Vicar's Sermon - 5th June
Luke 7: 11-17
You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor of the sickness that destroys at noonday.
An accident? A long illness? Did it matter? When it came his death hit her hard. Her only son. This was not part of the plan. This was not how things should be. A son dying before his mother.
It had been hard enough when her husband, his father, had died, but at least they had each other to lean on. She was surrounded by people but had never felt so alone before. The crowd had gathered from around the village more out of habit than care: she hardly knew any of them. As was the custom his body had been washed and prepared for burial. Some of the younger men had already dug a grave. The service would take place there and then the long days of mourning would begin.
The words of the old funeral psalm washed over her. They were meant to comfort her but they seemed cruel:
Because you have made the Lord your refuge and the Most High your stronghold,
There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your tent.
It is hard to believe in God’s goodness at such a funeral.
Whenever clergy get together the conversation invariably ends up with them talking of funerals. Clearly we should get out more! I have a friend whose favourite story was of the hearse negotiating a roundabout in Cardiff. He was sat in the front of the hearse, next to the driver. As the car pulled out of the roundabout the rear door of the vehicle opened and….well, my guess is the story grew in the telling.
My first funeral visit sticks in the memory because, sat alongside Wilf’s widow in Thirsk, talking extra loudly because of her deafness, and trying to learn something of Wilf’s story from his nephew Simon, who was sat with us, it gradually dawned on me that the widow thought I was James Herriott, the vet, come to treat her black Labrador.
I once had a funeral that was interrupted. In Hereford we had reached the last hymn in church. There were only the words of the commendation and blessing to follow – so there was no room for manoeuvre, for extra prayers or some such, as the funeral director walked slowly towards me down the aisle of the church and whispered in my ear ‘The grave is in the wrong place’.
Outside the town of Nain two processions, two crowds came together on the only road. The one had set off from Capernaum with Jesus: excited, talkative, lively. Just the day before Jesus had performed a miracle that defied explanation: the centurion’s slave had been at death’s door and then, with just a word, he was well. There was so much to talk about, so many questions to ask about this healer and yet, as the procession came within view of the town it was suddenly clear that something was wrong. The talking became more subdued and then an awkward silence fell. Shhhh.
‘Do not weep.’
I will lift them up, because they know my name.
We are told, ‘When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.’ Did he know her situation? Had someone filled him in on just how precarious her life would be from this point on with no husband, no son to protect or provide for her? As a widow, she would be reliant on charity for the rest of her life. Did he need to know all this to feel compassion? Have you not found yourself welling up with tears at some news story on the TV? You don’t know the people involved, you don’t really know much of their story but something within your spirit reaches out to them? Compassion is one of humanity’s most extraordinary attributes: something we share with God it would appear.
Of course, we who have read this story many times know what I about to happen. Dr. Luke too, having done his research so, so thoroughly also knows where his story is taking us but for all his background checks Luke hasn’t been able to find us the name of the man on the bier. Jairus’ daughter is similarly hidden from us, we’re not told her name either. Lazarus however, in John’s Gospel emerges from the tomb and is remembered for all time. The young man today, as yesterday and the day before will forever be ‘the widow of Nain’s son’. A reminder perhaps that all of us find our identity in relation to others – No Man is an island – we are best remembered for our relationships but this young man’s identity will be newly forged by Jesus. His mother gave him life. Jesus brings him new life: or, to be precise, The Lord, brings him to life – for Luke, in a rare occurrence, doesn’t here refer to Jesus, or use the simple word ‘he’. No, Luke knows that it is the Lord who is here, lifting Jesus up from being just a teacher or even a prophet to give Him a title that even more fully associates His presence with the presence of God.
With long life will I satisfy them and show them my salvation.
And so it is the Lord who stops the bearers in their tracks and puts an end to this funeral: the young men will have to run on and fill in the grave: the funeral meal will become a celebration feast. It is the Lord who touches the bier – so much for ritual defilement- and confronts death head on. And it is the Lord who speaks words of life to the young man.
He speaks, and listening to his voice new life the dead receive.
There is no need for him to shout or make a show like his great predecessors Elijah and Elisha. Their story was part of the story of this part of Israel, woven into the fabric of life in this small town of Nain, and they too had both raised young men from death but they had done so with great pleadings and complaints to the Lord. Not so with Jesus. His compassion is enough. He steps forward out of the crowd, touches the bier and speaks.
It is remarkable how, early in the morning the words of the Today programme penetrate my deepest sleep. The alarm does not need to be set particularly high for John Humphrys or Mishal Hussein’s voice to pull me into life again. By the roadside ‘the Lord’ spoke and raised this man from the greater ‘sleep of death’. Understand, this is the Word that spoke at the beginning of creation, that said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. This is the creative word of God Himself speaking, calling us to rise.
‘Calling us’? Maybe we aren’t told the young man’s name because that would get in the way of us hearing this story as a story about ourselves. For the person on the bier is Alec. It is John. It is Kim. It is Joan. The person being carried by the bearers is you. For all their infinite variety, in the end our stories all end at the same place with a procession out of the land of the living to a grave or burial place set aside for us. Only two things in life are certain they say, ‘death and taxes’. Albeit that some work hard to avoid the latter, none escape the former….or so we used to think. And then we heard the voice of Jesus calling us. ‘Rise, come this way’. And centuries of Christian experience tell us that it is as we respond to His call that Life returns to us, that we are returned to the world for a purpose, given back to others to care for them and to sustain them.
The young man in the story is not asked to follow Jesus. He won’t be joining the crowd as they leave the town, marvelling at God’s presence with them. No. Jesus ‘gave him to his mother’. His vocation is to care for his mother. But you and I? What did He call us to? When we were raised by Him and given new life what did He hope for us? When people see our lives do they recognise God working within them?
Two processions met outside the town of Nain. One is going to the graveyard. The other is not. Which are you in?