john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Luke 7: The procession of death
    meets the procession of life

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 6/6/2010

    Galatians 1.11-end , Luke 7.11-17


    At the gate of the town, the procession of death met the procession of life.

    The procession of death was a funeral procession. A grieving mother was following the body of her only son as he was being carried out. She had already been widowed; now in the grief of losing her son, her own life seemed over.

    The procession of death was a normal sight in the town of Nain at that time:
    This young man had probably died that day. According to the burial customs at the time, burials were most often done the same day. And the funeral procession was an important part of the process, because it was itself the way to get the word out about someone's death. People would see the procession and know [that] someone had died. Unlike our quiet ways today, in which we try not to cry or make a commotion, it was part of the grieving process, and part of the calling others to join in, to weep and wail and to make a [big noise]. Along the way, then, the funeral procession would pick up steam. Villagers would hear the commotion and join in the procession as it passed by. Even a small family could start a procession and [gather] a large crowd by the time it reached the city gate. Like a bulldozer scooping up more and more earth as it goes along, the ancient funeral procession scooped up more and more people as it traveled through a village. [1]
    It was a procession of death, led, no doubt, by the religious men of the town, the priests, whose business was to lead the procession of death. It was a weeping, wailing, sorry straggle of people saying goodbye to a young man, dead before his time; it was a sympathetic gathering walking with the bereaved widow in her grief; it was a curious crowd keen to see what was happening and to join in.

    A funeral procession heading out of the town of Nain - because when people were buried it was always out of town, well away from the living. Just like in our own town where the dead are carried out, to places well away from the living: have you noticed how Everton Cemetery is a long way away from Everton, Kirkdale Cemetery is a long way away from Kirkdale, West Derby Cemetery a long way away from West Derby, and ever wondered why?

    Golgotha was a burial ground outside Jerusalem's walls; the tomb where Jesus was laid was a distance from the city. The procession of death takes the dead out of sight of the living. But that is to jump ahead in the Gospel story.

    As the procession of death approached the gate of the town on their way out, they collided with the procession of life which was coming in.

    The procession of life: led by Jesus, on his mission to bring the good news of the saving Kingdom of God to all the people, preaching and healing as he went along his journey. The procession of life, led by Jesus who has for company his small band of disciples, a chattering, lively crew of characters each excited and energised by the unexpected turn which Jesus has caused in their lives. The procession of life, with Jesus at the head of a large crowd, buzzing with excitement at what they had seen Jesus do - he'd just healed a Centurion's servant in Capernaum - and what they might see him do next, in the town of Nain.

    As the procession of life approached the gate of the town on their way in, they collided with the procession of death which was coming out.

    At the gate of the town, the procession of death met the procession of life.
    Now the city gate is a place of battle in the ancient world. Often there would be hand-to-hand combat at the city gate, as invaders tried to storm a city and the citizens tried to defend it. [In this story] Luke giv[es] us a powerful image of that [procession] of death emerging from the city gate. But Jesus is coming into the city, on a collision course. It is a collision between the forces of death and life. There [at] the city gate, Jesus confronted the forces of death. Someone had to move. Something had to give. [1]
    Now we know that when Jesus gets involved with conflict the only weapons he uses are his heart and his mouth. A compassionate heart; and a mouth which speaks words of liberating life. And so what happened next at the gate of Nain was a miracle.

    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. [Luke 7.11]

    Notice how Jesus performed the miracle; notice how the procession of life dealt with the procession of death.

    Jesus began his struggle with death by having compassion on this widow. And then he spoke a word of comfort and hope: 'Do not weep,' he said. Finally he puts it into action. Ignoring their rules of cleanliness and purity, he walked right up to the stretcher on which they carried her son and touched it, saying, 'Young man, I say to you, rise!' With this powerful word, the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
    Jesus gave him back to his mother. That's very significant. Jesus didn't only raise the young man, but he gave back to the woman her only real chance of surviving, too. For the only Social Security system of the ancient world was for a woman to have a large family, especially sons. Women had no opportunity for financial independence like today. Their only chance of survival was to be legally bound to a man. Now, the only two men in this widow's life had now died. She was completely vulnerable; probably all she could see of her future was the terrible procession of death. But Jesus, the giver of life, collided with this procession of death, and he had compassion on her. [1]
    'Rise up', he said to the son, and with these words of liberating life the procession of death ground to a halt, the priests in charge and the professional mourners suddenly found they had no further part to play, and the crowd and those who cared about the widow and her son found themselves overtaken by Jesus's joyous procession of life.

