Sunday, February 19, 2012

Onward Christian Soldiers . . .

     We are gathered here this morning to mourn the death of a beloved parishioner, mother, wife, grandma, friend, and any other wonderful descriptions that we bestow upon Lilyan, but we are also gathered as a reminder that her story is not a tragic ending.

     Some of you may have heard the story of her passing. Like many of you outside this congregation, we were surprised with the fact that she passed, and passed so quickly. For the past several weeks, Lil seemed to be recovering nicely. Once the doctors and nurses got her meds figured out, she was ever quick to point out how quickly she was recovering from her fall last month. I know I had sort of breathed a sigh of relief with respect to Lil’s recovery. Things seemed much bleaker to me a few weeks ago. She was in more pain, and the drugs were causing as many problems as they were helping. Grant and I had even spent the better part of an hour or more on Monday talking, among other things, how she was doing and her hopes for the future. So, to find myself at that hated four-way stop sign with a call from Michelle to get there quick was a shock.

    Those of you who know the story know that much of the family made it to her bedside. All were there within a few minutes of her passing. From a clerical perspective, it was the best of deaths that we can hope for. Lilyan had left nothing unsaid. The family had gathered with her the day before, and she had been able to tell each one of them how much she loved them, how proud she was of each of them, and how lucky she felt to have them in her life. Even her last words were of her family. As she was slipping from consciousness, she told Michelle and Ron to tell everyone she loved them. I arrived to find Lil breathing shallowly. I tried to put off Last Rites until the entire family gathered, but the nurse was adamant that we could not wait. By the way we were arranged around her, my hand was over her mouth and nose. I could feel her shallow breaths on the underside of my forearm until I said the words -- Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God. I continued with the Rite until the end, but the last breath I felt was at the beginning of those words. The nurse confirmed for all of us present that she had, indeed, passed.

     Those of you who are not Christian, and maybe some of you who are, might think that this is an ending you can only hope for in your lives. Some of us might even think of this death as romantic. After all, she was surrounded by her husband, her daughters, and a granddaughter, all of whom loved her dearly. By all accounts, there had been little left unsaid between her and all those whom she loved so dearly. At the time of death, the priest had shown up to pronounce the blessing, and she passed gently from this life. What could be better?

     Tomorrow, we will read St. Paul’s reminder in 2 Corinthians that we have been blinded by the god of this world. For those of us who knew and loved Lil, no truer words could be spoken. To her family, I will once again remind them that people do not mean to be cruel when they try and comfort you. When people whom you have known all your life come up to you and say things like “it’s for the best, she was hurting and not herself” or “God needed another angel so he took your wife/ your mom/ your grandma/ your friend,” or “caring for her must have been so hard, I bet you are relieved of that burden” they usually do not mean to be cruel. For some, they have no idea what to say; so rather than sitting in an uncomfortable silence, they say words to fill the void. For others, of course, St. Paul’s warning is on point -- they have been blinded by the god of this world and believe that such an ending is good or romantic or in some way to be admired. For their unkind words, I am very sorry. When people say such things they forget that to you, Lilyan, was special, unique, irreplaceable. To you, she was not a burden. She was a beloved wife, a fabulous mother who had the most unique lullabys, a grandma who allowed you to play hooky without your parents knowing, and adult who would sneak you into horrible films. Her passing will leave a void in your lives. It will be a pain that will be muted over time through God’s grace, but it will spring upon you at odd times with those thoughts of “I wish Lilyan/mom/grandma was here to help me.” Make no mistake, she wished that she was going to be there for all that you have to face. Yes, she was not as spry as she used to be. Yes, she had to take it easy. But taking it easy does not mean that she longed for death. And make no mistake, our Lord mourns with you. Just as He mourned at the passing of Lazarus, He joins us this day as we mourn the passing of lady so intertwined in all our lives. He did not want us to feel this pain. He did not want us to experience death.

