The Funeral Homily

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.

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Six Word Witness

Sermon for Sunday, May 25, 2014 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

6wordwitnessI couldn’t help but notice the readings selected for today all have some flavor of courtroom drama. We have the Apostle Paul sightseeing around Athens and discovering an out of the way shrine dedicated “to an unknown god.” When he stands up to debate at the Areopagus (the Athenian equivalent of the Supreme Court), he proclaims to the Athenians that this unknown god is the God who created all that is, the God of Abraham and his descendants, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his speech, some scoff at him and leave; others are intrigued and join Paul on his journey.

Continuing the courtroom theme, in the letter of Peter, the writer urges the reader to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

And finally, on the night before he dies, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” You can think of this “Advocate” as the one who would stand up for you in court, one that would counsel you and speak on your behalf.

The courtroom drama of these three passages makes sense when we hop in our TARDIS and go back in time to first century Asia Minor. In the early days of the movement that would become Christianity, those spreading the word about Jesus were met with many reactions: anger, curiosity, rejection, embrace, incredulity, joy. Last week, we read the tragic story of the stoning of Stephen, the first person to die for faith in Jesus. Two weeks ago, we read about three thousand people being baptized after hearing Peter preach. Notice here that reactions to the proclamation of the Gospel at that time – at least the ones recorded in the book of Acts – were never tepid.

Now hop back in the TARDIS (that’s Dr. Who’s time machine, by the way), and come back to the present. We’ve all heard the news and seen the statistics. The church in the United States is in decline. More people than ever before marked the “none” box on the religion question of the 2010 census – note that’s none N-O-N-E, not nun N-U-N. The reasons for this are many and varied, and they are way beyond the scope of this sermon. Well, all but one is. You see, one reason for the downward trend is that over the last several decades the church has lost the ability to tell our story – the story of the God made known in the witness of the Bible and in Jesus Christ.

For too long, the church relied on its primacy in American society, a society steeped in the language and tradition of the Biblical story. When that primacy began to erode, the church didn’t realize how much it was relying on society as a whole to carry its message. And ever since that primacy evaporated entirely, the church hasn’t come to grips with how to proclaim this wonderful and life-giving story from its new position as underdog.

People nowadays – even many faithful churchgoers – just don’t know the story, both the Biblical story itself and how we fit into the story’s narrative trajectory. At the same time, we’ve entered into that underdog role. This might not sound like good news (and in many respects, it’s not, to be sure), but in one honest-to-goodness way, this news is good. This is the first time in history since the earliest centuries of Christianity that the church is not the dominant force in Western society. Back then people didn’t know the story either, or they didn’t know the version the apostles were telling.

What I’m trying to say is that we have reached a new apostolic moment. We have a story to share with a world that’s unfamiliar with this life-changing narrative. And I guarantee you there are people hungry to hear it.

Case in point: I’m a gamer. I love games. Video games are okay, but board games are my true love. When I lived in Massachusetts I frequented a local game store, the kind of store that sold games and had tables set up for people just to come in and play. The clientele of the store – think characters from The Big Bang Theory – were mostly those who would have checked “none” on the census form. But over the couple of years I played games there, an interesting thing happened. As people got to know me and found out what I do for a living, they started asking me questions – deep questions about faith and morality and how to know God. They were hungry for something beyond their own physical ken, for something deeper than today’s reality, for something…more.

This seeking happened occasionally, but often enough that I started thinking of myself as the chaplain of the game store. And I’m glad and feel so blessed to have been someone who could bear witness to my faith and to let them in on the story we all share.

I know this kind of witness and sharing can be so daunting. When we feel like the underdog or when we feel like we’re on trial, speaking up can be hard. But remember the promise Jesus gave the disciples: the Father “will send you another Advocate” to help you speak, to walk along side you as you share your part of the greatest story every told. Paul felt that Spirit when he spoke out in Athens, but you don’t need to be a Christian rock star like Paul to do it. All you need is six words.

