Place for all – a funeral sermon

“Lord, when the shadows lengthen and night has come, I know that you will strengthen my steps toward home, then nothing can impede me, O blessed Friend! So, take my hand and lead me unto the end.” (1)

I wonder if in her last days in the hospital, May if she weren’t singing the words she certainly meant them when she declared a few times to those attending to her, “I’m soon going home.”

In saying this, did she mean her home in Osgoode — the homestead and first family home? Or in Bel Air Heights on Cannon Drive, where she and her family lived for 52 years? Or, was a more nuanced meaning of ‘home’ coming to mind? For example, when home wasn’t so much a specific place, as it was being with family in any place — such as the campground at Silver Lake, which I hear you frequented quite often and created so many cherished memories together.

“I’m soon going home.” Or, as I suspect, didn’t she already know that she soon was going home to be with all her loved ones gone before her — in her heavenly home?

A prayer on her lips and a well-known hymn’s words: So, take my hand and lead me, Lord, strengthen me in my steps toward home.

Indeed, home life was so important to May. You have told me, dear family, how your home — however imagined — was always a place of welcome to all your friends. It was a place of unconditional acceptance of each of you and your friends. Your home became a destination place for the community. A basement brimming with energy and sounding of laughter was a common occurrence. A tone of inclusiveness and openness surrounded home life.

Today as we gather to celebrate May’s life, we can affirm that God’s house is now home for May (John 14:1-3). This is a dwelling place which has a room for her, and all her loved ones in the heavenly host. 

May feels at home, I am sure, because her homes on earth seemed very much like what Jesus described in the kingdom of God: A place of inclusion, where all feel welcome. Food for everyone! An acre of vegetables that had to be tended, comes to mind, as you shared precious memories of treasured places like the large garden in the back yard.

In the Gospel reading, when Jesus says: In my Father’s house there are many rooms, read “a room for you” as “a place for you.” It goes beyond a mere belonging. It means “you can be yourself fully, here”. It means “you can come just as you are and be as you are.” “You can participate fully in everything this family is about.”

This participation is not isolated individualism. Because a house has shared space. A house has many rooms, yes. But a house means you are in a community of a certain kind. There are spaces in a house that must be shared — a living room, family room, dining room, kitchen, hallways, bathrooms.

Your parents were leaders in this shared space. They valued certain things in the family. They taught you what you know about being in relationship with one another: respecting the other, being responsible for your actions, being accountable to one another. Each of you had ‘room’ in this family to participate fully in your own unique way, and still be mindful of the other. 

The journey which continues today for May in her heavenly home begins on earth. However we find our way from this day onward — different for each of us — the same God who walked with May on earth walks with us. The God who blessed May with the joy of family relationships leads us toward bright horizons — the dawn of a new day.

Lord, take my hand and lead me upon life’s way; Direct, protect, and feed me from day to day. Without your grace and favour I go astray; So take my hand, O Saviour, and lead the way. (2)

Amen.

(1) – Julie von Hausmann, “Lord Take My Hand and Lead Me” in #767 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, MN, 2006

(2) – Ibid.

Windows of love – a funeral sermon

Our lives are like windows. Over the course of living, we evolve through at least three stages, like being three different kinds of windows.

Usually, the first half of our life is about being a stained glass window. We spend so much energy trying to get people to notice how exceptional we are. We want people to notice our beauty and see the intricacy, the colour, the ‘picture’ we want to show — how the glass is perfectly constructed, wonderfully arranged. Those closest to us — in family, friendships and work — admire and gaze upon the image we wish to project.

Then, life happens. Whether we like it or not, we can’t hold it all together. We can’t keep our loved ones from also seeing our cracks. So, we become like a cracked, dirty window pane. What people see and what we show are our wounds, our brokenness, our pain. When others see us they may want to ignore our dirt and pretend it is not there. They might instinctively try to ‘fix’ us. Or, they might get upset with us and even reject us.

Finally, we can become a clear window — transparent. We have nothing, really, to hide. We are who we are. In all our humanity we are not ashamed to reflect the truth in us — good and bad.

For people of faith, a large part of our identity is the gracious presence of God in us. The spirit of God, we say, “in Christ Jesus”. The divine presence who created us to be who we are shines through us and illumines the world.

Leonard Cohen’s Anthem verse again comes to mind: “There is a crack in everything ; there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how it gets out, I would add.

This is the transparent window of love. Despite the good, the bad and the ugly in our lives, we cannot deny God’s claim of love and presence within each of our hearts. Saint Paul wrote that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12). This faith, then, can give us courage to be transparent, and communicate God’s love outward.

