I preached this sermon on the heels of a really hard funeral for a lot of us the day before. I had planned to end the service with Old Rugged Cross and when I looked out in the congregation so many people had tears in their eyes. It has been a hard year for a lot of people and I think reading through this Passion Narrative has been oddly therapeutic as it has reminded us that grace is still present, even in the hard stuff.
Have a safe and happy 4th of July holiday everyone!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
June 30, 2019
Remembering Our Loved Ones
So you’d think I’d have a lot to say about burials.
The irony of me having to preach on Jesus’ burial right now is not how many funerals I have done over the past four months, but that I am actually sort of working through my own thoughts about what I would want one day.
You see, I never really thought it was important. That’s weird, right? Considering what I do for a living. But I guess I just never wanted anyone to make a fuss. I actually told Bruce once that when I died, I wanted to be cremated and then he should just accidently trip and spill my ashes one day and be done with it.
Which, for the record, I do not think he would have ever actually done.
And then I slowly started to have a change of heart.
I don’t know what it was; some combination of grace and the fact that I have done a lot of really inspiring funerals over the past year or so. There was something about riding in the funeral procession for Earl Goff with the fire department marching on foot behind us, singing Amazing Grace while we got poured on when we buried Alice Wagner, preparing a beautiful altar honoring Lou Peranzi’s life for his memorial service, watching the Fire Department walk through at Mark Johnson’s funeral while Lynyrd Skynyrd played quietly in the background, hearing taps played at the cemetery more times than I can count and lining up the two hearses carrying Paul and Kathy Lumbra in front of the church before we took the trip out Bourne to bury them that just started to remind me of just how important ritual is, not only in life, but in death.
When Rachel Held Evans died, they livestreamed her funeral, which was a Requiem Eucharist, a funeral mass in the Episcopal tradition. The liturgy was beautiful; and when I watched them process her casket into the sanctuary while the priest walked behind her and boldly proclaimed that promise of our faith – I am Resurrection and I am Life – I wept.
Because I realized in that moment that, even though sometimes it is really hard to take part in these rituals surrounding death, they are so important in helping us to process our grief and to remind us of the redeeming hope of resurrection in Christ.
This morning’s scripture reading is the story of Jesus’ burial. We enter the story while Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, look on from a distance. Evening was coming, which meant that soon it would be the Sabbath (it was Friday, remember – Sabbath begins a few minutes before sunset on Friday).
Knowing there was not much time before the sun set, a man from Arimathea named Joseph went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. When the centurion told Pilate that Jesus was, in fact, dead, he granted Joseph permission and Joseph bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down off the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, laid him in an empty tomb and rolled a stone again the door to close it.
My first question in reading this story is, who is this Joseph guy? He is supposedly a respected member of “the council,” although the story does not specify which council. Jesus, you may remember, appeared before a council made up of the high priest, the chief priests, the scribes and elders and they condemned him as deserving of death, but there is no confirmation that he is a member of that same council.
Regardless, Joseph goes “boldly to Pilate” and asks for the body of Jesus. The part that intrigues me about Joseph is that the scripture identifies him as, “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”
Who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.
What does that mean?
Okay, I want to jump back to the very beginning of the Year of the Mark, I think the second week; Jesus was baptized and then driven out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days and then he traveled to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God. When he arrived in Galilee, Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
I think one thing we have all learned throughout this year of studying the Gospel of Mark is that the kingdom of God is not necessarily something that is far off, but something that is here, that is attainable. The kingdom of God is something that we can create here on earth if we live out the Gospel, if we put to action the call of Jesus to love God and to love one another, if we commit to healing the sick, feeding the hungry and reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.
And so when Joseph of Arimathea is identified as someone who is, “also … waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” and then goes boldly to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, I have to think that the two are somehow related.
It kind of makes me wonder if what we do when people die enables us to bring the kingdom of God to earth; if our rituals, our remembrances and our desires to pick up the light of someone who has died and carry it with us in our own lives actually widens the depth of the kingdom and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that so desperately needs to hear it.
For the record, I do not think our rituals have any bearings on whether or not someone gets into heaven; God is more powerful than the words that we speak and the rituals we perform. However, I do think how we handle death significantly impacts how we move forward here on earth after someone dies; how we cling tightly to our faith in our moments of despair and are reminded of the sweet promise of resurrection. I think how we handle death enables us to carries someone’s memory with us so that their spirit always lives on.
Joseph did not know what was about to happen; he thought Jesus was dead. And it was not because he buried Jesus that God resurrected him; but it was because he buried Jesus that he was able to honor the life that Jesus lived and believe that kingdom of God was very much attainable here.
And I think the same is true in our lives today. It is not because we participate in rituals and traditions when our loved ones die that they go to heaven; but it is because of these things that we are able to see what heaven might look like as we then carry their spirit with us in our lives. It is because of our rituals and traditions that we are able to bear witness to the lives of those who came before us as we seek to bring the kingdom of God to earth.
And so I think, as people living on this side of the resurrection, we, too, have to think carefully about the ways in which we care for our loved ones after they die. And I am not just talking about funeral arrangements, either, I am also talking about the rituals and the traditions that we create after they are gone to remember them, as well.
I think about my Grandmother Miko every time I make chicken paprikash, because she is the one who taught me how to make it. I think about my Grandmother Keck every time I see coins on the ground because she once very proudly told me that she dodged traffic one afternoon when she saw change in the road and collected 32 cents. I think about my Grandfather Keck when I look at Harrison because he is his namesake. I think about my mom’s best friend, Diane, every time I make pancakes, because she told me once that if you add sugar and a little bit of vanilla to pancake batter, they taste so much better. I think about my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, every time I argue with someone about the reality of systemic racism because he was the one that gave me the courage to have those conversations.
And then I try to carry their light into the world.
It is not necessarily the big things – but then again, it does not always have to be. Sometimes it is the little things that make a difference. It is the little things that remind us of the people that changed our lives. We have to boldly tell our loved ones stories so the other’s lives might be changed, as well.
So whether you are laying someone to rest, celebrating their life at a memorial service, paying them a visit to the cemetery, making a meal they always cooked, toasting them with their favorite drink, playing music that they loved, gathering at their favorite vacation spot, planting flowers in their memory or just taking their best quality and carrying it with you in the world, may you know that the kingdom of God is near and that you are an active participant in bringing it to life.
Thanks be to God!