Archives For Funeral

     For my last act at Aldersgate Church before moving to Annandale United Methodist Church, I buried a 14 year old boy who in a foolish, impetuous act took his own life. It was an accident in the most impulsive sense of the word. I’ve presided over far too many funerals for such acts and, at Aldersgate, far too many funerals for children. Here’s the sermon on John 11 and John 20. One of the speakers at the service read that terrible poem “Do Not Weep for Me,” forcing me to riff on it in my sermon, which I’ve added into the manuscript here.     

“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as Dennis said at the beginning in the Call to Worship.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus says to the grief-stricken sisters, Martha and Martha, right before he asks them- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

     The scripture text doesn’t mention the sisters’ mom and dad. Likely, because they were too numb to even come outside to see Jesus. The scripture doesn’t mention the boy’s many friends from all over though likely they too were there with casseroles and cards, grieving, wanting something to do to help, wishing they’d been there and muttering I should’ve done something.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life…even though you’ll die yet will you live…do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. And Martha, her eyes salty and pink with tears and voice hoarse from rage, exhausted from grief, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

     But probably-

     Let’s be honest, this is the last place where we should lie or pretend. 

     Probably his sister wants to say “No.”

     No, I do not believe. No, it’s too hard to believe. No, it’s too easy to believe- it’s foolish and silly to believe given everything that’s happened. No, it’s a waste of time to believe- what good did belief do when they most needed it?

     After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up the sisters’ brother, Lazarus, is four days dead.

     Dead.

     And he didn’t have to be. 

     His was an unnecessary death.

     When she first found him, ill, his sister had sent word to Jesus: “Lazarus, your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.” But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored her prayer. He didn’t heed his sisters’ cries for help as seriously as he should have; so that, by the time Jesus shows up it’s too late and, by Martha’s estimation, it’s every bit unnecessary. It didn’t need to end the way it did: “Lord, if you had been here and done something,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

     In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.

     Whenever someone dies, especially when they die unnecessarily, it’s tempting to reach for an explanation, to find a reason, to search for someone to second-guess or something to blame. 

     But notice- 

     Jesus doesn’t bother about any explanations or reasons. 

     He’s not interested in second-guessing blame.

Or maybe, by not rebutting the sister’s blame, Jesus is telling us that if we’re going to blame anyone then, yeah, go ahead and blame him. 

     He can take it.

     To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”

For all you who might slip into language about how God has plan for everything, even in Death, I’m going to take a timeout for a little Sunday School scripture lesson. 

The Bible calls Death God’s Enemy with a capital E. It’s what God promises to defeat in Jesus Christ one day still. It’s why Jesus weeps and groans before his friend’s grave. 

     The Bible calls Death the Enemy for a reason, I think. 

     It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death. Especially an unnecessary death. An impetuous, impassioned or accidental one. 

     We don’t know the why or the how of their brother’s death. We just know it didn’t have to be. 

     “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” the sister asks and, I’m willing to bet, poked Jesus in the chest or, even, slapped him across the face.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life…Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her, and her mouth says “Yes” but her heart?

————————-

     “Do you believe this?”

      Do you? Do you?

     All of you- you’re all Martha today.

     Some of you’d say “Yes, I believe” but really if you’re honest the answer is no.

     For others of you the answer is “No.” 

    You don’t believe. 

    You don’t believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life, but, God, you want the answer to be yes. 

     You don’t want Death to have the last word, especially when you were denied the opportunity to have your last words with Peter- your last time to hear him talk in his funny accents, your last time to see him jump off, flip off, a picnic table and pile drive himself into the playground dirt, your last time to see him climb a tree, reenact Titanic in the pool fountain, or give you one of his big, broad shit-eating grins. 

     And so you don’t believe, but, even more than Fox Mulder, you want to believe. 

     And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!? What’s the use of you?!”

     The yes on Martha’s lips. The no on her grief heavy heart. The righteous anger in her throat and in her eyes. We’re all somewhere in between on days like today. We’re all Martha.

