Sermon for Third Pentecost
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
We are all going to die, 100% of us.
That sobering statement is hardly news to you or me or anyone. And, yet, it is no easier to accept or understand. At some point, hopefully not soon, but at some point, we are all going to die.
Perhaps we will be like Andy Rooney or Morley Safer from 60 Minutes and work well into our 80’s, have a fond 60 Minutes television farewell and tribute and die the next week!
More likely, our deaths will be quiet and, hopefully, peaceful. With luck we will be surrounded by family and friends and love.
But, surrounded or not, peaceful or not, we will all die.
From what I am told, a New Orleans jazz funeral is an experience like no other. The brass band begins its solemn procession at the church, playing hymns like "Free as a Bird" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee". There is no improvisation, no frills. The is nothing but sadness blown low and blue to the beat of a muted snare drum.
Once the procession arrives at the cemetery, after the final words are spoken and the body is lowered into the ground, the mood shifts. Brightly festooned umbrellas burst open, the snare drummer removes his mute, and the funeral procession heads back into town to the raucous strains of "Didn't He Ramble?" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Folks who watched the funeral procession go by and heard the somber hymns earlier in the day now wait for the procession's return. They know a celebration's coming and no one in New Orleans wants to miss a jazz funeral celebration.
In today’s Gospel lesson this Third Sunday after Pentecost, a funeral procession has left a widow's home in the town of Nain. The widow’s son's body is being carried to burial. This woman was not planning for a Jazz funeral type of celebration. No one was. Her only child was dead. What appears to be her last living male relative is now gone. Not only was she without the consolation of family, she was also likely without any means of support. Gross poverty awaits her. There was no expectation, no hope of celebration for the woman or the entourage that followed her. They mourned, they wailed. As they made their slow way to the cemetery outside of town, the wailing of the mourners pierced the daytime din of village life.
As it emerges from the city gate, the funeral procession meets another entourage entering the city. A man leaves that crowd and approaches the mother. He looks at her and says, "Do not weep." (Think for a moment about how ridiculous that must have sounded to this woman – Her only son is dead, she is heading into abject poverty and this man, this stranger tells her, “Do not weep!”
And then, if the crowd hadn't hushed before that, it sure does when the man touches the funeral bier on which the woman's son lies. And then this man, this stranger, bids the dead man rise. And he does! The text does not say so, but I'm guessing that more than one or two jaws dropped.
Once the shock wears off, though, just like the close of a jazz funeral, the umbrellas burst open, the mutes fall away, the horns start blowing, and the celebration begins. They cut loose with some singing, "A great prophet has risen among us!" they sing. "God has looked favorably on God's people!"
Participants in jazz funerals expect the afternoon celebration after hearing the morning's dirge. But this mother - and certainly not her son – I am certain that no one in that crowd of mourners in Nain could have imagined that by day's end their funeral procession would become a street party. But it did.
Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke. A woman approaches him at a dinner party and pours perfume on his feet. Another woman battles through a crowd to touch the hem of his garment. Just before today's story, in last week’s Gospel lesson, a centurion sends word through his friends that his servant is ill. "Just give the word," the man says, "and I know he'll be healed." Jesus praises all three people and attributes their healing to their faith.
But the woman in today's story? She doesn't ask Jesus to raise her son. She doesn't fall on her knees and beg for her son's life. All she does is cry.
Of course, maybe the reason she does not ask Jesus for a resurrection is not from a lack of faith. Maybe she just thinks that it is too late. Her son is dead. But if that's the case, why doesn't she at least say "thank you?" Or if she did say "thank you," why doesn't the gospel writer record her response? Or the woman's son’s response. When the formerly dead man sits up on the bier, the gospel writer says that he begins to speak. But if one of the things he said was "Thank you," we don't have a record of it. It could be that mother and son joined in the celebration with the rest of the crowd. More than likely they did. But why didn't the gospel writer tell us that? In other stories in Luke, people's healing is attributed to their faith. Or if the healing happens without a request for it - like the bent-over woman a few chapters later - they at least say thank you or begin praising God.
But in today's story there is no word about faith. Not one word about gratitude or praise. Just a mother's tears before the raising and a son's random talking after it.
So, maybe this story is not about faith. Maybe it is not about gratitude. Maybe this story is about grace - pure, unadulterated, undiluted, unbidden, unearned, un-asked-for grace. Grace – God’s unexpected, undeserved continued love for each of us.
This raising does not happen because of a mother's faith or her son's worthiness. It happens because Jesus has compassion for her. Period. The mother did not have to act faithfully. The son did not have to live gratefully. This raising happens just because Jesus has compassion for this widow. Just because of God’s grace, God’s love for them and us all.
It could be that both mother and son were faithful and grateful. But my point is that the point of this story is not the mother and her son. The point of this story is Jesus' compassion. The point is that when grace comes into our lives, it requires nothing of us but a choice: to receive it or not. The point is, just like in a jazz funeral, the point is always to be packing our party clothes because, with Jesus, you never know when a funeral procession just might turn into a street celebration.
And that, my friends, is the answer to death for us Christians. 100% of us will die, that is for certain. But also for certain is God’s continued love for us, a love that begins in this life and continues into that great unknown of the next life. Death is waiting for each of us. But, so is a new life, a celebration if you will, of eternal life with God.
And not because we have earned it, but just because God loves us.
Just because God loves us today, tomorrow, all days, even into our earthly death and heavenly life.
(The jazz funeral story in this sermon come from a sermon originally preached by the Rev. Dr. Kimberleigh Buchanan on the “Day1” radio ministry).
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Death, Grace and New Life
Sermon for Third Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
June 5, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California