Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity
5th Jun 2016
THE WIDOW OF NAIN
The Second Sunday of Trinity
1 Kings: 17 v17-24
Luke: 7 v11-17
Jesus’ walks into a funeral cortege on his way into a town called Nain.
The Church of England funeral service poses this question from the Psalms ‘In the midst of life we are in death and to whom can we turn for help but to you O Lord?’
In our very diverse and multifaceted world one of the constant and universal human experiences is loss. We lose someone precious to us, someone upon which we rely and depend, and it changes us for ever. Losing someone we love is the hardest thing we may ever have to face. Loss makes us question the meaning of life. Losing someone is radically disorientating. Instead of stepping easily into each day things suddenly feel more hostile or uncertain. And the greatest loss of all can be our sense of hope
Such a loss breaks our heart. Hearts can indeed break and they heal slowly. The shock of discovering that someone has ‘left’ us makes daily life a struggle and one needs a lot of courage. Our first reading this morning was another story about a mother, the widow of Zarepath (in 1 Kings 17.8-24) losing her son, and we could hear within it some of the out-workings of bereavement. The mother is angry, ‘What have you against me, O man of God?’ She wants to blame someone. ‘You have come to cause the death of my son!’ And Elijah, equally shocked by the threat to this child, starts bargaining with God. There’s no formula for how we’ll each of us cope with our own sorrow but I think we all recognise that walking through the valley of the shadow of death is a terrible journey.
The funeral which was coming out of Nain that day, on its way presumably to the city’s burial ground, wasn’t dealing with a kind death. A woman who’d already lost her husband was now burying her son. This is a story about the power of compassion in the face of an unkind death. In Jesus we are offered the face of the Christian God whom we worship, and the chief characteristic of that God is that He is compassionate. He is merciful in dealing with human frailty. Jesus doesn’t avoid this funeral; he doesn’t avoid the widow of Nain’s anguish and he identifies with her grief. Here is not a God who remains aloof when we are in the vale of tears but very close to us, approaching, that he may draw alongside us and stay with us.
Jesus puts compassion first. Every society adds to death its own rituals and taboos and religious sensibilities: it’s the way we help ourselves cope: so one of the taboos of that Jewish community in Nain would have been that a dead body was not to be touched. It would have made anyone touching it ritually unclean. And so it’s hardly surprising that when Jesus steps forward and touches the structure bearing the body it stops everyone in their tracks. He touches, as we often want to touch, to recognise that this isn’t a corpse but this woman’s son. At the heart of any funeral are living relationships. Jesus will not let the conventions and expectations surrounding this death get in the way of a compassionate response. We cannot raise people from the dead but we can respond to loss with an attentive and compassionate heart. We might lack imagination, we might lack intimacy with those grieving but we can still practice compassion.
As a hospital chaplain at Charing Cross Hospital, a busy General Hospital, I had never stopped to wonder what the term ‘General’ might incorporate. In experiencing something of that same Jesus, who touched the bier carrying the body of the widow’s son at Nain, there were some very sad and demanding encounters. Three different kinds of funerals stay in the mind. The first, the funeral and burial of babies who had been born prematurely, then the funerals and burial of the remains of those whose bodies had been used for research and then the funeral and burial of those who had died of AIDS. Each one involved in one way or another, taboos about what was deemed clean and unclean or what was deemed worthy of ordinary human compassion and what was recognized as an immense loss. Each sad event challenged in different ways our capacity to cope and to understand to bear with these things and to have compassion. It was moving to see a small group of people attend the funeral of the remains of someone who had given their body for research perhaps up to two years after their death. It was moving to see that though they had come to commemorate a death, they had also come to respect and to give honour to that living relationship of love which was still a part of their real lives. It is hard to imagine that only in the 1980s was there a concerted effort to recognize that the loss of a premature baby was deemed worthy of appropriate funeral rites. And in another way, the funerals of those who had died of AIDS were often emotionally challenging and even angering and shaming to families who were being asked to bear a grief the like of which they had not been prepared, with the likelihood of misunderstanding and of rejection as well as affirmation and commemoration were always possible. Above all, like the widow of Nain, who, grieving her son, wonders at the awfulness of losing a member of a generation expected to survive her?
In the story of the Widow of Nain Jesus shows himself to be compassionate especially in that place where life and death come together. He is shown to us as truly the Son of God : who at all times and in all places is a life-giver. He is the one who accompanies us in all we are and in all we do as a compassionate friend and He is the One who alone is able to breach the chasm that separates grief and hope in life and death.
In the breaking comes the re-making.
Archbishop Donald Coggan.
So death will come to fetch you? No, not death but God himself. Death is not the horrible spectre we see represented in pictures. The catechism teaches us that death is the separation of the soul from the body; that is all. I am not afraid of a separation that will unite me for ever with God.
St Teresa of Avila.
And thou, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath, O praise him, alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord the way hath trod.
O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluya! Alleluya! Alleluya!
St Francis of Assisi.