funeral sermon – living with a Gospel bias

The last church activity in which Tony participated was the weekly bible study group. At that time I was asking the group to choose next week’s text for study. And the selection was one from either the Old Testament or the Psalms or from Paul’s letters in the New Testament or from a Gospel reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—the first four books of the New Testament.

Tony always, always, always voted for the Gospel reading. The Gospel describes the story of Jesus—his life, death and resurrection. You could say Tony had a bias towards the Gospel. And especially the Gospel of John, for some reason.

The word, Gospel, means: Good News. Good news. Not bad news. Not about how we always fall short. Not about human folly. Not readings about our sinfulness, about what we should do to make it better. But about the grace of God. God’s forgiveness, mercy, love.

The example in today’s Gospel is typical: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.[1]The Gospel, to recognize it, is always about what God does, as a gift to us. So, here’s the thing about the good news of God:

It’s about receiving more than it is about achieving. The grace of God must be received, not achieved. Normally at a funeral service we talk about what our loved one has achieved in life, as if somehow the more one has achieved the better.

And without second glance, Tony, on that measure, has achieved so much: publishing books in his retirement, building half a dozen houses, acquiring degrees in mathematics and engineering, qualifying himself in brick-laying and construction, even playing soccer into his 80thyear. He achieved a lot, if that’s how you want to look at it.

And certainly in our culture, it seems that’s what it’s all about.

But what a tribute to one who has learned to see, that in all that life has given him—good and bad—all that he received in life, there is grace. A gift of God’s love. To appreciate life as gift. This is right brain stuff. This is entering into the mystery that is God and life.

When he was young, he contracted Diphtheria which kept him isolated for some time, sequestered with the nuns in their abbey. Late in his life, Tony was able to confess that even having a disease was a gift, since it kept him from entering the war, a war that claimed the lives of his two brothers.

These traumatic events of life could have left him bitter. But, despite it all, he remained his true self—kind, loving and gracious.

The author bio on the back cover of both books he published in his retirement says the following about Tony: “Tony was always very interested in literature, history, religion, and cosmology.”

At the end of Act One in his book entitled About God, the World and People, the scene is set at an evening dinner party. Around the table sit different characters – a priest and a scientist among others. After covering such cerebral topics as ‘what is dark matter’, the origin of the universe and various forms of energy, the priest, Father Stengel, concludes with what I suspect is the author’s personal belief:

Father Stengel says, “I personally have no problem with what our diligent scientists discover. I clearly see in the development of our universe the guiding and loving spirit of our Father in heaven.”[2]

While working with numbers all his life and valuing their clarity and succinctness, Tony was also able to say, “They’re just numbers”, in light of God’s truth.

From the perspective of faith, analytics and left-brain thinking can obviously help with some things in life. But when it comes to the great mysteries of life, when we encounter great suffering or great love, when we experience death, or yearn for God, we need to access another ‘operating system’.

You can’t explain these realities adequately using the scientific method alone. It’s remarkable, for the mathematician and engineer that Tony was—that he was able to appreciate, discern and plumb those more intuitive and subtler depths of knowing as well.

It doesn’t make sense how grief works, really. I’ve told this to many grieving families over the years after a loved one died: That in a grieving process, it’s not just the pain of loss of that particular person that comes to the surface at that time. The death of a loved one triggers all the emotional baggage—if you will—of all previous losses you have experienced as well, all those unresolved issues in a family, everything. It can be quite overwhelming. I’ve recently experienced this truth myself. It’s not rational. But it’s very real.

And in those moments that can’t be explained, in the end, the only course of action is love. It’s the only way that does make sense in the turmoil of loss and pain. I think Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Tony’s teammates on the soccer team were well represented at the funeral home last evening. One of his teammates told me that Tony was the reason they kept playing together. He said that during a game teammates and the competition sometimes came to blows, emotionally if not physically. But Tony was always there trying to mend ways, trying to keep the group together, inspiring them to play on. Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Death changes some things. Death is final, in a way. And it hurts. Yes. But human death doesn’t mean the relationship is ended. Death merely changed the nature of our relationship with Tony.

Now, Tony is no longer physically present with us. But he lives on—in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirit, in our conscience, in our actions. He is still with us, albeit in a different way. Tony’s death leaves us a gift, an invitation to make what was important to him, important to us. Life as gift, a grace to do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Gospel bias towards love.

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”[3]Let what we do for others, be love.

 

[1]John 13:12-15,34-35

[2]Tony Bickle, About God, the World and People (Xlibris Corporation, 2008) p.48

[3]Most likely from Albert Pike, 19thcentury American attorney, soldier, writer, and Freemason. Sometimes this quote is attributed to 20thcentury American writer and biographer, Albert Paine.

 

Frozen yet melting in Good

The Gospel text for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 17:11-19) is the familiar one about only one healed leper out of ten that went back to give thanks to Jesus. And so, we may be challenged to think about all the things that may keep us from giving thanks, or being thankful.

