Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, September 15th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
It’s Your Funeral – Luke 7:11-17
Who’s funeral is it, anyway?
Our Gospel reading creates a panoramic view in my mind’s eye, like in an epic motion picture from the 1960’s: two processions winding through the dusty Galilean countryside, one led by a dead man, carried on a funeral bier, the other led by the Man of Life, followed by disciples and hangers-on. Mourners in the considerable crowd glance up, wondering why the other procession just keeps coming closer, assuming that these strangers will halt their approach, for pity’s sake, stopping, once they realize they are disturbing a funeral. I don’t think there were funeral directors in first century Galilee, but can’t you just see Mike McCollum or Al McGahan caught on the wrong side of the crowd, trying to hustle in their best unhurried walk to intercept the approaching party, scowling just a bit as they see their carefully planned ceremony being disturbed?
Jesus just keeps approaching, not falling in the back, not joining the funeral procession, but rather coming right up to the pall bearers, looking right at the grieving mother, interrupting the procession, breaking all the rules. He even dares to speak to the grieving mother, the Widow Nain, acting like He’s in charge. Breaking the final taboo, Jesus touches the body. Who’s funeral is it, anyway?
We guard our funerals carefully. For the sake of the grieving family, we follow a set of unwritten rules about what we do and how we behave at funerals. If asked, you bring food, and serve as a pallbearer or usher. Above all we silently agree to only say good things about the deceased, no matter how he actually lived. We maintain and meet these expectations, mostly so they will still be expected when we die, so that we too will get a decent send-off. There is an odd mix of church and culture in the way we do funerals, and that’s o.k., up to a point, because funerals are hard.
Funerals are very difficult, and so the expectations and traditions we maintain can be helpful, giving us some manageable things to do when the reality of death makes our life quite unmanageable. But be warned, Jesus still takes over funerals. The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, and while God does not often intervene visibly in human events, He has the right, and the ability, to do so at any time, visibly or invisibly. All of our days are in His hands, so if the Lord decides to step in and take over a funeral, it will be so.
And so it was that day outside the village of Nain. Jesus walks right up, surveys the situation, and takes over the funeral procession, for the sake of the mother. A widow, now bereft of her only son, her faith in God’s promises under attack, she receives the Lord’s compassion. “Do not weep.” What? What did He say? Strange compassion, no? Fulkerson’s fills our pews with tissue packs; weep away, that’s what we say. In the end it’s all we can say, all we can do, to weep and mourn and let some of the pain leak out. In Nain, the widow’s son, her only son, the son of her already dead husband, is now dead too. What else can she do but weep?
But Jesus tells her: “Do not weep.” Strange compassion, indeed, to command the woman to quell her tears, almost cruel. Strange and cruel, that is, until Jesus issues another command: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” And he does! Glory to God in the highest, the Creator has visited His people, bringing life from death for the young man from Nain, joy from the depths of sorrow for his mother, and big news about Jesus, spreading throughout the countryside.
Good news, way back then in the village of Nain, in Galilee: The boy lives!
But we still have our funerals. What good does this miracle do for us, who have never seen Jesus raise one of our loved ones from the dead? What reason do we have to glorify God at our funerals? What is the connection between Nain and Fairview/Sidney? We seem to be stuck with our unspoken agreements and our tissue packs. No great prophet to see here, no sign that God has visited us, no obvious benefit for us in this strange little story.
And yet Jesus raised the Widow’s son for you, too. Certainly this miracle wasn’t for the good of the young man. He had reached the other side. Safe in Abraham’s bosom, his struggle was over. But for the good of his mother, to ease her pain and dry her tears, Jesus brought him back, to live and breathe and speak again. We are not given any clue to the content of his words in our reading, but what a preacher this young man could have become, an eyewitness from both sides of the great divide, an eyewitness to the authority and compassion of Christ, authority over death itself, compassion far deeper and more powerful than the impotent well-wishing of a funeral crowd.
Jesus raised this young man for his mother’s sake, and for yours, a resurrection for the making of eyewitnesses, a funeral procession halted so that the world might one day hear of another funeral procession, a smaller one, a procession no one cared to interrupt, a bitterly sorrowful procession of just a few brave disciples, lost in sorrow but going through the motions of a decent burial, maybe not knowing why, but fulfilling God’s intention, that Jesus should rest, in a new tomb, on the Sabbath.
The Lord has taken over many funerals, doing this work Himself, and also through Elijah, Elisha, Peter, and Paul. At various times throughout salvation history, God has been busy interrupting funerals, bringing back the dead, compassionately wiping away the tears of mothers, sisters, fathers, family, and teaching us that death is not beyond God’s power. But none of these interrupted funerals really help us with our funerals.
In the funeral of Jesus, however, in that sad procession from Golgotha to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, there we will find power and hope and even glory, when we understand that Jesus’ funeral is our funeral. As He took charge of the funeral for the widow of Nain’s son, so also Jesus has taken charge of your funeral, by making it His own. So that good things can truly be said about you, Jesus died suffering the worst insults imaginable. Jesus was called sinner, fraud, blasphemer, so that you can be called a saint, a forgiven child of God. So that the curse of sin can be removed from you, Jesus died and was buried, having become sin for us, so that in Him we become the righteousness of God. So that death and separation from God need not be your fate, Jesus the Son of God swallowed up death in His own body, rising victoriously on the 3rd day, revealing new life for all who trust in Him.
Your funeral, the funeral that makes an eternal difference, is over. Now, for everyone who by baptismal faith is joined to Christ, death is just the passage to eternal life. It’s still a scary passage, no doubt, and a sad one too. But even amidst the tears, there is joy, for the souls of the faithful dead rest in Christ, seated at the Father’s right hand.
So you are free to turn the details of your earthly funeral over to Jesus. We will still want to lean on the expertise of Mike and Al, and we will still need some bars and salads and pallbearers, but there is no need to hide the truth at your funeral, for the truth is that your sins and faults and failures are all forgiven by God the Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ His Son. God has turned your mourning into dancing, a Christian funeral is a celebration of the victory of Christ, crucified, buried and resurrected, the Savior of the world.
We have these funeral planning worksheets to help us to intentionally turn over our funerals, our final trip to Church to Christ. Funeral planning worksheets are a good tool to help us choose readings and hymns that give glory to God, who has visited His people, to save them, and they help your family and your pastor make your funeral a celebration of Christ, and your victory in Him.
But far better preparation for your funeral is to continually gather to receive the gifts that Jesus has won for you. Come and hear His Word, the accounts of His eyewitnesses, who proclaim His victory over sin, death and the devil. Their Word is the tool of the Spirit, who through the Word delivers Christ’s victory to you by faith. Come and marvel at your watery grave, remembering your Baptism day by day, your Baptism where you were buried and raised, with Jesus. Come and dine at the funeral meal of Christ, His Supper, instituted before He died, celebrated now in His resurrected presence, a meal of joy and peace, and life, because those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ in faith never need to fear death.
A Christ-centered funeral is a wonderful missionary event, an outreach event. Continually receiving Christ and His gifts will also make your life into a Christ-centered outreach event, for through His Word and Sacrament Christ is present in you, and wherever Jesus is, He is taking over, speaking words of hope, having compassion on the broken-hearted, giving His life to dying people, wiping away tears of sorrow, and inspiring tears of joy. Glory to God, who visits His people, and who visits the world through the lives of his people, all for the sake of a good funeral.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.