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How to Ruin a Funeral

September 27, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our mediation on this 16th Sunday after Trinity comes from our gospel text, especially where Luke records, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Regardless of the culture, there are unspoken rules of etiquette regarding funerals. Typically, here in the U.S., you’ll see people wear nicer clothing – often darker in color to symbolize bereavement and mourning. They are often – rightly – armed with Kleenex in order to dab moistened eyes and the sniffley noses. You’ll see sincere though sorrowing smiles, sometimes accompanied by phrases like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” “He was a good man,” or “She was a faithful woman.” There are tight embraces, softly spoken conversations, and fond remembrances in picture boards, scrapbooks, and slideshows.

There are also things that you’re not supposed to do or see at a funeral. In situations where there may be some tension or bitterness among the survivors, you still expect people to control themselves, to refrain from bickering and fighting. You expect people to show respect for the deceased, not tell off-color jokes at their expense or show up intoxicated and unruly. We know what to expect. So how would you react … if someone came up to the surviving spouse, or parent, or sibling, or child, and declared openly, loudly, “He isn’t dead.” “Oh, you mean he lives on in our hearts and memories? Oh, he’s with Jesus?” “Nope. He’s just not dead. He’s alive! Get him out of the casket! He’s about to start dancing a jig!”

It would be laughable, were such a hypothetical situation not so awkward, absurd, and cringe-worthy. It’s hard to imagine this taking place because, aside from breaking decorum, it’s wholly inappropriate. You don’t proclaim, loudly or otherwise, that the person mourners are grieving over is alive when he’s clearly not. The heart hasn’t beaten for days, nor have the lungs expanded and contracted, and his body has been prepared for burial, not a return home to his house. You don’t give false hope to someone who is grieving, telling them their loved one isn’t actually dead when they actually are. It’s rude, inappropriate, and cruel … unless it’s a claim you can back up.

While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to our cringe-worthy hypothetical, there are some similarities between that situation and our gospel reading. Jesus, the disciples, and a large crowd have entered a town called Nain, and they are met by a funeral procession. We don’t know anything about the circumstances of how death occurred nor much about the deceased. What we do know is that we’ve got a widow … who has now also lost her only son and with him, the only security she had in life. She was utterly alone, grieving to see the end of her family line, and the town grieved with her.

Luke tells us, “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” To us who know the story, we know what’s about to happen, but put yourself in the shoes of one of those mourners. Does it not seem rude for this outsider coming into town with a large crowd to confront this now-childless widow and command her not to cry? She had only her sorrow and, most likely, imminent death for company and comfort. “Do not weep” sounds like a cruel and failed attempt to bring comfort and hope to someone who was, for all intents and purposes, hopeless. It broke funeral convention, ruining the atmosphere of sorrow and the intention of the mourners to mourn.

But then Jesus goes beyond the pale. After speaking to the mourning, childless widow, Luke tells us, “Then [Jesus] came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’” Again, this undoubtedly sounds like cruel impertinence and outrageous disrespect. The days of Elijah and Elisha, who both raised the children of poor widows from the dead, were long gone. Sure, they’d heard of the miracle-man walking around Judea, and how He’d cleansed lepers, healed paralytics, restored withered hands, but this was death. Assuming they knew this Man standing before them was the one-and-the-same Jesus, what could He possibly do for this poor widow now? People don’t just rise from the dead anymore! So why on earth would He show up, just to ruin this perfectly good funeral?

Fair enough; whether it was His initial purpose in coming to Nain or not, confronted by this group of mourners, Jesus was now intent on ruing this funeral. He does not command the widow to not weep for no reason. He doesn’t fill her ears with hollow sentimentality and leave her in her despair. He doesn’t speak these words over this lifeless body on a bier out of disrespect or mental instability or drunkenness. He speaks this Word with the same authority and power used when He spoke the words “Let there be light” over the empty, formless void. It is a performative Word that Jesus speaks, a Word that accomplishes the task for which it was sent, and the proof is in the pudding, as the formerly-deceased boy sits up and begins to speak. Jesus ruined the funeral, but He gave the widow back her son, and Luke tells us that “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”

They had no idea how right they were. This Jesus – also known as Immanuel, “God with us,” – had come to visit His people. He had come to ruin funerals, as He did later with the daughter of Jairus, and later still, with His good friend Lazarus. More than this, however, YHWH Incarnate visited His people to save them – not just from death, but from sin, from the just condemnation for sin, and from the insidious power of the enemy. He only accomplished this by humbling Himself, allowing His own mother – also a widow, by that time – to mourn the loss of her Son in death. Like the widow of Nain, Mary also cradled the lifeless body of her Son, after He was crucified and died on behalf of a creation that didn’t – and still does not – deserve His self-sacrifice. She, too, mourned and lamented as His body was wrapped hastily and borne quickly to the grave before the sun set on that dark Friday. Like the widow of Nain, and no doubt like her Son’s disciples, a pall of hopelessness hung heavy over her. However, also like the widow of Nain, her Son’s funeral was ruined, as the stone covering His tomb was rolled away and He stepped out, shaking off the dust of death ... triumphant, resurrected, and alive! All glory to God, the widow Mary received back her Son, raised from the dead, and the unworthy creation received back its Creator and Master!

This is not an exhortation for y’all to go to as many funerals as you can and ruin them. Funeral decorum exists for a reason – primarily, you are not Jesus, and the power to raise the dead does not lie in you. What you are called to do is come alongside those who are mourning and mourn with them, and moreover, to remind them that we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Today, our Lord still ruins funerals with His promise that the grave is merely a portal to the rest that awaits all who trust in Him. He disrupts our mourning with the sure and certain hope that a resurrection like His awaits those who hold fast to His Word of promise. He disorders our sorrow with His promise that “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” That Day, when death is overthrown, is when He will disrupt all funerals and disturb all graves as He calls out with a cry of command, “Men and women, I say to you, arise.”

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 7:11-17