The following are excerpts of a funeral sermon I gave this afternoon. I've taken out the parts specific to the deceased, who was the brother of a church member.
I have been thinking a lot about the promises of God lately. I said in a sermon this morning that ways of talking about our faith that don't begin with God's promises aren't worth very much. I even think that's true! It is the promises of God that call the world into being, that give time shape and purpose, and that lead us as individuals the world at large into our appointed ends. Because God promises, we live. Because God promises, we have hope.
We hear these promises all throughout today's service. How did we begin this afternoon?
Hear the promises of God: I am the resurrection and the life; all who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
And we hear it again in the gospel reading:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
You might think, given what I have just cited, that the basic promise of God is life after death. If you asked the average person on the street what the Christian faith was all about, there's a pretty good chance that that would be their answer. Being a Christian means that after you die, your soul goes to Heaven to live with Jesus and God, forever.
But as Paul tells us, life after death isn't actually God's primary promise. Not exactly, anyway. The promise is that "neither death, nor life…nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Nothing will keep us away from God's love, not even death. Come what may after we depart from the world, God will still be there to love us and seek to make us whole again.
Young people sometimes ask me why, given that promise, Christians are still afraid to die. I tell them that it's still frightening to walk that lonesome valley by yourself. The truth is that all we have is God's promise, and no matter how much we think we ought to trust in it, or how much we actually do trust in it, we still have to swing ourselves out into the emptiness like a trapeze artist trusting that he will catch our hands this one last time. Of course we're afraid.
But we also fear because we know that to lose our lives means just that. Our memories fade too quickly. Almost always, all our accomplishments in life are forgotten immediately. Even our names are lost within a generation or two. All that we are, all that we have, all that we have lived and died for, will disappear some day.
It's not easy to say goodbye to a life like Jim's, but we must. That's why it's so important to hold it up to the light one last time and say, "This person we cherished." This person we cherished, and now we have to give him up, trusting him to the promises of God.
We know and we affirm that God's word is strong and true, that his promises will be kept. Nothing, not even life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God loves us so much that he gave his only Son, that we might not perish, but might have eternal life.
And yet, we have to pray: dear God, keep your promises. Take Jim into your arms, and be there for us when our turn comes to let go of life and reach out into the void waiting and hoping for your hands to latch on to ours. Amen.
I want to talk this morning about Jesus' feet.
Pastor. Come again?
No, seriously. I want to talk about Jesus' feet, of all things.
Now, I know what you're thinking: he's finally cracked, didn't think it would take him this long. But hear me out. You could probably spin an entire sermon out of Jesus' careworn feet, how dusty and calloused they were from walking the dirt roads of Israel healing and preaching the word of God to the people, how appropriate it was for Mary to bathe them with her hair in honor of the sacrifice that he made for us in his earthly ministry. You could get another whole sermon out of the wounds in his feet and hands from the crucifixion, and how those wounds are transformed in the resurrection. Maybe you could do a long one, taking us all the way from Jesus' baby shoes up to the holes he shows Thomas after Easter.
And then there's today. There are many depictions of the Ascension in Christian art that feature the disciples staring up at Jesus' feet as the rest of him rises out of the picture. Some of them are quite funny, to tell you the truth. You see just Jesus' feet at the top of the frame, and then the disciples below looking completely baffled: What just happened here? Sometimes, there are men around the disciples, a reference to Acts 1:11, where two men in white robes appear, saying
Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go up in heaven.
In other words, quit wasting your time staring at the sky. You have better things to be doing. Show's over, move it along. This is how Luke closes out the post-Easter section of his story and moves into Pentecost. The disciples now must give up on the earthly form of Jesus and look to the Holy Spirit for comfort and guidance. Naturally, the church uses Ascension Day in the same way: it wraps up the Eastertide season and begins the transition to Pentecost, where we learn of the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin to contemplate what it means to live as disciples in the Spirit. That theme will carry us all the way back to Advent next year.
I have been reading a very good book lately, on building community by naming and claiming the gifts God has given to the community. The author describes one of the exercises he's done with struggling congregations:
I invited one group of rural church leaders to imagine that overnight, across denominations, God killed all the clergy, struck every church with lightning and burnt them all to the ground, then evaporated the bank accounts of every congregation. They were left with no money, no clergy, no buildings…just a smoking pile of ash in the center of their town and a funeral to attend.
And then he asks them to figure out what they had left with which to do ministry.
As much as I don't want to encourage anyone to think they can do it without me, much less encourage them to contemplate my funeral, I think we might try this exercise in the fall. Because, to be honest, you don't need me to do ministry. You don't need a pastor, you don't need a building, you don't need any money. You have everything you need to minister to your community without those things, because God will supply what is needed.
