During the pandemic, pastors who may have preached a dozen funeral homilies over the course of typical year, are now presiding over multiple funerals a month. In this challenging season, preachers must find ways to bring hope to mourners who were unable to comfort the dying; who must now sit masked and distant from family and friends; who watch the rites over live-streaming, unable to attend the funeral in person. Preachers and communities are saturated with pain, loss, isolation, exhaustion and fear. How do we preach the Good News when the bad news seems to be everywhere we look?
In her book, “God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering,” (Abingdon Press, 1998) Barbara Brown Taylor said, in referring to preaching the Paschal Mystery, “The homiletical issue is how to remain faithful to the whole paradoxical story without falling off either side of it; that is, without proclaiming either a punishing God or one who simply does not care. The irony is that we need a God who knows about pain. Anyone who has suffered through even one night of deep hurt knows that it is to beg for relief. Sometimes the prayer is answered and sometimes it is not, but those who have been there will often say that the strange, sweet presence of Christ in their suffering becomes dearer to them than the hope of recovery.” (11-12)
We will never be able to offer a solution to pain, suffering, and loss, but in our preaching, we can offer the strange, sweet presence of Christ in the midst of that suffering.
For your reflection, we have posted two articles on preaching in times of loss. Fr. Jim Schmitmeyer offers a funeral homily for a parishioner and friend, preached in Borger, Texas. Susan McGurgan offers a private meditation she wrote to process the loss of a sorority sister and friend of 40 years.
Among my treasured keepsakes is a small black and white photo. In it, four women gather around a white Christmas tree in the living room at the sorority house. They are impossibly young, incredibly naïve, beautiful in the way that young things always are. Three of them smile into the camera. One of them, wearing a tattered Santa costume, sits chin in hand, beard askew, mugging for the photographer. “Party Pics” we called them, in the years before graduation, and jobs, and husbands, and children, and divorce, and cancer, and the surprises of life scattered us like leaves across the landscape.
Each Christmas, I place this dog-eared keeper-of-memories on the bookcase, startled anew to realize that one of those beautiful young women is me. I want to speak to her--to share hard lessons, to warn and encourage and advise--knowing even as that desire arises, I cannot. I want to tell her that life is more difficult and more beautiful than she imagines. It is fragile and lovely and tragic and it can bloom or shatter with a suddenness that will leave her gasping for air. I want to tell her that she is braver than she knows and fiercer than she looks; that the world will offer priorities--to acquire shiny things and seek success and strive for recognition, and in the end, none of that will matter. I want to say that time is a thief and recognition doesn’t last and shiny things always dim. In the end, it will be the intangibles of love and relationship; of faith and joy and memory that will prove to be solid and real. If she wants to embrace hope, she should, as the poet, Wendell Berry says, plant sequoias and love the world and work for nothing and practice resurrection. She should listen for the songs yet to come.
A few weeks ago, our beloved Santa lay in an ICU in San Antonio. Her laughter and passion stilled by something the size of a micron--something so small, so seemingly inconsequential, that in our youth and arrogance, we would have scoffed at the thought of it. Machines breathed in and out, forcing oxygen into lungs that no longer understood their purpose. Machines pumped blood and carried hydration and measured the activity of a brain that no longer engaged this world. Machines told her husband and her sons that the time for miracles and medicine had passed. It was a new time. It was a time to practice resurrection.
In the eyes of the world, Santa was one of the expendables. She was a person that the, “tired-of-not-getting-my-nails-done,” the economy-first pragmatists point to as “old enough to die anyway.” She was someone with “co-morbidity issues,” an ugly term used to remove ourselves from another’s vulnerability, and perhaps our own. She was someone who, as a politician in her own state, said, “Should be glad to die if it will help secure a healthy economy for her grandchildren.”
We sisters--connected not by blood, but by vows of friendship transcending time and distance, prayed in Dallas, and Tulsa, and Wichita, and Oklahoma City, and Stillwater, and Cincinnati. Our prayers roared out from us spanning the miles, joining heart to heart; memory to memory. In that holy space we listened for the songs yet to come.
Her husband and sons, those tough, sweet Texas boys, broke open like bread upon the altar; hot tears poured out like wine. I want to gather them to me and tell them, you are braver than you know and fiercer than you look. I want to tell them that throughout this fragile, lovely life, Santa was--and is--sustained by the God who remembers; held fast in bonds of faith and relationship. These bonds are a foretaste of eternity, enduring even when all else is gone. I want to tell them if they would embrace joy and live in hope, they must plant sequoias and love the world and work for nothing and practice resurrection.
Be still. Listen for the songs yet to come.