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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sermon: The Tale of Two Crowds

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Luke 7:11-17

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair..."

So begins Charles Dickens' classic, A Tale of Two Cities providing for us a vivid portrayal of contrasts. In his novel, Dickens goes on to compare and contrast living conditions in London and Paris during the second half of the eighteenth century. In both places, life was very good for some but very bad for others. The contrasts were striking.

In the seventh chapter of Luke's Gospel, we find another study in contrasts. Here we discover a "tale of two crowds" who have come from two cities, Capernaum and Nain.

Luke 7:1-10 (prior to our gospel reading for today) tells the story of Jesus healing the centurion's slave, an event which created much excitement; so much so that when Jesus traveled from Capernaum to Nain, a large crowd went with him.

As Jesus and his exuberant crowd approach the city limits, they meet another crowd heading in the opposite direction, figuratively and literally. But unlike Jesus' crowd, this crowd is sorrowful. They are slowly making their way out of the city to the cemetery to bury a widow's only son. In the meeting of these two crowds, we discover contrasts every bit as striking as those described for us in Dickens's novel, only with a twist.

First of all let's look at the crowd from Nain. We will call them the "funeral crowd." They are a picture of sadness and loss. They make their way to the outskirts of town bearing the body of one who had died. The man is described as "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow." This women's pain must have been great. Remember this was a man's world in which this woman lived; and having lost both her husband and her only son, she was left with no one to care for her. She was left in a particularly vulnerable position. Not only was this woman overcome by grief but also by helplessness and aloneness in the world. For this widow who had now lost her only boy, this was truly, to use the words of Dickens, "the worst of times...the season of darkness...the winter of despair..." Heartbroken, she leaves a trail of tears as she travels toward her son's grave, surrounded by people who could offer her neither comfort nor hope.

Now let us look at the other crowd who was on the road that day. We'll call them the "Joyous Crowd." The reason this crowd was joyous was because of Jesus. They had heard Jesus speak about the kingdom of God like no one they had ever heard before. They had seen him heal people and cast out demons. In fact, many of them were healed by Jesus and this was cause for much joy and excitement. This crowd perceived that Jesus was a prophet, at the very least, and some wondered if perhaps he could be the Messiah. Certainly he had touched their lives already, and they followed him joyfully. For them, this was "the best of times...the season of light...the spring of hope...." Faith filled their lives, they felt close to God, and life was good for this "Joyous crowd."

I think it is safe to say that neither crowd was prepared for what happened when the two groups met on the road that day. This meeting of contrasts would have a twist that none of them foresaw. No doubt the Joyous crowd began to make their way to the side of the road as they saw the funeral crowd approach. This was done out of respect (much as we do today), to let the funeral procession pass. Jesus, too, moved aside as expected. However when he saw the dead man's mother, his heart went out to her. He had compassion on her. He told her not to cry and then he touched her son’s bier (the stand or pallet on which the dead body lay). "Young man," he said, "get up." And he did! Not only did he sit up, but he began to talk. Then Jesus gave the young man back to his mother, turning her tears of sorrow into tears of gratitude and great joy.

Notice the reactions of the crowds. At first, there were fearful; but then fear gave way to excitement and praise. And so a funeral procession was transformed into a celebration of life, an affirmation of the greatness of God. Jesus, engaging the pain of the mourners, overcame the contrasts of life and death with the unexpected giving of life.

These two crowds represent the two most fundamental contrasts in human experience: Life and Death. The reality of this "Tale of Two Crowds," is that it is a tale of life which is a tale of life and death. Sometimes in our life we find ourselves in the funeral procession. This funeral procession is not limited to only the physical death of a loved one, but it includes the death of a relationship through divorce, the death of a friendship through a parting of ways, the death of an income with the loss of a job or the inability to work. We also may find ourselves in the funeral procession when part of us dies from rumors or lies that are told about us. Or when our children are involved in painful situations: divorce, abuse, alcoholism. Or if we, ourselves, have any kind of addiction we are in this funeral procession. Addiction is a continual funeral procession, because it gradually kills us and our relationships. These addictions that are included range from obvious: drugs, alcohol, extra-marital affairs, and sexual promiscuity. To not so obvious: addictions to work, power, or control, addictions to abusing or being abused, and addiction to the internet.

Yet there are times were we find ourselves in the joyous celebration of life; the birth of a child, the wedding of a friend or family member, or the celebration of a special anniversary of a long term relationship. Other joyous celebrations of life may be good health, good grades, good harvest, time spent with family, time spent with friends, and maybe nothing in particular just the celebration of the absence of the funeral procession.

The contrast of life and death are continually before us. A baby born without a brain. A young child hit by a drunken driver. A high school senior who is killed two weeks after graduation. A young man who, due to an incurable brain disease, is spending his last few days on this earth unconscious. The middle age father of four young children, stricken dead by a heart attack. The elderly person with Alzheimer's living out their days in some other world, as some other person. All this is contrasted by those bear healthy children, the children who are missed by the drunken driver, the many high school seniors who go on to college or a job, the many young people who go on to live productive lives, fathers who is able to watch and enjoy their children grow into adulthood, and elderly people who are able to remain fully alert and responsive until the very end of their life.

This life of ours is one of contrasts.
It is the best of times,
it is the worst of times...
it is the season of Light,
it is the season of Darkness,
it is the spring of hope,
it is the winter of despair...

Our life is one of continually having contrasts before us. But in this life of contrasts there is one twist. That twist is our God. Our God who came to live amongst his creation in the form of a human, Jesus. When Jesus came into this life of contrasts God added a twist. In this life we have the contrast of life and death, but in Jesus we meet the giver of life. This giver of life not only hangs around with the joyous crowd, but also at the same time Jesus hangs around with the funeral crowd. That is the twist, only Jesus can hold the contrasts together and hold us together in the contrasts. Otherwise we would be left to live with the contrasts. Not only does Jesus hold the contrasts together but Jesus transforms our funeral procession into a Joyous celebration of life.

When Jesus was on the earth he took on the contrasts of life and death, and he brought the contrasts of life and death together on the cross. And in the cross we see Almighty God the giver of all life, take that death on the cross and transform it to new life. We see God take the weakness of the cross and transform it to strength. We see God take the suffering of the cross and transform it to comfort. We see God take the pain of the cross and transform it to joy.

In the same way Jesus Christ transforms your life. Into your reality of life and death steps Jesus the giver of life. Jesus enters your funeral procession, whatever that may be for you, whether physical or emotional, whether addiction or hatred of self. Jesus sees your tears, you pain, your loneliness and Jesus has compassion on you. Jesus calls you by name and says, "This world is a crummy place and it will totally consume you. Get up, I have come to give you life. The life I give to you will still be a life of contrasts, you will still experience death, but you will survive. Yes, you will die, but the part that makes you, you will not die. Don't worry about your body, that is not what makes you, you. What makes you, you is on the inside, and with me right here beside you I will not let anyone take that from you. That is the part of you that will live eternally with me and my Father. Yes, there is more to life that what is before you. Yet in this life let us work together, let us work together to make the most out of this life. I am right here, you are not alone, call on me and we will work together."

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ, the one who gives us eternal life will also give us life as we live amidst the world's contrasts. We are not just left with a tale of contrasts, but in our contrasts we see one amazing God.

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