You might be familiar with the Six-Word Memoir Project started by SMITH Magazine in 2006. Based on a legend that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words (he succeeded, by the way),* SMITH Magazine invited people to share their life stories in only six words. Such an extreme restriction bred abundant creativity, and people continue to share six word stories today on blogs and Twitter.

This week, I invite you to write your own six-word witness to how you fit into the story of God’s creative and redemptive work among us. I’ll be honest: this is quite a challenge. I’ve been working on mine since Thursday and I’m nowhere close to happy with it. But the act of trying to distill my witness to God’s movement in my life down to six words has me currently wrestling with what parts of God’s story are truly the most important for me and which parts I fit into. And when I find those words, I’ll have something to say when someone inevitably asks me why I’m a follower of Christ.

I went through scripture looking for six-word stories to get us started. I’ll end this sermon with a few. Consider these some of the ways the Spirit of truth, the Advocate that Christ promises us, is still speaking to us.

Here’s a story from Genesis: God said, “Go.” So Abram went.

Here’s one from the psalm we studied two weeks ago: God’s my shepherd. I lack nothing.

Here are a few from Jesus himself: I am the resurrection and life.

The wind blows where it chooses.

And my favorite: Remember, I’ll be with you. Always.

Perhaps your six-word witness will spring from your favorite Bible story like one of these. Or maybe from your favorite hymn. How’s this one: Amazing grace will lead me home.

When we tell our story – even just six words at a time – we actively participate in it, and we invite others to join it, as well. We can trust our Advocate the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to God’s constant and creative movement. This is our new apostolic moment, when the world is hungry and…

We have good news to share.

* Hemingway’s (tragic) six word story read: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Art: detail from “Jesus walks on water,” by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888).

Living the Story

Sermon for Sunday, May 18, 2014 || Easter 5A || John 14:1-14

livingthestoryAttending seminary a few subway stops away from Washington D.C. provided some lovely distractions. The National Gallery of Art was my favorite. The Air and Space Museum was a close second. I visited most of the District’s tourist attractions during my three years there, and most lived up to their billing. One that did not was the D.C. zoo. The zoo is squashed into a tiny piece of the District, and the animals are squashed into tiny pieces of the zoo. The panda paddock was smaller than the backyard I mowed every week growing up. The elephants had no room to move. Everything was concrete and wrought iron. And the one time I went there, I couldn’t help but think what an inaccurate use of the word “zoo” I was witnessing.*

You see, the word “zoo” comes from a beautiful Greek word, which has also morphed into a popular girls’ name. The name is “Zoey”; the Greek word is ζωη (pronounced zo-AY). Zoe mean “life,” but the life reflected in the zoo’s tiny paddocks full of forlorn-looking animals is not the kind of life the word zoe comprehends.

You see, zoe means “life,” yes, but the connotation of the Greek doesn’t stop there. The word from which we get “zoo” means expansive life, life without bounds, the kind of life that the creature is meant to live. Jesus uses this word in today’s Gospel lesson when he answers Thomas’s question. The disciple asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” I Am the Life. This life – this zoe – is the expansive, authentic life of the creature living as the Creator dreams for the creature to live. As we walk with Christ through our lives, he offers us his zoe, a life of purpose and meaning and fulfillment. A small piece of Christ’s life appears in what we call the Gospel; I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon telling you all a story – well, fragments of the story of Jesus’ life as told by John, our Gospel writer for today. The more we tell this story to each other, the more we will live it, and the more our lives will reflect Jesus’ zoe.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through this Word – all life, all zoe, in fact. This Word became flesh and made his home among us. He lived with us in order to teach us how to live, how to tune our lives so they resonate with the Creator-of-all-that-is. Everyone needs a name, and his earthly parents called this Word-made-flesh “Jesus.” Jesus lived in an obscure corner of an obscure corner of a mighty empire. But pretty soon the empire would sit up and take notice.

One day Jesus was out walking and two fellows, John and Andrew, came up to him and asked where he was staying. Now Jesus could have said, “Down the street to the left of the well just past the marketplace.” That would have been a fair answer to the question. Instead, Jesus says, “Come and see.” Jesus’ life is a life of inviting.

