I’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.
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.
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.
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.
Jane might say.
To the grieving
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.
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.