Archives For Funerals

The first funeral I ever attended or performed was a suicide. Still a new seminary student, I was so determined to be “helpful” and do whatever the grieving family asked of me I lied. Rather, I aided and abetted their secret and shame. Neither the truth nor, consequently, the Gospel was spoken.

Since I know preaching funerals where the deceased has died by their hand can be hard, I offer this one from this weekend as an example, not a good or perfect one just more honest than that first attempt. I owe Kenneth Tanner a big shout-out for assisting me.

Here it is, using both John 11 and John 20.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as I 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 Martha right before he asks her- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

“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, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

But probably- Let’s be honest, probably she 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 in Resurrection and Life. After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up her brother Lazarus is four days dead.

Dead. And he didn’t have to be. His was an unnecessary death.

When Lazarus first fell ill, Martha had sent word to Jesus: “Your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.”

But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored the warning. He didn’t heed the cry 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,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

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

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

Scripture calls it the Enemy for a reason. It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death.

Especially an unnecessary death.

We don’t know the why or the how of Lazarus’ death. We just know it didn’t have to be. “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” Martha 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 _________.

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

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.

————————-

     I’ve presided over too many services like this one- and don’t get me started on the kids I’ve buried or the forsakenness I’ve felt- 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 part of their religion a belief in life after death.

Take those together and 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-

In here, on our calendar, it’s still Eastertide, the season of Resurrection, a season that began with the scripture reading you heard this morning from the Gospel of John.

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 of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing.

When she 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.

     The life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated.

The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus. 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, that suggests our ultimate destination is an evacuation from this world has 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. God plans to restore THIS world.

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.

If that were the case, why on earth go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? And not just him but God raised him as the first fruit of God raising us all.

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 pitch, every batting practice thrown, every conversation breaking down your swing.

It all matters.

Every game coached. Every reluctant walk along the beach. Every date night in Old Town.

All of it matters.

Every piece of unsolicited volleyball advice. Every vegan chicken sandwich shared. Every trip to Philly or Boston or New Orleans. Every GPS-induced “shit show.” Every ‘I love you’ left unsaid or said in deeds if not words.

All of it. Every bit of it.

All of ________ 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, neither was every part of ________’s life nor the way ended he it. It forces us to pretend that if _____ were here with us he wouldn’t apologize and 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 is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener. He still bears the holes in his hands. Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. God doesn’t throw things 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.

Belinda Carlisle was right; she just got the tense of her verbs wrong. Heaven will be a place on Earth, a New Earth- a New Creation- and nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken, everything broken will be mended.

Every wound will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, 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 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, whether ______ believed it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us.

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

 

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For episode #44 of the podcast, newcomer to the posse, Taylor Mertins, joins me for a conversation with: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

 

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which has become a podcast tradition.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can find them all on the brand spanking new Crackers and Grape Juice website Teer built for us.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

PLEASE HELP US REACH MORE PEOPLE: 

GO TO OUR PAGE IN ITUNES AND GIVE US A REVIEW AND RATING

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Many of you have messaged me to ask for the funeral sermon for Joshua, the 6th grade boy in our community that we buried this weekend. He died of cancer. The sermon is by no means adequate. I can only pray by its inadequacy it testifies to how there is no ‘explanation’ to a child’s suffering apart from a suffering, incarnate God.

As the school choir planned to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I chose Genesis 9 to pair with Matthew 18.1-6 for my texts. At a time when many grumble about public schools being antagonistic towards churches and when many lament the alienation between black and white communities, Josh’s tragic death proved the begrudgers woefully wrong on both counts. Both school and church partnered to shepherd Josh to the grave, and his funeral service proved that the name of Father, Son,  and Spirt unites many of us in a way that transcends color or culture.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, when I first went to visit Josh in the hospital, Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers. Josh had written them.

Joshua knew his bible. And why should he not know his bible backwards and front? Josh didn’t just enjoy music and video games and basketball; Josh wanted to be a pastor when he grew up too.

If I’d had more time with Joshua I might’ve tried to talk him out of being a pastor. After all, it’s not a gig that pays very well but, then, Josh is smarter than me and he already had a plan figured out for that wrinkle.

He thought Richard should go to med school, become a doctor, and that way Richard would earn plenty of money to support his little brother the pastor.

The truth is-

Josh already was a pastor. To you all.

Josh already was a pastor.