————————-

     This isn’t how I wanted to leave Aldersgate. 

     In my years here, I’ve presided over way too many services like this one- for kids, especially- I know what it’s like to feel that the answer is no.

     “No, I don’t believe.”

I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a central part of their scripture a belief in life after death.

     Take those together-

I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ.

     But you’re here for a funeral. You’re not here for me to convince you the answer is yes. Yes, he’s the Resurrection and the Life of us all.

     Except-

     The other reading we heard from the Gospel of John, it’s an Easter text. 

     Mary Magdalene, who’s come to the garden tomb to mourn, mistakes the Risen Jesus for the gardener because Resurrection and Life are not in any way her expectation.

     She mistakes him for the gardener.

     Gardener is the job Adam was given by God to do in Eden, which is to say, this Risen Jesus- he is what we’re meant to be. He is who we will become. What God does with him God will do with us all. 

      His Resurrection is but the first fruit, the Apostle Paul promises, of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing. When Mary realizes it’s really him, she grabs ahold of him. In her hands she clasps his scarred hands. 

     Notice- his scars are still there. In his hands and his feet and his side. He still bears his scars; that is, the life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated. Not erased but redeemed- recovered and reclaimed in resurrection.

     The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus; that is, he is who he was.

     That Mary mistakes him for the gardener, what Adam was meant to be; that he still bears his scars and his wounds, reveals what Christians mean by that word ‘resurrection.’

     Namely, this world and this life- it matters. 

     It matters to Almighty God.

     Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality, which suggests that this life is ancillary to the life to come has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with resurrection.

     Mary mistakes him for the gardener; therefore, resurrection means that God has not abandoned the garden that he planted.

     God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus back to the world to say, “Don’t worry … after you die you’ll be OK.”

     No, God resurrected Jesus.

     The resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us something about what God has planned for the world, what God has planned for us. 

     With all due respect-

     God’s not freaking satisfied for Peter just to be “the diamond glints of snow” or on “the winds of blow.”

A poem like that is comforting to NO ONE who loved Peter.

Peter is here in this coffin and you damn well know it, and you should- we should all- be weeping because Death is the Enemy of God.

     But the promise of the Gospel:

God is not content to leave him there.

God is determined to raise him up

So that Lisa can hold, touch, and kiss him again. 

     God plans to restore him, restore THIS world. Resurrect him and us all. The Risen Christ still bears the scars life gave him; therefore, resurrection means that God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else. 

     God doesn’t forget anything but our sins. Otherwise, why on earth would God go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? God didn’t say, “It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”

     No.

     God raised Jesus from the dead; therefore, resurrection means this world that God made matters. Resurrection means that this world, this life— our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work, our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies—

     Literally, everything, it all matters.

     Every Fort Hunt baseball game, every evening hanging out at a West Po football game or around a fire pit, every rope swim and flip into the water. 

     It all matters.

     Every ‘I love you’ and every moment spent driving around in the cart at the golf course and every popsicle. The first girlfriend and the first YouTube inspired rabbit snare.

     All of it matters. Every bit of it. All of Peter and every bit of your life with him and what you do with your life now without him. It all matters. It all matters to God.

When we gather on days like today, people often will refer to it as a “celebration of life.” I hate that language. I hate it because it doesn’t lift the luggage.

     For one, it compels us to be dishonest. 

     It temps us to lie and ignore our feelings of grief and confusion. It forces us to ignore the fact that not every part of our lives is a cause for joy, that our lives lived together aren’t always easy. 

     It forces us to pretend that if Peter were here with you he wouldn’t apologize- he would. 

     He’d say he’s sorry to cause you this pain. 

     He’d asked for your forgiveness. 

     And he’d say he wished that none of you had to be here today.

     For another, I hate that “celebration of life” language because it doesn’t go far enough in the celebration.

