Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2023 || Epiphany 4A
On this day of our Annual Meeting, I’d like to spend this sermon time fulfilling a request from a number of people over the last few months. Today, I am going to share with you some of the elements of the funeral homilies I have preached over the last year. Because funerals are mostly attended by family and close friends, very few of the members of our church have heard me preach at a funeral. And yet we are all grieving in one way or another the deaths of so many of our church family – 23 of whom we have buried in the last year. A funeral homily is my chance to set the life (and new life) of the person who died within the greater context of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So today, on this day of our annual gathering, we are going to remember those who have died, and I am going to share with you some thoughts on heaven and the eternal love of God.
Today’s sermon is a meditation. In a minute, I’m going to invite you to find a relaxing sitting position, which will be easier on your couch than if you were here sitting on a hard pew. I decided to offer a meditation today because recently I’ve been feeling my jaw clenching more and more. Sleep isn’t restful. I’m on edge all the time. I’d wager you are responding to the abnormally high level of stress in our society in similar ways. A friend of mine has a newborn in the NICU whom he says is there because he has to “remember to breathe.” I think that goes for all of us right now.
So, in lieu of my regularly scheduled sermon, I’d like to lead us all through a meditation designed to bring our ultimate future into this present moment. This is a meditation about God’s presence and promise when death is an ever-present reality. I’m offering it because today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans includes a paragraph that we read as the third stanza of the opening anthem at the beginning of every Episcopal funeral. All four stanzas are quotations from scripture, and I’d like to meditate on them with you this morning. This might seem like a strange thing to do – focus on words spoken after someone has died. But these words are shared with those who remain, and I believe these scriptural truths actually help to bring us more fully alive.
One of the great honors of my profession as an ordained pastor is the opportunity to preside at funerals. As a matter of fact, we had one here yesterday for longtime parishioner Bill Everett. Some funerals carry the weight of incredible sorrow; others buzz with palpable celebration. Most hold both sorrow and celebration in tandem, as the two are not enemies but rather both are sincere expressions of love. As I prepare for a funeral, and especially as I write the homily, I find my thoughts drawn to the eternal nature of the love of God, which God made tangible and so very present in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday, June 23, 2019, my paternal grandmother Dorothy died. She had spent two weeks in the loving and tender care of Hospice following a massive stroke. She was 93-years-old, which was, truth be told, a bit on the young side for her long-lived family. I was in the Holy Land during most of her time in Hospice, and thanks to the wonder of the internet, a FaceTime call put me in the room with her from halfway across the world. My father said that she visibly brightened when she heard my voice, though by that point she could not talk. She could barely squeeze a hand. I lit a candle for her in the “upper room” in the Old City, a peaceful place that beckoned prayer. The tears I shed for her watered the dusty ground of Jerusalem. Continue reading “Sabbatical Notes, Week 10: A Remembrance”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”
Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there?Continue reading “If You Had Been Here”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-44
The prayers have all been prayed. The farewells to the deceased have all been said. The dirt has been cast on the shining, glossy coffin. The low murmur of voices mingles with the whisper of the wind through the long, cemetery grass. The new widow rises from the velvet-covered folding chair, the triangle of the blue field and white stars of the American flag peeking out from under her arm. A line of black-clad people forms, and they begin to file past her. You watch her receive with grace each well-meant, but well-worn sentiment. You join the line, and soon it’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come.
I’m sure each of us has been in this position. Some of us have also been on the other side of it. Sometimes words tumble out before we have a chance to catch them, to measure them, to reflect on how they will be heard. Other times, we have no words, and we trust that the fervent squeeze of the hand or an embrace will communicate what we want to say. Most times, the language of embrace is more potent and effective than the language of words.
In today’s Gospel reading, we have the opportunity to listen in as Jesus and Martha converse near the grave of her brother Lazarus. They’ve both lost someone: Martha, a brother; Jesus, a friend. Indeed, the Gospel doesn’t describe too many individuals specifically as ones Jesus loved, but Lazarus is among the honored few.