He played the peace-maker among his friends, with his siblings, and even to his parents.

Everyone’s takeaway attribute about Josh was his kindness and kindness, in the bible, is what St. Paul refers to as the fruit of God’s Spirit. So St. Paul would agree Josh was already a pastor.

Ever since he got sick last March Josh was the one who consoled his Mom and Dad. He’s the one who calmed their fears and worries. He’s the one who comforted them in their grief. He was their pastor.

And he was the one who gave me the words to pray over him that Sunday in the hospital.

That same Sunday some of Josh’s classmates from Stratford Landing were here at church for our sixth grade confirmation class.

They were learning about the Book of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, and they were at the part in the story, just after the story of Noah, the part where God calls Abraham and makes his covenant-his promises- with Abraham.

I wish so much Joshua had been here at church that Sunday instead of in a hospital bed. I wish Josh had been a part of our confirmation class that day. Whenever I teach our confirmation lesson on Abraham, I act out the story with the kids.

“I need a volunteer for the lesson” I always say.

If Josh had been in the class that Sunday I’m sure I would’ve seen a kid wearing a Redskins jersey and sporting a sideways, wise-guy grin shoot his skinny arm up in the air to volunteer.

Joshua wasn’t self-conscious at all, after all, so I’m willing to bet his hand would’ve been the first to go up.

If Josh had been in the confirmation class that day, then I would’ve picked him out from all the other raised hands and called him forward so that he stood in front of me with the crowd of students around us.

And then I would’ve put my hands on his shoulders, and I’d set the scene for Abraham’s story. But before I did, I’d probably need to stop and look down to the boy standing there in my arms and I’d probably need to ask: ‘Wait, tell me your name again.’

And he would’ve said: ‘Josh.’
‘Josh,’ I would’ve said, ‘today you’re Abraham.’

And he probably would’ve shot me his sideways grin and said: ‘Cool.’

Then with my hands on his shoulders, I would’ve told the story of God calling Abraham to come near and look up at the stars in the night sky and to imagine that all of those stars in the sky every one of them was like a promise of God.

A promise that would come true for him.

With my hands on Josh’s shoulders I would’ve explained how those stars were signs of the all great things God wanted to do through him.

——————————

The next night, the night he died, I held Josh’s head and I rubbed his hair and, with my voice caught in my throat, I whispered a prayer: ‘Father, receive Josh into your Kingdom. Receive him, God, with the same love and joy we have for him.‘

That’s what I said, but really what I was praying was: ‘God make it not so.’

God make it not so.
And that’s been my prayer since that night.

Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring Josh back.
And there’s nothing any one of us here wouldn’t do to make you whole again. And just because that sounds impossible doesn’t mean every last one of us won’t try.

Ever since I let go of Joshua in the hospital room, I’ve wanted to one-up Job. I’ve wanted to shake my fist at the sky. I’ve wanted to curse and shout at God.

Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

I think even Jesus Christ would agree that those may be the truest words we can speak in this sanctuary today.

I know I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to be here. I don’t want any of us to need to be here. Because I want Josh to be here still.

I want his sideways smile and warm, wise guy grin to greet me on the Stratford Landing sidewalk.

I want his skinny arms to shoot basketballs on the playground with my son.

I want him to go to college and realize the potential God gave him.

I want to advance to the next level of Sonic and get old enough to play Mature Rated Xbox games.

I want him to sing at the Kennedy Center again, as a teenager, when he knows firsthand the romance in the love songs he could sing so well at 12.

I want Josh.

I don’t want to wade through questions that will never have answers.

I don’t want this grief that right now feels more real and nearer than our faith.

And I don’t want to celebrate memories.

Because there weren’t enough of them.

And there are too many dreams still remaining.

——————————

These last two weeks I’ve realized there’s not a lot of which I’m certain. I can’t answer the question: ‘Why?’

I don’t know why Josh is not here.

  • I don’t know why God calls this creation “very good” yet so often it feels “very bad.”
  • I don’t know why God can’t create a good world without cancer in it.
  • I don’t know why the prayers of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and neighbors go unanswered.

I can’t answer the why question.

And anyone who tells you they can answer the why question is a liar.

I can’t answer the why question, but I can tell you what is the wrong answer to the why questions.

God.

God’s not the answer to the why questions.

Why did this happen to Josh?

Why did Josh get sick?

Why did Josh die?

I can’t answer those why questions, but I can tell you that God is not the correct answer to any of them.