Whenever I visited Dorothy in her residence over the past few years, and prayed the familiar prayers of confession and thanksgiving ending with the Lord’s Prayer, she did something I haven’t often heard. Even in her steadily declining cognitive ability, she ended each of the prayers not just with one “Amen”, but three: “Amen. Amen. Amen” she said with escalating intensity.

And this practice was consistent over time. It was instinctual for her, to assert the affirming words of prayer in this way. As if she were emphasizing that her connection with God — which is what prayer is all about — was more important than whatever was cracked in her life. “Amen. Amen. Amen” is an assertion of faith: Let it be!

Faith to see in oneself, and in others, the face of God. Faith to embrace the love of God even though, on the surface of things, you might feel undeserving or not very loving. Faith to see the crack as a way for God’s light to shine through your life.

A little known fact about Dorothy’s life of faith: Back in the late 1950s when St John Lutheran Church downtown was expanding its mission, the common desire was expressed to plant a church in Nepean. So Dorothy, along with several other members of St John, committed to this new effort to grow the church.

During a planning meeting the tiny group were deciding what to call this new congregation. Apparently, Dorothy was the first person to suggest “Faith” as the name of the congregation. And it stuck. Thanks to Dorothy, and God’s shining light within her and through her, we have now been identified as “Faith” Lutheran Church for over fifty years.

The community of faith is not a collection of perfect people. It is really an assembly of imperfect people trying to do the will of God. I read recently of a tradition faithfully employed by the native Navajo people of the south-western United States: When the crafters of the community knit their rugs, there is always and intentionally one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of the traditional rug. Not only is this done to remind one another of who they are as a unique community.

But whatever the irregular patterning or tiny hole in the rugs, they believe it is precisely there where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug! It is through the hole where the Spirit enters and moves and where the light shines through. Without the crack of imperfection, the presence of God would in truth be missed. It is the acknowledgement of the imperfection that creates the space for what will be good. (1)

As we remember Dorothy, let her life bear witness to the truth we all share in Christ Jesus. May our lives, like her’s, become transparent windows of love.


(1) Richard Rohr, “On the Threshold of Transformation” (Loyola Press, 2010), p.170

Funeral sermon during Christmas

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans 8:37-39)

In the Christmas children’s book by Eve Bunting, entitled, “We Were There: A Nativity Story”, she illustrates how the least expected animals very likely also attended the birth of Jesus: a snake, a frog, a scorpion, a cockroach, a bat, a spider and a rat.

It is written from the perspective of these least likely characters who shared the stable with the more popular donkeys, sheep and cows — how they travelled far and wide, like the Magi from the East; expressing their excitement and anticipation for being there, at the birth of Jesus.

Eve Bunting concludes with a note of criticism levelled against mainstream society, so to speak. She writes:

No one will look beyond the light to darkness
and the corner where we watch, unwatched.
They will not know or care.
But we were there. (1)

Indeed, we have made the story of Christ’s birth into a Hallmark scene, adding gently falling snowflakes, twinkling stars, softly rolling landscapes and passive characters staring piously into a glowing, impeccably clean, surreal-looking feeding trough.

But not just the cutest sheep, the solemn cow, the neighing donkey so familiar in the re-telling of the Christmas story through the centuries. But also the rats, spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, frogs, bats and snakes. They were there, too!

Today we remember Brian — loving father, brother, uncle and friend. He died during the twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas season invites us to reflect on the meaning of God’s approach to us all, in the context of Christ’s birth.

In imagining the traditional nativity scene, and considering who else might have been there (thank you, Eve Bunting!), I couldn’t help but bring to mind the story about Brian bringing an injured bat home in a shoebox one day, in order to nurture it back to health.

We might think it somewhat odd to do something like that. And yet, Brian was demonstrating, I would say, a Godly compassion for all God’s creation — even the least likely creatures. Something in his nature pulled him to care for these.

In her Christmas children’s story, Eve Bunting makes a deep, theological point and reflects something important about God. After all, the king of kings, the Messiah, was born not in a regal palace in the city among the righteous in the religious establishment. No, the Son of God was born in a stable for animals in a feeding trough surrounded by the lowly, the riffraff of society, you might say.

We say we worship “Almighty” God. We probably should say more often, to be truthful: “All-vulnerable” God. What Christians through the centuries have argued as one of the most important events of history when God entered our world a vulnerable, human baby that first Christmas — means that not only the ‘perfect’ ones, the popular ones, the successful ones, the ‘deserving’ and strong ones belong at Jesus’ side.

