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

Better is not what you think

What happens when doors close and we don’t see other doors open? Life is full of closed doors: unemployment, failure to graduate, illness, tragedy, lost friendships, divorce — the list goes on. What happens when you are stuck in the middle of that transition and can’t see a way through? For whatever reason, doors close. The fact we sometimes don’t know why may make it harder to take.

Paul wanted and “attempted” to go to Asia. The lectionary doesn’t include the verses (6-9) immediately prior to the first text today (Acts 16:9-15). For some inexplicable reason, the Holy Spirit “did not allow” Paul and his cohort to travel there. A door is closed. 

But you’ve heard the cliche: When God closes a door, another one opens. Which is, presumably, a better deal.

After the door to Asia, and Paul’s ‘wants’, closes, he then goes to Macedonia after a convincing vision and on to Philippi where he meets Lydia. The result of their encounter is that “she and her household were baptized”. Good things happen. This open door was a successful mission. Even though, originally, this mission-field was not for-seen, planned, even desired.

The church finds itself in an uncomfortable situation these days. The glory days of ethnically-defined church planting and building are long gone. We still yearn for those good-old-days, the hey day of the kind of church we still try to maintain when Lutherans from Germany were streaming off the boats, church budgets were growing and pews were filled. For the institutional reality, it feels like a door is closing. And we don’t see a clear picture of what it is changing into.

It’s not a comfortable place to be, when doors close. Where’s the open door?

Earlier this year a couple members of a Lutheran church in Southern Ontario, decided to partner with a neighbouring church to organize a refugee sponsorship initiative. They complied with all the regulations, began a fundraising appeal, and the word got out.

Before long they had attracted fourteen people from the community to work alongside them. They found unprecedented success at mobilizing resources and motivating people to help. Tens of thousands of dollars was raised in no time. An apartment was secured and furnished without problem. A Syrian family was on the way.

The Lutherans on the committee made sure their own congregation was brought up to speed with regular reports, appeals for help and updates. To their surprise, and dismay, all but a couple on that growing committee were members of their church.

The gentleman who had initiated this refugee work lamented to one of the Synod staff who was close to the community, “What’s the point of doing all this work, when the people working on the committee don’t come to church on Sundays and put offerings in the plate?”

“Are others aware you are a Christian from a local congregation?”

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

“Are you doing this from your conscience as a Christian?”

“Do you feel God is calling you to do this work?”

All these questions were answered in the affirmative. So, what’s the problem? Maybe a door is closing, and maybe another has opened? It just isn’t what we may expect or think we want. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and among people. The question is, are we willing to walk through that open door? Congratulations to that Lutheran who took the initiative to do something when there was a need.

When a door closes, it can feel like you are unprepared for whatever may be. In life transitions, especially, the in-between ‘close door / open door’ time can be unnerving. When a baby is born, for example, no manual comes out with the baby. Being a parent is feeling your way to make decisions with each passing moment. Preparation — you can throw that out the door!

Of the top three major festivals of the church year, the Day of Pentecost comes up almost unexpectedly. Did you know it’s two weeks from today? Unlike Christmas and Easter which have long weeks of preparation (Advent and Lent, respectively) leading up to these high, holy days, Pentecost does not.

We only have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:23-29) to his disciples, these days, preparing them for his departure. And giving the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Occasions like this should be sad, unnerving, disquieting, too sudden. And, on some level, it is. It cannot be denied. After all, the disciples will no longer have Jesus physically present with them any more. In a way, they are losing something precious and dear to them: their leader, their confidant, their friend. The common reaction to a loved one’s leaving is sorrow and despair. We can understand. Sympathize.

And yet, Jesus tells them to “rejoice” that Jesus is going back to the Father. Be glad, that Jesus is leaving them? It doesn’t make sense. Be glad, that you are going? – You can probably hear the disciples murmur under their breath, trying to figure it out.

In coping with his absence, Jesus nevertheless gives them something even better. The door of his physical presence is closing. But another, better door, is opening. This is unexpected, never-before-seen, and unplanned (from the disciples’ point of view):

After he leaves, Jesus’ presence will be within them: Earlier in this chapter (v.20), Jesus says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will have the power and the grace to do great things in the name of Jesus. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

In order for the new door to open, the old door must close. The only way the disciples of Jesus can receive the Holy Spirit and do and be all that they are meant to be and do, is only after Jesus leaves them and returns to his Father in heaven.

The promises of God are rich. We may not see the outcome or how it will all turn out, in the end. Yet, it is true: Once a door closes, another will open. And it will not be what we think. It will be better!