Josh would know. Josh was a pastor. Josh knew his bible.

So you can bet that Josh knew the scripture passage Stephanie read today from Genesis 9. Josh could tell you that what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when of the flood or the where it happened or the how of Noah getting all those animals inside the ark.

No, Pastor Josh could tell you what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when, where, or how. What’s important about the Noah story is the who.

The Book of Genesis isn’t trying to teach us about an ancient flood; it’s trying to teach us about the heart of God. And from that heart God makes a promise to Noah and to all of us. “I will never bring hurt and harm to any of my creation,” God promises.

And Pastor Josh could explain to you that in the Church we call a promise like that from God “covenant.” That is, neither Noah nor any of us have to do anything in order for God to keep that promise.

“I will never hurt and harm any of my creation,” God promises, “and just in case you forget I’ll put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of my promise.” 

When suffering and tragedy comes to you, let the rainbow help you remember, God says, I will never do anything to hurt you.

That’s the heart of God.

And Josh believed- enough to want to give his future to it- that that heart of God was revealed to us again and perfectly so in Jesus Christ.

That in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our lack of faith with Christmas. God doesn’t reject us; God comes among us in the flesh.

And in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our sin- to our cross-building- with Easter. God doesn’t punish us; God raises from the dead.

I can’t answer the why questions about Josh, but I can testify that God- the God Joshua loved- is the wrong answer to them.

Let the rainbows help you remember.

——————————

I can’t answer the why questions. But the one thing I do know, the one certainty I can lean on, the one question I can answer isn’t why, it’s: ‘Where? Where is Josh?’

The where question comes up several times in the Gospel stories. It happens more than once where the disciples interrupt to ask Jesus questions about heaven.

The disciples, like a lot of grown-ups, always want to worry themselves with questions about heaven, like: Who’s in? Who’s out? Except when it comes to heaven, the disciples just assume they’ll make the cut. After all, they’ve earned it.

The disciples don’t doubt they’ll make it to heaven, but they want Jesus to tell them their place in it. They want to hear Jesus tell them that one day they will sit closest to God’s throne.

They want to hear Jesus reassure them that of all the creatures in the world they are the most cherished.

“The disciples asked Jesus: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?”

And Jesus responds-
Jesus responds by picking a child out of the crowd.

Matthew doesn’t say- maybe Jesus picked the child out at random.

Or maybe…maybe the little boy in the crowd was a boy who loved to participate. Maybe he was the sort of little boy who never tired of helping and who was everyone’s best friend. Maybe Jesus picked him out of the crowd because his skinny little arm was the first to go shooting up in the air when Jesus said: ‘I need a volunteer for the lesson.’

And I imagine the boy in that crowd he might’ve had a Redskins cap on top of his head.

Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.

And Jesus puts his hands on his shoulders. Matthew doesn’t say- but maybe Jesus starts to explain, starts to answer the disciples’ question, but then stops and asks for the little boy’s name.

‘Josh’ he says.

And then to all the grown-ups who think they have things figured out, to all the adults who think they have the answers to life, to all the disciples with their assumptions about heaven- Jesus tells those grown-ups that if they want to get into heaven, then they have to be like this little boy.

That if they want to know heaven they have to know this little boy. They’ve got to get to know this kid.

This kid who’s:

kind and innocent and consoling who always tells the truth and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body

so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

This kid who could make any parent seem like a great parent and who made you look forward to the kind of parent he would be one day.

This kid would could remind you why you wanted to be teacher in the first place.

And who could make every rotten day as a principal seem worth it.

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, if you want to know about heaven then you’ve got to get to know this little boy. 

No, you’ve got to become just like him. 

It’s going to be hard for me to read these Bible passages from Genesis 9 and Matthew 18 and not think of Josh in the future.

And on the one hand, that terrifies me.
And on the other hand, I think that’s the way it should be.
Because Josh was filled with a spirit that could’ve only come from Jesus Christ.

——————————

I can’t begin to answer why Josh isn’t here, but I do know where Josh is now.

I know because whenever anyone asks Jesus about heaven in the bible, Jesus responds by saying ‘You’ve got to know this kid.’

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven, he doesn’t say anything about billowy clouds or streets of gold. He never points to Peter and says: ‘You’re going to be manning the gates for eternity.’

No, he talks about kids:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

‘Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ 

‘Let the little children come to me…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 

And then at the end of the Bible, St John paints a picture of a day when tears and sadness will be no more.