The Christmas story is really about the most common people and imperfect situation imaginable, including the lowly-status shepherds, a teenage, un-wed Mom and visitors from a far-away, foreign land. God was born as one of us in this world, among the animals and in a poor family, showing that in all of creation there is something good and worthy. Everything belongs. Everyone belongs.

There is nothing in all creation that will separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus. This is the greatest Christmas gift we are given.

Hymn: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

1 – Eve Bunting, “We Were There: A Nativity Story” (Clarion Books, New York, 2001)

Funeral sermon – Thanksgiving

Isaiah 25:6-10 —

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. 

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all 

faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, 

for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day,

   Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

   This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. 

It is not insignificant, I believe, that Peter died on Thanksgiving. It’s a paradox of the utmost to grapple with this most grievous reality — on a day when we are supposed to be thankful for all good things, someone beloved is taken away from us. The pain of loss digs sharply into our hearts to have to face death when this loss occurs on Thanksgiving weekend, of all times.

How can we be thankful in such circumstances? Is this possible?

We say that a funeral service is about a “celebration of life”. When we name it such, we choose to focus on life. Then, perhaps we can begin to approach the notion of giving thanks even amidst the turmoil of grief.

Because “death does not end our relationship with those who have died. Relationships at their deepest level are not of the body, but of the spirit. And in that sense, they are never over. The crux of a relationship lies not in its form, but in its content.” (1) Living into heaven, but starting on earth.

It is our work on earth, especially now that Peter has died, to tap the gift of faith in us and deepen our understanding of the eternal nature of relationships, and the eternal nature of love. This understanding, I believe, can bring peace to even a tormented heart.

We need to use our imaginations, and examine our beliefs honestly. The gift of faith grants those who wish to exercise it a rich imagination that is filled with God’s good promises, and the blessing of love lived out.

The image the prophet Isaiah paints is rich indeed! A feast on the mountain where there is more than enough good food and wine for all people! What a beautiful image of heaven, a promise to those who can imagine such a thing. And to all people, not just to those whose faith seems impressive on the outside, not just to those who appear spiritual. But to all.

Since Peter, I hear, was quite a cook, he would appreciate the attention to detail required to put on such a scrumptious and generous gift of food for all. I can imagine him today, one of the cooks in God’s kitchen!

Thanksgiving, as I’ve said before, is not a feeling that presumes all is well all of the time. In truth, thanksgiving is an action that stems from a belief in the never-ending power and unconditional nature of God’s love, forgiveness and presence — especially in the darkest and most trying of times.

“Faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love,” writes Saint Paul to the Corinthian Church. “Your anger, O God, lasts for but a moment; your love and mercy endureth forever,” sings the Psalmist. Again, Saint Paul to the Romans: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord — not even death, nor principalities, nor things to come.”

These promises of God’s enduring love can be an anchor for you in a tumultuous, stormy sea of life. Such visions of God’s generosity are like salve to the troubled soul.

As you grieve the death of a dear husband, son, brother, brother-in-law and friend, I pray your thanksgiving for his life leaves a legacy of God’s love amongst yourselves, and in the world, for the days ahead.

Peace be with you,

Amen.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment” (HarperOne, New York, 2016), p.123-127

Funeral sermon for an astronomer

Read Psalms 136:1-9 & 19:1-8

Rolf worked at many things. My impression is that he accomplished so much. Rolf was always on a project, whether clearing large rocks off his land, growing grapes, gardening, building structures, star-watching and -tracking.

His scientific mind, inductive reasoning and clarity of thought all translated into a degree of productivity not many of us will ever achieve. His gentle, methodical approach to his work reflects a state of mind that mirrors the great, spiritual giants of history.

Yes, spiritual.

Often science and religion have been pitted against each other in the philosophical and doctrinal wars of the contemporary age. And yet, in the lives of common people, we can begin to see that the two are not opposites in the seesaw battle for truth. Science and religion, in all truth, go hand in hand.

Some argue that besides the bible, no other book has likely influenced the course of western history more than the Rule of Benedict from the sixth century of the Common Era. Only some 13,000 words long, The Rule outlines instructions for the monastic tradition including prayer and work. In The Rule, Saint Benedict ordered the monks not only how to pray the Psalms, but how to work.

This work involved primarily manual, physical labour — fixing things, gardening, building. This work also evolved, happily, into artisan endeavours — wine-making, beer-producing, food preparing, and the such. Finally, the intellectual work of scribing and reading.

