believe for me. That does not necessarily make it all better, it just gives me something to hold on to. You and your children are in my prayers.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  13. Love conquers death.
    Love is the death of death, this I know.

    Testament

    “But how can I live without you?” she cried

    I left all the world to you when I died.

    Beauty of earth and air and sea;

    leap of swallow or a tree;

    Kiss of rain and winds embrace;

    Passion of storm and winters face;

    Touch of feather, flower and stone;

    Chisselled line of branch or bone;

    Flight of stars, nights caravan;

    Song of crickets-and of man-

    All these I put in my testament,

    All these I bequeathed to you when I went.

    “But how can I see them without your eyes or touch them without your hand”?

    These too, these too I leave to you.

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  14. Mike, Pansy and I have a loss in common with you and Cindy. In the sermon, you didn’t indicate when Brandon died. In 1969, one of our premature twin sons died after only 13 days. Some thoughtless people actually said, “Well, you still have the other one.” As if that made up for our loss! We thank God for our two surviving sons, ages 44 and nearly 41, but when I stop to remember, there still can be pain. I think of a book a pastor here in Anderson, South Carolina wrote years ago. The title itself is therapeutic: “Grief’s Slow Wisdom.”

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    • Lawrence, I am sorry about your son’s death. I am always amazed at some of the things that are said. Silent presence often offers more than words. Brandon was 27 when he died in 2009. The pain has changed over the years but is never absent.

      Peace,
      Mike+

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