Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
I’ve been thinking about death a fair bit lately. Having death on one’s mind is something of an occupational hazard for clergy; less so in a younger congregation such as ours, but it is still very much a part of my horizon.
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I’ve presided at two funerals in the past three weeks. A couple of weeks ago we buried Neil Holroyd; a man who had lived into his eightieth year, and who in spite of a serious lung condition had cut a fairly independent path right up till the day his tired body simply gave out. This past Friday I presided at the funeral for a much younger person; a friend who died at the age of 37 of HIV/AIDs related illness. Like Neil, there came a point when her tired body just couldn’t draw one more breath. Unlike Neil, her story was not one of independence, single-mindedness, and resilience. Her story was one marked by deep wounds, addiction, and dependence.
And I’ve been reading a book called My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman. Wiman is a poet, who rediscovered faith when he fell in love with his wife—his reflections on the connections between loving his wife and rediscovering a love of God are hugely insightful—but who for the past eight years has been living with a cancer he characterizes as both “incurable” and “unpredictable.” In the midst of his pain, the endless cancer treatments, and the challenge of having to contemplate his own death, Wiman keeps finding the presence of God. He writes of “God entering and understanding human suffering,” and of how “God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle,” adding: “But what a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.”
And so, as I read the story of the raising of the widow’s son in this evening’s Gospel, I have these other stories swirling in the background. Neil’s story of living very much his own life right up to the end; my friend’s story of a life riddled with wounds and addiction; and Christian Wiman’s story, in which he seems to have found a strange wisdom and consolation amidst the suffering; a “bright abyss,” in which Christ is tangibly present.
“As Jesus approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.” It is a funeral procession, from the town of Nain out to the burial site. There’s the dead man’s mother; a widow, now without any children. Not only has she lost what small family she had, she’s lost her means of survival. She’s not only emotionally bereft, in other words; she’s fated to impoverishment.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” But shouldn’t she weep? With this death she has lost everything. “Then Jesus came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still.” He touched the bier, which is itself a bold act under the purity codes of the torah, according to which touching a dead body made one unclean for a period of seven days (Num. 19:11). No wonder the bearers stood still; they were shocked that someone would come out of nowhere and risk ritual defilement. “And Jesus said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
The story rolls forward from there in a predictable fashion. “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ Word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.” And why wouldn’t it? Word of a man who can raise the dead, and give back to a widow her hope and her joy… that should get them talking. It is a sure sign that God is on the move—“a great prophet has risen”—which is the best news anyone has heard in a long, long time.
But I want to go back to that crucial phrase: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” It is the phrase that I find sticking in my throat right now; not because I don’t want to see this compassionate Jesus who stops a funeral procession in its tracks and sends them all dancing back home to convert the funeral reception into a celebratory feast. In fact, I love to see the compassionate, present, life-giving Jesus; I long for him to make his immediate presence known, particularly to those who most need him.
I wish Jesus had showed up in that tangible, death-defeating, life-giving way to my friend who died last week. She had been one of the kids I worked with at Marymound, and already by the age of fourteen she was struggling with addictions. It while she was at Marymound that she made the decision to be baptized, and around the same time she spent four weeks in an intensive addiction treatment centre. Time and again, she’d vow to do things differently, and time and again she’d end up falling. At some point, she just gave up fighting and surrendered to those awful soul-destroying cravings.
I remember sitting with her some fifteen years ago, out on the front steps of my house. It was at a time when she was really beginning to lose control over her addictions, and she turned to me and with great force and conviction said, “Jamie, no matter how bad things get in your life, never try doing crack. Never.” I must have looked a little surprised, because she then added, “I’m not kidding you, Jamie. Once you’ve had it, you will always want it. It doesn’t ever let you go.” It was, I think, her way of saying that though our two worlds overlapped, they were different worlds. It was her way of saying that though she respected and maybe even envied me the world in which I lived, she didn’t believe she could ever be a part of it. It was her way of saying that whatever else might happen in my world, I was never to imagine that there was any place for me in hers; that it wasn’t where she’d ever want to see me land. It was a most loving thing for her to say.
Larry, Steve, and I have a musician friend, whose life was similarly in the hold of brutal addictions, and who had reached a point where he was ready to just end it all. He was sitting in his car on one particularly desperate day, when Jesus showed up. As he tells it, it was that clear and vivid. Jesus showed up, and before you know it this guy was tracking down Steve and Larry to talk to them about this Jesus character. Now, a decade or so later he wouldn’t tell you that it all became suddenly easy, nor that life has been without its serious struggles and sorrows. But that day, Jesus reached out and touched the funeral bier that his car was about to become, and raised a man as good as dead.
I wish Jesus had done that for my friend. I know that you can say that in some real sense my presence in her life represented the presence of the living Christ; but I was, at best, a flawed and partial expression of Jesus. And in her own way, as we sat on the steps all those years ago and she warned me to never fall in to the self-medicating, soul-destroying path she’d followed, she was the voice of Jesus to me. I just wish that Jesus had showed up more tangibly, and touched the deadness of her life in a more immediately earth-shaking, life-transforming way.
Robert Farrar Capon writes that, “Jesus came to raise the dead,” and the gospels are with him on that one. “Not to improve the improvable,” Capon adds, “not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.” And then with his typical flair Capon adds, “Jesus never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there.” Here is where Capon gets even more outrageous, in his proclamation of what is really at work, through Christ, in the life of the world.
And he never meets us without bringing us out of nothing into the joy of his resurrection: you, me, the President of the United States, and poor old Arthur down by the docks with his pint of Muscatel in a brown paper bag. We are all dead. And he raises us all. And without so much as a by-your-leave. Just be a good corpse, and he does the rest. Because his Word is the word with the ultimate bark, and when he says ‘Arthur, come forth,’ that’s all old Arthur needs. His nothin’ aint’ nothin’ no more. (Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace)
I have to say I believe that that Capon is fundamentally right; we are all in our own way already numbered among the dead, and we will all quite literally die and descend to the grave. On this side of that grave, anything we can truly know of being raised in Christ is but a matter of faith. All I can do is trust Jesus; and entrust to him the unique life of Neil, the poetic struggling life of the writer Christian Wiman, and the broken life of my friend; maybe especially the broken life of my friend.
There is prayer in this tradition, said at the end of the funeral liturgy: “May her soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” To this, N.T. Wright has insisted we add one more phrase: “and rise in glory.” Though it sounds more elegant, perhaps, than Capon’s words, it is no less audacious a proclamation of grace and of hope. And so for my friend—and for all of us in our lostness and deadness—“may she rest in peace, and rise in glory.”