     We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our ability to remember it. No, the Christian hope is different than the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 

     We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our memory of it. 

     We’re celebrating a life that God has promised and is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

     Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. 

     He still bears the holes in his hands. 

     Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. 

     God doesn’t throw things out. 

     God doesn’t let us throw anything out.

Resurrection means that even if we forsake our life, God does not forsake us.

     Resurrection means God will reclaim everything, redeem everything, renew everything, heal everyone.

     Nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken. 

     One day, by God, everything broken will be mended. 

     Every tear will be dried and every reason for all those tears will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, no matter their length, are gift.

Resurrection means that in the end God gets what God wants.

And what God wants is each of every creature that God has made and God has loved and God has called very good- very good, even when we couldn’t always say that about ourselves.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks.

     I realize occasions like today draw all sorts of people from all kinds of places. 

     I can’t make assumptions about you or what you believe.

     But Christians are those people trust the ‘Yes’ even when we feel the answer’s ‘No.’

     Christians are the people who dare to live beautiful and complicated lives, lives of forgiveness and mercy and compassion and inconvenient love, lives that make no sense if the answer to Jesus’ question is not ‘Yes.’

     Christians are the people who live as though we will live on—as Jesus lives on—as the unique and unrepeatable persons we have been since the moment of our conception.

     Live on—body and soul glorified—as it was with Jesus in the Garden—the first fruits of the Resurrection—able to be touched and held, seen and heard. 

     Again.

     Christians are those who believe we are not ghosts in machines that go back to being ghosts, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation.

     Christianity is not spirituality.

     The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.

     We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers—laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones—will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids.

     All made alive again forever—somehow—redeemed by the humble power of God’s love.

     Christians believe that God keeps all the information of us and all the mystery about us, and that the God who created everything from nothing knows how to raise us from Death.

     That’s our hope.

     That’s what we mean by Jesus being “the Resurrection and the Life.”

Do you believe this?

Funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe it or not, whether you have faith in it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us. 

     To Todd and Lisa, to Catherine and Sydney, to Peter…

     Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.

michelangelo_pieta_grtI’m in Ohio this week for my grandfather’s funeral.

Six years ago I attended the funeral of my other grandfather. His death occurred in the winter, just before Advent.

This is the Advent sermon I preached shortly after his burial. Though the sermon is about Mary’s ‘Let it be…’ I think it’s still appropriate for Holy Week, for this is the week we confront the full measure of Mary’s words.

November 30, 2008

This past weekend I helped Father Stephen Bloom bury my father’s father.

It was the first time I’ve participated with the funeral of someone in my own family. The service was held at St. Charles Catholic Church in Northern Ohio. In the sanctuary, stained glass scenes wrapped around the pentagonal spire. In the center was a picture of creation. To its left, the disciples were fishing in what looked like the Ohio River. Next to it, Jesus was feeding loaves and fishes to a multitude of hungry factory workers.

Carved, wooden reliefs of the Stations of the Cross lined the circumference of the cross-shaped sanctuary, and in front of the front pew where I sat with my sister was a copper drum filled with baptismal water.

I watched numbly as Father Bloom draped a pall over my grandpa’s oak casket- the casket’s pewter crucifix bulging through the pall’s gray cloth. I watched as the Father took what looked like twiney bristles from a broom and flicked baptismal water over my grandpa.

Try as I might I didn’t really hear any of the scripture readings read by my cousins and I sang along to the 23rd Psalm without really thinking- but then, maybe that’s the point of such familiar words.

I spoke and when I was done I watched Father Bloom celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of my family. I knelt in the front pew and watched while others received the sacrament.

Now, there was a statue of Mary with her hands folded together on the wall in the front end of the sanctuary. While I was on my knees- because of the architecture and lines of the room- I noticed that it looked like Mother Mary was standing directly above my grandfather, praying for him. A sight my Protestant eyes are unused to seeing.

In fact, Mary was more of a fixture in my grandpa’s funeral service than I was prepared for.

