Monday, June 7, 2010


Scripture appointed for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Galatians 1:11-24 and Luke 7:11-17

Later this morning, a formal procession will make its way across this campus. Some of you will march in it. Many of us will watch, our attention riveted by the music of a marching band, by the sheer energy of so many vital young adults in their gowns and caps, and by the otherworldliness of antique academic costumes.

There is a procession in our Gospel today. Unlike the one we’ll soon see, this is not a happy procession—not as we first meet it. This is a funeral procession for a fellow who has been survived by his mother, a widow, a woman at least twice bereaved. And he was her only son, her one remaining provider, her social security in her old age.

Let’s not miss the other procession in this story. It’s got all the energy and bright purpose absent from the funeral ceremony. This is the entourage of Jesus, his disciples and a large crowd who went with him from one memorable healing to the next.

At the town gates, these two processions meet.

Don’t they make a strange contrast to the formalities we’ll enjoy this morning? A procession of grief, and a parading crowd journeying in mission. Well, some parallels to Commencement, bittersweet with a touch of loss (even grief) as, with one hand, seniors receive their diplomas and let go the familiar shape of daily life in this purple valley. And now they’re ready for something more, eager to get on with their mission in life.

For sure, those two Gospel companies must be making very different sounds as they move. Jesus’s companions buzz with the thrill of a dramatic healing they witnessed, days ago, and speculate eagerly about what comes next, what lies ahead. Have some of them brought musical instruments—a flute, some pipes, a drum? Are they singing the great processional psalms of Israel? Who knows? But they are not a quiet bunch.

Not until that moment when the two movements meet, the one full of life, the other of death. For sure, that second procession is different from the first. Can you hear wailing? Perhaps nothing else, except the weeping, the scraping of sandals against the stones and dust of their via dolorosa, all this weight of mortality silencing the parade of life, as these apostles in training catch their breath and, wide-eyed, take in silently this encounter of their Master as he meets their enemy, death.

But he is not doing what they might have expected. Some religious leaders they knew would, under their breath, explain how such a sad loss must have been caused by someone’s sin, either the young man’s or his mother’s. Jesus looks right at her and speaks to her weeping.

Some guardians of religion would have known to cross to the other side and not be tainted by contact with the dead. Jesus touches the bier.

And what preacher at a funeral does not expect the dead to remain dead? But Jesus pierces the veil and calls this young man to rise. At a similar moment, Martha of Bethany will object, “Lord, we know that some day he will rise, at the appointed time when all will rise from their graves; but now?”

And he will reply, “Now. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever knows me will know life the way I do, and will know death the way I do.”

And with that all their mortal silence ended. It is said that it started with the dead man, who sat up and began to speak. Then his mother, receiving him from Jesus, raised her voice to heaven. All this made their spines tingle, but only as long as it took to free their voices to glorify God. And from there the whole town was ignited.

By comparison, our commencement ceremony today will be far more predictable, won’t it? The route is known, the order of service is printed, even what will be said, in general, we might predict. Though you never know, do you? We must always be open to surprise.

Speaking of which, let’s consider our first reading before we end.

From the way St. Paul tells his story today, his whole career as an apostle was a surprise. He had gone to all the right schools to prepare him to be a leader in Judaism. But when that trajectory turned violent in his persecution of the Jesus movement within Judaism, he met the first big surprise of his life: Jesus, the risen Jesus. The Cliff Notes version of this story makes it sound as if he was converted on the spot, but a finer reading suggests that it took whole seasons to make an apostle of him, that long stretch when Christians nursed back to health their wounded mortal enemy, Saul, now Paul. His own illness became his seminary, training him to speak his Gospel to the weeping, to touch the very bier of what people fear, to free with the word of life all who are in the grip of death.

Then came his second big surprise: As he was drawn by God well beyond the borders of his homeland, into Arabia, to Damascus, persuading Gentiles that they were precious to God, the God he had formerly believed to love only Israel, as he became a global apostle he was scolded not only by the leaders of Judaism but also by Christian apostles equally outraged by his marching to a different drumbeat than theirs.

Jesus, at the head of his movement, sets the pace and the direction of the procession of his people in the world. We do not earn our place in this procession: we receive it as surprising gift. This procession we call Church is like that parade of life we meet in Luke today: a movement of very ordinary people energized by the vitality of Jesus Christ, given the extraordinary grace to know him, to know life as he knows it, to know death as he knows it, and then sent on mission to act on that knowledge.

It is not only our cherished seniors who are called into procession on this Lord’s Day. We are all called into formation by the risen Lord of life.