And at the end of that passage is a picture of God with children.
I can’t answer the why question. But I do know where Josh is now.

Somewhere else in the Gospels Jesus says the door to heaven is ‘small.’

But I think it’s small in the sense that its like 4 1/2 feet tall.

Because when the disciples ask about heaven, Jesus says it’s kids like Joshua who are the greatest in the Kingdom.

And there’s another time when they ask Jesus about heaven.

Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.

Those who cry. Those who grieve. Those who ache. Those who wish it weren’t so.

And that may not be good news, but it does means we’ll see Josh again soon.

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

I’m closing in on my 11th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 30 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their baptisms and from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 11 years ago are now in the midst of starting their careers and have since blossomed into adults.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts tonight.

Last week I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a woman whom, for several years several years ago, I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless her heart.’

Today Shirley died.

And like Jesus, I wept.

I don’t cry over most deaths. When you’re a pastor, you get used to death, coming home so often as you do with blood on your clothes. I cried over.

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

She was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in hers. She was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ She was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, was insufficiently enamored with John Wesley (true), couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of her church…”bless her heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

She has the distinction of being the first parishioner in this particular parish to point a shaky finger at me in frustration and then storm out of my office, slamming the door so hard it knocked my Karl Barth portrait off the bookcase.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from her.

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something after the first few years changed between us. She first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

She then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ. Comments on my blog followed after.

When we adopted our first child, she was the first person to articulate that adoption is the first form of Christian life, and thus natural, making her one of the only people not to ask us when we were going to have kids of our ‘own.’

She was the first person in the congregation to call me when I was in the hospital last year to tell me she loved me. And when I went to see her this week last in the nursing home in Richmond, she said it to me again. Weak, emaciated and slightly agitated, she smiled when she saw me. She grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with her only eye that would open on me, she asked said the same thing to me: ‘I love you.’

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

I sat there quietly amazed that 10 1/2 years ago I was about the last person she would’ve wanted next to her in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in her someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that she (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with her I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

‘Shirley was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 11 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss her like family. I used to joke, derisively, that she was like my mother. Now that she’s gone though I think that’s exactly right. With whom but your mother can you have a complicated, sometimes difficult, but ultimately life-giving relationship?

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘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.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

quote-well-the-themes-for-me-were-and-remain-sex-and-love-and-grief-and-death-the-things-that-make-us-thomas-lynch-116137I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside in the PICU.

Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

I can’t say much more than that, pastoral privilege and all.

What I can reveal:

Right after I left that family, I collected my youngest son, Gabriel.

We got in the car. Closed the doors. Buckled our seat belts (‘I beat you Daddy’).

I turned on the ignition. Looked in the rearview mirror at Gabriel behind me; he was wearing my faded UVA hat and smiling.

And I started to cry, suddenly feeling like I’d gotten into my car wearing someone else’s shoes.

Life is so infuriatingly fragile.

This isn’t something my boys have taught me.

My boys have no notion that while God may be good and gracious, life is seldom fair or forgiving.

It’s not a lesson my boys have taught me. It’s more like a lesson my job has taught me, a lesson I wasn’t in a position to learn until I had children. It’s more like now that I have skin in the game my vocation won’t let me forget just how fragile are my boys’ own skin and bones.

They’re here today…(down in the basement playing Legos, actually).

But tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?

I bring my work home with me.

I watch my boy turn his bike out the cul de sac for the first and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable sound of screeching brakes.

I can’t drive by a car accident without imagining my own impending, parallel nightmare.

Standing in line at a roller coaster with my son, I can’t look at the twists and turns of the track without imagining my boy in the statistical margin for error.

Death is a big part of what I do.

The resurrection proclamation requires the dismal trade to precede it, make sense of it. 

If I punched a clock, several many hours of every year would be taken up by people mourning the sudden absence of someone who’d made their life whole.

I bring that absence home with me.

Or rather, like a nurse who comes home wearing a uniform with blood stains on it, that absence follows me home and there it gestates into something else: my own fear of absence.

Theirs.

And while if you caught me in a different mood I might say I’d prefer not to bring this part of my work home with me, it’s more true to admit that this near constant dread of their absence has woken me to something else, their presence in my life.

The sheer- as in flimsy– grace- as in unwarranted gift– of it.