     It has been asked both by parishioners and family members whether Lilyan was truly ready to go. To those with that question in their hearts today, I will admit that Lil and I seldom got to talk alone. One of the characteristics of the family is that everyone tried to help out as much as they could. So, more often than not, any time I visited Lilyan, others were present. Sometimes, though, I would catch her alone or just with Ron. During the course of those visits, she would tell me her goals. Chief among them was seeing Nancy, Sean, and Kaleigh through their recent trials. She wanted desperately to make it to fifty years with Ron because, you know, 49 years was just a bit incomplete. She was excited to see what Cathy was doing and still shook her head that Grant somehow caught her. She had all kinds of goals she wanted to see fulfilled, most of them focused on you sitting here. But she was also cognizant of the fact that there was little she could do to fight God. I guess when He says it’s your time, there’s not a lot you can do about it, can you? We would laugh at that. I had shared my call story and how I had fought God tooth and nail. Lil would chuckle at her tale about her battles with my predecessor at St. Alban’s, Kathleen. One of my earliest serious conversations with Lilyan was over our Prayer List. She had taken it upon herself to convince Kathleen that it was too long. I am cutting a lot out but Lilyan ended the tale with and you know, I won the argument, but Kathleen ignored that fact and kept everyone who came to her or parishioners in need of prayers on our list. Now that I am a bit older, I sometimes think she might have been right to ignore me. But I still won those arguments! We would laugh at how silly we could be sometimes, but how loving a Father He must be to still love us and be willing to take us in. Make no mistake. Lilyan did not want to die. She had things she wanted to do, goals she wanted to reach. Make no mistake, however, she did not fear death either. Death, to her, was something to be faced when the time came, but it was not to be feared because she loved God and she knew He had promised to raise her.

     Those of you who are familiar with Episcopal or Anglican funerals might have been a bit surprised by our first Psalm. Those of you who attend other churches might have actually pulled out a BCP and wondered why on earth Sean was reading from a Psalm not on the list. It is my habit to let the family choose the readings. I prefer that the deceased person have selected the readings and hymns before they pass, but that does not always happen. Sometimes the family is forced to plan the service themselves. I want the words that they choose to reflect the life of the one who has passed. As a congregation and pastor who believes that what God has revealed in the Bible His truth, we think the whole book is important, so, in truth, any reading can speak to us. There is a bit of history about that Psalm, however, a bit of history that I will share. When Ron and Michelle came over to plan the service, they chose one of the suggested Psalms. As we were talking, however, I suggested that they use the entire Psalm rather than the portions mentioned. Specifically, I and then they hoped it could serve as a provocative reading for her grandson. As I arrived at Runge Thursday evening, a number of the family grabbed me and asked me if I had spoken to Sean about the Psalm. After making the rounds, I headed into the adjacent room where his uncle was trying hard to cheat him at checkers. Sean asked if we had to use the Psalm that Ron and Michelle had chosen. When I asked why, he remarked that it really didn’t say anything. It was kind of empty. Having been warned, I asked what he had in mind. Sean asked if we could substitute the Psalm we read today for the one that had been chosen. I asked what he liked about this Psalm. Needless to say, I was willing to substitute, as was Ron, Michelle and the rest of the family. And I was left to marvel at the grace of God.

     You see, while we are gathered here this day noting the passing of Lil, a great deal of the rest of the world is focused on the untimely passing of more famous people. Today, while we celebrate a seemingly anonymous matriarch in Davenport, Iowa, much of the entertainment world is mourning the passing of a famous singer, and much of the athletic world is celebrating the passing of a Hall of Fame catcher. And God’s word in Psalm 49 reminds us both how the god of this world has blinded many of those around us and how He has peeled the scales from our eyes and revealed to us the only characteristic by which He measures us.

     The Psalm points out that the world is often satisfied to judge a life based on one of two things: wealth accumulated or acclaimed reputation. One just has to turn on the television now to see the truth of that statement. Fame and fortune are more prized than anything else by many in this world. The number of people who try to make the cast of the latest reality show, and the antics to which they will go to get their fifteen minutes of fame or a padded bank account, can leave us speechless. Yet, like watching an oncoming car wreck or train derailment, how many of us turn away? Are we envious of their audacity? Do we think that fortune and glory are the keys to happiness? Whatever the reason that so many are attracted to the cult-worship of the rich and famous, our attention, according to the psalmist, is misplaced. Like beasts in the fields they perish. And once they die, what of their fortune? What of their fame? Can they take it with them? Will it protect them from their grave? Of course, not. Those trappings of life are short-lived. Like their fathers who descended to the grave, they will never see the light. In fifty years, will anyone other than hardcore baseball fans ever remember there was a baseball team in Montreal, let alone a Hall of Fame catcher? In fifty years, will anyone still listen to the music of Whitney Houston? Or will people be more concerned with the latest incarnation of Madonna, er Lady Gaga, or whatever her name will be?