Three days later, Jesus went to a wedding celebration with his new friends and his mother. Now, weddings in those days went on for a whole week, but something at this wedding threatened to cut the festivities short. They ran out of wine. Jesus wasn’t going to get involved, but his mother had other plans. So Jesus had several large jars filled with water, but when the steward tasted it, the water had become wine. And moreover, this wine was even better than the wine that ran out. Presumably, the festivities continued in full swing. Jesus’ life is a life of celebrating.

Some time after that, Jesus met a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. The man often came to a certain pool, a pool renowned for curative properties. He was so focused on getting into the pool when Jesus came that he almost missed the opportunity in front of him. Jesus commanded the paralyzed man to get up. If anyone else had said this to the man, he would have thought it a cruel joke, but something in Jesus’ tone (or maybe it was the fire in his eyes) made the man obey. He stood up, and then I imagine he danced for joy. Jesus’ life is a life of healing.

Soon after, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, and a vast crowd followed him. Unwilling to send the crowd away, Jesus took a laughably small amount of food – barely enough for one family – thanked God for it, and distributed the five loaves and two fish to over five thousand people. After he fed the people with physical food, he also fed them spiritual food. Jesus’ life is a life of feeding.

Skipping forward quite a ways in the story, Jesus was getting ready to share another meal when first he took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, got down on his knees, and washed the dusty feet of his disciples. This act of service was so at odds with how they thought their teacher should act that Simon Peter told Jesus not to wash his feet. But Jesus saw the matter differently. To remove the dynamic of power – one over another – Jesus commanded his friends to wash each other’s feet, to serve each other. Jesus’ life is a life of serving.

The next day, Jesus met the empire – both the worldly empire of Rome, which occupied his homeland; and the otherworldly empire of evil, death, and division, which occupied the hearts and minds of those he wished to bring back to God. Jesus, condemned to death, dragged a cross to a hill outside the city. In the anguish that followed, he drew to himself each and everything that separates us from God, and their power died with him. Jesus’ life is a life of sacrificing.

Three days later, his tomb was empty. Jesus was alive again, though not again. Rather, Jesus was alive anew. In his death and resurrection, he brought creation back into right relationship with God. The Word made flesh, who made his home with us, gave us a new opportunity to make our home with God. This new relationship was the ultimate act of reconciliation. Jesus life is a life of reconciling.

Inviting. Celebrating. Healing. Feeding. Serving. Sacrificing. Reconciling. These are just seven pieces of Jesus’ life – his zoe – the expansive, authentic life which he offers to us all. Now, I have two questions for you. First, how do you or how can you participate in Jesus’ zoe by intentionally integrating these actions into your lives? Perhaps you’ll invite an acquaintance to church. Or celebrate someone else’s good news. Or be a healing presence for a person’s who’s sick. Or cook food to feed the hungry. Or serve God by using your unique constellation of gifts. Or practice sacrificial giving so that God’s work in the world, say at our partner school in Haiti, can shine even brighter. Or reconcile with a person from whom you are estranged. In each of these actions, know that you are embracing Jesus’ life and living as the Creator meant for you to live.

My second question: what other pieces of Jesus’ life can we add to this list and what stories point to them? Jesus’ life is a life of loving, of teaching, of truth-telling, of relationship-building, of prophetic-speaking and Spirit-breathing, and so much more. You and I each have the opportunity to tune our lives to the frequency of Jesus’ zoe. When we do, we become beacons of the light of Christ shining in this world. We become the flesh, in which the Word makes his home. So I encourage you this week, and this lifetime, to live the story of Jesus’ life in your own. Invite. Celebrate. Heal. Feed. Serve. Sacrifice. Reconcile. And be authentic expressions of the life, the zoe, which God dreams for creation.

* I was told after the service in which I delivered this sermon that the D.C. zoo has been much improved since I visited it some eight or nine years ago.
Art: detail from “Miracle at Cana” by Vladimir Makovsky (1887).