Have you been to New Orleans? There’s the French Quarter, the Garden District, Jackson Square, and Preservation Hall. There’s City Park and the National WWII Museum. There’s Lake Pontchartrain and the Mahalia Jackson Theater. There’s the food – the Po-Boys and Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffee and Jambalaya. There’s crazy cocktails and the world’s best café au lait.
And then, there are the cemeteries. Lots of them. They’re named St. Louis and Cypress Grove, Gates of Prayer and Greenwood, Holt, Lafayette, and Lake Lawn. So many cemeteries in so little space. And because the city lies at sea level, all the graves are in above-the-ground crypts, surrounded by stone statuary.
In New Orleans, one of the most notable facets of culture is how you get to the cemetery. You get there with Jazz.
The Jazz Funeral is unique to New Orleans. Its origins date back centuries to Nigeria and West Africa, and it begins at church. After worship, outside on the steps, the casket is slid inside a glass-sided hearse, flowers go on top. A solemn brass band leads the procession and the mourners walk behind.
Slowly, very slowly the procession shuffles toward the cemetery. Dirges are played: Nearer My God to Thee and Just a Closer Walk with Thee.[ii] You know it:
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be [iii]
Arriving at grave site, the words of committal are said, the pall bearers lift the casket and slide it into the mausoleum.
And then….Nothing. Silence. Silence. Nothing bur silence. And then….KAPOW! Celebration jazz fills the air. Shouts of joy are raised. Hoots and hollers. The suffering of the deceased are over. Glory Alleluia! The brass lifts up When the Saints Go Marching In. The festivities begin.
It’s the defining moment; a holy moment; a Spirit-filled moment when
- Misery moves to joy.
- Past moves to future.
- Shuffling becomes swing.
- Heads lift to sky and a crowd struts forward,
- Singing with ecstasy, waving umbrellas, dancing everything back to life.[iv]
There’s no disrespect. It’s all tribute. Tribute and care; honor and compassion.
As we travel with Jesus today, we meet him at a defining moment of his ministry. He’s been baptized and tempted. He’s called his disciples. He’s been teaching and preaching and evangelizing. And now he begins a powerful chapter of healing and restoration; dancing everything back to life. Jesus meets a funeral procession; a solemn, mourning people shuffling to the cemetery. Dirges are wailed. Laments are moaned.
And today’s funeral procession has a focus, not on a dead man, but on his devastated mother. This woman, known only as the Widow of Nain, is found in no other biblical account. Her sorrow is gripping. Here’s a widow without her only son, left in a man’s world. It’s a picture of destitution. Her future without her son’s support and security, is grim; her circumstances dire. She’s left in total dependence upon the crowd around her. [v]
And yet, when Jesus witnesses her heartache, he has, not pity or kindness or sympathy. He has compassion.
“Do not weep,” he says. Compassion.
“Do not cry,” he murmurs. Compassion.
The biblical word for compassion comes from the Greek word) splagcna, literally meaning: to have tender mercy straight from the bowels; to have affection from the gut; to have heart from the innards. Jesus’ compassion is a tender mercy straight from the gut.
The root of compassion comes straight from the very pit of our being. That plummeting in our guts when you hear really shocking news, when we witness injustice, when we experience something so terribly unexpected that our hearts drops into your stomach.
Jesus was sucker punched by the Widow of Nain, so much so that power came forth as he touched the dead man’s body and breath filled the dead man’s lungs: “Young man. I say to you. Rise!” “Young man. I say to you. Rise!”
That’s the root of Jesus’ closer walk with the Widow of Nain: his compassion is more than an understanding look, his concern more than a sympathetic word, [vi] his consideration more than complacent pity.
For Christians, our acts of compassion must be in service to the broken and despairing. Our acts of concern are jazzed on behalf of the bereaved and confused. If we let it, our acts of consideration can completely undermine antagonism and resentment. Acts of compassion can absolutely weaken hatred and cut through fear. They become the indispensable way to rid the world of numbness and detachment. Compassion, through our Savior, is perhaps the only thing that can save us from ourselves.[vii]
The Widow of Nain 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 weep. There are no words about faith, or gratitude, or praise; just a mother’s tears.[viii]
We’re a church with a lot of tears. We’re moved by many things. We cry easily. Especially when we witness acts forgiveness, see the depth of relationships, the bravery of children, the generosity of older adults.
This week at Vacation Bible School I witnessed a lot of generosity and compassion. Sweet and seemingly simple things like the holding of a hand, the wiping away of a tear, the affirmation of a, “Job well done,” the promise of “Let’s try that again.”
One thing that moved me most was the line of children who came to the Bible Verse Station. This was simply a lectern with stamps and ink pads, and each time a camper came to the station, they would take their turn, stand at the station, say aloud their Daily Memory Verse, open their booklet, and to receive a stamp. By the end of the week their booklets are filled with color and drawings and stamps.
Day One “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
Day Two “Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:38)
Day Three “Rejoice always. Pray continuously.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:16–17)
Day 4 “People will come from east and west, north and south, and sit down to eat in God’s kingdom.” (Luke 13:29)
Some of the 114 children at VBS were from our church. Half were not. Three-year-old’s to rising six graders. When they came to the lectern there was hesitation, shyness, and caution. For many kids it was the first verses of scripture they had embraced and owned. For others they came with laughter and liveliness shouting and twirling their verses.
For one little boy, his chin down to his chest I asked if might repeat his verse again because I couldn’t hear him.
“Hey buddy,” I said. “Can you look up a bit so I can hear? I really want to hear what you have to say.”
Very, very slowly he raised his chin, looked left and right, up and down, then found my eyes.
I bend down a bit closer and he mouthed, “Nothing.” The word “Nothing.”
I asked, “Nothing?”
And then he whispered, “Nothing.”
Very long pause.
“Do you have nothing?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I have, ‘Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.’”
I was sucked punched. How did he know I needed compassion that day. I needed healing. Slow and hesitant, he smiled. And we stared at one another. We stared, with a compassion for one another. Then he beamed and I beamed. And I took his booklet and stamped it with as many colors and stamps as I could find.
This sweet little boy preaches the Gospel News for us all. No matter how shy or how cautious we are, .no matter how worried or anxious, detached or depressed, hopeless or helpless; no matter how many secrets we keep, “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing…can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.”
It’s pure joy deep from the gut. It’s good news we all need to hear.
This little boy from VBS calls us to action, a kind of whispering compassion that comes deep from the gut.
When our Lord restores to a widow her son, he restores her world.
When our Lord guides a church to practice compassion, he restores our world.
That’s what the kingdom of God does: Restores us. Raises us. Resurrects us. Thanks be to God.
[i] Luke 7: 11-17 Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As Jesus approached the gate of the town, a young man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then Jesus came forward and touched the bier, [That is the frame on which the young man’s body is laid.] and the bearers stood still. And Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave the young man to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and
“God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about Jesus spread throughout Judea and
all the surrounding country.
[ii] “Multi-Cultural Traditions: The Jazz Funeral.” Originally printed in The Soul of New Orleans. www.neworleansonline.com.
[iii] Just a Closer Walk With Thee (anonymous)
I am weak but Thou art strong
Jesus keep me from all wrong
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be
When my feeble life is o’er
Time for me will be no more
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom’s shore, to Thy shore Refrain
[v] Beverly R. Gaventa Charles B. Cousar, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year C. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 379-80.
[vii] Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination. New York: Fortress Press, 1978, 91.
[viii] Kim Buchanan. Sermon: From Procession to Party. Luke 7:11-17. Day1: A Ministry for the Alliance of Christian Media, Atlanta, Georgia, June 10, 2007.