Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Funeral Homily

For those who don't know and read this blog, my grandmother passed away this week. I've been in PA for the funeral (which was this morning). I preached the funeral homily, and just figured I'd post it here. Who knows if any of you will read it, but there you go.

"Ever Onward"
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit works. When I heard that my grandmother had passed away, I began thinking about her and what her life had taught me. Over the next few days, ideas for this homily began to swirl around in my head. Then, last night, I was talking to Jerri Smith and learned something new about my grandmother. Whenever she would leave the room, she would say "Ever Onward!" This is not something that I had ever heard, I guess because the occasion never arose. But more and more people began to mention this phrase, and I couldn’t resist making this the center piece of the sermon. So, as she would say.
It is fitting that such a phrase would be central to a funeral service. Often we think of these times as times of mourning and remembering. And to a certain extent they are. We are here to celebrate the life of my grandmother and to remember her spirit as we mourn together. But we also come here to do something more. We are an Easter people—always looking forward to the Resurrection. Indeed, the first lines of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer say "I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die…" (491). In this time it is easy for us to get caught in a kind of "Good Friday" mode, scared about things to come and saddened by our loss. But as Christians we do not live in the Good Friday moment. We live in the Easter moment.
The scripture readings today speak to such a moment in different ways. The Hebrew Bible readings note God’s constancy in the face of trouble. Job, the man who had everything taken away from him yet still remained faithful to God, proclaims, "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth" (19:25). Psalm 46 makes a similar statement: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (46:1-3, 6-7). These are good words for us to hear, even when we are not in such a state of loss. In our world it often seems that the nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms are tottering. And now, when our personal grief threatens to overwhelm us, to totter our own kingdoms, Job and the Psalmist assure us that God will remain firm to the very end. Even on Good Friday, when Jesus’s words on the cross "My God My God, why have you forsaken me?" echo in our ears, God is there. And God is with us now.
The New Testament readings provide us with another view of this Easter moment. The epistle speaks of the future time as well, yet not in the catastrophic sense of Job and the Psalm. Rather, we get a picture of the kingdom to come, the heavenly city where we will "hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike [us], nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be our shepherd, and he will guide us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes" (7-16-17). Jesus tells of this time in the Gospel of John, when all who see the Son and believe will be raised and have eternal life (6:40). If there was ever a vision to help us move ever onward, these pictures from the New Testament provide it.
These passages also provide us with comfort at the passing of our mother, grandmother, and friend. We can be assured that she has moved Ever Onward. As I told Mrs. Smith last night, I’m sure her soul uttered those words as the passed. But what about those of us who are still here? What do we do when the ones we love have moved ever onward? We can take comfort in the hope of the Resurrection, but how do we go about our day to day lives when someone close to us has died? How do we rebuild when our kingdoms have tottered? One of the hymns we sing today is about the saints of God—but not those saints we might think of ordinarily. These saints are ordinary people. You. Me. We all have the ability to be saints. And we can learn from the lives of the saints who have gone before us, people like my grandmother.
When I was about eight years old, one of my homework assignments was to put together a family tree. This included the creation of a construction paper object that looked something like a tree with people I drew who looked something like my family. The other part of this assignment involved an interview with a family member who was not your parent. I decided to interview my Gorgeous Ma (so named because she always told us to look Gorgeous in pictures), because how many people in my class had a British grandmother? She told me one story in that interview that has always stayed with me, though I have never known why. I think the reason is becoming more and more clear as I get older.
The question I asked her had to do with school. "What was your least favorite class?" I asked. She responded "art." I asked her why and she told me that as a girl, she had been told to draw a picture for art class. So she drew a picture of a local shop. The teacher, however, was not pleased with her rendition. "Why didn’t she like your picture, Gorgeous Ma?" I asked. "Well," she replied, "the store window was empty." As I said, I have long wondered why I remember this story. It sounds like something my grandmother would have done, but it was not particularly inspirational for whatever artistic talent might have been budding within me.
The night I heard that Gorgeous Ma had passed away, I once again thought of this story and began to wonder, what if each of our lives were a store window, filled by the events of our lives? And this got me to thinking, what would be in Gorgeous Ma’s window? It’s likely that the answer would be different for each of us. We all knew her in different ways and have particular memories of this wonderful woman. For me, this window would be filled with many things: a map of England, a tray of warm strawberry tarts like those she used to make with my siblings and I, a picture of her Yorkie Love, some knitting, a book about Jewish spirituality, pictures of family that have long hung on her walls, calendars done for the historical society, a Book of Common Prayer, a bottle of Estee Lauder Beautiful, and the bear skin rug in her living room. The list could go on for quite a while, but you get the idea. We could each sit here and fill that window with so many things.
These windows are things we can carry with us throughout our lives. Just because she has passed, doesn’t mean that my grandmother’s window is all of a sudden empty. It remains in our lives, to be cherished and viewed whenever we like. It also challenges us to think about our own windows. What will people put in my window when I am gone? What do I want to be there? How do I want my window to help others?
As my grandmother moves ever onward, so do we. We move onward in the knowledge that God is steadfast even in the midst of turmoil. We move onward in the hope of the Resurrection, and of the time when our tears will be wiped away. And we move onward with the memory of this wonderful woman, looking to her window as we try to become saints in our own ways. Amen.

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