Life and Death, With a Sprinkling of Humor (Winton Boyd) 11.18.18

We talk often in the church about how the ‘children’ are the future. We love a joyful baptism and the way it reaffirms a life stream that beckons from deep within each one of us.

But I have come to believe that it is the combination of birth and death that makes a church community healthy and real. And unique.

Audio version of this sermon

Sacred Text from John 14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also…

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”


So, this is my last sermon in this series, The Puzzle We Call Faith.  I knew when I was sketching out this series that I wanted to talk the importance of death in the life of a congregation.  It’s not a common sermon theme, so I thought it would be helpful to share a precious and somewhat comical experience around a particular death.  Bruce Gladstone, who works hard to match choral music to theme – looked at me and said, ‘really?  Death and humor?

Believe it or not, if you hang around a group of pastors, it won’t take long for someone to talk about how much they value doing funerals.  As a profession, we have the opportunity, and the gift really, to be present with people and families as life on this earth comes to an end.  Coupled with the real, and at times riveting, grief, preparing for funerals can be a lovely, even liminal time.  Pain, honesty, love and even humor band together in a way that rarely happens in our everyday lives.  In a practical way, extended families often work hard to gather together for a day or two and all the activity that comes with memorializing a loved one.  In a spiritual sense, the core ethos of one’s family is often celebrated, cherished, and nurtured.  A grandfather gets to hang out in a special way with grandchildren.  A child returns home from a foreign country and is reminded of their roots.  Little ones, dressed uncomfortably in new clothes, feel the warmth and joy of the renewed attention given to them by cousins from cities far away.  At its best, it can be an amazingly beautiful time.

Agrace Hospice Fitchburg has a wonderful tradition.  When someone passes away at their facility, families are offered a procession from the deceased’s room to the entrance of the building where a funeral home will take the body for cremation or preparation for a funeral.  As the body is wheeled on a gurney, family and close friends follow.  Sometimes music is played or a hymn sung.  Always a beautiful quilt is placed over the body.  Always the staff of the entire facility stands at attention as the procession passes, honoring life — whether or not they knew the person — before they leaving the Hospice Center’s care.  It is one of the most moving rituals I’ve ever encountered.  Simple. Respectful.   I’ve taken it to the facility where my father finished his life; others in the church have taken it to other care facilities.

But I have one beautiful memory of a day at Agrace that occurred between the time of death and that ritual.  As is often the case, a dear loved one in this congregation died in the early morning hours and their spouse wanted to wait for their children to drive into town for that ritual.

So, in those few hours of waiting, a group of 6-7 sat in the hospice room with the newly widowed spouse.  This group knew and loved the deceased better than anyone else.  Over time, the conversation turned to the previous several months. It was roundly agreed that in their dying months, the newly deceased friend had been, quite simply and bluntly, an irascible and ornery spouse. Not on purpose, not out of ill will. But in the final months, living, and dying, was hard, and it was no surprise that the person who got the brunt of it was the spouse.

In time, the story telling turned into joking and ribbing and making fun of that very much loved, but very much deceased, body still on the bed.  The laughter emerged freely and became cathartic.

I found myself in awe that a group could both cherish and ridicule their dear friend in that moment. I found myself in awe that in the wake of death, that tight knit circle did not shy away from honesty, and did not hide their love. It was like the time period was frozen forever in a transcendent space.

It was possible because both the deceased and his spouse had been deeply loved by these family members and friends for decades.  There was no way 6 months of bad behavior would ever compete with a life time of gratitude, love, affirmation, and service to the world.

But it was also possible because this group did not fear death.

  • There was little talk of meeting Jesus, but there was a profound and honest claim on Jesus’ promise of peace.
  • There was little need to debate what was meant by “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” to know that our future beyond our earthly death was filled with the promise of God’s presence, grace and love.
  • There was little effort or need to prove any religious truth. There was little need to confirm what awaits us after our death.  Rather, the group celebrated a long life rooted in the trust that in the end, all would be well.  Grace would be sufficient.

I know that time was a gift for each of us in the room that morning.  A gift of life and humor in a sad and transitional time.

