From what I've heard, a New Orleans jazz funeral is an experience like no other. The brass band begins its solemn procession at the church, playing hymns like "Free as a Bird" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee"-no improvisation, no frills. Nothing but sadness blown low and blue to the beat of a muted snare drum.
Once the procession arrives at the cemetery, though, after the final words are spoken and the body is lowered into the ground, the mood shifts. Brightly festooned umbrellas burst open, the snare drummer removes his mute, and the funeral procession heads back into town to the raucous strains of "Didn't He Ramble?" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." Folks who heard the somber hymns earlier in the day wait for the procession's return...because they know a celebration's coming...and no one in New Orleans wants to miss the funeral celebration.
When the procession left the widow's home in the town of Nain that day, her son's body lying atop the funeral bier, she wasn't planning for a celebration. No one was. Her only child was dead. What appears to be her last living male relative-gone. Not only was she without the consolation of family, she was also likely without any means of support. There was no expectation, no hope of celebration for the woman or the entourage that followed her. They mourned, they wailed. They made their slow way to the cemetery outside of town, the keening of the mourners piercing the daytime din of village life.
As it emerges from the city gate, the funeral procession meets another entourage entering the city. A man leaves that crowd and approaches the mother. He looks at her and says, "Do not weep." If the crowd hadn't hushed before that, I'm sure it does when the man touches the bier on which the woman's son lies. And when he bids the dead man rise- and he does? The text doesn't say so, but I'm guessing that more than one or two jaws dropped.
Once the shock wears off, though, the umbrellas burst open, the mutes fall away, the horns start blowing, and the celebration begins. They cut loose with some singing, maybe even some ancient version of scat, who knows? "A great prophet has risen among us!" they sing. "God has looked favorably on God's people!"
Participants in jazz funerals expect the afternoon celebration after hearing the morning's dirge. But this mother-and certainly not her son-no one in that crowd of mourners in Nain could have imagined that by day's end their funeral procession would become a street party. But it did.
And you know? That's great. The woman loses her son; she loses her husband. It's great that her son comes back to life. It's great that she's likely saved from living on the streets. It's great that the crowd rejoices and glorifies God...and that the celebration is heard all across the countryside, from Nain, throughout Galilee, and even on down to Judea. It's just great.
But there's one thing about this text that, if not troubling, is at least a little annoying.
Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke. A woman approaches him at a dinner party and pours perfume on his feet. Another woman battles through a crowd to touch the hem of his garment. Just before today's story, a centurion sends word through his friends that his servant is ill. "Just give the word," the man says, "and I know he'll be healed." Jesus praises all three people and attributes their healing to their faith.
But the woman in today's story? She doesn't ask Jesus to raise her son. She doesn't fall on her knees and beg for her son's life. All she does is cry.
Of course, maybe the reason she doesn't ask Jesus for a resurrection isn't from a lack of faith. Maybe she just thinks it's too late. Her son is dead. But if that's the case, why doesn't she at least say "thank you?" Or if she did say "thank you," why doesn't the gospel writer record her response? Or the woman's son. When he sits up on the bier, the gospel writer says that the man begins to speak. But if one of the things he said was "Thank you," we don't have a record of it. It could be that mother and son joined in the celebration with the rest of the crowd. More than likely they did. But why didn't the gospel writer tell us that? In other stories in Luke, people's healing is attributed to their faith. Or if the healing happens without a request for it-like the bent-over woman a few chapters later-they at least say thank you or begin praising God.
But in today's story? No word about faith. Not one word about gratitude or praise. Just a mother's tears before the raising and a son's random talking after it.
So, maybe this story isn't about faith. Maybe it's not about gratitude. Maybe this story is about grace-pure, unadulterated, undiluted, unbidden, unearned, un-asked-for grace. This raising doesn't happen because of a mother's faith or her son's worthiness. It happens because Jesus has compassion for her. Period. The mother didn't have to act faithfully. The son didn't have to live gratefully. It could be that both mother and son were faithful and grateful. But my point is that the point of this story is not the mother and her son. The point of this story is Jesus' compassion. The point is that when grace comes into our lives, it requires nothing of us but a choice: to receive it or not. The point is always to be packing party clothes because, with Jesus, you never know when a funeral procession just might turn into a street celebration.
There was no street celebration, no brass band or snare drum or festive umbrellas. But the funeral for Pastor Taylor's wife was something to behold. Just months before she died, Mrs. Taylor had been at our house talking about the perfect bill of health she had received from her doctor. Who knew the tumor would grow so fast, that she would die so quickly? We were all shocked by the news when it came, especially we 8th grade classmates of the Taylors' son, Jim.
The day of the funeral a quiet crowd packed the tiny concrete block church. It all felt wrong, somehow. Friends' parents weren't so supposed to die...especially fun-loving parents like Jim's mom. We entered the church sad, grieving, weighed down with disbelief.
After saying a few words, Reverend Taylor told us what his wife had requested. "She wanted us to sing hymns," he said, "lots and lots of hymns at her funeral." The pianist began to play.
As we began tentatively singing "Holy, Holy, Holy," we looked around at each other. This just wasn't the done thing in our little town. By the end of the intro to "Blessed Assurance," we realized that this hymn thing wasn't a joke and resigned ourselves to singing. By the time we got to the refrain of "How Great Thou Art," we were singing our hearts out. And as the final chord of "Amazing Grace" died away, I think we actually had experienced some.
Well, most of us. At the grocery store the next day, I overheard two women talking about the unconventional funeral in "Well-I-never!" kinds of tones.
As a teenager, Mrs. Taylor's funeral and the comments of those women in the dry goods aisle taught me a lot about grace. Grace comes unbidden, often at the least expected of times. We can't earn it. We can't work for it. We can't plead for it. It just comes. What we can do is choose whether to receive it or reject it. We can sing with our arms crossed and our teeth clenched or we can sing with our mouths and our hearts wide open. We can keep the drum muted or we can let loose with a riff to make the angels dance. We can keep our umbrellas closed or we can shoot them open in a burst of color and joy. When Jesus comes with compassion in his eyes, we can wrap our funeral clothes tightly around us or we can change into our party togs and celebrate-the choice is ours. The choice always is ours.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.