As you'd imagine – like most people in public ministry I see a huge number of funerals.Last year alone I conducted more than 60, varying hugely from a really wonderful thanksgiving for a lady who died some months after her 100th birthday, full of faith and resurrection hope, to the almost silent pathos of a family saying Goodbye to the baby they'd never known outside the womb....and with much else in between.
They are a moment when even the least reflective people find themselves wondering about the purpose of life – and our destination afterwards.
They are a time when hardened atheists may pause, agnostics find unexpected comfort
But they are generally times when all we can do is just be there...offering our love and our sadness.
We don't go to a funeral with high hopes and I'm really not sure how the average congregation would react if the deceased was abruptly restored to life in the course of the service.
Can you imagine it?
Seriously CAN you imagine it?
Do you, do I , actually believe that God might intervene like that – might do so at any moment, or have we somehow convinced ourselves that He is no longer actively involved in our world, that the age of miracles is dead, that the impossible will never happen...
After all, our world view is very different from that of the ancients. They understood that everything in life was a gift from God – above all life itself. We have been reading Job in the Daily Office recently - “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” he said, as he dealt with his own cataclysmic losses – but for the most part that's not where we are today.
We are encouraged to believe in our own cleverness – and regard death as almost an affront.
With all our scientific and technological advances – bodies still wear out, and hearts stop beating.
And it still hurts as much as ever it did.
So – come with me to the small town of Nain, just down the road from Capernaum...Be part of the crowd that follows Jesus...Go with him towards the gate of the town
But as we approach – we are met by another procession – led by a woman weeping for her only son.
Not only has she lost her husband – and thus her place in society as a married woman – but now she is left without any protector, any hope of economic security...She is left desolate, a non-person with neither rights nor hopes – just as the widow of Zaraphath was left desolate centuries before.
Stand with me as a representative of all the helpless, grieving people of the world comes, full of the pain of goodbye, towards the Lord of Life himself.
Watch as he confronts her in all her misery – not stepping discreetly aside to let the corget pass, but pausing there in the middle of the road to look on as tears run down that mother's cheeks.
Jesus looks at her – and sees the truth of her situation.
He looks – and his heart goes out to her.
He FEELS her grief as his own -for that is what compassion means – to suffer alongside those who are suffering.
Then, flouting convention once more he touches the lifeless body of her son, stepping outside the Law, making himself unclean...
He reaches out in love.
He doesn't just say “there there, never mind...” he ACTS to make a difference offering comfort beyond her wildest hopes and dreams, changing her sorrow to joy.
What a gift!
Hope from despair...life from death...through the work and words of Jesus,
But do you have just a twinge of
“that was then. This is now. What about hope and joy for the grief of today?”
Yes, these ARE different times, and ours is a different understanding of the ways of the world but it is the SAME GOD OF COMPASSION who meets us in our grief and offers hope
When we are at rock bottom, certain that there IS no hope to be found – so often we will gradually realise that God is there, beside us in the darkness, sharing our pain and offering a route to transformation and a new beginning.
We may not experience a physical miracle like those which brought joy to the widows in our readings, but we can and should expect to be touched by the God of compassion who is always making all things new. These stories of life restored are not fables of long ago and far away but a testimony to the God who cares about life here and now...the God who invites us to live life in all its fullness and invites us, too, to do all we can to counter the life-denying powers at work in our world.
For you see, once we are touched by God, we too can be agents of his compassion – we too can be part of the change that we long for – we too can offer gifts of life and hope.
Yesterday tens of thousands gathered in Hyde Park for “the big IF” - a gathering to remind the G8 of the obligation that we have as human beings to care for one another, a challenge to the mind-set that seems content that poverty should continue in the face of plenty...You might have been among them...or one of the thousands of others who sent messages on-line expressing the longing for a fairer sharing of the earth's resources, an end to unthinking injustice.
Whoever we are, we can all manage small acts of care and compassion, we can look beyond stereotypes to recognise our brothers and sisters who struggle today – whether we meet them in the Shambles or simply on our tv screens.
We can commit ourselves to include rather than exclude, to create a climate in which the seeds of new life and hope can flourish in people’s lives, however fragile they appear.
Miracles DO happen today.
They happen because God's compassion is always at work.
God reaches out as surely to the 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan today as he did to the two widows whose stories we've heard this morning.
God cares as much as God ever did – and God cares so much that there is nothing he will not do to bring love and healing.
But God loves us so much that he wants us to be part of that enterprise, to work with him, to be signs of healing and hope ourselves.
So – let us ask, today, for the gift of compassion.
It comes as a treasure from a loving God who invites his children to love one another as He loves us...a God who knows that his love is the strongest power in creation – a power that can raise the dead and transform the living.