Pentecost 3: Procession of Life

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Readings: 1 Kings 17: 8 – 24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1: 11 – 24, Luke 7: 11 – 17

Cathedrals are known for their processions, and St Peter’s Cathedral is no exception. Sunday by Sunday we witness processions – the choir coming down from under the organ loft, the sanctuary party entering down the other aisle. Last Sunday morning, immediately following the baptisms at the font, the newly baptised processed down the aisle to be formally welcomed into God’s family. During Advent and Lent we have a solemn procession as the Great Litany is sung, and on All Saints’ Day we process, with all banners flying, in a figure of eight. Yesterday a beautiful bride, accompanied by her bridesmaids, made a stately procession down the aisle to stand alongside her beloved. My favourite cathedral procession is the one we make very early on Easter morning when, with the cathedral in darkness, the newly lit Easter or Paschal candle is processed through the nave.

Processions are not limited to cathedrals though. A few weeks ago I stood watching the ANZAC parade as it made its way down King William Street, across the Torrens to end in front of the Cathedral. Band after band led the marchers, many in wheel chairs, almost all sporting service medals. The watching crowds clapped and cheered as those who served our country in war processed through the streets. On Christmas Eve Sudanese Anglicans process from Victoria Square and into the Cathedral. Protest processions are common in the city – banners proclaiming this or that cause, bull-horns barking instructions and encouraging people to respond to the question: “What do we want?” Military dictators of all ages have processed, showing off their power, and their victims. Royal weddings and anniversaries and ninetieth birthdays see the Brits out in force and colour with all the pomp and ceremony they do so well.

And then there are the funeral processions. I have taken part in a few that I vividly recall. As a national serviceman we spent hours practising slow-marching our way for a state funeral. And as a priest I have, of course, been part of many funeral processions as the coffin, followed by mourners, slowly made its way towards the grave. One of the most poignant was in my early days as a priest when, in a very poor community, we walked on foot the three miles from church to grave-side, the tiny white coffin of a child carried in the arms of the grieving father.

It was this last procession I thought of when reading today’s Gospel. It’s a story with two processions. There is first the noisy joyful clamouring procession of Jesus and his disciples followed by a large crowd entering the town of Nain. Full of life and energy we can imagine the scene and the excitement. Here comes the miracle worker, the great teacher, come and see, what will he do next? Coming out of the town is a much more subdued procession – a mother’s only son has died, and the mourners are carrying his body for burial.

There is a lot in a few short sentences. The dead man is his widowed mother’s only son. Not only is there the grief of the mother in losing her son, there is, to those who know, the grief of a life that is effectively over for the mother. In her society and culture a woman without a husband was at risk of starvation – all her hopes would have been pinned on her son. And now he was dead. The ‘widows and orphans’ are frequently mentioned in the Bible. They were the most vulnerable people in a patriarchal society – alone, without support, they were as good as dead, their situation desperate.

Last Friday I listened to Archbishop Jeffrey speaking to a group of church leaders. He was reflecting on today’s Gospel reading and his recent trip to Bor in South Sudan. Since his last visit there three years ago, the city has been invaded three times. As he processed into the Cathedral to preach, just a month ago, he was, he said, acutely aware of a new structure just metres from the main door of St Andrew’s Cathedral. It was a mass grave. In one of the recent invasions during the bitter civil war, young men, boys only some of them, had taken shelter in the cathedral, seeking the sanctuary of that holy place. The invaders, armed with the AK 47s so readily available in a country awash with weapons, took scant notice of the sacredness of the building and opened fire. Twenty-six people were killed, their blood flowing into the mud floor. It is they who are buried in the grave.

And it is their mothers and wives, many of them childless widows now, wearing the uniform of the Mothers’ Union, that great organisation of women so strong in the African church, who grieve; who, like the widow of Nain in the Gospel, or the widow of Zarephath in our first reading, wonder what will become of them now. Both Jeffrey and Lindi Driver talk of the grief of those women of Bor. And there are some in our congregation who will know exactly what I am talking about. It’s bad enough to lose one’s life partner, to lose one’s child, but there is a second death in a society where a woman depends on having a man to provide food and clothing and shelter.

Of course, it is not only in Bor, or Nain, or Zarephath, that these processions of death are found. Our world has become almost immune, perhaps inured is a better word, to the suffering of people. We see so much of it. It becomes so overwhelming – the constant parade of images across our television screens. The refugees from Syria, another boat load of hundreds of North African people wrecked off Greece, the long-forgotten refugee communities who have crossed borders and oceans in search of life, those who are sent to Manus or Nauru.

An extraordinary thing happened in Nain. The two processions, one throbbing with vibrancy and excitement around Jesus, the other accompanying the widow to bury her only son – a procession of life and a procession of death – these two processions meet and life, in a sense, stands still. Jesus, filled with compassion, that deep deep emotion that wells up from inside him, speaks – and everything changes. Where there was death, now there is life. Where there was hopelessness, now there is hope. In the context of the Gospel this incident is a metaphor of something far more than simply a poor widow receiving her son back (wonderful as that is.) It says much about the life-changing, life-giving encounter with the living God in Christ. This is Easter stuff.

All three of this morning’s readings have something to say about the life-changing effect of God. The widow of Nain is surprised by life; the widow of Zarephath encounters Elijah, prophet of God in a dry and barren country, devoid of both water and faith; even Paul, in Galatians, is able to look back at his pre-Jesus life and see God already at work in him. But it is Psalm 146 that should really capture our attention, for there, as so often in the psalms, we find the nature of God and the nature of our relationship with God, spelt out.

“Put not your trust in princes, nor in flesh and blood, which cannot save” says the psalmist. But “blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” The contrast is clear, as it so often is in the Bible. Without God, life is empty. With God, there is life in abundance. Psalm 146 goes on to speak of the Lord giving food to the hungry, setting the captives free, sight to the blind, lifting up those bowed down in grief and hardship, caring for the stranger in the land. And here is the remarkable thing. For it is these very same attributes, these activities, that Jesus talks about in that remarkably challenging parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. The clear expectation of Jesus is that those who follow him, who claim his name as Christians will do the same – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, care for the widow and orphan and so on. It is this knowledge, this sentiment, that has always inspired Christians, and plenty of other people, to think beyond themselves – to bring food week by week for the Magdalene Centre, to go to dangerous places in the world and set up medical clinics, to spend years researching and seeking cures for killer diseases, to knit squares for blankets that will keep people warm, who work with and support organisations like Kairos, World Vision, ABM, Guide Dogs and all the other things that bring life and beauty and joy in all its fullness into the world.

At the heart of the Gospel message, as it was at the heart of the message of the ancient people of God who gave us our scriptures, are those life-changing concepts of justice, righteousness, mercy, love and peace.

Later in this service you will be invited to join a procession. It’s not a long one – but it is a significant one. The invitation is to draw near and receive the Body and Blood of Christ – of him who died so that we might have life. And then, at the end of the service, we are invited to go on another procession – this time out into the world, to live and work, to love and serve the Lord – in, and through, our neighbour, whoever, whatever and wherever they may be.