With singular attention focused on one task at a time, work becomes a contemplation. Even, you could say, a prayer. When it is done with joy and thanksgiving in each given moment. When we are present to our work, it is an offering of the natural rhythms of life, unfettered by distraction and self-consuming narcissism, which is often characterized by the demands and expectations of a hurried, anxious immediacy.

We remember and celebrate a precious life today. We recall moments that reveal a story of a person who reflects some of the best of what life and work is all about. Creation is indeed beautiful. God did good! And it will take eternity for us humans to begin to even scratch the surface of the brilliance and wonder of all that is.

The spirit of expansion, I would say, characterized Rolf’s life — a moving outward to include all, to embrace all, to reach to the farthest limits of all that we can know in God’s creation.

When Rolf was baptized at St James Anglican Church in Gatineau a few months after his birth, he was not only baptized into that particular faith community. His baptism signified his connection to the vast communion of saints. This community of faith spans the globe in all times and in all places. His baptism connected him to what Christians often call the ‘Body of Christ’ which has many members and includes all the baptized around the world: Starting here in the Ottawa region, and expanding outward.

In the funeral liturgy, one of the traditional prayers acknowledges the ‘mystical communion’ we all share in the Body of Christ. It speaks to the connectivity among all creatures.

Rolf’s passion for astronomy demonstrates this expansive spirit beautifully. The stars, of course, symbolize the mystery of heaven and God, and our human yearning for the unknown to become known. To connect to this great mystery, Rolf built his own observatory in the backyard of his house. 

And in 2005 he took a superb photo of Mars, his favourite planet. This image, which you see displayed here today, was possible because in 2005 Mars was in a close approach to earth at a high elevation — which means the angle at which viewing the red planet from the earth’s surface was exceptional.

Apparently Mars doesn’t behave like this every year. But in 2016, this year of Rolf’s death, Mars has again dipped close to the earth. Almost as if it was coming in to scoop Rolf up and connect his spirit once again to the vast universe, where now Rolf can see with his own eyes the expansive realm of God, whose love, mercy, and grace knows no limits.

Although we grieve a particular connection we have known with Rolf on earth these past six-plus decades, we touch today on the truth of the eternal connection we share with Rolf, all people, with all of creation and with God, forever.

Thanks be to God.

Happy Birthday! (funeral sermon)

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

It may seem strange to say this, today: On a day we mourn at the death and loss of a loved one. A loved one, nonetheless who lived to a 103! A loved one whose 104th birthday is today! “Happy birthday Wilma!”

When we say a funeral service is a ‘celebration of life’ we affirm this with mixed feelings, to be sure.

Kind of like the other paradoxes in our lives: Because, for example, we know that we are better fulfilled in giving rather than receiving. Because, as people of faith, we know that it is in dying that we live — on many levels.

That is why a funeral service is like an Easter service when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That is why, the day Jesus died on the cross is called “Good” Friday. Talk about paradox.

So, with confidence, we gather today to have a birthday party. Because Wilma, a person of deep faith in the living Lord, lives today in heavenly glory! 

Happy birthday Wilma!

At birthday parties we often tell stories about the person’s life, to date. There is one story from early on in Wilma’s life that I wish to highlight: When she was five years old, the windows of the Halifax house she and her family were living in blew inward, planting shards of glass deep in the layers of the skin on her head. She and her family survived the famous Halifax explosion.

Until Wilma was well into her 40s she was pulling little pieces of glass from her skin. For a large chunk of her life, especially in her formative years, she had to live with this reminder of her near death experience at such a young age. She was, in the first part of her life, regularly made aware of the fragility of her life and the reality of her mortality. That with each step we take in life, death walks along close by. Maybe that’s why she lived so long.

We try to avoid death. We deny it at every turn. We don’t want to see it. And yet, in avoiding death we also avoid living. Living to the upmost. The key to a rich life is to be aware that our death is only one breath away. 

It is common knowledge that the most effective, greatest and skilled soldiers in history were men and women who were willing to die in giving themselves to engage each combat situation. When you accept your own death at any given moment, then you can truly live.

An incredible paradox, isn’t it? How can we live in the ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery of this reality?

Wilma, as I said, was a woman of deep and enduring faith — through it all. It’s amazing when you think about the history she lived through: the rise of the automobile; the radical advance of technology from wires to the digital age; the many wars and two world wars of the last century, the Depression and economic ups and downs, the social revolutions. Through it all, she nurtured, and was nurtured in, a life of faith in the God who died in order to live.