In fact, God has already provided, if we care to look for it. God has gifted this congregation with many strengths, talents, and resources—all it needs and more—and they are just waiting to be uncovered.
But if even without a minister, without a building, without money, without intangible assets to put to use, even if you possessed not a single discernible gift, you would still have what you needed, because you would have Jesus' feet.
Oh, pastor. This again? We thought you had forgotten.
Yes! You would have his feet to bless, gift, and empower you.
Because in those baby feet, you would have the record of what it means to be loved by God, as a mother or a father loves an infant.
In those feet: dusty, calloused, bruised, and worn out, you would have the example of God's love shared and poured out in faithful ministry.
In those feet, pierced by nails and yet alive, you would have a sign of the power of God's love in the resurrection and what it means to have life after death.
Above all, in those feet, rising in the sky on their way to heaven, you would have the promise of God's love: not just to fill us with the comfort and guidance of the Holy Spirit, as important as that is, but that his love will not quit us, now or in the world to come.
If you visit a Catholic or a Lutheran church, they will sometimes have a statue of the ascended Jesus over the back door of the sanctuary. You might mistake it for another crucifix, if you don't look closely. Jesus' arms are outstretched, and you can see the holes in his hands and feet. But he's not on a cross, and he will be clothed, sometimes wearing a crown. In an Orthodox church, it might be a painting over the door. The idea is that in the chancel, we remember what God has done for us, particularly in Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf. But when we go out into the world, we go out with the promise that God continues to act on our behalf. We leave worship as people transformed and empowered by the promise of God's continuing love for us.
With that love behind us, we have everything we need to live as Christians. Without it, we have nothing.
I should emphasize, "the promise of that love," because that's what we see in the story of the Ascension, and because in the end, that's all we really have. Promise is God's way of calling us into the future and pulling us ever closer to him. We have to wait for some unspecified time to come before God's promises are finally fulfilled. In the meantime, we have wait on God, and attend to the ways in which his promises unfold in the world around us. God is the eternal sower and we live forever in spring, watching the flowers bloom, wondering and hoping about what comes next, if you want to think of it that way. I firmly believe that any way of speaking of our faith that does not begin with the promises of God isn't worth a hill of beans.
Promises, of course, are just that, promises, not iron-clad guarantees. This is the irreducible element of faith: we just have to trust and pray that God keeps the promises he has made to us.
Paul prays for the fulfillment of God's promises to the Ephesian congregation, that they may receive "wisdom and revelation," that their hearts may be "enlightened," that they may know "the hope to which he has called you," the "riches of his glorious inheritance," and the "immeasurable greatness of his power." God has used that power to install Christ on the heavenly throne, and "put all things under his feet." But this is not simply to establish Christ's glory, or to make him the celestial ruler, but "for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him fills all in all." The promise of God's love is finally this: that our destiny is not our own, but in Christ. His humble, battered, loving feet will be our own, and will rule over every "rule and authority and power and dominion," in love and for love, "not only in this age, but also in the age to come."
Don't ever tell me that this church, or any church, doesn't have what it needs. As long as we have the feet, and the hands, and the body of Christ, we have far more than we could ever ask for or imagine. Amen.
The First Letter of John, which is the suggested epistle lesson for today, but which we did not read, tells us that.
Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars… those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
The Book of Acts, which we did read, tells us how to do that.
It is not beside the point that the man whose chariot Philip approaches is a eunuch. According to the law found in the book of Deuteronomy, because he has been sexually mutilated, he could not be a Jew. He can't even convert to Judaism. He is literally damaged goods, and cannot "admitted to the assembly of the Lord."
Nor is it beside the point that this man is an Ethiopian. People in this time used "Ethiopia" as a generic term describing everything south of Egypt. Candace, the queen this gentleman serves, ruled over the city of Meroe, in a desert region along the upper Nile in what is now Sudan. This wealthy and powerful man has come a very long to participate in the religious life of the Jewish people, almost certainly knowing that he would get no further than the outer courtyard of the Temple. He wants so desperately to join in the covenant of the God of Israel, only to be turned away. He is still committed enough that he reads the prophet Isaiah on his way home, however. He is receptive to the word of God, a point in his favor in Luke's book.
Just before this story in the book of Acts, we hear that Philip has been preaching in Samaria with some success, and that Peter and John have gone down there to finish the conversion he starts.
Just after this story we hear of Saul, "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples" before he is struck down by a beam of light and converted to the way of Christ. The contrast couldn't be clearer: where the disciples have found spiritual success in welcoming strangers to (that's the Ethiopian) and even enemies of (the Samaritans) the covenant, here's Saul on a purity kick, trying to root out any suspect Christians before they corrupt the Jewish faith. God's grace and mercy have plans even for Saul, of course, but that's a story for another day.
