A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 12, 2017 (All Souls’)
It’s an odd thing about clergy. If you ask us whether we’d rather do a wedding or a funeral, nine out of ten will tell you they’d much prefer a funeral. There are various reasons for this — there’s no mother-of-the-bride at a funeral or tipsy groomsmen; people don’t look at the liturgy as something to get through quickly so they can get to the all-night party. Or at least not as much. There’s no friend of the bride butchering St. Paul’s “Love is patient, love is kind.” And the hymns are better.
But the primary reason is that the funeral rite speaks to the very heart of the Christian faith. Through it, we boldly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In poetic language the Church tells of Christ’s triumph over death, his victory over the grave, the movement from death to new life. The good news of the gospel stands in stark relief against the raw emotions of grief. And from the pulpit clergy can speak a word of hope into heavy hearts, offering comfort, perspective, and meaning.
So it’s not that clergy are maudlin by nature; rather it’s that we find nothing so moving as sharing the light of Christ in times of darkness.
Today on All Souls’ Sunday, we enter into this heart of darkness. We remember those whom we have loved and lost over the years. People who impacted our lives and helped shape our identities; people who were dear to us and cared for us; people who caused us great joy and, in some cases, deep pain; people with whom we may have had complicated relationships. So we bring grief — some sweet, some raw, some unresolved — with us this morning. We bring a swirl of emotions to this safe and sacred space.
And I invite you to embrace these emotions — in all their nuance and complexity — not because I want you to hurt, but to bring you into a place of even deeper relationship with the God who loves you so deeply and cares for you so dearly. You know, we worship a God wholly familiar with grief and death. This is not some foreign concept for a remote deity. One need look no further than the cross on Good Friday to see that our God is intimately familiar with the agony and pain of loss. The life and death of Jesus assures us of God’s comprehension and compassion. And there is comfort, I think, in knowing that God fully understands and relates to any emotions we may experience around the loss of a loved one. Jesus himself knew what it was to mourn a friend in Lazarus and it is in response to the news of his death news that we get the shortest and most poignant verse in the entire New Testament: “Jesus wept.”
On a day like this, our thoughts naturally go to specific people we have lost. You’ve likely been reflecting on particular individuals who have been important to you over the years and I’m aware that your own thoughts may become intertwined with my words. It may well be that God is speaking to you more through your head and heart than the sound of my voice. So if you lose some of what I’m saying this morning, that’s okay. I mean, don’t make it a habit…
But acknowledging the holiness of wandering minds, I’m going to speak a bit about the person I always think about on this day. My own father who died 25 years ago at the age of 52, an age I’m rapidly approaching myself. I’ve spoken about him in the past but the upshot is that he was a symphony orchestra conductor who died just as he was on the brink of a major international career — he won a Grammy for a recording he did with the Chicago Symphony that he never lived to see. But I wanted to speak about the circumstances surrounding his death. It was cancer that got him; melanoma. They thought they’d removed it with surgery but when it came back it returned with a vengeance. He conducted his last concert, a Nutcracker of all things, at the end of December and was dead by mid-February.
What I think about most is the manner in which he died. He was at home and hospice was involved. But it was the peace with which he died that stands out. He had every reason to be bitter and angry — on the surface of things the timing was just so cruel. His career was taking off, his children were finally leaving the nest, his 25-year marriage remained the bedrock of his life. And yet that life itself was slipping away.
Despite all odds, there it was: that deep, abiding sense of peace. Someone who had every right to be angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love. I couldn’t understand it at first. I was filled with all those darker emotions. And the rage and anger at the situation felt good and righteous! But you just couldn’t hold on to them in the presence of that serenity.
So where did it come from? This inconceivable and all-encompassing peace? Well, it was faith, of course. Which wasn’t something that came naturally or automatically to my dad. Despite a lifetime of church going, it wasn’t until the last few months that the words he had been proclaiming all those years — in prayers and creeds and hymns — were experienced first-hand as the peace and freedom of true relationship with Jesus Christ.
He had entered into that peace of God which passes all understanding. Amidst the pain, he was able to give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life. Despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he was able to be at peace with God, with his family, and with his friends. He knew that he was soon to be with his Lord; that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to life eternal.
And after he died, as I was in the throes of profound grief and sadness, I knew that I wanted that same sense of peace. Not as something to possess but as something to experience and to share with others. Which is in many ways why I do what I do.
Here’s another odd thing about clergy — or at least this particular member of the clergy. I like walking in cemeteries. Fortunately I have a dog to accompany me, so I don’t look like some creepy priest haunting the tombstones. But it’s something I like to do because I find myself having my own personal All Souls’ service. I think about people I’ve known and lost — friends and family members. I think about parishioners I’ve buried and the connections I’ve made walking with families through the valley of the shadow of death. And I think about that peace that truly does pass all understanding. Sometimes it remains elusive but at other times it’s wonderfully pervasive.
And I’m reminded that the good news for you and me is that death is not the end. The heart of what we believe resounds in the Easter message. Death no longer has dominion over us. We know that our Redeemer lives. The sting of death has been taken away by Jesus’ victory over the grave. Which opens up for us, again and again, that freedom and joy and abiding sense of peace.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck