05 November 2012

A Homily for Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. - Matthew 5:4

A tale of two sorrows, people loved by God.

Charlie was my friend – we played racquetball together; he sang in the choir and he literally bounced along in the joy of the Lord each day. The call came a few days before Christmas. It was a Saturday night. One of my members was driving the ambulance and said: You better get to the hospital; this one’s not gonna have a good ending. Despite valiant efforts by the ER team, my member was right. Charlie, my bouncing, laughing, singing beer drinking buddy Charlie, was gone. By the time I’d broken the word to his children and his wife, and we’d prayed and cried together, it was wee hours of the morning. I got home and snatched a troubled couple hours of sleep and then headed over for 7:45 service. I walked at out the ringing of the bell and just about lost it. There they were, sitting in Church. His wife, his kids, and all looking sad, but peaceful. I told them afterwards I couldn’t believe they were there. They said: “But it was communion; we wanted to be with dad today.”

Charlie’s funeral kept up the same blend of tears and joy. We sang to defy death. The choir belted out the Hallelujah chorus with not a dry eye in the house. One of Charlie’s rather unsavory business associates from Chicago was there. He literally looked at me as he walked out and said: “I don’t get it. It’s like you guys are happy or something.” With laughter and tears streaming down our faces, we assured him we were.

The death of a Christian can be a celebration of unspeakable comfort and joy even here and now. That was Charlie.

Then there’s Joe. Joe was my brother. We were kindred spirits in so many ways, but he was 11 years older. I think I idolized him more than little bit. Cindi and I were awaken by one of those dreaded early morning phone calls on Palm Sunday when I was serving as a vicar in Garfield NJ. My mom. She told me that my brother had died in a car wreck early that morning. It was Palm Sunday and I was preaching on the OT:  “Rejoice, daughter of Zion! Your king is coming to you!” It was a sermon all about joy.

I was so empty inside. You see, the very last conversation I’d had with my brother I had tried to witness to him, but he told me:  “Billy, I don’t have time for that…stuff.” (Okay, he didn't really say stuff).  I have no assurance whatsoever that my brother ever changed his mind about that.

I remember sitting outside our bedroom in the vicarage and pondering, really pondering for the first time: wouldn’t I rather be with my brother in hell if that's where he ended up than without him in heaven? Maybe the words of Jesus sank in: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father, mother, sister, brother…”  Not hate in the sense of “harbor bitter resentment towards.” Hate in the sense of preferring Him to them. But did I?

The death of someone we love about whom we have little hope of them dying in the faith, it brings to the Christian a kind of mourning and grief that words can’t begin to cover. You know, everything inside of me WANTS to be a universalist. I want to believe that there’s no way that everyone won’t finally be overcome by the great love that we have known in Jesus. But you know the Scriptures as well as I do. You know that’s not the way it will be.

Dreary thoughts for an All Saints Day celebration, Chaplain? No. I’m sure that for most of the folks on our commemoration list, it’s a Charlie-like feast. He always called All Saints “the little easter in the fall.” Loved it. And loved singing that “For all the saints!” It’s a joy indeed. But I want to be honest and realistic. I suspect everyone in this room has those loved one who have died, about whom doubts and fears linger. Did they die in the faith? Did they die trusting in the One who is the Forgiveness of Sin and the Destruction of death? And what if they didn’t? Is there a comfort big enough for that? Because we love them. And death doesn’t diminish the love. Comfort? Really?

I don’t know how, but I do believe that the answer is yes. Jesus, the Blessed One, speaks the promise in today’s Gospel:  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” He didn’t say: “Blessed are those who mourn for believers”; just “those who mourn.” And like all the beatitudes but the first and the last, He puts that which will bless you out into the future, into the Age that is to come. “WILL BE comforted.”

I don’t know how. But I know He never lies. He will reach out a nail-scarred hand. He will touch you, and He will wipe away the tears, and somehow, someway that ragged hole in your heart will be healed. I can’t even imagine how it will be possible when you think of those who are missing, but you will experience it nonetheless. And I don't believe for one second that it will be by making you forget them or your love for them. For He who bore your sins and theirs on His cross did so because He loved them even as He loves you. And He who rose from the dead, rose for them even as He rose for you. This is the confidence you have in Him: that in Him every last child of Adam and daughter of Eve has been loved with a love immeasurable, vast, divine. Whatever healing awaits us is perfect love in a way that we cannot now begin to conceive; but this All Saints we wait for it in hope.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. You shall be comforted. For the Charlies of your life, and also for the Joes. With man such comfort is impossible; but not with God. With God all things are possible. For God is love. Amen.

1 comment:

Pr. Chuck Sampson said...

Amen, indeed. Thank you.