    Now we have to ask ourselves, 'Which procession am I part of, that funeral procession, the procession of the powers of death? Or the procession of life inspired by Jesus's compassionate heart and by his words of liberating life?' This is not a frivolous question. We may answer too quickly, 'Well, I'm on Jesus side, of course.' But we should give it some thought.

    Am I caught up in the things which ultimately lead to death? Or am I on the journey, the unpredictable but thrilling, liberating journey, of life through faith in Jesus Christ?

    And not just me individually. What about us as a church - a body of believers together. Looking at what the churches do, many would say that we deal in death. This is not necessarily a criticism. It is what religion is good at. We are good at dealing in death. We put on a good funeral service; many people tell us that. We provide a book of memorial and services of remembrance which are deeply valued by those who need to remember those who have gone before.

    But just like the religion of the priests who led the procession out of Nain, the focus of this sort of religion is on death. And we should remember that Jesus didn't take death that seriously. His procession of joyful life stopped death in its tracks. And later in the Gospel story - his resurrection put an end to death forever.

    Is the journey we are on together as a church, one which leads us towards death - or are we together in Jesus's procession of glorious, liberated, life, a procession which attracts others and makes them want to join?

    If we ask ourselves that question in all seriousness then we are in good company.
    St. Paul had to ask himself that question because on the way to Damascus one day, Jesus himself had posed the question, 'Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?' This must have come as quite a shock to Saul, who had seen himself as on the side of what seemed the most outstanding politics of his day, the Jewish Law. He was an upstanding citizen, zealous in his defense, a true believer, if you will. He believed in his way of life as the most humane and civilized of its time. But the crucified and risen one confronted him one day, blinded him, and then made him to see otherwise. His way may have been civilized, but Saul had to come to see his violence, that he was unwittingly a part of the procession of death. Now named Paul had to come to know a different way, the way of compassion, which is the way of life. [1]
    So we ask ourselves seriously, "Which procession am I a part of?" We live in a crazy time, with the procession of death all around us. We see it on our news programmes all the time: processions through the streets of Wootton Bassett as soldiers bear another of their colleagues, killed in Afghanistan, through the crowds; the terrifying procession of death which the gunman Derrick Bird took through the towns of West Cumbria last week. [2]

    In a world like this, how do we live? How do we walk the procession of life?. We simply follow the word and the way of Jesus, noticing above all that for Jesus the word and the way was compassion.
    We are called to comfort and to serve those who are being rolled over by death and the shadow of death. What are we going to say when we meet the procession of death? What are we going to do? Where are we going to get the faith to have compassion for the victims of famine or war or crime or, dare I say it, bad religion, religion gone wrong? We'll get it from Christ, who promises us life, even in the face of death.

    There's no doubt that sometimes we get caught up in the same procession of death. But when that happens Christ will be there to meet us, to say to each of us, 'Young man' or 'Young woman' (for even the very old seem young to him), 'You, I say to you, rise.' And we shall. [1]
    Yes, Jesus invites us to join in his procession of life. We will hear his invitation again at the communion table today. An invitation from Jesus to share together in his procession of life. And at the end of the service he will send us out full of compassion to live a liberated life.


    Notes

    [1] This sermon owes a huge debt in substance and form to Paul J. Nuechterlein's sermon The Procession Between Life and Death, in particular those sections (in blockquotes) quoted verbatim or slightly altered.
    [2] Bodies of servicemen killed in Afghanistan repatriated, BBC 3/6/2010; Gunman's rampage leaves 12 dead, BBC 2/6/2010.