One of the myths people hold about pastors is they know what to say to someone facing death. Mostly that is not true. Mostly, no one knows what to say as their final hours, or the final hours of a loved one, draw near. What I have learned, however, is that when we face our mortality, when we come face to face with the real knowledge that our earthly existence is ending, most of us claim a faith that is transcends doctrine.

This liminal time rarely centers around a set of beliefs about God, heaven, Jesus or anything else.  Rather, in this time our basic spiritual orientation, the nature of our trust in the Holy, comes to the fore.  While it is informed by our religious background, it is rarely about doctrine.  Rather, time after time, I’ve heard words of gratitude, words of peace, words of comfort and stories filled with laughter. I’ve seen communities — sometimes quite small — gather in those sublime moments.  What fear there is seldom centers on what comes after death.  If it exists, it is the fear that a loved one might suffer prior to death.

And from early on in my career where my life was all ahead of me, until now when I am more likely to preside over the service of someone my age, this engagement with death has been an amazing gift.  Often emotional and overwhelming.  But so often rooted in a deep sense of peace.  A deep sense of love and a willingness to let go of all anxieties, grudges, or regrets.  It reveals the true essence of how someone has lived and is usually a reminder to their loved ones how precious life is here on earth.

I can say, without a doubt, that I have been blessed to be part of a congregation where death is rarely feared.  I don’t for a minute minimize the grief and loss that comes with losing a loved one.  I don’t minimize the pain and emptiness that often follows death.  I don’t suggest untimely or difficult deaths are part of God’s specific purpose or will for someone.  But I don’t remember a time when someone felt their loved one – the deceased – was worse off because they passed on from this life.

We talk often in the church about how the ‘children’ are the future. We love a joyful baptism and the way it reaffirms a life stream that beckons from deep within each one of us.

But I have come to believe that it is the combination of birth and death that makes a church community healthy and real. And unique.

It is a gift to experience both.

Our text today comes from that point in Jesus’ life when he knew his own death was imminent.  He was trying to offer comfort to his loved ones, his most devoted friends.

Don’t be troubled.  Receive my peace which passes all understanding.  I’ll not only prepare a place for you, but you will also have an advocate, a companion. (John 14)

He was naming that death is not the end of life, it is not the end of our connection with loved ones.  The relationships continue, albeit in new and often mysterious ways.  The connection, the trust, the hope, and the power that we gain from our relationships are not only real, they are honored and held by our God even through death.  “Nothing,” the writer of Romans wrote, “will be able to separate us from the love of God.”  And because we come to know God through community and human connection, it is often through each other that we feel God’s peace in real and life giving ways.

For one spouse, coming up for communion was an emotional but powerful point of linkage with her deceased husband of 60 years.  Sacraments with the Holy One connects us to our deceased loved ones.

For a young child, a periodic visit to the garth brings a sense of knowing and love for a father who passed away many years ago.  Walking on God’s sacred ground connects us with those whose bodies have returned to the earth.

For another, a drive in the country near where parents grew up and lived brings a sense of nostalgic joy and appreciation for life shared over decades.  Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will separate us from God’s love known in our loved ones.

A community like this is worth cherishing; where we have the beautiful interplay of life and death.

There is a wonderful litany that I have used at every funeral I’ve officiated since I was introduced to it in 2005 at the memorial service for Eleanor Fairchild.

In the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.   In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, in the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, and at the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them. (Source unknown)

Most of us spend most of our time with those of our own age group. As such, we find ourselves talking about medical procedures or we may be talking soccer schedules, retirement plans or college choices.  But, in a community of faith, a motley gathering of all God’s critters in the choir, we can share this whole life journey together.

The bustling young person, filled with possibility and an overscheduled life is given a huge gift when as older friends experience the many changes involved in aging.  At other times, the aged person is brought to tears with a smiling baby being baptized, or as an elementary school child sings their heart out at Christmas. No one can articulate what happens in tehse interactions.

We live mortal lives, all of us. But, in the church, in a community that honors both the living and dead, that lives without fear for the future that is beyond our knowing – this kind of community offers us glimpses of transcendence.  Here and now.

“I was there to hear your borning cry”, one of our favorite hymns goes.  “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.”

May we cherish that whole journey together.  In love.  Without fear.  In community.

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