Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said the only two things certain in life are “death and taxes”. There’s something about of both those which invoke a peculiar kind of dread inside each one of us. It’s called “fear”. We fear death; the unknown, the pain of suffering, the loss of family and friends. Death is a fear laden experience. Despite our belief (or disbelief if God’s not your cup of Lipton) in an afterlife, the certainty of death brings uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to fear.
In a culture built on the exchange of money, the idea of giving what little economic resources we have to a faceless bureaucracy is also frightening. Will we get our money back when we need food, medical care, and clothing? When the bill comes and the deductions are calculated, will we owe more than we possess? It’s one thing to owe a few hundred bucks to a department store; it’s another thing to owe people who have drones and the authority to place American citizens on kill lists. Franklin opens up far more than a discussion about certainty. He’s gotten to the heart of modern life. How do we live with fear? Christians, our question is a little more specific: how do we follow Jesus in an age of fear?
Jesus interrupts fear’s ability to walk through our lives. One of my favorite country songs is Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”. I’m sure you’ve heard it before.
“Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots, and ruined your black tie affair. I was the last one to know, the last one to show, I was the last one you thought you’d see there. I saw the surprise and the fear in his eyes when I took his glass of champagne. And I toasted you, said honey we may through, but you’ll never hear me complain; because I got friends in low places.”
That’s what happens today’s reading from the 7th chapter of Luke. Fear is having a black tie death party. The last person they expected to see there was Jesus of Nazareth. You can imagine the fear and uncertainty in their eyes when they realized, their carefully orchestrated and sanctimoniously approved ritual of death was about to interrupted by Jesus and his friends in low places.
Jesus is in a city, a fishing village, a mining town, a carpentry capital, anywheresville Israel, called Nain. God is on the loose. The old religious boundaries, the city limits we’ve established as to where God can and cannot work, are disappearing with every step Jesus takes. If Jesus is in Nain, he is liable to be anywhere.
Jesus is coming into the town, via the main road. Coming straight toward them is another procession. Remember, Jesus comes with his own procession. He’s got a crowd with him by this time. People want to be a part of the Jesus movement. Envision with me, two processions, headed straight toward each, like two trains on a single track bound for an inevitable collision. One is a party of fear and death. Luke tells us a large crowd from the city accompanying a mother and the body of her recently deceased son. The other is a friends in low places group of disciples and Jesus followers who are prepared to interrupt death and short circuit fear’s party train from Nain. Who is going to win? Who do you want to win? Do you really believe fear and death can be interrupted?
When they finally met, when the two groups; fear and hope collided, what did Jesus say to the woman who had lost her son? The first thing Luke tells us is: Jesus had compassion for this mother. We short circuit fear in our own lives and the lives of others by having compassion for other people. I will be the first to admit, this is not rocket science. Yet it is 100% Jesus Christ. For reasons ranging from its simplicity, to its beauty, we refuse to do it. Maybe some people are just mean. Who knows?
Jesus also speaks to the mother. He says, “Don’t weep.” Is he telling her to bottle up her emotions and deal with her fear and grief like a Roman Stoic or a Greek Cynic? The tears are signs of her fear and sadness. Again, we become too invested in a black tie, champagne parties of sorrow, fear, and death. We think nothing can challenge fear’s grip on our lives. Jesus is saying, “Don’t get too invested in death and fear. I’m going to break the hold and interrupt your death party.” Remember Forrest Gump right after he spoke at the Washington Monument. Jenny took Forrest to a meeting of the Black Panthers. Things got out hand and Forrest had to leave. Forrest says, “I’m sorry for interrupting your Black Panther Party.” Jesus is saying, “I’m not sorry for interrupting your death and fear party”.
In the end, Jesus asks the son to, “Get up”. Like an electrician breaking the flow of current, he throws the switch in another direction and death is short circuited. In a touching conclusion to the story, Luke adds that Jesus gave the boy to his mother. From where he once was, he had now been returned. He was lost, now he was found. That calls for a fatted calf killing party. The death inertia of the world was turned upside down, on its head, and Jesus is saying the order of things is now different; forever.
Jesus provides a means for living in a fearful world, understanding fear, and listening to the fears of others. Most of the stories in our world today, the narratives which dominate our lives are fear driven. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s a pretty crummy way to live. It’s easy to live with fear. Fear asks very little of you. For fear to thrive it only needs you to spread more fear. It’s easy. You can do that with an email, phone call, or misplaced word. Hope is hard work.
Jesus offers an alternative way to tell your story and live your life that’s not fear driven. We short circuit fear with compassion. We defeat death’s hold our lives when we show up at fear’s fancy parties with Jesus and his friends in low places.