I was speaking recently with a Henrico County police officer about his job and he explained to me, much to my surprise, that one of the riskiest and least favorite parts of his job was escorting funeral processions. I’ve been in dozens of funeral processions before, but it had never occurred to me that from the police officers’ perspective they are complicated and dangerous to manage. There’s a lot of maneuvering and delicate choreography, if you will, that needs to happen between the different cars to pull one off. The worst part of escorting a funeral procession, he said, was managing the intersections. In order for a procession to move smoothly and continually through a stoplight or stopsign, the police have to position their own cars and lives against the flow of traffic. It’s not always a guarantee that the people coming in the perpendicular direction, or those getting to turn left against the line of cars, for example, will pay attention. That’s what this police officer found so risky. For it not to turn into a disaster, the police officer has to rely on other drivers’ alertness and other people’s compassion. It must be a bit frightening to be so vulnerable and in the midst of such confusion as the living make way for the dead.
This morning’s gospel text, there is an intersection and there is confusion, and the living have to suddenly make way for the dead. The scene unfolds at a major stoplight of the ancient world: the town gate. Each town and city in Jesus’ time would have had at least one gate. It was the breach in the protective city wall where traffic essentially bottlenecked. Commerce flowed in and out through the gate, and so often there was a lot of commotion due to trading and bartering going on. Certain people who were considered undesirable and unwelcome in the city often congregated at the city gate, looking for help. And likely, every day there would have been some sort of funeral procession through the gate since bodies would have been buried or entombed outside the city. Just as one of these funeral processions, with all of its accompanying drama of wailing and mourning, is making its way out of the city of Nain one day, Jesus and his entourage are approaching it. There’s no police officer to make sure these two groups don’t collide.
At this point it’s important to realize that there are really two dead people in this funeral procession. There is the son, who is lying on the bier, which would have been similar in function to a hearse. He has just died a physical death and is on his way to disappearing into the ground. The second dead person is his mother, and in many ways she is the one worse off. She is in the process of dying a social death and is disappearing into poverty and obscurity.
It is never easy to suffer the death of a spouse. It leaves a gaping hole that can never be filled. And in ancient times in Jesus’ culture it was especially difficult for women who survived their husbands. They had no property rights and if they had no male heir who agreed to care for them and bring them into their house, they were utterly vulnerable in society. Their existence was entirely dependent on hand-outs from others, and people tended to treat them pretty poorly, especially if they were of a younger age. In fact, the Hebrew word for “widow” was associated with the term “one who is silent” or “unable to speak.”
That tells us something about what kind of future this woman would be contemplating as she weeps over the death of her son. Without a family she’d have no community. Without a name she’d have no identity. And without an heir she’d have no future.
There at the gate they run into the other procession that is making its way into the town. This procession is basically just a crowd of people following a new fascinating teacher. And there as they intersect compassion becomes the force that transforms the scene. Hundreds of funeral processions had passed that way before. Countless widows had walked those steps, fearing the danger that would come once the crowd put the body into the ground and went back to their lives. But on this day the Lord is there, touching that which is said to be unclean. On this day the Lord and his compassion is present, and we see the living make way for the dead.
So, just as there are two dead people in the funeral procession, there are also two restorations to life. The young man on the bier sits up once Jesus addresses him and returns to life, and the first thing he does is speak. I wonder who is the first person he speaks with? Wouldn’t it be cool if were his mother, who until that moment, as a widow, was bearing this label of “one who is unable to speak”? Even if the son doesn’t speak first to his mother, Jesus brings about such a transforming experience by immediately giving him to his mother.
That is the second instance of new life in this story by the gate, in this place where people are coming and going, changing directions, doing trade. Jesus’ compassion does not just resuscitate this young man. It restores this woman to life. It makes her visible again, and gives her a voice, a place, a future.
Christians talk a lot about being raised to new life. We throw that phrase around all over the place—in our weekly worship, in our prayers and hymns, when we baptize.
Jesus raises us to new life…but what does that mean? Surely when we use the phrase “raised to new life,” one thing we mean is that after our own death, we too, shall be raised to eternal life. That is the power of the cross and the promise of our baptism. Jesus, by his death, makes way for the living. He conquers sin, he places his own body at the intersection of evil, into the traffic of all that goes against God, and dies that we might live.
But before that occurs for us, before that day we are taking part in our own funeral procession, we say Jesus raises us to new life elsewhere, and that is what we see happening at the gate of Nain. When we say we’re raised to new life it means is that we hear we have worth again. It means we hear the news that we are not meant to be invisible, meaningless. It means the brokenness of what came before can give way to something better, that the labels the world applies to us or we apply to ourselves matter less than the dignity the Word of God gives us. It means we are re-dedicated in service to our neighbor, able to see that our life can and does make a difference in this universe. It means that, like the son in this story, we are given to one another, over and over.
New life in Christ is no end unto itself. Jesus does not enter Nain or any life, for that matter, as some kind of “Zen” experience, as if inner balance or peace is his goal. Jesus comes that we may rise from whatever death we’re in so that we may be given to others in service and love. The reorientation of compassion towards the world that Christ gives us—towards each individual human being, especially the most vulnerable among us—is one of the most truly life-changing parts of this new life.
There was a remarkable story out of Boston this week about high school senior named Phillip Sossou who gave himself to others by taking the time to draw a portrait of every single person in his graduating class, all 411 of them. He worked on them during every moment of his spare time beginning in February, and this week he snuck into the school to hang them on the walls. It was an especially moving gesture of love given that the school, Boston Latin, has had a rough year regarding racial tension. When the students came in this week to see them a kind of new life was breathed into the community. Many were moved to tears. As one of his classmates put it, his portraits (which were beautiful, by the way) kind of made them all realize that each one of them was noticed.
That’s one way to think about what worship is in a congregation each Sunday morning. Here Jesus, amidst all the confusing tension of the world, is entering the intersection. He is entering and stopping dozens or hundreds of different funeral processions of meaninglessness and pain, division and discord. They are the funeral processions of those who file in here broken or lost by what life has handed them, unsure of what their next step will be and whether anyone will notice it.
And it is Jesus, in his compassion, noticing every single one us, giving the painstaking time to restore each of us to life…rendering us again beautiful as we are…handing each of us a piece of his own broken body and blood and reminding us we have a place, bestowing on us true dignity, and giving us to one another again.
And we witness this with joy, knowing God has once again looked favorably upon his people.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.