Perhaps a deep knowing of this leads one to bless others. Indeed, this is how I got to know Wilma in these last four years of her life. Mostly through touch. In the tradition of the church, a blessing of healing and grace was given primarily by the ‘laying of hands’. It was a challenge to communicate with her, and yet, experts affirm that 70% of communication is non-verbal.

Wilma’s image of God was of a gracious, giving, loving God. She bristled at me early in our relating when I said the version of the Lord’s Prayer that has the line: “Lead us not to temptation …” She stopped me right in the tracks of that prayer, right there: “Stop,” she said. “God does not lead us to be tempted!” she objected. So, we changed the words. And that is why you read a slight variation in that sentence in the liturgy today.

God is a God of compassion and caring. God loves. Even when we can’t. Even when our love is imperfect and fraught with our own sin and misgivings. God comes to us first with a word of compassion, healing and mercy. This is the God Wilma believed in.

Her mission in life, in the last few years, was to bless others who cared for her. I learned this when she was at Fairfield Manor in Kanata, that she would routinely bless the nurses that attended to her. 

And after our many visits there, she would lean close to me and kiss me on my forehead. She said: “That’s the kiss of Jesus, saying that he loves you. And I do too.”

I responded: “I love you too, Wilma.”

Then, ever true to her belief, Wilma said: “That makes the Holy Trinity — three loves!”

Perhaps, then, Wilma leaves us with the legacy of faith that doesn’t pretend life is meant to be perfect. Because she wasn’t. But life is meant to be lived as long as we are given breath, in order to be a blessing of love to one another, as best we can.

Because God does.

Amen.

No life insurance

It’s like the spirited game parents play with their young children.

I remember years ago when the kids were still in diapers tossing our little ones up into the air, and then catching them on their way down. What makes this game so delightful is to watch the expression on the face of the child. If you slow-motioned the activity and zoomed in on the facial reactions of the child at each stage of the ‘throw and catch’ game, you would see a contrast of emotions:

From the catch to the upward toss, a smile and squeal of joy; from the falling motion to moment of catch, a growing sense of alarm as the eyes widen in concern and fear begins to creep into the picture. But, then, again the catch. And the grin returns. And the game resumes.

Can you imagine being the widow in the Gospel story (Luke 7:11-17) who has just lost her only son? Having lost her husband is one thing. You think it cannot get any worse. Yet, as is often the case in life, it does. Now her son. She feels the sharp edge of grief once again. Perhaps more deeply for the child she gave birth to, and raised with all her mother’s love.

Not only a personal grief, but the prospect of living in extreme need. Being a widow in 1st century Palestine was usually a ticket to poverty and low social status. A woman’s economic worth was almost always tied up in the men of her household — her husband or eldest son. This was much more than personal, emotional grief. This was a complete life-style change, from top to bottom, in a heart beat.

After meeting Jesus, however, things change so rapidly. From a season of mourning and grief, to the astonishment and wonder of joy: Her son is no longer dead, but alive! No longer is she alone, vulnerable, a burden on society, worthless in the economy and social structures of the day. Now, she has her son back. She has family. And that means the world to her!

Although something has changed. This new thing is also scary. All who witnessed the miracle were filled with fear (v.16). What does this second chance at life mean? Things will be different now. No longer like the good old days.

The rapid and extreme change of emotions could make her feel like a yo-yo. Maybe life sometimes feels like that for you. From moments of exquisite satisfaction, pleasure and joy, to the dark caverns of grief, depression, loss, suffering, fear and pain. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. 

In my first parish, which was in rural southern Ontario, burials were conducted (except during winter months) immediately following the funeral service in the cemetery right beside the church building. The recessional with casket proceeded to the grave side where the words of committal, prayers and scripture readings were offered. 

But then, the family stood by as the grave-diggers and funeral attendants lowered the casket, suspended up until that point on winches and ropes, down into the hole. In some cases, I had to assist by moving the casket into place as it slowly lowered. Once resting on the ground inside the hole, a family member used a spade to throw the first shovel-full of earth onto the casket — a symbol of the family participating in burying their loved one.

Today, especially in urban centres where funeral services are highly managed by market-driven professionals, most often the family leaves the grave-side before the casket is lowered and actually buried. I wonder about how the smallest of acts reflects our attitudes towards death and loss. 

Perhaps we can’t ‘go there’ emotionally so soon after losing a loved one and have to insulate ourselves in order to cope. The funeral rite therefore serves more as an anesthetic against the harsh reality of death and loss. I wonder: Does the experience and ritual of funerals only end up buffering the hard, emotional impact of loss?

