A number of years ago at a clergy conference, the ones leading our gathering lined us all up as part of an icebreaker. They asked questions like this: If you prefer vanilla ice-cream step forward, if you prefer chocolate ice-cream step back. We moved and looked around to see who shared the same proclivities as us. We lined back up and our facilitators continued. Do you prefer winter or summer? Books or movies? Weddings or funerals?
About 90% of us stepped back on that one, preferring funerals over weddings. Now we clergy have a different perspective than most when it comes to this since we preside at both liturgies. Weddings can become fraught with all the minute details—flowers and DJs and rings, oh my! The couples tend to focus on the reception and getting ready for the big day and not as much on getting ready for their marriage. Funerals, while very difficult and filled with grief, offer a chance to offer pastoral comfort and guidance. Preparing the service, sharing stories, crying and praying together, all of these provide an opportunity for the compassion and care and love of Jesus to be shown. We can focus on the hope we have in Christ, the centrality of the resurrection to our faith. All funeral liturgies are Easter liturgies; even at the grave, we proclaim our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! And besides, there are usually no bridezillas at funerals.
But if you had asked me if I’d prefer a wedding over the burial of a son or daughter, well that would be another thing altogether. I once received a phone call from a good friend who’s also a priest. She had a close family friend whose son had died unexpectedly as a result of depression, leaving behind his own young son. He and his wife had encountered many difficulties and had separated, and this man’s mom wanted a church burial. He resided not too far from my parish in Colorado, and I met with his mom who flew in from New Jersey to plan his funeral. His death devastated her.
Jesus happens upon a funeral procession this morning. He and his followers have just come from Capernaum where Jesus had healed the centurion’s servant. They’ve made their way to the town of Nain coming up on the city gates when the cortege solemnly processed out of town toward the cemetery. Rather than waiting respectfully as they pass, Jesus took one look at the mother who’d lost her son and had compassion.
He came into the procession, causing it to stop. Looking at the woman who had already buried a husband, he quietly said, “Do not weep.” He walked over to the bier, touching it. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The man suddenly sat up and began speaking. Jesus helped him stand and gave his hand to his mother. We do not read it, but I can assure you that sobs of joy erupted from that mother. You can only imagine the feasting and uncontainable joy that followed that evening and into the days ahead. Her son was dead, but now he was alive again.
While the miracle happens to the son, our story’s focus isn’t on him; it’s on his mother. You see, she’s lost everything. Women had no standing in that day, depending entirely upon men for their well-being. When her husband died, the property and the entirety of the estate would have gone to their only son. He would then provide for his mother throughout the rest of her life. With his untimely death, the inheritance would pass not to her, but to the closest male relative, even if he were a cousin twice removed.
She would have become destitute, pushed out to the fringes of society barely able to fend for herself. When Jesus says to her, “Do not weep,” it’s for much more than the death of her son. It’s for her powerlessness, the fret and worry, the real possibility of becoming an outcast. “Do not weep,” he says with such tenderness to her before handing her life back to her.
What Jesus does would have been unimaginable in that day. Jesus, a stranger, touches the body. The Torah — the law—is clear about this situation: “Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days. They shall purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean; but if they do not purify themselves on the third day and on the seventh day, they will not become clean. All who touch a corpse, the body of a human being who has died, and do not purify themselves, defile the tabernacle of the Lord; such persons shall be cut off from Israel.” Additionally, anyone who physically came into contact with Jesus after that point and until he had been purified would themselves become unclean until the evening of when they touched one another—even if it had been accidental.
Jesus doesn’t worry about any of that. Ritual defilement doesn’t enter into the equation at all. With his touch, the man is raised. With his touch, the mother’s life is changed forever.
It can be easy to hear this story and remember all of our own past losses. My own mother died 10 years ago this week, and the grief has been harder marking this first decade than in previous years. I also know that death is not the only loss we experience. Divorce, debilitating illness, unemployment, shattering of trust, substance abuse, violence, anxiety. Those losses can consume us as we go out to bury the way life had been.
And it’s easy to become a bit envious. We want Jesus to be by the roadside of our processions too, to stop the whole affair and look at us with compassion and restore all that had been lost. To make things go back to the way they were.
Perhaps we get so consumed in our grief that we forget to look up. Perhaps we never look to see if Jesus stands nearby. It’s far too easy to let the grief overwhelm us so that we make ourselves to be unclean, untouchable, pushing ourselves out to the margins of life. We think our circumstances fall outside the realm of Jesus’ restorative and healing touch.
I do not know what deep hurts you’ve encountered along the way, but I do know that Jesus wants to touch you, to touch me, no matter how unclean we might feel or no matter how dead the situation seems in our lives. God is in the redemption business, taking what was dead and making it something new. Bringing about life in the midst of our greatest loss. Do not weep. Allow Jesus to touch the corpses of your life. Allow him to hand you something new.
Today we’re welcoming a new little one into the body of Christ. Phillip joins us as we journey in this life, seeking as best we can to follow the risen Lord. For those of us who are parents we want the best for our children. Dare I say it, we want things to be perfect. I would give an arm or a leg, even my life, if it meant that my kids wouldn’t have to endure pain and loss. As water gets poured on this child today—like it did when our own children came to the font, our prayers of sustenance and joy and wholeness for the journey rain down as well.
But we also know that loss figures prominently into this life. None of us escapes it. And so ours words to Phillip today need also to be these: We will walk with you in this beautiful and awe-inspiring and frightening and glorious thing called life. Some days will be harder than others. Some days will be more beautiful than others. Know that in whatever day you find yourself, Jesus looks at you and exudes compassion. Jesus doesn’t just stand at the side of the road waiting for you to pass by on you way, he comes over to share in all that you experience. In all those encounters, Jesus’ touch brings redemption. He brings new life to those moments. He brings new life to you.
When you forget this—and unfortunately you will—we’ll be here to remind you—and ourselves—of that new life. We remember in sharing the bread and the cup. We remember when water fills that baptismal font and we touch drops of it to our foreheads as we make the sign of the cross. We remember that we do not travel alone, for the one that we serve walks with us, and we all walk with him and each other.
On those days when you feel overwhelmed, do not weep. Do not be afraid. For the Lord of life is nearby, and his touch brings healing and grace and redemption. And when this happens, you’ll be transfixed and utterly amazed by the deep and abiding compassion of our God, for God has looked favorably upon us. May this day and all our days be filled with signs of Jesus’ abiding love for each one of us, and may he bring new life to us all. Amen.