The return journey of Transfiguration

When I first watched Danny Macaskill’s video, “The Ridge”, I assumed the incredible journey on his mountain bike would culminate at the pinnacle. When he lifts his bicycle over his head through the streaming rays of glorious sunshine on top of the Scottish highland, I anticipated the credits to role. His journey done. The glory achieved. Mission accomplished.

But we were only half done! After relishing the moment, he puts his wheels on the uneven, rocky, dangerous path and accelerates downward on the return journey — jumping across gaping crevices, twisting across boulder tops and flipping over barbed wire fences. The pilgrimage began at the water’s edge below. And there, it will end.

The journey of Transfiguration, described by Luke in the lectionary for today, does not end on the mountaintop (Luke 9:28-43). After the majesty, mystery and glory of the spectacular vision on the top of the mountain, Jesus and the disciples “come down from the mountain” (v.37) into an anxious scene where Jesus heals a man shrieking, convulsing and foaming at the mouth in the grips of demon possession. Not exactly a moment of pristine glory. 

Though the story ends well for all concerned, the Gospel writer reminds us that the journey of change and transformation and healing must include a descent, a going down, a letting go, a releasing. You may call it a reality check in life, or in the case of the video, literally — the rubber hitting the road.

These mountaintop experiences of our lives, according to the Gospel, find meaning and validity in the valleys of our lives. Jesus’ majesty is legitimized in his mission to the people living in the valley. These mountaintop experiences are mere stopping points on the journey, not the destination. While we live on earth, the journey must embrace both mountain and valley, must recognize the meaning and value in both. Our spiritual charade is exposed if we pretend faith is validated only in those ecstatic mountaintop moments.

In your life, which mountains have you ascended? These can be times when you experience joy, love, peace and hope; they can be times when you experience a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

And into which valleys did you descend? These can be times when you experience failure, setback, disappointment, loss; they can be times when you felt profound fear, shame, anger, guilt and anxiety. 

Joyce Rupp reflects on legends common to many lands “about a person who has an enticing dream of where treasure is located. Of course, the valuable cache in the dream hides far beyond where the person lives. If the dreamer does not leave home to seek the treasure, the dream is repeated until the person finally sets out for the extensive journey. In each legend, the seeker travels long, arduous years, filled with both dangerous and enthralling adventure, never being sure if that which is sought will be found.

“The story ends with the traveler coming to the place where the treasure is supposedly hidden. Instead of finding it there, the seeker meets a stranger at that site who tells about a dream he or she had in which the long-sought treasure is located back at the place where the dreamer originally started out. Of course, the person who has been seeking all those years now hurries as quickly as possible to get home. Arriving back at the place of the dream, sure enough, there is the treasure. What the person sought on the arduous journey had been there all along.

“This legend teaches that life’s journey, with its flow of ups and downs, has to be made. Although it leads full circle back to the home of one’s own heart, the journey itself contains the necessary teachings for growth and change.” (1)

When we return to the starting point of our own existence, we will find our true nature. Again, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is helpful. Because the message from the biblical record is that Jesus’ true essence was revealed on the mountaintop. He is the divine Son of God.

Yet, the Transfiguration of our Lord didn’t negate his humanity. From that point forward, he would still go down into the valley, heal the sick, preach good news to the poor and die a human man on the Cross of Calvary. The Transfiguration only uncovered his true nature in that moment of time.

In the same way, we are transformed and changed — yes. But our Christian growth does not dismiss, discard, and deny all that we are and have been — good and bad. As Martin Luther argued, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Our transformation is not a movement from sinner to saint, as if we can only be Christian if we don’t sin anymore, as if no more sin infects our lives, as if we can somehow abolish altogether our sinful baggage on the journey. The greatest saints on earth still sinned to their dying day.

Rather, our transformation reveals to us and those around us who we truly are, in Christ Jesus: We are beloved children of God. In this life, we will always be saints and sinner. Yet, we will know and experience more and more the transforming power of God’s love for us, in us, and through us. This is our true nature. And our greatest treasure. Thanks be to God!

Where in your life do you see the love of Jesus, working in and through you despite the sin in your life?



(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door – A Journey to the True Self” Sorin Books, Notre Dame Indiana, 2009, digital copy in Week 2, p.8

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.

Sailing Across

Imagine standing at the shoreline of a great ocean. Linger on the span of the horizon, the boundary between water and sky. What kind of weather day is it? Is it windy? Are the waves crashing at your feet; is the ocean choppy, cresting with millions of whitecaps as far as the eye can see?

Or, is it a calm sea today? Just a gentle, rhythmic slapping of water on sand at your feet? Is the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky? Or, is it overcast — greys washing away any colour distinctions in your line of sight?