Perhaps we are not used to ‘losing’, letting go, failing, surrendering, being powerless, vulnerable, at ground zero. We have little in life to practice this letting go before the final experience of losing a loved one. And perhaps healthy religion, as Richard Rohr claims, is about showing us what to do with our pain.

Is this too difficult an expectation of our faith? Because in making religion only about ‘feel good’ ‘warm fuzzies’ we might maintain our denial of life’s realities and only distract ourselves from truth. And that’s not what Christian faith is about — distracting us and keeping us from the rhythms of life, death, life, death, life.

Because in avoiding death, we also ironically, avoid life. And Jesus is about life. When we say this Gospel story is first and foremost about a miracle, we may be missing the point. It’s understandable that we do, because it is sensational. It captivates our imagination.

Focusing only on the miracle may just play into our fear and avoidance of death. As if to say Jesus performing this miracle was done for the boy’s sake. The enemy, death, was conquered! Therefore we can go on denying death. As if the boy will never eventually die an earthly death. As if to say Jesus performed this miracle solely to convince us to ‘believe’ in him — because no one else could do so (even though there were magicians/soothsayers and other miracle workers who performed incredible acts in Jesus’ day).

But the miracle, per se, is not the point of the story. Jesus raised the son from death not merely to show his divine power but to express his love and concern for the widow. He had compassion on her (v.13). And he couldn’t stand the thought that she would have to go it alone in a culture that marginalized the widow. Jesus brought the son back to restore a relationship, for living in the world.

God tosses us into the air. God throws us into the thick of life with all its challenges, disappointments, failures, weaknesses, joys, hurts, loves, pleasures and pain, satisfactions and accomplishments. God throws us into the air to experience fully this life we have been given. Life, death, life, death, life, death …

Then, to our happy amazement, God catches us again at just the right moment. God cares about what happens to us in our lives. God is interested in every minute detail and event in our lives — even those things we would rather cover up and hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts. God’s light exposes those secrets, even. We may feel vulnerable, challenged, unsettled for a time. And we may even wonder if we won’t just crash and burn on our way down.

Have faith in the One who’s tossing you. Because it’s part of life, for one thing. But most importantly, because God loves you and will quite unexpectedly be the One to catch you, at just the right moment.

A funeral sermon at Christmas

In these days leading to Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.

But according to the biblical record this characterization is not entirely true. Her song — called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) — suggests a courageous, brave, even revolutionary figure in the bible. Not only does she accept this radical calling of God to bear the Christ-child, she affirms the great reversals of Gospel truth. 

While she says ‘yes’ to God, she implies ‘no’ to the power structures of the day — the rich will be sent away empty, the proud will be scattered, the powerful will be brought down. 

It’s significant that your loved one’s middle name is Mary. Our names are important. I believe they are windows into our souls. And her life reflected, did it not, the style of Mary’s character in the sense of her courage, her almost impulsive stance towards defending the poor? You already told stories of how she often defended the underdog, the downtrodden, putting herself on the line, making herself vulnerable in order to do the right thing.

You told me how one night in her youth all dressed up for going out dancing in Montreal, she and your father came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did. Never mind your poor father who was convinced she was going to get herself seriously hurt.

Not many of us would do that in the public arena. So, the gift of her life encourages us to consider our own disposition towards those whom God favours. Her life is a testimony to the practice of unconditional love to all people. And the risk it sometimes entails.

Mary’s Magnificat is also often sung. Music is an excellent medium for expressing praise and true joy. Dear family, you spoke of your mother’s support of the arts and culture. Your family carries on in various ways this important tradition, this legacy. 

One wonderful memory you hold of your mother at this time is the beauty, the poise, the elegance and the joy with which in the early part of life, she danced. Danced with your father. Dancing was what they did in Montreal in the early years as they courted and were married there. 

Out on the night dancing, was what they were doing just before, in the story you told me, she defended the young man being beaten on the street. It seems your mother demonstrated the truth that along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled and our spirits charged by expressions of joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

We need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the needy. Your mother’s life reflected this both/and stance: The freedom of joyful sharing with others including a great sense of humour, and demonstrating a singular passion for justice and working hard for another. She needed this gift to endure the trials and tribulations of her life.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. What had throughout history not worked so well as far as the relationship between humanity and God, was now resolved in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to humanity. To us. 

The divine was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. 

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, you mourn your loss. You feel this loss deeply. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, to each according to our unique needs.

And for your mother, today, after almost 50 years of being separated by death from her dance partner in your Dad, she resumes a beautiful dance with him in heavenly glory. For joyful reunions, thanks be to God!