Martha speaks first: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” We could interpret Martha’s first words as an accusation or as a statement of faith. More than likely, they are (as is so often the case) a combination of the two. Since her sister Mary echoes these same words a few verses later, we can assume Martha and Mary had spoken them to each other in the four days since Lazarus died. “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus would still be alive,” they might have whispered to each other. And then I imagine, “Why didn’t he come?” And then, “I heard he’s on his way,” followed shortly by, “What took him so long!”
In any case, Martha says these words to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Such a statement had probably reached the status of well-worn platitude in that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ statement in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But here’s where Jesus changes the rules of the standard funereal conversation. He stretches out his hand, places it on Martha’s cheek, gently raises her head so their eyes meet. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” he says. And for those few words his voice rings like a well-struck bell, and the truth of them resounds deep within Martha’s soul. I AM the resurrection and the life.
You may recall last week, we discussed how frequently Jesus employs this sentence structure in the Gospel According to John. When he states I AM, he reaches back to the conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush. Moses asks God for God’s name, and God replies, “I AM WHO I AM.” When Jesus echoes these words in the Gospel, he reveals a piece of his own divine identity.
“I AM the resurrection.” By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death occurs. But death is not final. Yes, life ends. But new life – life in some superlative form – emerges because of the power of the promise of Christ’s resurrection. I do not know what this new life looks. I cannot describe it to you. But because Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection,” I believe he will be there, continuing to call us into full and complete relationship with him. Only then, in the power of the resurrection, we will truly be able to reciprocate and join him in that full and complete relationship.
Martha understands the truth of the promise of this relationship. Notice how she answers Jesus’ next question. He asks: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Here Martha replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in the world.” By saying she believes in him, Martha affirms her relationship with Jesus. And Jesus, unwilling to let such a relationship ever end, offers her the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.
So the promise of resurrection, which Jesus builds into his very identity, is the promise of eternal relationship with God. And that sounds like a pretty good definition of heaven. In their conversation near the grave of Lazarus, Martha and Jesus reaffirm their desire to be together. Their words are a verbal embrace that points to the eternal embrace promised by the power of the resurrection.
And so we return to the windswept cemetery, to the widow holding the crisply folded American flag, to the receiving line filing past. It’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come. And you remember Jesus’ conversation with Martha. You remember Jesus’ promise to remain in life-giving relationships with all who desire them. You remember his resurrection proclaims this triumphant promise.
And you realize that Christ is already calling you into such a life-giving relationship. You don’t have to wait for your own death for such a relationship to begin. You can practice it everyday in your interactions with other people as you speak words of life and grace and blessing to them, as you discover the presence of Christ in them, as you seek to deepen your relationships with them.
You open your mouth to speak to the widow, but no words come. And so you resort to the language of embrace to communicate this desire to demonstrate how important your relationship with the widow is to you. You put your arms around her, and now your mouth is by her ear. Now something prompts you to speak. “I love you,” you whisper. That’s all you need say, if you say anything at all.
God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb, so at least since 1982 (though there is that whole eternity thing to take into account). I have known God for somewhat less of an interval — only ten short years. My knowledge of my own walk with God began in the year 2000. And because Y2K forgot to blast us back to the Stone Age, I have this handy Internet thing to tell you all about the last decade. What follows is (and I’m well aware of the cliche) a top ten list of my journey with God. I offer these moments in hopes that they serve you as a guide for reflecting on the last decade of your life. What are the moments of consolation; that is, when did God find you? On the flip side, what are the moments of desolation, or when did you lose God? You will notice both appear in this list because both are important in shaping you and me, the people God is creating.
#10: The first baptism (2006) My summer as a chaplain at a children’s hospital is drawing to a close. In fact, I am working my final overnight on-call shift. This night, I have already been present with two families as their children died. It is 2am. I am trying to catch a few minutes sleep. The pager assaults my eardrums. A nurse on the sixth floor needs a chaplain. I grumble during the elevator ride because no one really needs a chaplain at 2am on a non-ICU floor such as the 6th. The nurse brings me to the room of a three-month-old baby. In a mix of Spanish and English, his parents ask me to baptize him in preparation for surgery, which the infant will have in the morning. After some halting discussion, I agree. The godparents have brought a small bottle of water, filled at their church’s baptismal font. The mother holds the infant. I sprinkle water on his head and say: “Yo te bautizo en el Nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.” And God finds me.