Just like someone who doesn’t realize the pain of unbelief until they begin to believe, the fear of losing my boys calls out the greater joy of having them. 

Life is frageelay.

It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. 

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”

– The Undertaking LynchHat

For our third installment of the podcast, we’ve got a heavyweight of the literary world: Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.

A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.

the_undertaking.largeI first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.

His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.

His most recent book is co-authored with theologian Tom Long on grief and death.

Why Mr Lynch accepted my invitation for an interview I have no idea but I’m glad he did. He’s on my Mt Rushmore of writers so I make no attempt to hide my adoration. You’ll have to suffer through my fanboy conversation about Seamus Heaney’s poetry.

Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which will have to become a podcast tradition (least favorite theological word: ‘Shalt’). He closes out our conversation by sharing a new, unpublished poem.

thomas-lynch-480Oh, I almost forgot: I’m now on his Christmas Card list.

Be on the lookout for the next installments of the podcast.

We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, Scot McKnight and Brian Blount in the queue.

You can listen to the Lynch interview here below or in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here or on the app here.

 

matisse-chapel.01I’m a big believer that funerals need to be worship services in witness to the Resurrection not merely memorials of the deceased. Funeral sermons need to be expositions of scripture not eulogies. Death needs to be boldly confronted and called out as an enemy of God.

And I agree that all of above becomes increasingly important the further our culture drifts from any trace memories of the Gospel proclamation.

All that said, I think preachers (or the professors who train them) make a mistake to think all the heavy-lifting, the Resurrection pointing and Death confronting, has to happen in the sermon.

As Catholics would point out, that’s why we have the liturgy.

To suppose that everything important must be conveyed through preaching betrays an impoverished (and in-artful) form of Protestantism.

The whole of the liturgy, of which the sermon is only 1 piece, should witness to the Resurrection, but the Resurrection is NOT the only doctrine Christians profess nor is it the only doctrine relevant for a funeral.

Generically affixing 1 Corinthians 15 to every dearly departed leaves out another, equally (more?) important, just as culturally forgotten Christian doctrine.

The incarnation.

Funeral preaching needs to proclaim not just that God will be with us one day, ‘after the first things have passed away.’ Funeral preaching needs to proclaim that God has been with us, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ and therefore all of our days before the last day have been charged with the grace, presence and love of God.

Sometimes, I think, funeral preachers need to let the liturgy take up the Easter message so that the sermon can take up the Christmas message. Sometimes funeral preachers need to point not to what is to come but the grace that has already come to pass. In other words, sometimes the funeral sermon needs to name not the gathered’s hope but their gratitude for how God’s love has been incarnated in their lives.

To show what I mean, here’s a funeral sermon I wrote late this week, using the story of Jesus’ circumcision and the holy family’s encounter with Simeon and Anna.

The Holy Family: Luke 2.21-38

As is my habit, I changed today’s scripture passage several times this week, changing my mind from one text to another until my assistant,Terri, finally told me I had to make up my mind or the scripture readers would kill me.

I changed the scripture several times, but, talking with Sam and Susanne and Mark in the days before and after Jane died, my mind kept coming back to this Gospel reading from Luke 2.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What does this story have to do with Jane?

What in the world does this story about the Holy Family taking the infant Jesus to be circumcised and there encountering two people named Anna and Simeon have to do with Jane? Or why we’re here?

The reason I kept changing my mind about the scripture passage is because I knew this would strike you as an usual story for a service of death and resurrection.

I mean, for one thing there is no mention of the resurrection in this story. Jesus is not yet the Risen Savior; he’s just a little boy. And even where death is hinted at in this story, it refers not to ours but to Jesus’ death.

It’s an unusual story for a day like today.

You come to church on occasions like this expecting to hear John 14 or 1 Corinthians 15 or Revelation 21.

You come to church on days like this expecting to hear Jesus promise that he goes to prepare a place for us.

You expect to hear Paul proclaim that death has been swallowed up in Easter victory.

You expect to hear John prophesy of that day when the first things will pass away, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

But you don’t come to church on days like this expecting a…Christmas story.

Especially not one with characters, like Anna and Simeon, characters we don’t even bother with at Christmastime.

I admit it’s an unusual story for a day like today.

Just chalk it up to Exhibit B that the Schrage-Norton family does not lend itself to predictable scripture passages.

It’s an unusual story for an occasion like this, yet I kept coming back to it this week.