During the intercessory prayer when the priest intoned over and again: ‘Blessed Mary, pray for us…’ I wasn’t sure whether or not I should join in and echo back.

And during the committal, when Father Bloom placed his hands on my grandpa’s casket and prayed: ‘May angels guide you and may Holy Mother Mary come forth to welcome you and lead you into the Holy City’ I didn’t know whether to say ‘Amen’ or ‘Hold on just a minute!’

When it comes to Mary, it’s my experience that most Protestant Christians know more about what they do not believe than they actually know about her.

For example, as a Protestant I know I don’t believe that Mary, after Jesus’ birth, was forever, perpetually a virgin. Nor do I believe that Mary herself was immaculately, miraculously conceived in her mother’s womb.

As a Protestant Christian I know I’m supposed to shake my head ‘no’ at the notion that- rather than suffering death- Mary, like Elijah, was lifted up into heaven. And I know that Mary is not the one whom I worship. Mary is not the one who decides my salvation and praying to her seems to walk a suspicious line.

When it comes to Mary, I know what I don’t believe.

I know too that we could rename this church St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s or St. Stephens. We change the sign out front to read Faith or Wesley or Collingwood Community United Methodist Church. No one would ever let us get away with St. Mary’s United Methodist Church.

As a Protestant Christian, I know Mary’s name would be off limits but, to be honest, I don’t know why.

After all, Mary’s name comes up 217 times in the New Testament, nearly as many times as Peter or Paul. When almost everyone else has given up and fled, it’s Mary who’s at the foot of Jesus’ cross. And if she was in Jerusalem for Jesus’ arrest and trial then chances are she was by his side throughout his entire ministry.

As a Protestant Christian I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but why is it I forget that when Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the faithful, Mary is among those set loose to prophesy and proclaim?

Or that when Luke describes the early church breaking bread, praying and sharing their possessions with one another, Mary is one of the few leaders he identifies by name.

Most commentaries on today’s passage go out of their way to stress how the Annunciation is a story of God’s initiative and power. When Gabriel climbs in through Mary’s bedroom window, it’s God’s grace at work. You don’t see Him but God is the main character here.

The Annunciation, these commentators stress, is a display that God can work through the unlikely and unable- just like with Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth. What God can do through Mary’s womb is just a foretaste of what God can accomplish on a Cross.

Nothing, after all, is impossible with God.

It’s a story of God’s initiative. It’s not a story set in motion by Mary’s goodness- that’s all you need to remember in order to be a good Protestant. But once you’ve gotten that bit of doctrine nailed down, what else do we say about Mary?

Because there’s got to be more to say.

For most of us, Mary disappears from Jesus’ story as soon as the Christmas crèche is put away, but it’s ridiculous to think that once he’s born Mary simply disappears from Jesus’ life.

If Jesus is fully human, if the paradox is true and he’s as much flesh and blood as you or me, then someone taught Jesus his aleph, bet and gimmels.

Someone taught him to pray. Jesus sat on someone’s lap and learned the meaning of his name: God saves.

Someone taught him to treat others like he would want to be treated. When other children were mean to him, someone probably patted Jesus’ back and said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’

And once a year someone sat Jesus around the family supper table and broke bread and poured out wine and taught Jesus to remember the violent night when God rescued them from bondage.

Someone kept faith and kept Gabriel’s promise alive during those growing up years when the angel’s promise was anything but obvious- and that someone was probably Mary.

Mary was most likely only 13- certainly no older than 16. She was poor, from a poor, obscure town.

Maybe she was dreaming or praying or planning her wedding day when the angel Gabriel erupts in her room and surprises her with the news that just like the opening day of creation God was about to bring a very big something from nothing.

But the biggest surprise has to be that Mary says ‘Yes.’

A surprise because Mary says ‘Let it be’ to Gabriel, many months before she says ‘I do’ to Joseph.

