Someone has wisely said that “Where there is death, there is holy ground and so the preacher must tread with care”. I mention that by way of letting you know that I`m hoping to tread carefully this morning because in that Gospel Reading we`ve just heard we meet with Jesus at a Funeral… And because we see him in the midst of a terribly moving example of grief it would be evasive to talk about anything else…..but again I didn`t want to begin without letting you know that I am aware of the dangers of generalising and I don`t wish to cause any undue discomfort.
I suppose to begin with I`d just like you to notice how in that reading we`re presented with a curious mix of on the one hand the deepest sorrow… Since we`re told of the death of a young man… a woman`s only son.… ….she`s a widow…and the whole town have come out in sympathy … something we especially do when a young person dies… so here we have a very heart rending tale. But on the other hand Jesus comes into this scene and although we`re told that he `has compassion` he somehow stands out like a sore thumb; Jesus interrupts this funeral… he literally stops it in its tracks.
What caught my eye, what gives me the sense that Jesus is going against the grain of things is the way he says to this grieving woman, “Do not weep”. You see, without being disrespectful ….with a line like that I could well imagine Jesus failing the Pastoral Studies course at Theological College. I mean, it`s one of the most basic things you learn…. You don`t say to a grieving person: “Don`t cry”. If people are grieving, of course they need to cry and express their emotions… this is good therapy.
And on top of this we see Jesus showing scant respect for the way funerals should be done… I mean you don`t get in the way of the funeral procession like that…and you certainly wouldn`t touch the coffin. As I say, despite his obvious compassion Jesus just doesn`t fit in; Jesus doesn’t seem to view what`s going on at this funeral in the same way as everyone else. No, that`s not strong enough… Let`s be clear … Jesus stands out in front of that funeral procession and he quite literally bars the way to death. This is stunning stuff, strongly emotive stuff… here is a young man who was on his way to the grave and is restored to life.
Now, the point I`m trying to make is that this funeral is no longer framed by or understood in the terms that were set by the social conventions and expectations of First Century Galilee…. Anyone who`d gone along to that funeral expecting the usual opportunity to comfort the grieving, celebrate a life (as we say these days) give thanks or get together as a community to remember a young lad who`ll be greatly missed found themselves completely mistaken and dumbfounded.
It`s Jesus who sets the agenda; he`s the one who says what this funeral is about; the one who sets the terms for telling you what holds true about life and death is Jesus. And as I say it comes across as quite abrupt……. But all of this illustrates I think, something of a challenge that we face in our own day.
I have grown up to value the liturgy… the time-honoured prayers and readings which keep us rooted in God; that remind us of whose people we are and actually give us a language of prayer … of being present to God. And this especially holds true when I`m not at my best. When I don`t feel like worship or when I can`t think of what to say invariably for example, one of the Psalms will say it for me and so on…..
And this is one of the ways that the Funeral Service helps us. Again, when we`re finding it hard to get our bearings what we call `the Prayers of the Church` are there to uphold us, to give us an anchor and a way of framing our experience.
What matters, you see, is that even though we may not be able to feel anything different, these words set everything we`re going through within the providence of God.
So my default invitation to people is always not to concern themselves too much about the details of a Funeral but to be as `present` as you can….. The secret is not so much to contribute but to be upheld by it. But I`ve found in more recently is that it`s very difficult to get folk to enter into worship like this. Without being unduly critical most folk whom we try to help are not familiar with how worship works like this.
And they are even less aware of the hymns and prayers and the foundational stories of our faith that give us clues as to how the Lord sustains us in times like this. Many folk are all to tragically thinking that they have to make it all up… create an event… a collection of items; music or literary which will somehow mark this difficult time and we gave to say demonstrate the significance of the person who has died. All of this is an example of what someone called `The triumph of the therapeutic`.
Now let me be clear… The onset of grief is often heart-rending, frequently traumatic and disorientating… and it can involve a long journey of reflection and adjustment.
It`s good for instance, that we`ve come to recognise that there are discernible stages in all of this. It`s equally good that the funeral might play a small part in helping people begin this journey. But I find something far less helpful going on.
Yes, it goes without saying that one of the most important features of any funeral is that it will of course acknowledge the significance of the person who has died… not just to the family and loved ones present but we would want to say to the Lord God as well. This can often be done by inviting folk to say a few words of tribute and all the rest…On the face of it this is to be welcomed.
But as I`ve already hinted in these days of great, shall we say `uncertainty` regarding faith… the emphasis has shifted from the world view of faith and the promises of God under which we stand; to a singular focus on the deceased and what we might be able to say about them. What effectively happens is that people attempt to create their own narrative…. and so they bring in their own readings, music and all the rest… pretty well anything in which they can vest some sense of meaning or significance….
And to cut the long story short, my essential concern is that an increasing amount of family time and energy… no, `stress` actually…. is being devoted to what we can only described as `putting on a good show`….at a time when people are simply not able to deal with it. Yes, we might consider it `good therapy; a helpful way of saying farewell… and maybe for some that`s the case ….. but sometimes we don`t know where to draw the line do we?
And the extent to which this is resembles the creation of an event is seen in what we might call the `noises off`; the unkind comments one hears about the length or quality of such contributions.
Uncharitable? of course it is…..but this I think is where we`re going. And the tell-tale clue, I think is the way in which terms like `Celebration of a life` are becoming standard descriptions….. of what we think is going on at a Funeral.
As I say the focus is pretty well all on the deceased and if there is any context at all then it resembles a sort of scrapbook of assorted attempts to say something `meaningful` rather than setting the deceased and their life in the context of any over-arching story such as the Christian Faith.
So what I`m doing is firstly flagging up the tension within which we nowadays operate in trying to help those who have lost a loved one …. and secondly to invite us to consider the frankly harmful expectations people are placing on themselves in, shall we say `over-producing` funerals`. I suspect of course, that over time, as these trends will continue and as they say we will `lose our market share`. Well, be that as it may.
You see, a Christian funeral is not therapy. It is not even a celebration it is actually a `proclamation`. The first words spoken at a Christian Funeral are “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. (John 11.25-26)
This is the truth about the world under which ALL lives stand. This is the truth that makes sense of our lives … without this truth all we are left with is memories and therapy. Look again at that picture of the Christ who interrupts that funeral. Look again at the way he contradicts the expectations that everyone had about what was going on that day…. Yes, he understood their sorrow and grieving but he stood in the way of their nicely staged procession… and in doing that he is recognised for who he is….They said “God has visited his people”.
Nowadays it`s very difficult trying to help grieving people who are confused about life and death and don`t understand the Christian vision of the world…. but that`s just the work we have to do.
Yes, we want to recognise and acknowledge the significance of the person who has died… of course we do. But human life is lived against the backdrop of the history changing events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…. He`s the one who sets the terms for telling you what holds true about life and death.
And remember, human value is not located in how many nice things they can say about you at your funeral….. It`s found as we proclaim that overarching story of what God has done in Christ. It`s symbolised in your Baptism…. which has always been a picture that`s about moving from death to life.
I`m not being at all facetious…. Whatever shape of funeral they put on for you; however absorbed in grief or gratitude they may be; whatever kind or unkind things they may say or think….. you might like to pray that Jesus turns up to interrupt your funeral and to remind everyone of the big picture. May they hear him call out to you: “Arise!”