When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: I really wanted to be a pilot. I was convinced that I was going to go to one of the service academies and then I was going to learn to fly. My bedroom had pictures of airplanes on the walls, and I even was a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I knew that flying was going to be my life.
But one day, when I was about 12, I went to the eye doctor. And he was asking me about school and what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pilot. And he immediately said, “But you can’t be a pilot…you don’t have 20/20 eyesight!”
I was heartbroken. It sounds so trivial now, but at age 12, I really thought my life was over. And in a way, it was…not my actual life, but the life that I had always seen myself living.
Today’s reading from the Gospel is about something more serious. It’s about a young man whose life, to everyone who knew him, literally seemed to be over. He is walking into a town and he runs into a funeral procession. A young man has died, and he’s being carried out of town.
And the man’s mother, who is also a widow, is weeping. And Jesus sees her and he says “don’t cry”. He goes and touches the platform they are carrying the body on and he says “young man, I say to you, rise”. And the man sat up, and started to talk.
Scripture says the crowd was “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I saw that at a funeral I’d probably be a little afraid too. But then, when the shock wore off, they all began to praise God and to understand who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing. And slowly the news about Jesus began to spread.
The Christian faith is centered around the concept of resurrection. It’s why Easter is the most important day of the church year for Christians. Jesus himself defeats the grave, and lives again. And we tend to think that resurrection is something that happened only to Jesus.
But then there are stories like this, where resurrection happens to someone else. It’s still because of Jesus, but it’s not Jesus. And someone whose life was over, rises again. There are a few examples of this in Scripture, where Jesus brings new life where it seemed like there was no hope.
But the really good news for you and I is that resurrection doesn’t have to be so dramatic or literal as someone rising again from the dead. Most often, resurrection happens when we think that there is no hope. It happens when we feel like our lives are over. It happens when we think, “I’m as good as dead”.
But this is such a huge part of what it means to know Christ. It means that when our life feels like it’s over, God’s love and grace somehow get the last word, and we find that we somehow live again.
Sometimes that’s in small ways. I told you that story about how I wanted to be a pilot as a kid and one eye exam crushed those dreams. I look back now, and am thankful that’s not the route I took. It’s clear that, though my 12 year old self thought my life was over, God had other plans. And, frankly, better plans.
(And, to tell you the truth, now as an adult I don’t really like flying. I hate running into turbulence on a airliner, so being a military pilot probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.)
But there are more serious examples of resurrection too. When I lived in Nashville I learned about a ministry founded by an Episcopal priest there. They reached out to women who had been sex workers. Some had begun to be trafficked when they were only 11, 12, or 13 years old. They had known unspeakable violence, dehumanization and abuse, and many had turned to alcohol or drugs as the only way to deal with that trauma. Some had as many as ninety arrests. Most had come to believe that there was no other life they could live, and there was no hope.
But this priest said to them “there’s a way out. There was no judgement, no condemnation. Just hope. And the women moved into community together, and they got sober, and then they started working together on building a business called Thistle Farms. They made candles, bath soaps, lotions, and more. And they were able to learn a new way to support themselves, and to give back to the other women in the community. And the program has something like a 90% success rate, which is unheard of in recovery programs.
In the eyes of society, in the eyes of everyone who saw them, even in their own eyes, these women were as good as dead. And yet, what has happened to them is nothing short of a resurrection. What has happened to them is what happens when Jesus says “rise”, and you can do no other.
Maybe you’re hearing this story and you’re thinking “that’s pretty incredible, but my life isn’t that dramatic”. And maybe you’re also thinking one of two things: first, that you don’t have any need for resurrection. Or, second, that you do but for whatever reason resurrection can’t happen to you.
To the first point, I’m convinced that at some point in all of our lives we will need resurrection. Whether it’s fighting back from being sick, or getting out of a relationship that’s not good for us, or climbing back after losing a job or a business, or living again after grief, or recovering from addiction, or just finding hope when it feels like we are as good as dead…we will all need resurrection at some point. And if you haven’t needed it yet, or if you’re not needing it now, I hope you never will. But my guess is that at some level, at some point, we all do.
And the second issue is that you might think it can’t happen to you. You might look around and see other people climbing back from something. You might think that things change for them, but not for you. And you might think that you are too far gone to deserve the grace and the hope that others are receiving.
But grace and hope come regardless of whether or not we deserve them. They come because God loves us, and because God is capable of bringing resurrection to us no matter what. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing that resurrection when it comes.
Sometimes that’s hard to do. When the young man first sits back up, Scripture tells us that the people all around him are “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I went to a funeral and the guy I was there to remember sat back up I’d probably be seized with fear too. But then they realize what happened and who did it and slowly they begin to glorify God, and to tell everyone that they know.
When resurrection happens in our own lives, it’s often less dramatic than a guy sitting up at his own funeral. But that doesn’t mean that it scares us any less. It’s pretty easy to be “seized with fear” when we suddenly see signs of new life.
Maybe that’s happened to you too. Maybe you have seen something start to turn around, and it has scared you to death. Maybe you weren’t expecting it, and now that things are changing it means that you actually have to respond and get involved and get excited. And maybe you have found that resurrection is sometimes both wonderful and highly inconvenient.
A friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV in the “bad old days” when anyone who was given that diagnosis was not expected to survive for long. And so he did what a lot of others he knew were doing at the time: he prepared to die. He quit his job, moved away, spent all his money, drank heavily, and got ready for the end. He didn’t think it would take long.
But then something happened. His doctor had him try out a mix of new medications. It was called a cocktail. And he started to get better. He still had the virus, but he was not as sick. And then he started to get to a place where it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And then the virus became virtually undetectable.
He realized he was going to live. Resurrection was happening. But almost in the same breath he realized that that meant he had change the way he was living. He’d been so busy preparing for death that now he had to go back out and get a job, and save some money, and stop drinking, and start making plans for what was now clearly a long future. And it terrified him. He was “seized with fear”. But slowly, with God’s grace, he started to rebuild. And he worked to create his own resurrection. And I look at his life now, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s as though Jesus has been standing there, saying “rise”, and he could do no other.
When resurrection comes to you, my guess is that at first it will look mighty inconvenient. And it is. Because you haven’t been expecting it. And you might be “seized with fear”. That’s okay. Feel the fear, and then participate in your own resurrection, building something new with God. You may have thought your life was over, that you were as good as dead, but God has other plans.
They might surprise you, or frustrate you, or throw everything you expected off, but in the end, you may find yourself praising God’s love and grace in ways you never expected. Resurrection is real. I know, because I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it. And it’s frightening. And it changes everything. But it is always worth it. Always.
Jesus once said, and he says to us still: Rise. Amen.