Luke 7:11-17 June 5, 2016
Once in a while (not too often, but once in a while) as my dog licks my face, I think: “What am I doing? I know where her mouth has been!” I know where that mouth has been. I know where her nose has been. I feed her, I walk her, I assist with her waste-disposal needs. Believe me when I say: I know where that nose has been. Dear God: I know where that mouth has been. And yet, every time that tongue wants to find my cheek, my nose, God help me, my mouth, I don’t resist. Much. I know where they’ve been, and I don’t care. At least, not enough to turn down those sweet puppy kisses. So it has me wondering. Do you know where Jesus’ hands have been lately? I warn you: it might not be pretty.
I almost titled this sermon “Dirty Hands,” but then, I think wisely, I thought better of it. We don’t need to go there. But the title works. And let me tell you why. There’s something important that you need to know to understand this story of Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead. It’s about the basic way people in Jesus’ time organized their world. If you’ve read the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you notice that there are a lot of rules for living. Not just for praying or worshipping God. But for the day-to-day stuff. Eating. Drinking. Paying taxes. Marrying. Menstruating. Leviticus and Deuteronomy lay out a lot of detail, and sometimes they contradict one another. But at their core, all those rules are attempting to sort reality into two categories: the clean and the unclean. If you look at those rules, some of them make sense. Or, at least, you can understand how they got started and maybe also why they continued. If you see somebody with open sores on their body, you’re probably going to avoid them, right? And if you get food poisoning you avoid that food the next time you eat at the same restaurant. Maybe some early Bronze Ager got ill from eating pork, and convinced other people to join him. Who knows how those things got started? The point is: the faithful believed that those rules were laid down by God, and so they acted accordingly. They avoided pork. They kicked the lepers out of town. They made women seclude themselves in shame once a month. It was all so neat and tidy. Until Jesus put his hands where they didn’t belong.
I could just as easily titled this talk “Death, Interrupted,” because that’s also what happens here. In the Gospels, so much of Jesus’ ministry happens while he’s on his way to somewhere else. Think about that the next time you get lost with our local road construction. Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd, apparently, travel together to a town called Nain. Why they’re there, we have no idea. But that’s not as important as what they find there. They come across a difficult scene. They come across a funeral procession. Each of us here probably has been to enough funerals to know that some are more difficult than others. Some are even joyful, or at least, full of gratitude and relief. But others are just excruciating. Plain and simple. This is that funeral. The death of a child. The worst. The absolute worst. I want to acknowledge that some of us here know that pain. It is an intense scene for Jesus and his disciples and the crowd to walk into town and to come across this kind of funeral procession. And it’s made worse because there’s only one surviving parent. And in those days, to be a widow and to lose your only son, not only meant tremendous grief, but the loss of your livelihood. For the rest of your life, you would be dependent on the charity of others. Talk about unclean! This woman has lost just about everything. Until Jesus places his hands on her dead son.
But before he does that, he sees her. Jesus really sees her. Sometimes grief is so raw that the many walls we build up to protect us from the world come tumbling down. It doesn’t surprise me that something about this woman moves Jesus. Luke tells us he has compassion for her, which is one of the greatest words of all time. In biblical Greek, the word for compassion is splagchnizomai [splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee]. Even saying it is fun! It means a movement of your inner parts. So the kind of compassion Jesus has for the widow is not a compassion coming from the mind, or, for that matter, from the heart. It is a compassion coming straight from the guts. Look at us! We’ve come full circle with my dog story. So Jesus feels in his intestines a compassion for this widow. And he decides to make himself unclean.
He approaches the platform where this young man has been lain. We use coffins now, but for many centuries, people used biers to lay out their dead loved ones. Not that kind of beer. B-I-E-R. Anyway, Jesus approaches the young man and does exactly what you are not supposed to do. He touches the platform, the bier. At this point, the people holding the bier are freaked out. This is just not something you do. Imagine it. If you’re not supposed to eat animals that chew cud, you can imagine that touching a dead man that you didn’t really need to touch is a hundred times worse. Right? Right. It is. What Jesus does makes him impure. In one fell swift, he moves from the “clean” category to the “unclean.” He needs to get himself a basin of water, lickety-split. But he doesn’t. Instead, he touches the platform which holds the body of a precious son, and says: Rise. “’Young man, I say to you, rise!” And the young man does rise. He rises, and Jesus hands him back to his mother.
If only every child could be returned to their mother and father. If only every person who died before their time was restored to life. I don’t know about you, but I can’t raise people from the dead. Jesus is the only person I know capable of that. But I am capable of noticing where Jesus’ hands have been lately. And they still don’t look clean.
It’s so easy to roll your eyes at the rules of a bygone era. How silly they seem, how hilariously pointless. But if we think we’re past clean and unclean, honey. We’ve got another think comin’. We like our binaries just as much. Because our country has put up the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. Good people have let it happen. Black and white, which are entirely made up categories for human beings, wound and scar and make widows of folk every single day. It’s easy to go to war if we don’t know the other side. And as far as I can tell, war goes down easier if we think the other side is unclean or fatally flawed. Go to any middle school, and ask any kid there if they can help you discern the clean from the unclean, the popular from the unpopular. Ask any girl what she hates about her body. More chilling yet: Ask any grown woman. Clean and unclean. It’s so deep inside of us. It divides us from one another. It creates such tremendous shame that rolls and roils inside our inward parts. And it alienates us from God, who, above all else, would like to see us rise.
So I ask you: Where have your hands been? Just where have your hands been, missy? Because Jesus’ hands, even now, are working for life in the un-cleanest of places. They’re touching issues that nobody wants to see. They’re in the slums and the board rooms. They’re in Chicago and Syria. And if we want to follow Jesus, we might just have to get our hands dirty. We might have to touch death. The death of a loved one. We might have touch the sadness, pain, anxiety, grief that’s in here. If we want a different life, we have to touch that pain. If we want a different world, we have to get our hands dirty. We might come down with a bad case of holy indigestion. But it might be worth it. Not because it’s always fun. But because it’s what Jesus did, and does still. After all, if you think too much about where that mouth has been, you never get kissed. By a dog or by anything else. Despite all those pictures that show Jesus looking spic and span, Jesus’ hands were never clean. They were never pure. They were always dirty. They were probably scratched, and they touched things that would cause a shiver to run down your spine. But if you want, Jesus’ hands can find your piece of death. If you want, his mouth can comfort you with sweet words, “Do not weep.” And if you want, he can say to you, again and again, however many times you need to hear it: Rise. I say to you: Rise. Amen.
 There’s much debate about the extent to which such rules were followed in the ancient world. Regardless, the underlying point remains true. Maintaining purity was an essential building block of ancient Jewish practice and theology.