I know Jane preferred the bible’s poetry to its prose; nonetheless, I kept wondering about this passage from Luke 2- because I couldn’t help but wonder what someone as opinionated as Jane would have to say about it.

For starters, let’s not even dwell on the fact that a dignified South Georgia lady like Jane would probably blush and take issue with the ‘c’ word at the beginning of this scripture passage, even if it did cause her to chuckle to herself because this story of the baby Jesus coming under the knife might’ve reminded her of a not too different knife she once threatened to take to her son-in-law.

Once she got past the undignified beginning of today’s story, it’s easy for me to imagine Jane pointing out Simeon as someone after her own heart, someone she could relate to, someone she could sit beside at parties or family gatherings and pass the time engrossed in intellectual discussion.

After all, when Simeon first lays eyes on the infant Christ his immediate impulse is to recite poetry of all things.

And Jane loved poetry.

She read it and dog-eared it and underlined it and circled bits of it.

She memorized poetry and she forced others to memorize it too.

No matter how Jane might feel about the unmentionable beginning of this passage, I bet Jane would appreciate the poetic gesture with which Simeon greets the Holy Family.

What’s more, Simeon’s poem is littered with biblical quotes and historical clues. Luke doesn’t tell us much about Simeon, but just from his poem we can tell Simeon was not an ignorant man. He was smart and well-studied.

Luke does not tell us Simeon was a professional scholar so probably he was the product of a lifetime of self-education and self-improvement. Probably he was someone with an insatiable curiosity about the world, someone with an even bigger appetite for learning.

It’s obvious just from his poem alone that Simeon was probably someone who liked to say ‘I want you to hear a little something I read…’

He was probably someone like Jane.

Except…

on the other hand-

Jane was someone who liked to sing and dance- whether it was the jitterbug or the Beach Boys. Jane could guffaw and squeal and cackle louder than anyone in the movie theater.

Jane loved afternoon milkshakes topped with 30 minutes of ‘I Dreamed of Genie.’ Jane could throw a dinner party for complete strangers at an afternoon’s notice.

Jane knew how to have a good time.

And though Luke tells us he’s been anointed by the Spirit, Simeon doesn’t exactly come across as someone who knows how to have a good time.

Their mutual love of poetry aside, I imagine that if Luke 2 were the assigned reading for one of Jane’s discussion groups then Jane would say that someone like Simeon strikes her as an overly serious sort of person.

Not to mention, Jane had 7 grandchildren and once famously worried that she would never stop having grandchildren.

In contrast to Simeon, who apparently had no experience with children whatsoever, I bet Jane would point out that when you see a baby for the first time, you don’t say ‘this boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many.’

No, you just say ‘Oh, what an adorable baby! Can I hold him?’

This story about Anna and Simeon and the Holy Family- this might not be the story you expected to hear today, but it’s a story about which I expect Jane would have plenty to say.

For example, even though Luke doesn’t say so explicitly I bet Jane could make a convincing case that Mary was the reason that Mary and Joseph brought their child to church on the accustomed day.

Even though it’s not spelled out in the text, I bet Jane could persuade us that Mary was the person responsible for making sure the Holy Family worshipped as they were supposed to worship, with turtledoves and pigeons.

Luke doesn’t say it was all because of Mary, and actually I doubt Jane’s humility would allow her to say it either, but you would because you know that raising your children in the faith- more often than not, that’s something a mother, a wife, does.

And then there’s Anna.

This may not be the story you expected to hear today, but I expect someone like Jane would not be able to resist giving someone like Anna a piece of her mind.

I mean, after Anna loses her husband, she stays in church all day long, every day, praying and fasting.

Never leaves.

And to an extent, I think Jane would appreciate that.

Church was important to Jane too, important enough that she made sure her kids memorized the Psalms.

And for years Jane studied transcendentalist philosophy so I doubt Jane would minimize the significance or the power of prayer.

And, we all know, once he finally convinced her to marry him, Jane loved ‘her Sam.’ So it’s not difficult, at all, to imagine Jane sympathizing with someone like Anna, sympathizing with someone who’s grieving the loss of a beautiful and beloved spouse.

Still though, Jane had a Southerner’s sensibility. Jane hated, deplored, idle time. Anything that might resemble or result in laziness.

Of all the poems she loved, Jane’s favorite poem was one titled ‘Keep-a-Goin.’