The lectionary brings together some bible readings for this Sunday in the Easter season that make an outrageous claim: God is in us. For, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit — the Advocate — “will be in you” (John 14:17).

Christian apologists in the last centuries have guarded against modernist, “new age” beliefs. They describe that Christians have always held the distinction between God and creation. Conservatives, especially, have been nervous whenever anyone suggests that a bit of God is in us, because that can easily slip into an unorthodox, pantheistic blending of boundaries. In other words, we humans are not God.

It is an important distinction, to be sure. It echoes Martin Luther’s emphasis during the Reformation on the supremacy of the grace of God. Similar to new-age doctrines whose ultimate meaning is found in the human self, ‘works-righteousness’ — that which Luther fought against in the sale of indulgences — implies the onus rests with us, when it comes to our salvation.

Works-righteousness means that we have to earn favour with God in order to get to heaven. It’s all up to us — what we decide, our good efforts to do the right kinds of things; the result of our works, therefore, determines the course of whether we are made right with God, or not. Luther, of course, argued against this line of thinking and acting.

So, standing at the ocean’s edge, would you venture out using a motorboat or a sail boat? Which kind of boat is a better metaphor to describe a life of faith? If our intention and hope was to land on the distant shore of complete union with God — or however you want to describe heaven — how do we get from here to there? On the one hand, will we ride the ocean of our lives using a motor boat?

A motor boat would certainly be the easiest method. We just aim in a straight line and power up. We would have control over the course; we would decide when to ease up on the throttle, for a break; we would decide when to give it gas, and race. We’d be in charge. Even against the wind and waves, whether in a stiff breeze or on a cloudless, placid sea, our direction is certain.

I suspect this is the preferred methodology, even when it comes to being the church and living our Christian lives. The onus is on us. And it’s up to us to determine the course and be in charge of our destiny.

I also suspect we would recoil against the notion that driving the motorboat is just like the kind of heresy the reformers of yesteryear and today rail against. Because ultimately our life, our death, and our salvation is not dependent on our doing, our agency, our efforts, our decisions — as good or as bad as they may be.

A sailboat, on the other hand, calls forth a different kind of skill set. It’s not that a sailor has no work to do. But this work is different: Without the benefit of an engine to drive, regardless of wind speed and direction, the sailor must be able first to pay attention to what is happening on any particular day.

Once wind speed and direction is observed, the riggings and ropes and rudder must be properly aligned in order to make any kind of headway.

At first, you may need to head in the opposite direction. Tacking into the wind is counterintuitive – sometimes you need to move away from your destination in order to move toward it.

Sometimes, tacking with the wind may mean heading right into an unattractive bank of dark, storm clouds. Sometimes relying on the wind means leaning your body in an uncomfortable position to maximize the best weight distribution. In truth, sailing is tough work.

But using this method of crossing the ocean, as inefficient as it might sometimes seem, is better suited to describe Christian discipleship. Even though doing the right thing sometimes may mean an inconvenience, even though following God’s call may be uncomfortable for us, even though being faithful may mean facing our fears and confronting head on that which we would normally avoid. Because we must depend on God. Our work is more in response to what God is already doing, and then trusting in God.

Those scriptures we hear today were given in the general context of Jesus leaving the disciples at his ascension. The Gospel is part of the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus gives his disciples — words of encouragement and empowerment and promise. Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples who now have to continue doing Jesus’ work on earth.

But they are not alone in this work. It’s not up to them, alone. Jesus assures them they will do even “greater works” (John 14:12) than himself, but not without his presence in them through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God blows as it wills, because God is in charge. And because the presence of Christ lives IN us, the promise of God is true. We don’t have to be in control because not even death stands in the way of the promise and truth of God.

We need only pay attention to what is already happening around us, and respond accordingly. Even if at first the way appears inconvenient, counterintuitive, or cause us to be afraid. We can even sail right into the sunset of our lives, knowing that God awaits us on the distant shore.

Let us pray:

“Not as the world gives do you give,
O Lover of Souls,
For what is yours is ours also,
if we belong to you.

“Life is unending because love is undying,
and the boundaries of this life are but an horizon,
and an horizon is but the limit of our vision.

“Lift us up, strong Son of God,
that we may see further.
Strengthen our faith that we may see beyond the horizon.

“And while you prepare a place for us,
as you have promised,
prepare us also for that happy place;
that where you are we may be also,
with those we have loved, forever.

Amen.”

(Bede Jarrett in Flor McCarthy, “Funeral Liturgies” Dominican Publications, Ireland, 1987, p.181)