An Advent-Christmas funeral sermon

In some churches, the manger scenes during the Advent season are left intentionally incomplete: For example, as in our creche, the manger is empty; during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the figurine of baby Jesus is not there. Until December 25th.

In one congregation that worships in a large, cathedral-type building, the magi start their journey at the beginning of Advent somewhere in the narthex (the entrance). Each successive Sunday in Advent, the magi move closer to the manger scene which is set up at the front near the altar.

And, each Sunday, the children of the congregation are charged with a treasure-hunt search for where the figurines of the magi have been placed that week — whether on a decorated window sill, or beside a poinsettia plant, or on the steps to the chancel, etc.

Not only do these traditions emphasize the important Advent themes of waiting and watching with expectation for the coming Christmas joy, we are reminded at this time of year that we are, all of us, indeed, on a journey towards the manger, towards a new encounter with Jesus.

I believe Grant’s love of hiking revealed his ability to see the Big Picture. You see, when you go on a hike, following a trail that spans hundreds of kilometres as Grant has done on occasion, you are not just meandering aimlessly. Oh, yes, the trail can take many twists, turns, ups and downs.

But part of the joy of long-distance hiking is understanding in your imagination where you are headed, where you began, and the relationship between the two. No matter where you are along that journey, you can see the Big Picture.

One of my favourite visual effects of modern cinema does this well: From the perspective of the TV/movie camera, a scene of someone or something that happens on the ground in one moment of time is suddenly zoomed out; we move backwards up into the sky — still focused on the ground, but quickly disappears through the clouds and then into outer space. And we can see the planet earth and the solar system. And we can understand how that particular event or person on earth relates to the cosmos!

To have this Big Picture vision is to see our present reality, on the ground, from the perspective of not only history (where you’ve been) but also from the perspective of the future (where you’re going). Grant was a Big Picture kind of guy. He enjoyed the long-distance hike.

The ancient caravan routes through the Holy Land, Judean desert I think informed the prophetic writings, many of which we read in the Bible. These caravan routes were the life-line of the economy, and framed the boundaries of social order.

When you followed a caravan route you were walking a path trodden by generations of people who came before you, and a path that was followed by many once you were gone. This is the experience of people who journey, in every time and place.

I like our Bishop’s repeated advice to pastors whenever we gather for clergy and leadership retreats: “Remember, we are one and all merely ‘interim’ pastors”. Even pastors who are tenured and may remain years, even decades, in one parish are still, only, ‘interim’. They are interim because there were pastors who preceded them in the congregations’s history, and hopefully there will be more pastors coming once they are gone.

The point is not a focus on the pastor so much as seeing that pastor in the context of the larger history and journey of a congregation. It’s to regard an individual from the perspective of the Big Picture.

I can see why Richard Rohr uses the term, Big Picture, to understand the Kingdom of God. Because even though we are in constant transition on the caravan route, both the memory of the past and the promise of the future impinge on the present moment. In the Big Picture, the twin pulls of historical and future vision reveal a “vibrant now” in which God’s kingdom is complete and dwelling among us (Gail Ricciuti, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.94).

Being in the present moment, while informed by the past and motivated by the future promise, requires that you keep both feet on the ground. Hiking is an activity that requires the hiker not merely to keep moving, but to keep focused on the ground, one step at a time. It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

As such, the journey of faith is grounded in the moment. It is earthy, real. Your boots, feet and legs get dirty, scratched, bitten, sunburned. The Big Picture ultimately, for it to be effective, is anchored in the present, gritty, sometimes ugly circumstance of life.

Even when we experience death, loss, suffering and pain; this is part of the route when we have to go through the wilderness, the desert, and navigate the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross).

When I hiked part of the Bruce Trail near Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula years ago, I remember first following the trail from the parking lot to a cliff- edge standing over a hundred feet above the crashing surf of Georgian Bay. It was a beautiful vista overlooking the bay, the sky, the water birds. The memory is vibrant: breathing in the marine smells, feeling the warm, morning sun. I relished the moment, standing still, taking it all in.

I didn’t want to turn my back on it, and continue on the hike. I wanted the moment to last forever. I felt that should I continue on the trail, I would never experience such a blissful moment again. It wasn’t easy to rip myself away. However, in the course of the day, there were many more such views I enjoyed along the trail.

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote: “The end is where we start from … or say that the end precedes the beginning” (ibid.). Grant met his ‘end’, we say, in dying. But that ending was just the start of something new. Our faith in God, the promise of salvation, Jesus’ resurrection, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit — we are, each and everyone of us, including Grant — well equipped for the journey of life and death.