#9: The funeral (2009) Some situations are just so big or so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position (which too often is my default setting). This is one of those situations. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. I rush to the house and stand outside the door trying to find the courage to knock. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.
#8: The first two months of seminary (2005) I go to chapel every day for two months. I read the prayers in the book. I recite the psalms and the creed. But I’m not praying. Something is missing: faith? passion? conviction? Ironically, I lose God when I first arrive at the place to study God. Then one evening at the end of September, I am leading a prayer at an evening worship service. I say, “Assist us mercifully, O Lord…” I read these five words and everything changes. I realize to whom I am addressing my speech — the Creator of all that is. How could I ever forget? But I did.
#7: I love you (2004) I am sitting with my girlfriend watching a movie. My arm is around her, and she is resting her head on my chest. It’s an ordinary, everyday kind of moment. And without warning or forethought or the classic over-thinking which I could patent, I whisper, “I love you.” She looks up at me, smiles, and says, “I love you.” We hold each other just a bit tighter. And the burning glow in my chest tells me that this is right.
#6: Breakdown in the office (2008) I have been at my first church for three months. A few days before, I had visited my seminary and saw many of my friends, who dispersed to the four winds after graduation. It is Sunday morning, and I have just finished celebrating the early service. I walk back to my office, remove my vestments, close the door, shut off the lights, fall to the floor, and crumble. I sit with my back to the door so no one can come in. And I cry and cry and cry. I can’t stop, and I can’t figure out why I started. I quietly hyperventilate, hoping that the coffee-drinkers in the next room can’t hear me. I can’t stand the thought of smiling and chatting and handshaking. I want to be anywhere but where I am.
#5: Confession (2007) I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my diaconal ordination one week later. I clean out my closet and bring a heaping box of clothes to the church’s opportunity shop. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets, and they are crinkled from being in my pocket. I begin my confession, and quickly the tears begin to flow. I confess the big things like my presumptuous reliance on myself above everything else. And I confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!) I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.
#4: Laying on of hands (2004) I am a camp counselor. It is the second to last day of camp, and I am helping one of the priests during a healing service. The teenagers coming for healing have wounds beyond their years: broken families, eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, pain, disease. I ask God to use me as a channel. Fill me to overflowing, I pray, so you spill through me into these children. And God does. I am so full that for twenty minutes after the service, I weep the excess Spirit from me. (If this sounds familiar, you may have read about it here.)
#3: Ordination to the priesthood (2008) My family arrives at the church early and discovers it has no air conditioning. It is June and blistering outside. I am glad to be wearing seersucker. A few hours later, I am kneeling before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests are touching me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. I am overwhelmed. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come anyway.
#2: The year (2006) For several months, I ignore God’s prompting to examine the state of my relationship with my girlfriend. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, we attend a Red Sox game. They lose. That night, she proposes the end of our relationship, though it takes another month to dissolve. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital and there’s enough pain there for several lifetimes. When the chaplaincy ends, I let myself feel the effects of the breakup. At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.
#1: The moment with God (2000) I visit my college for the first time in October of my senior year of high school. I step onto the quad and know in the deep place within that I am walking ground being prepared for me. The following Sunday, I am in church. My father is preaching. I realize that I can’t hear him. Then I realize I can’t see him. But I know what he’s saying. The same deep place within is speaking his words directly into my soul. I am with God for an indefinite moment. My senses are overloaded. I am made anew. A few days later, I sit with my mother on the couch. I say, “I have something to tell you.” She waits patiently while I try to form words. Suddenly, I burst into tears and cry for an hour. She holds me. When I finally stop, she looks at me and says, “I know, love, I know.”
