This sermon was preached at the funeral of a parishioner who died suddenly on Christmas Day. I have removed all references specific to the deceased, and share it as a theological reflection on a painful juxtaposition: a death in Christmastide.
A Sermon Preached at a Funeral on the Eleventh Day of Christmas, January 4, 2013
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39; John 6:37-40
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It is a hard thing to lose someone we love—someone who loved us. It is always hard—hard at any age, at any time of life. But to lose someone suddenly, unexpectedly, and too soon: the pain cuts deeper, and the sense of loss is more pronounced. The front cover of our bulletin today says “A worship service to give thanks for and celebrate the life of N.N.” That’s what our funeral bulletins always say. But it’s not quite right, is it? Yes, the time will come when we give thanks. The time will come when we can celebrate N.‘s life. But now—while the shock and pain of his passing are still so fresh—we may well find that grief overwhelms thanksgiving, and mourning hobbles any sense of celebration.
Dear people, I say all this at the outset not to be depressing or morose, but because I know that we face enormous cultural pressure to keep a stiff upper lip, to “remember the good times”, to hold all thoughts of sorrow and sadness at bay. But for so many gathered here today, the reality of grief is present and potent. It may not always look the same or feel the same for every person. Sometimes grief is raw and overpowering, stealing upon us suddenly and unexpectedly at the smell of a favorite food, or perhaps when a favorite song comes on the radio. Sometimes, grief leaves us numb—unable, it would seem, to feel anything; uncertain where to turn, or what to do. Sometimes, grief makes us angry: angry at N. for dying when he did; angry at the powers that made his last years such a struggle; angry at God for so afflicting him, and so afflicting us.
Beloved, I name all these things—and there are many, many other ways in which grief and mourning reveal themselves in our lives—in order that you may be honest with yourselves and with one another. Do not turn away from the reality of your pain, even—perhaps especially—if you feel nothing right now. Do not be forced onto someone else’s timetable for healing, or society’s published schedule for closure. Grief must run its course. For it is a hard thing to lose someone we love—someone who loved us. And what comfort we can find this day can come only when we face death head on.
The readings from the Bible that we have heard this morning recognize this fact. The promise of Isaiah—that “On this mountain, the Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the pall that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever”—is meaningful only if we face death for what it is: a veil spread over us all—a reproach common to our human family. The balm of Isaiah—that “the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth”—is soothing only if we give ourselves space to grieve: time to cry our tears, to gnash our teeth against the death’s near-approach.
Or consider Paul’s great assurance in the Epistle to the Romans—his powerful assertion that “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us.” Those words would be an empty boast, if not for the fact that Paul himself knew what it was to endure terrible suffering; Paul himself knew what it was to struggle against powers stronger than he was; Paul himself knew what it was to lose friends, to see relationships broken, to stare into the face of death itself.
Even the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel—the promise that “I will raise them up on the last day,”—would not make any sense or have any meaning if Jesus treated death as a mere illusion: something to “get over”, something to scurry past as fast as possible, something to sweep under the rug. Beloved, the truth is that Holy Scripture this morning invites us to grieve. It invites us to sit in our numbness for a while. It invites us to be angry, to shake our fists at the heavens, to demand answers of the Almighty.
So let us come with our whispered questions and our shouted questions; let us come with our angry questions and our weeping questions. We come asking why some should be made to suffer and struggle against forces too great for themselves. We come asking why some should be made to face terrible disease, and why others should be made to bear the weight and cost of that enormous burden. We come asking why some are left here to mourn, while others are taken before their time.
We come, we put our questions to the heavens, and we strain our ears to hear the answer we feared would come: silence.
But then—when we have exhausted ourselves in questioning and wondering and weeping—out of the silence, the tiny cry of a helpless child rises to meet us. Dear people, tomorrow is the last day of Christmas. Tomorrow is the Twelfth Day of the Feast that began on December 25—the very day that N. departed this mortal life. What we celebrate for these Twelve Days is not the trappings or the tinsel—not the gifts or the garland. What we celebrate for twelve long days in the deep, dark, cold of winter, is that God has come among us as one of us. The sound of the baby Jesus keening in the manger is the assurance of God’s presence with us in our grief.
We do not hear answers to the bitter questions that trouble and torment us. What we hear, instead—in this season of Christmas and all our lives long—is the sound of God himself weeping with us in our sorrows. We are not given justifications and explanations written in the stars above. What we see, instead, is the same steady, unwavering star that led the Wise Men to kneel at the edge of a cradle. Beloved, what we receive is not an assurance that God will this moment end all our suffering; that God will this instant heal our afflictions; that God will immediately mend all our brokenness; that this life will be easy; that things will make sense. What we receive, instead, is Jesus hanging upon the Cross.
There, on the Cross of Calvary, he shares our deepest suffering. There, he shows himself to be with us through our most bitter afflictions. There, he takes upon himself all of our brokenness—whatever form it assumes; however it harms us, however it burdens those we love. On the Cross of Calvary, the promise of this Christmas season is made complete: though life troubles us and death grieves us, our Lord Jesus is with us in the very depths, never to leave us nor forsake us, certain to “lose nothing of all that [the Father] has given [him].” And in the bright light of the empty tomb on Easter morning, the God who came to dwell with us, to share in our sorrows and to stand in our pain, at last puts an end to sorrow and pain, Sin and Death, forever.
In Christ’s triumph, therefore, we commend N. to the care and keeping of God our Father. Free forever from every force that would bind and subdue him, may he share forever in the eternal victory of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life: even Jesus Christ our Lord. And may we, and all of those who are left to mourn and to grieve, cast our cares upon him—may we “hang upon him who hangs upon the Cross,” that he may “raise [us] up on the Last Day.”