     There is another measure, the psalmist points out. While those who esteem wealth and fame will find themselves trusting in those things that are fleeting, those things which are subject to decay, there is another possible focus. We can choose to trust in God. Those who trust in fame and fortune eventually find themselves in situations which they cannot redeem. What profit is there that we should gain the world, and lose our soul? How many times do the tabloids and gossip mills revel in the failures of the rich and famous? Even now the tabloids are headlining how we saw her death coming. Like so many who came before her and sought to heal the pain herself, Ms. Houston turned to drugs. And because they are transient, because they are perishable, eventually they failed her. Similarly, as an elite professional athlete, Mr. Carter was forced to spend a great deal of time training his body. His ability to catch and to hit a baseball and throw out a baserunner is what earned him acclaim in this world. Yet, in the end, it was his body that failed him when it succumbed to the cancer.

     Make no mistake, I do not know Ms. Houston’s or Mr. Carter’s faith. I cannot speak to what they believed. I can speak, however, to Lilyan’s faith with some authority. Lilyan learned over the years that there were many things which she could not do for herself. She was fortunate, she said, to have a husband like Ron in her life. Ron was very handy. Those things which she could not do, Ron often could. And yet, for all his love for her and for all his talent, there were still things he could not do. That, for her, was where faithfulness was required. While Ron was a great handyman/repairman, God was her redeemer! Those things for which she could do for herself, God did for her. And so, ultimately, her faith was placed in her Lord.

     Chiefly, of course, that idea of redemption played out in the events of Holy Week and Easter. Those of us on the outside looking in may have been surprised by Lilyan’s death. Yes, she was tired the last few years of her life, but her mind was there. Her humor was still there. Her determination was still there. But Lilyan had come to the realization that at some point, her body would fail her. Doctors had warned her that her heart function was not good. As you might expect, Lilyan showed a wide range of emotions when confronted with the likely outcome. Sometimes she was determined to fight it to her last breath. At other times she had words with God in anger. At still other times she wanted to throw in the towel out of frustration.  I can imagine, in the privacy of her home, she may have experienced fear or even fatalism.  Always, however, she trusted that the same God who had raised Jesus Christ to life would, in the end, redeem her life and even her own death. That was His solemn vow to her. And she believed in Him. She trusted, like the psalmist, that God would redeem her life even from the grave and take her surely to Himself. She was not a beast in the field, but rather a daughter loved and known by her Savior!

     Lilyan Curtis was a lady who had figured out what was to be more highly valued by servants of God. Long ago, Lilyan recognized that neither fame nor wealth would save her, only her faith in Christ. So when I tell you this day, brothers and sisters, that this service is not only a time for mourning but also a time for celebrating, I do so with her voice. The same lady whom you loved, with whom you worked, who beat you at cards, who sang drinking songs as lullabies, who watched those animated movies with you when no one else would, who hugged you when you hurt, who loved you no matter what you did, who made an impression enough in your life that you would attend this day to be here with all of her loved ones, would tell you that this is not a day for focusing on her death. She would remind each one of us that there is no reason to mourn. Her Lord, who was risen from the dead nearly 2000 years ago extended the promise of a resurrected life to her. Because of her enduring faith, she is no longer here but, rather, with our Lord! She has moved on to receive that imperishable body and to take her place at that feast where there is no mourning, no sighing, but only eternal joy.

    Best of all, she would remind each on of us present that there is a place there for us, too. All that our Lord requires is that we accept His invitation, and invitation paid for and bought by His beloved Son. More importantly, she would remind us all that it is our job to carry that Gospel narrative into our places of work, into our families, into our card games where people are misled and dying with no hope, into those places where people trust in decaying and temporal things. And it as a job which continues this day and every day, no matter the circumstances of our lives. At the end of this service, we will sing one of her favorite hymns. She only had two, and both, I think captured much of her enduring faith: Amazing Grace and Onward Christian Soldiers. You might think the latter out of place with the first, but Lil would be the first to remind us that it is the job of His soldiers, His faithful witnesses, to carry the stories of His grace into the world, no matter the circumstances, no matter the world’s desire to ignore our message of hope, no matter the cost to ourselves. You see, like Lil, we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot ever fail!


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