So sympathy and spirituality notwithstanding, I’m willing to bet that eventually Jane- as in Penelope’s grandmother- would lose her patience with someone like Anna. I’m willing to bet that eventually Jane would tell Anna how it is. I’m willing to bet she’d say to Anna: ‘I can’t help how I am, but this is my opinion: Are you going to sit here forever?‘

There’s too much to do, Jane might say, to sit here all day, every day, in grief.

There’s art to see and new food to try and requiems to hear and operas to watch and places to visit and grandchildren to take with you. And at the very least, you could curl up on the couch with the Reader’s Digest.

Just keep-a-going.

Jane might say.

To the grieving

Anna.

I changed today’s scripture passage several times this week before I finally crossed my fingers and went with my gut. I’d be lying if I said that Sam’s high expectations for my preaching today did NOT induce a paralyzing writer’s block. And I admit it’s unusual story for a day like today, not the sort of story you expected to hear.

Fact is, it is a story about which I expect Jane would have much to say, but to be honest that’s not the reason I couldn’t shake this scripture passage.

What really drew me to this story-

What made me think of this story, many months ago, the last time I saw Jane and Sam share a booth at Faccia Luna and watched as Sam made Jane laugh and made her eyes light up and made her cheeks blush and made everyone else in the restaurant assume everything was completely fine and normal with his wife

What made me think of this story again last week in the hospital, seeing Sam and Susanne and Mark with Jane

What made me think of this story earlier this week as I listened to Susanne and Mark talk about how their own kids cared for Jane these last 8 years

 What really drew me to this story is the way that 2 bystanders, 2 spectators, 2 outside observers, like Simeon and Anna, are able- instantly- to identify and name what Mary and Joseph do not yet themselves fully recognize.

Sure, Mary and Joseph know that what they share between them in Christ is unique. They know their vantage point- it’s special. They know that what they share between them is better than anything they could’ve hoped for or expected.

They know it’s already changed them in forever kinds of ways. They know not every family has the privilege of the relationship they enjoy.

And Mary and Joseph, they know that what they share together with this person, because of this person, is unique to them. It’s their relationship. It’s their family. The stories and the memories and the inside jokes are all theirs.

Mary and Joseph know that no outsider, no spectator could ever begin to understand or appreciate what it’s like to be a part of their family.

But still-

Strange as it might sound, there’s something BIGGER- more FUNDAMENTAL- about what they share between them that they themselves do not fully recognize.

Two outside observers identify in no time at all what Mary and Joseph do not yet themselves understand.

Which means, I guess, that when you’re in the thick of it, living it, day to day, you need an outsider, a bystander, a spectator, a 3rd party, to name it for you.

To identify precisely what it is you have in your embrace.

To give you a sense of the proportions that only become visible when you step further away.

Mary and Joseph, they needed someone else to point out to them that what they shared between them- it wasn’t just precious; it was the very presence of God.

If the Holy Family needed someone else to point it out to them, then maybe your family does too.

So let me just make plain what is so plain to see for all the rest of here.

The love you shared with Jane- the love you showed to Jane- it wasn’t just precious; it was the presence of God.

What you shared- it wasn’t just good or great even; it was the grace of God.

Whether it was Penelope and Tallulah performing puppet shows last week at the foot of Jane’s bed- just as they had done when they were little girls

Whether it was the grandkids each taking their turn to be Jane’s protector, her guardian, her care-giver

Or whether it was Sam, who these past 8 years fed Jane and and dressed her and carried her. How he made her laugh and sang to her.

How he did her make-up and her hair and learned how to redirect her frustrated dementia with a few steps of the tango, every day showing her a love that was patient and kind, a love that never grew resentful, a love that beared all things, a love that, Paul tells us, will abide in the Resurrection.

If the Holy Family needed an outside observer to identify it for them, then it can’t hurt to point out to you what is so plain to see for all the rest of us here:

that the love you shared with Jane is a love that could only have come from God

and therefore it is the love of God.

This story from Luke 2, it’s usually only read around Christmastime when we remember how the love of God took flesh in the Holy Family.

But today- you remind us that the love of God takes flesh again and again and again in our own lives. And Paul reminds that that love will abide, that it will take flesh again one day.

 

The word ‘holy,’ after all, just means ‘different.’

And you all are a different kind of family.

I admit this story of Simeon and Anna is an unusual story for a day like today, but then you all are an unusual family.

A holy family.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 
*Nerds: pic is from the Matisse Chapel in Vence, France.