Because even though we might need to keep putting one foot forward and turn our back on the old, there is in each turn only something new waiting for us — a new perspective, something beautiful, something beyond our wildest dreams.

When we finish our walk on earth, the journey to Jesus merely takes on a whole new dimension. This Christmas, like the Magi who finally arrive at their destination to encounter the Christ child, Grant arrives home — his home with the Creator God and his Saviour Jesus. Now, he can experience life and union with God in a whole new, and deeper way.

One thing remains. The caravan is a journey undertaken with others, together. No one would even consider travelling the caravan routes through the desert alone. Jesus travelled with Grant throughout his life on earth, just as Jesus embraces Grant this day, with all the hosts of heaven.

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Funeral sermon – A special grace given

Just this last week in the news you might have heard that a 74-year-old nun from Quebec was released from captivity after being abducted two months ago by armed rebels in northern Cameroon.

And just around that time we heard that an American soldier was released after nearly five years of captivity in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

When hearing this news, I wondered how those held hostage were able to hold it together. Not knowing for sure when and if they would be released, somehow the nun and the soldier endured their captivity. They persevered, with no guarantee that they would be saved. For all they knew, those prisons could have been the last thing they ever saw.

When I met recently with Brenda, I noticed this quality of perseverance in her. She never gave up hope. She didn’t waver in what she presented to others. She gave determined witness to the faith that she would not be defeated by her illness.

After meeting with her, I wondered in a similar way I did after hearing about the nun and the soldier held hostage for significant periods of time. How could she endure? How was this possible? How did she do this? Without knowing for sure how things would turn out?

Brenda’s from the Upper Ottawa Valley. I want to welcome members of Brenda’s family who made the trip at least a couple of times down to Ottawa. Perhaps some of you know a retired pastor who has for many years made the circuit among Lutheran churches in Valley. He once told me something I have not forgotten.

He said that God gives a special grace to people at two events in life: First, God gives a special grace to people in their dying; that is, when someone dies God gives them a special strength and ability to do so. And this is not something always and easily perceptible by those witnessing the death, and is known fully, only by the person who is dying — this special grace.

The other event in life when God gives a special grace is to birthing mothers; when the time comes, finally, to give birth, God gives a special grace to endure this trying yet hope-filled event. At these profound moments of life and death, God gives to those who must endure them, a special grace.

And that is the only explanation I can give for understanding the incredible gift of perseverance and final peace with which Brenda endured this last chapter of her life on earth.

The story of Job from the bible is a testimony as well to this incredible ability to proclaim a steadfast faith in the midst of suffering. He lost everything — his family, his property. He suffered disease and ridicule. You would think that his profession of faith would come only after all his fortunes were restored, which they were right at the end of the book of Job, chapter 42. But Job doesn’t wait until chapter 42; already at chapter 19 he can proclaim a great faith even in the middle of suffering greatly.

We are Christian not because somehow now we have the secret to cheating death. We are Christian not because we can avoid suffering in this life. We Christian not because we can prove miracles sometimes happen. We are Christian, because we discover and receive the gift of grace to embrace our faith whenever we do have to suffer in life.

There is a beautiful image in the Gospel of a giant tree where birds of the air find refuge and make nests in its branches. Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed — small, seemingly insignificant, hardly noticed. It’s the smallest of seeds, barely perceptible.

“It is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). We could interpret those words “so that” merely as a descriptive consequence of the mustard seed growing into the largest of trees — that, among other things, birds would find safety in its branches.

But we could also interpret “so that” as the reason why a mustard seed is great. Because it provides shelter, care and compassion for the creatures of this world. There is an important purpose and mandate for that ‘greatness’.

The faith that can move mountains is a faith not easily noticed, perceived or appreciated by the world. Because it is the gift of compassion and care. It is the gift of grace and love which embraces others and provides shelter to those in need.

That is the greatness of faith. It is a faith that recognizes the compassion of our Lord. It is a faith that recognizes God’s steadfast love no matter what happens. “Neither death nor life nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8).

Brenda showed that grace to others in her life. But she endured these last days because of the compassion and grace given to her. Those around Brenda, closest to Brenda, you showed abundant grace, care and compassion — to put Brenda’s needs before your own, at times of joy in life but also, and especially, in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s the greatness of faith.

The special grace of God is given to Brenda. The prize is hers today. She has endured. She is released from her captivity. And this special grace is ours, also, forever. No matter what may come.