Luke 7:11-17
Lauren J. McFeaters
June 5, 2016

Have you been to New Orleans? There’s the French Quarter and 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. Then there’s the food – the Po-Boys and oysters and crazy cocktails and Café du Monde’s café au lait.

And then, then… there are the cemeteries. Lots of them. They’re named St. Louis and Cypress Grove, Gates of Prayer and Greenwood, Holt and Lafayette, and Lake Lawn. So many cemeteries in so little space. They look like museums chocked full of statuary and above-the-ground crypts.

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 the practice became firmly rooted during funeral processions of African Americans.

A traditional jazz funeral begins at church. A solemn brass band is followed by a glass-sided hearse, very likely pulled by a white mule. The flowers go on top, the coffin is inside, and the mourners walk behind. Slowly, very slowly, the procession shuffles forward to the cemetery. Dirges are played: “Nearer My God to Thee” and “A Closer Walk with God.”(1)

Arriving at the grave site, the words of committal are said. The pall bearers lift the coffin and slide it into the mausoleum.

And then this happens: Silence, silence, silence, and then KAPOW! Celebration jazz music fills the air. Shouts of joy are raised. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The sufferings of the deceased are over. And GLORY ALLELUIA! The brass lifts up “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the celebration begins.

It’s the defining moment, a holy moment, a jazz-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, and dancing back to life.(2)

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 and he is jazzed.

He meets a funeral procession headed for burial. A solemn, mourning people shuffling to the cemetery. Dirges are wailed and moaned.

Today’s funeral procession has a focus not on a dead young man, but on his devastated mother. This woman, known only as the Widow of Nain, is found in no other biblical account, and as Beverly Gaventa says, this is a story about the restoration of a vulnerable woman and Jesus’ compassion for her.

The sorrow of the scene is gripping because it’s about a widow left in a man’s world, without her only son, and it’s a vivid picture of destitution. Her future without the son’s support and security is grim; her circumstances dire. And her grief is compounded by the shadowy prospect of what lies ahead.(3)

And yet, Jesus sees this woman, really understands her; he recognizes and “gets” her. And in his empathy he offers a holy, jazz-filled miracle, when…

  • Misery moves to joy.
  • Past moves to future.
  • Shuffling becomes swing.
  • Heads lift to sky.
  • A son rises and speaks.
  • A crowd struts forward, glorifying God and shouting, “Glory! God loves and cares for us!”

When our daughter Josie was four years old, she and ten other four-year-olds took their first ballet class at the YWCA. You can picture it. Pink tights and tutus. Minuscule ballet shoes. Hair in an up-do, ballet bun.

Week by week it was so sweet to watch these little ones skip and prance and romp. They barely had control of arms and legs. It mattered not. No inhibition or reserve. Weekly classes were one big flounce and frolic.

Josie’s class learned the basics of ballet through storytelling, movement, and music. And even though at the final recital we were the proudest of parents watching these little ones interpret Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, as only very little ones can do, it was another group of dance students, who came later in the program, who took our breath away.

These were older students, middle-school-aged girls, and they danced to the strains of Vivaldi’s Spring. The curtain opened and from stage left, a young dancer, very physically-challenged, quite possible with spina bifida, and certainly confined in a wheelchair, breezed across the floor. She literally took the heel of her hand to the electric wheelchair’s controls and swept across the stage.

I could not breathe. It was so stunning. I was sucker punched.

This young girl, dressed in full ballet costume, flowing blue skirt, beaded bodice, hair in an up-do, flew across the stage on four wheels with grace and poise and dignity.

Standing up on the back bar of the wheelchair, another girl, her partner in the dance, hands placed on the handlebars and striking a pose, an arabesque, breezed along with her.

Then from stage right, another dancer in an electric wheelchair, this girl with an oxygen mask, took flight and wafted across the stage like a fairy, lifting her arms in an arc, tutu fluttering behind her.

More girls entered the stage, all with partners who could guide them and hold them up, and it was the most beautiful sight, so poignant and so moving.

  • These were girls, some of whom could not walk but who could dance.
  • These were girls, some of whom could not talk but who could communicate so brilliantly.
  • These girls, all who needed physical support, ended up supporting the dance and each other artistically, creatively.

As we left the recital hall, one parent said to another, “Wasn’t it wonderful that these girls had such able-bodied partners who could lead them in the dance with so much compassion.”

But another parent stopped and said, “No. It was the girls in the wheelchairs who had the compassion, and it was pure joy, deep from the gut.” Joy, deep from the gut.

For Christians, we are called to a compassion that comes deep within our gut. 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.

The root of our compassion comes straight from our deepest nature, from the very pit of our being.

It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach: being sucker punched; that plunging in your middle when something becomes utterly vital; that plummeting in your gut when you hear really shocking or dreadful news, about an accident, a tragedy, a death, something so terribly unexpected that your heart drops into your stomach.

We’ve all been together in this sanctuary when a death is announced and a collective gasp goes up. That’s the root of compassion’s action.

That’s the root of Jesus’ action with the Widow of Nain and his compassion is more than an understanding look and a sympathetic word,(4) more than complacent pity.

For Christians:

  • Our acts of compassion should be jazzed.
  • If we let it, our acts of compassion can completely undermine the world of antagonism and resentment;
  • Acts of compassion can absolutely weaken hatred and cut through fear;
  • They can 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.(5)

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’s no word about faith or gratitude or praise, just a mother’s tears.(6)

When our Lord restores to a widow her son,
he restores her world.

When our Lord guides a church and a seminary to welcome a refugee family,
he restores the world.

That’s what the kingdom of God does:
Restores us,
Raises us,
Resurrects us.
Jazzes us.

(1) “Multi-Cultural Traditions: The Jazz Funeral.” Originally printed in The Soul of New Orleans. www.neworleansonline.com.
(2) Mary LaCoste. “New Orleans jazz funerals — a joyous tradition.” The Louisiana Weekly, www.louisianaweekly.com, September 22, 2014.
(3) 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.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination. New York: Fortress Press, 1978, 91. As found in Debbie Blue’s commentary, Blogging toward Sunday. Luke 7:11-17. The Blog of the Christian Century, June 10, 2007.
(6) 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.

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