But this story from the Gospel of Luke implies being thankful WHEN SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. As if that’s more of a challenge. Which kind of turns the tables on us, does it not? We normally think that ungratefulness is a symptom of an unlucky life, a life that suffers, a life that is disadvantaged in whatever way. How can I be thankful, after all, when bad things happen? Or conversely, believing that it is only easy to be thankful when good things happen.

But reality is: it is just as hard, if not more, to be truly thankful when good things happen, as this text suggests. It is directed to those of us who are advantaged in so many ways, but still find it difficult to be thankful.

So what are some Thanksgiving ‘misfires’? What are some of the ways we mis the mark in being truly thankful especially when things go well for us?

It was the Fall time of the year, and a farmer was on the land finishing up a poor harvest. The season had been tough, with all the rain and very few heat days.

And he wondered, “What crop should I plant in this field next year?” The question was a sort of prayer, because he was a bit discouraged and down on his profession. He looked up into the sky …

Suddenly the farmer sees “PC” written as clear as day in the clouds. Certain this was an answer to his prayer, he believed God was calling him to “preach Christ”. So he did, and gave it all he had.

But it didn’t work out for him. Some time later, the farmer went back to the field and asked God, why being a preacher didn’t work out for him so well. He waited a few minutes in the silence with only the wind whistling through the tall pine trees lining his land. And then he heard God’s voice: “I did give you an answer to your prayer …. PC meant ‘plant corn’.”

One Thanksgiving ‘misfire’ is rushing to conclusions based on our exclusive perspective. As if it were the only way. As if there were no other options. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this faith journey we are on, as if we are in control of our destiny, as if we have all the answers, as if we are right, and everyone else is wrong. Lack of humility is one consequence of this arrogance with which we live our lives.

I like the story of the woman who was looking forward to the snack of cookies she had in her purse when she sat down on a park bench beside a man dressed in a business suit, clean shaven.

She had always enjoyed the view into the parkland from this bench. Her eyes lingered on the fog resting on the colours on the trees in the valley below. She and the well-dressed stranger sat in silent awe beholding the beauty before them.

When she finally looked down to retrieve the cookies in her purse, she noticed the bag of cookies already opened on the bench between them, and the stranger sitting beside her was helping himself!

“Who does he think he is?” she thought to herself. “The impertinence of some people!”

She was trying to calm herself down and enjoy the beautiful Fall day when she noticed out of the corner of her eye, the man pushed the now half-emptied bad of cookies towards her.

“What nerve!” she thought to herself. She quickly retrieved the last three cookies from the bag before getting up and stomping away. She hadn’t even said, “Have a good day!” or “Goodbye” to the man; she had just shoved the emptied bag back towards him. Jerk!

When she arrived home later that day and emptied her purse, wasn’t she surprised, and humbled, to find her bag of cookies unopened!

Are we quick to judge because we are not open to receiving anything good from someone else? Do we believe, when we are honest, that only we can give anything good to others? Do we presume that it’s up to us alone to make things better, and therefore we block any expectation of a solution coming from outside our preconceived and prejudiced notions?

Only one healed leper came back to give thanks. He understood that engaging a life of Thanksgiving first meant opening his heart to receiving grace from an unexpected source. His thanksgiving to Jesus began when he remembered who had healed him — not from the established norms, and religious leaders of the day. He had curtailed his impulse to get busy with his life, and simply recalled and acknowledged this undeserved, gracious gift.

In light of all our misfires — arrogance, condescension, judgement, prejudice — it’s a wonder there still is any good in the world. We are, after all, broken people caught up in our own compulsive behaviour.

In some churches, this Gospel for Thanksgiving is from Matthew 7:7-12 is read:

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

How can we receive the good from God? This may be a very difficult challenge for us. To receive what is placed before us. That’s all. Especially for those of us who tend to understand Thanksgiving only as something we do for others. That’s certainly part of it.

But Thanksgiving starts by acknowledging that we are already recipients of a great grace, love and abundance. And so is everyone else.

When you think about it, it’s not the problem of evil that should have us shaking our heads, it’s the problem of good! There is much good in the world DESPITE all the ways we human beings manage to mess it up. That’s the miracle!

We are the richest Christians in the history of Christianity. And I mean, materially. There has never been a time in our history when Christians were so wealthy — had as much money, security, property, resources and material blessing — as we do today in North America.

With all the problems facing the church today, and all the challenges set before people of faith, perhaps the first thing to do and be intentional about, is NOT to jump into any presumption or initial impulse.

But simply to stop, and remember. What is God already up to in the world around you? What are the good things in the world, happening among people? Are you listening for this, watching for the presence of the living God in unexpected places?

I think Thanksgiving begins with a monumental shift in attitude.
It’s about changing our perspective — or be willing to see things differently. With a view to abundance, not scarcity — we can be thankful. With a view to see the good and not only the bad — we can be thankful. With a view to receiving the grace that is there for us already in the people we meet and the work before us — we can be thankful.

Thanks be to God!