Mary and Joseph were not yet married but Mary’s betrothal to him was legally binding in 1st century Judaism. She couldn’t yet sleep with Joseph, but she could be charged with adultery should she sleep with another man.

Maybe Gabriel didn’t know that but you can bet Mary did.

Don’t forget. No one else is in the room when the angel breaks the news. What’s Mary supposed to tell people- that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she’s pregnant with the long-promised Messiah?

As far as public scrutiny went, God was asking Mary to become an unwed, teenage mother.

When Mary says ‘Yes’ to Gabriel, she’s saying ‘Yes’ to being labeled an adultress.

People would question the integrity of her marriage. People would gossip about her son’s real father. People would curse her, shun her, call her names not fit for church or temple and they would wish disaster on her pregnancy. Her husband’s reputation would be ruined and her son would be forever ostracized.

You see, Luke doesn’t spell it out in his Gospel because he assumes you know what treatment Mary can expect to receive for saying ‘Yes’ to God’s calling.

According to Old Testament law, for her untimely pregnancy, if accused Mary would have her clothes torn and her body exposed. She’d be forced to let her down. She’d be displayed at the town entrance where the public and passersby would be encouraged to stare at her and shame her.

If Mary protested or denied any wrongdoing, then, according to Numbers 5, Mary would be forced by a priest to drink a bitter concoction mixed of dust, ink from her written condemnation and holy water.

If the potion made her sick, then she was guilty and, according to Deuteronomy 22, she would be led to the town gate. There, she would be stoned.

Mary’s suffering begins 33 years and 9 months before her son’s suffering.

She carries her cross before Jesus even learns to walk.

That’s what Luke assumes you know when he tells us that Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s news.

What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the many risks, Mary says: ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’

Unlike Moses or Jonah or Jeremiah, Mary doesn’t protest: Isn’t there an easier way? Can’t you choose someone else? Can’t you wait until next spring when Joseph and I are married? Can’t you send out a press release so everyone will know who his real father really is? But I’m afraid.

Mary doesn’t protest. She just says: ‘Yes.’

As a Protestant Christian, I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but how is it that I so easily miss the fact that, in the middle of Galilee, was an ordinary girl whose faith had prepared her to make a risk-filled commitment to God?

My skepticism about her perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven doesn’t change the fact that Mary knew and trusted God in a way no one had since Abraham.

The only explanation for Mary’s unhesitating ‘Yes’ is that she knew God, in his mercy, would look after her.

She knew that following God doesn’t necessarily lead to comfort or safety or material blessing, but it does guarantee that God will use you to be a blessing to the world.

Mary must have known the stories of people like Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab- she must have known that more often than not God uses ordinary people with ordinary means and ordinary gifts to do redemption’s work.

Mary knew that faith in our God doesn’t exempt you from hardship or struggle, but it does mean you’ll never be alone. You’ll never be forgotten. You’ll never be abandoned.

If you were to tell the story of my grandfather’s life, you would find that it’s a simple story to tell. Still, in the telling of it, you would, from time to time, have to use words like: FEAR, WORRY, DESPAIR and DEPRESSION.

Depending on which part of my grandpa’s story you were telling, you would have to use other words like: ADDICTION, INFIDELITY, ANGER, ILLNESS, GRIEF, LONELINESS.

Because of my parent’s divorce and our having moved away, I hadn’t seen much of my grandpa since I was 12 or 13 so I don’t honestly know what role faith played in my grandpa’s story.

But I know enough of his story to know that faith could have made all the difference.

It was only 10 degrees at my grandfather’s burial- so cold that Father Bloom’s numb fingers couldn’t turn the pages of his prayer book when it came time for the final prayer and benediction.

Standing at the head of my grandpa’s casket, Father Bloom improvised. He looked at the living gathered around my grandpa and said: May the grace of Jesus Christ fill you, and may the faith and obedience of Mary guide you. 

You could see my breath hit the cold air so loudly did I say: Amen.