The man Philip approaches is a double outcast from Judaism. He is a foreigner and ritually unacceptable. And yet Philip, inspired by the "angel of the Lord," seeks him out anyway. The good news that Jesus came to bring is that God's blessing is available to all people. The prophet Isaiah says that salvation is offered to all those who "maintain justice and do what is right," who keep the sabbath and refrain from doing any evil. Even foreigners and eunuchs, Isaiah tells us, will not be excluded. God will bring the foreigners to his holy mountain and "make them joyful in his house of prayer." The eunuchs will be given
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters
God will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
That is to say, they will live in the descendants of the Jewish family, replacing the children they could not have for themselves.
When you were young, I imagine this story was preached as an example of the irresistible gospel. If only we would be bold enough to follow God's command, we could do what Philip did!
In recent years, it's become more common to use the story to bolster the argument that the church should welcome gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities. If Philip can convert a eunuch, surely we can bring in some folks who aren't heterosexual! I suppose you could use Philip's work as an example of reaching out to people who have no faith, or no clear idea what their faith is, the seekers and questioners. "How can I understand, unless someone guides me?" the Ethiopian asks, and so Philip teaches him patiently how to understand scripture. We could do worse than to follow his example with our children and grandchildren. They just don't grow up with the same general fund of Biblical knowledge that most adults have.
The scripture that Philip explains is not beside the point, however. It is from Isaiah, just a few chapters from the section I quoted earlier. It describes what we call the "Suffering Servant," Isaiah's vision of the messiah coming to save Israel from oppression, whom the early Christians saw as a prediction of Jesus.
I'm sorry, but there just is no way for me at least to read lines like these:
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
And not hear echoes of all the recent news stories about young black men being killed by police officers around the nation. Some of them have been shot in the back, or killed while in custody. It is terrible to read about the beatings and mistreatment that are all too commonly handed out by some city police departments.
Let me be very clear in saying that I don't think all cops are brutal, abusive racists. In fact, if you read the statistics carefully, you find that only a small percentage of police officers have excessive force complaints lodged against them. But there a few who have many, many problems. It only takes a couple of bad apples to do some real damage to the barrel.
Nor am I claiming that the people who have died at police hands are somehow Christ-like. We are all formed in the image of God, we don't need to claim anything more for them.
But all too often, justice is denied, especially to those who are poor and black. All too often, their lives are taken away from the earth. The use of force by police hasn't actually changed very much in recent years, which is to say, they haven't been getting more violent, or facing more violence. But by the same token, the use of force hasn't been going down either, and since American cops kill far more people than any other nation, this is a problem. We have a problem, we all know it.
Hearing Philip interpret this scripture to a black man today says to me that the grace, mercy and peace of God are available to eunuchs, to foreigners, even to those who suffer and die at the hands of police. Yes, even if they were no angels. The message of this text is that there is no one beyond the redemptive power—or claim—of God. There is no boundary, no frontier, no division that God will not cross to deliver the message of love perfected in Christ Jesus. It doesn't matter if you die in a nursing home or shot down on the pavement. God loves you and wants to draw near to you, even when no one else will.
There is a message of hope in this for us. You and I didn't grow up in West Baltimore or Ferguson or North Charleston, and Lord willing, we're not going to have any kind of violent encounters with the police any time soon.
But you know as well as I do that none of us are so perfect that we have earned our salvation. We can't. We are all flawed in one way or another. Perhaps we are not foreigners or eunuchs, but truth be told, there is always something that would prevent us from joining the covenant, just like Philip's friend.
Even assuming that we could be individually perfected, we have all taken part in, benefitted from, unjust social systems. Ain't nobody going to heaven without the help of Jesus, is the bottom line. And over and over again, we see that help being offered. Over and over again, Jesus reaches beyond the ordinary human lines to love us, to accept us, to welcome us to the shepherd's fold. Isn't that the story of everybody's favorite hymn, "Amazing Grace," that saved a "poor wretch like me"? That's the love of God that we testify to. We have no business saying "grace for me, but not for thee."
Which leaves me wondering what the church would look like if it took Philip's lead. To be more specific, what the white church would look like. Mainline churches can be proud of the work they have done to increase the acceptance of gays and lesbians in our society. Agree with it or not, were it not for the United Church of Christ and a few other denominations, we wouldn't have same-sex marriage in the United States.
But the real frontiers in our society are in the ghettos, the barrios, and the reservations. They're in those poor neighborhoods cut off from the cities that surround them, where there is little hope and little opportunity. What I wonder is what would happen to the church if it went out and brought the message of God's love in word and deed, if it simply proclaimed that Jesus loves you, and so do we, as equals and fellow travelers on the way.
It might be too late for us here at Bethany to go chasing after chariots. I honestly don't know what we could do to suggest to the kind of people who face poverty, drug addiction, and police brutality that we stand ready to extend God's redemptive work in the world. Realistically, perhaps not much.
But I think the question is worth asking: Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. What is the fruit that we owe to our fellow citizens who look and live so differently from us? I will leave it there. Amen.
Diane and Travis came to talk to me a few weeks ago about today's service as part of the normal planning process. They made it abundantly clear in our meeting that they didn't want the typical 15 minute ceremony: in, out, off to the reception. They wanted—and got—a full worship service.
They thought that communion would be just fine, which surprised me. Nobody ever wants to do communion. But Diane was quite emphatic that she wanted a real sermon. "None of this 'a few words' business," is more or less what she said.
That really surprised me. Nobody wants to hear what the minister has to say at a wedding. Nobody.
But Diane did. We have a lot else going on this afternoon, so this won't be as long as my usual sermon, but you got it.
I suspect that Travis and Diane wanted to pack so much into their wedding because they wanted it to be a true celebration. They wanted to make it memorable for themselves and for their family and friends.
But they wanted it long because they wanted it to be a true worship service, not a dressed-up Justice of the Peace ceremony. They wanted to invite God into their wedding. That is out of the ordinary these days, and it is commendable. Thank you for that.
We read in the Gospel of Mark that God made humans "male and female," echoing the book of Genesis. We modern people hear this as saying that God created the genders to complement one another: that men were made for women, and vice versa. But it actually announces the blessing of God on all people. Women are not inferior to men, and while husbands may work for their wives, neither are they inferior to women.
I believe this will be a marriage of equals. Diane may set the agenda, but that's because she is so organized.
I insist on the point of equality because God created us in love and for love, and love can never truly be love if it is not shared between equals. I Corinthians shows us the way of love between partners building a life together.
Diane, Travis: you must be patient with one another. You must be kind. You must not envy one another's successes, you must not brag about your own. Don't get mad at one another for no reason, forgive and forget what has happened before—but at the same time, work on improving how you communicate with one another, how you resolve problems. You are not bad at those things, but all successful marriages practice and get better at their relationship.
Protect, trust, and find hope in one another. Most of all, don't give up. It is all too common for couples to simply throw in the towel these days. You don't want that, and none of us want that for you.
The reward for doing your best and following Paul's advice is not a long and happy married life. That is the result of the struggle you embrace together. When you work hard to be married, the happiness appears like a mysterious guest between you.
But if you are loving, if you are patient and kind and all the rest, the reward is that you will know fully, even as you are known. You will come to know one another better and better, good sides, bad sides, weird sides. Your faults will be forgiven, and your strengths will be celebrated.
You think you know one another pretty well right now, but wait twenty years. You will give—and receive—more forgiveness and understanding that you ever believed possible.
What makes this truly a sermon is this: the promise of God is that even as we know one another, so too will we know and be known by God. We will be forgiven for our sins, and forgive the doubts and grievances we hold toward God.
You, and we, are on a far greater journey than we could have ever imagined. We are on the way to God. May your marriage be a blessing and a comfort to you on the way, and may it point you and all of us in the right direction to meet your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
More liturgy: a brief eucharist liturgy developed for a wedding I officiated at today.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We have them with the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
and blessed is your name in all generations for ever.
Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you for ever.
You made Adam and Eve to be for one another
a helper and a support.
From the two of them the human race has sprung.
You said, "It is not good that humans should be alone;
let us make helpers for them."
You seal our hearts for one another with your steadfast love.
You make us strong to love as you have loved us.
In Jesus, the man of Nazareth,
who lived and died for us,
you made your love for us flesh and blood
and made with us a covenant to be joined with you
in a marriage that will never end.
We give you thanks for the gift of your love and faithfulness to us even when we have broken faith with you. And so we join with the choirs of angels and saints singing your praise:
Holy, holy, holy: God of mercy, giver of life;
earth and sky and sea and all that lives
declare your presence and your glory.
God our Father and Father of our Savior Jesus Christ, accept our words of praise and the promises of love we make today. For recalling what Jesus himself told us, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends," we remember that on the night he was betrayed the Lord Jesus took a loaf + of bread. When he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, + after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."
It is our great joy and source of hope to remember all that your son Jesus has done for us. In this meal, we enter into the mystery of your love for us, and the redemption you have promised us at the wedding feast at the end of time. We recall Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension and wait for his return in glory.
Send now your Holy Spirit upon these gifts of bread and wine that they might be for us the reality of your unbreakable bond with us, the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory are yours, almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.
The living bread is broken for the life of the world.
Lord, unite us at your table.
God of grace and love, thank you for the bread and the wine we have shared at the table of your son. In these gifts you have joined us together with you and with one another. No one can separate us from your love, and in you we find mercy so that we may grow old together in peace. For all this and much more, we give you our thanks and praise, now and always. Amen.