Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sermon for my uncle Vern

My uncle Vern, the longtime traveling companion of my uncle Father Maynard, passed away last week.

I had the honor, after having offered the eulogy for Uncle Maynard's funeral, of being asked to lead Vern's service:  something simple and something that honored him and his life.

This is what I planned and led.

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Gathering

Reflections (by Vern's nieces Jody and Dawn)

Readings

Psalm 116:12-19 (The Message)
John 11:17-27 (The Message)

Sermon

Grief does strange things to us.

It comes in many forms.  Grief comes in denial -- in that terror that strikes the heart so close that it seems we can do nothing but avoid it.  It comes in sorrow -- in tears, in a trembling stillness, in what poets have called the dark night of the soul.  It comes in anger, in defense against the pain, a lashing out at anything around us.  It comes in pleading, in begging, in prayers sent up to whatever God we beseech:  Please, don’t let this be happening.  I’ll do anything to make it change.

Grief comes, centrally, as pain.  Our anger and sorrow and denial and bargaining all stem from the experience of pain in the face of death.  We hear that pain in Martha reaching out for Jesus, her words both angry and heartbroken:  If you had been here, my brother would not have died.

There is not only grief at death.  There is grief at every change in life.  At the end of a job, or the beginning of a new one.  At a new house, a new city, a new country.  When a child is born, or leaves for college.  When a marriage begins -- or when it ends.  There is grief at every change, because with every change there is a loss.  Something that we have treasured, or celebrated, or even never noticed for its simplicity -- is gone.  It is now only part of our past.  With every change there is loss.  And with every loss, there must be pain.  There is a readjustment, new steps to take, a new turn in life’s path.

We will grieve Vern in very many ways.  His absence will prick at us in funny ways:  sometimes all at once, in the next few weeks.  There may be activities that seem unbearable, like sorting his belongings -- or we may feel numb, only to break down later at a time that seems most inappropriate.  Sometimes something very simple, like washing dishes or tending the garden, will trigger a tear.  At family gatherings, we will notice his absence.  This is natural to us, as humans, who love and remember each other.  It is change, it is grief, and it is pain.

We rarely speak of any joy in grief.  It seems profane, sometimes, in the face of our pain to speak of celebration.  And yet we have a great joy today.  We have this beautiful confidence, this image shared among many of us, of the joy of Vern’s heavenly reunion with Father Maynard.  They were companions in this life, and now they are in the next.  They traveled throughout the world together; now they are traveling companions in a whole new way.  They served great dinners together, celebrations of family and friends united over good food and loud laughter; now they are seated together at God’s great banquet, of which all our meals and all Father Maynard’s masses are just a foretaste of the feast to come.

So in our grief, there is also this odd and wondrous joy.  These two dear friends, so united in life, are living out now the great promise of all those who love each other like family:  "where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people, and your God my God.”  When we celebrate Vern’s life today, we celebrate also his death and resurrection.  We celebrate the moment that he let go of Suzanne and Don’s hands and, passing from this life, took Father Maynard’s hand in the next.  There was, at that moment, a great and joyous reunion in heaven.

So today in our grief we have this beautiful grace.  This hope and vision of the life hereafter, where our beloved brother Vern joins our brother Maynard in the welcoming arms of God.  And hand in hand in God’s wide embrace, they go on together, partners in the journey of the next life.

Today, in our grieving and our mourning, we cling also to that hope.  The hope that we, like Vern and Maynard now, will all one day be reunited with the ones we love.  The hope that we, like all those who have gone before us, will stand in the presence of the God of Love that made and cherished us.  The hope that we might be greeted with the joyous cry, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

Let us pray.

Holy God, as we come together to mourn, to grieve, to remember, and to celebrate, grace our hearts with your loving presence, that we might be moved to the kind of service, friendship, and compassion that characterized your child Vern’s life.  Strengthen us to see your light and delight in each other, and to cling to love in all our sorrow.  Amen.

Prayers of the People 

"Abide With Me"

Commendation

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I also had the gift of leading the Committal at the mausoleum where we laid Vern to rest exactly where he belonged -- beside Maynard.  I read Romans 8:31-35, 37-39 from one of Maynard's pastoral visitation prayerbooks which Vern gifted to me after his death.

It was an amazing honor to be asked to lead and to have the chance to meet some of the many people who loved and honored Vern.  He was a great man with a generous and loving heart, and he will be very much missed.

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