“I Say to You, “Rise!””

Believe it or not, pastors who happen to be married to each other don’t always talk about theology. These days my conversations with my spouse, Jen, are more likely to center around schedules, meals, screen time, and, of course, what it takes to promote pooping in the potty. Not that these subjects can’t be considered theological in their own rite. But, this week, I was remembering a talk we once had about Easter. “What do you think about the resurrection?” she asked me. “Do you believe that Jesus was really, physically, raised from the dead?”

“Yes”, I replied, “absolutely!” I think I said something like, “I know it’s not fashionable but I need to believe in the bodily resurrection—we are our bodies—and what good is resurrection if it isn’t something we experience in the flesh?” This exchange occurred years ago. I find that there are more gray areas in my theology of resurrection, and my theology in general now. More uncertainty, more doubt, more mystery. I am more puzzled than I used to be about God’s role in our lives and in the world. I don’t buy the idea that resurrection is a moment when God intervenes and randomly suspends the laws of nature. I prefer to think of resurrection as a divine force that is embedded in the very fabric of reality that is at work in all times and places. But if this is the case, why is it that sickness and death, suffering and evil, are also so present to us, so very real?

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus happened upon a funeral procession. Jewish law dictates that burials must occur within 24 hours of a death, so the grief of the woman who had lost her son would have been fresh. In her state of shock, did she even notice Jesus approach? Jesus, however, saw her. He didn’t observe her as a detached spectator. He took in the agony of her grief in a way that bound them relationship. He saw her in this personal way and something happened in his gut. The text simply says, “He had compassion for her.” E. Louise Williams explains that

The Greek for the word that Luke chooses [for compassion]… suggests a churning of the entrails or a turning of the womb…. In Hebrew, compassion and womb are even more clearly from the same root. We might say that compassion is womb love. In one sense it is seeing another as a sibling, as one born from the same womb.[1]

Jesus felt the woman’s grief, her despair, in his digestive system. His insides twisted. Metaphorically speaking, his womb turned with compassion. Perhaps this is one text that informed the great saint of the church, Julian of Norwich, who imagined Jesus to be the mother of humanity. Her visions describe a Jesus whose womb bears us through pain and death and births us into a new life.

Joshua Dubois was President Obama’s spiritual advisor during his first term in office. In his book called The President’s Devotional, Dubois tells about visiting Newtown, CT, with the President. He writes:

We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of. The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, “The president will be here soon.” A few were visibly angry—so understandable that it barely needs to be said—and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence. I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation…. The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget. Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son… Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter.”

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss…. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer. The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.[2]

I see President Obama’s gift of his full presence to the pain of the families of Newtown as a truly presidential act. It was a moment of extraordinary power—though not power in a conventional sense. Today’s Gospel story marks the first time in Luke that Jesus is given the title “Lord.” In so doing, Luke turns cultural notions of authority upside down and inside out. Gut-centered, womb-like compassion: this is what makes Jesus Lord and this is the source of the resurrection power he brings into the world.

Compassion—as Jesus models it—is not a placid experience. It is turmoil, and agitation. It is visceral discomfort that urges us toward change and transformation, a strong voice that unsettles us with its challenge, “I say to you, rise!” Pastor Debbie Blue writes:

Jesus doesn’t just take the widow’s needs seriously; he takes them into the core of his being and makes her pain his own. It’s not the kind of activity that makes for a smooth running machine…. Brueggeman calls it a radical threat to the numbness maintained by the dominant order (The Prophetic Imagination)…. Compassion isn’t formulaic or predictable or tidy or even rational—yet it is perhaps the only thing that can save us.[3]

Compassion is an agitational force in our own hearts and the heart of the world, as a meeting with ISAIAH clergy this past week reminded me. We dreamed about an inclusive Minnesota built on racial and economic equity. This dream is a big one: it calls for new realities such as single-payer healthcare, an educational system that works for all children, a living wage and clean energy for everyone. There are smaller building blocks that will help us get there: a statewide law mandating paid sick time for workers, paid family leave, alternatives to payday lending, driver’s licenses for immigrants, new financing options for community solar not based on credit scores or income…to name a few things. The discussion at the meeting, about the urgency of using our time well, was challenging—even irritating. Some guts were churning and some tears were flowing. Am I focused on the priority of working with God to create a different world in the ways that I lead? Do I simply make small talk, avoiding confrontation? Or do I take the opportunities I have to provoke transformation, to welcome resurrection, in myself and others?

I don’t remember all the twists and turns of that conversation, years ago, about resurrection. What I do recall is the feeling in my gut, the “yes” that reverberated in me. While my thinking has changed, my sense of conviction has not. I am less attached to the notion of resurrection as a bodily resuscitation, but I still trust that resurrection is real, and that it is an embodied reality. Honestly, I don’t know what resurrection is, except that it is a divine power born of compassion, born of the womb of Jesus, our mother. As the poet Denise Levertov says: I thought I was growing wings—/it was a cocoon./I thought, now is the time to step/into the fire—/it was deep water.” We only get glimpses and hints—a gut feeling we can’t explain—yet: the last things are actually the “First Things.” Death is, ultimately, the path that leads to life.


[1] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-05/sunday-june-9-2013


[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/26/the-presidents devotional_n_4158485.html


[3] http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-06/blogging-toward-sunday#comment-form