Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A funeral homily

Isaiah 25:6-9

When I was eleven or twelve years old my father took me back to his home town in the province of Saskatchewan for his school reunion –for the reunion, in fact, of maybe a decade’s worth of graduates from the very small school in the very small town.  On the average, only three or four young people graduated during any one year and, so, ten year’s graduates amounted to a community of only thirty or so individuals.  Many of the graduates arrived with their children.  There, with the townspeople in one place, were many generations – multiple decades of joy and grief, or ease and hardship gathered into one place.  The small town was in a mood to celebrate.  The old parish priest was brought from his nursing home in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees.  The older men who once had played baseball for the town’s team in the past were pitted against the current softball team.  My dad pitched, as I remember.  The women of the community cooked and baked.  Tables were set out and blankets laid out upon the field of mown barley where the festivities were to take place.  It was a unique and special gathering which crossed the boundaries of time and generations.
In our reading this afternoon Isaiah the prophet has a vision.  In this vision there is a hillside and upon that hillside are laid tables covered with the richest of fare.  Savoury meats and good wine, bread and olives.  We know it to be a vision because upon this hillside are gathered generations which, in the ordinary way of counting, could not possible be gathered together – the living and the dead, those of past ages and those of the present day.   This is what God shows Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
  a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
  And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
 Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.

We are subject to time in its ebb and flow.  It brings us in and it takes us out.  

Why are we here?  We gather today at the funeral service of someone we have known and loved – someone we have cared for.  We do so for several reasons:  We express, first of all, our grief at the loss of somebody important and significant.  Their place cannot be taken by another.  It is a time to weep and remember.  We gather, secondly to show our support for close family members – to support them in the significance of their loss which is much more than ours.  But we gather, as well, because we too are mortal men and women and will, one day, be “gathered around” by our family and friends as they come to see us off.  

Every person’s funeral is a reminder and a prompt. Remember that funeral sermons are for the living and not for those who have died.  They might well inspire hope as we recognize all that we cannot control, like the length or our days or the shape which fortune will take for us in the end.  All of us place ourselves in the hands of the One who leads us beyond what we control.  Time is in his hands.  He loves the creatures he has made.  A funeral may, however, also remind us that we are the living who will go from this place and that much remains in our own hands and within our own power:  the conversation, the phone call or the letter which would patch a rift between people who have fallen out.  What remains in our control is also the very old vow we made to live life to its fullest and to risk ourselves by engaging meaningfully with the world we live in. 

You might leave this chapel with a sense of discomfort - discomfort about how far along the road you are and what remains for you to do and to be.  I’m sorry about that but maybe there is something you have not done, have not said, have not ventured and have not been.  That discomfort might only tangentially have anything to do with the full and eventful life of the friend, the mother and the grandmother whose memory we honour this day.   It has much to do with you.  That discomfort could prove to be your best friend.   Were it to lead to action there would be no better testament to the life of an elderly woman, well-lived, that her friends and family were spurred to action upon reflecting on what the passing of an earthly life might mean to them.