Detachment. Recently, I’ve been giving in to the feelings of this my most famous and well-documented coping mechanism. Friends will tell you that I barely left my room during my second year of seminary except to go to classes and meals. Some days were better than others. I could stomach watching a football game in the common room or going to a birthday dinner at the Mexican restaurant. But on the worst nights — ones in which I had been invited out and had even made a vague commitment to going — I got dressed in going out clothes, laced up my going out shoes, paced the room, argued with myself, grasped the door handle half a dozen times, manufactured some phantom nausea, and put my pajamas back on. I hated myself for those nights. Back then I was coping with the loss of a long-term relationship; I dealt with the decoupling by detaching myself from everyone else, too. I know — not the healthiest of coping mechanisms. Indeed, I needed a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism. But more on that in a moment.
Before you start calling in a crack squad of psychotherapists, this recent bout with detachment is nowhere near as severe. Like Spinal Tap’s amps, the detachment a few years ago went up to eleven. This time, the severity is at about a two or three. But enough of the shadow of that previous time hovers in my memory, making me all too aware of the dangers of detachment. Back then, a loss of relationship made me pull away. Ironically, a similar set of responses is happening as I form new relationships at my new parish. Of course, with the new relationships come the ending or transforming of other relationships. Suffice to say, the constellation of relationships in my night sky is changing, and something in that change is causing me to fall back on my erstwhile coping mechanism.
Enter this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul discusses various practices that some find objectionable and others find completely acceptable. Each group thinks they are the ones who are truly honoring God. Paul tells them that both sides are giving thanks to God by different actions, so neither has a right to pass judgment on the other. In this context, Paul writes a verse of surpassing beauty and profundity: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
As I contemplate my recent relapse into old patterns of detachment, I realize that these words have been with me from my first week at my new parish. Since the beginning of August, I have been a part of three memorial services — liturgies during which people come together to mourn and laugh and grieve and celebrate the life of a loved one who has died, and in so doing, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of each service, the priest intoned these same words from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Each time I heard these words in the last month, I got that spine-tingling feeling that happens when God drops an ice cube down your back to remind you that God’s still there.
These words of Paul speak the beautiful and profound truth that we belong to God, or as the Episcopal burial office puts it: “We are the Lord’s possession.” This reminds me that however much I may feel the need to detach, to disentangle myself from life or friends or responsibilty, God never severs the relationship with me. Hearing Paul’s words during those special memorial services kept me from disengaging in the midst of all the changes and chances my life had been through in recent months.
This is why “church” is so important. In the context of the community of faith, the Lord spoke words of renewed invitation to me. I’m sure you’ve heard the popular epithet that describes someone as “spiritual, but not religious.” I think I understand some of the cultural and sociological forces that have contributed to the emergence of this category. One of these forces, sadly, is a misunderstanding on the societal level of what “religion” means. In the modern era, the terms “religion” and “church” took on the connotation of “edifice” — of imposing structure and immutable establishment.
But “church” has very little to do with a building and much to do with a people gathered. While structure and doctrine have their necessity, “religion” does not mean structure and doctrine. When you get right down to it, “religion” means “reconnection.” Re-ligio. Just look at the word and think of all the football players (most recently Tom Brady of my beloved Patriots) who have had surgery for torn ACLs. An ACL tear is repaired by reconnecting the torn ligaments to the muscle and bones of the knee. Likewise, “religion” is all about reconnecting us to the One who holds us all in possession. And “church” is all about celebrating that reconnection with one another.
The musical Rent offers a stark view of the reality of our society and shows the utter need for these resources of connection and relationship. Near the end of the show, after the characters have dispersed and gone their separate ways, Roger and Mark sing about that special Christmas Eve last year when their group of friends came together to celebrate life and love. They sing: “What was it about that night? Connection in an isolating age. For once the shadows gave way to light. For once I didn’t disengage.” Opening themselves up to that connection with others leads them to joy and pain and life and death and the grittiness of a love that has survived all the assassination attempts by the forces of isolation.
When I begin to let myself detach from those around me, I must remember that God has already repaired the torn ligament and banished the shadows of isolation. I am the Lord’s possession. I am the Lord’s when I die. And I am the Lord’s while I live. I just need to make sure I’m living while I am alive, to make sure that I stay connected to those around me and celebrate the love of the God who knits us all together.