I know I am an unfamiliar face and voice to most of you here. Truth be told, I did not know George too well. I am still new to the parish. I met him for the first time January 2, and he did not bother to talk about his cancer until sometime in February. Tina asked me one morning if we had begun to plan this service, as he had decided to wait until the new rector arrived. I see the nods of understanding. George was very much a self-sufficient, non-complaining gentleman. I say all that, thought, by way of introduction, because the loss is mine. Sometimes, as clergy shepherd a family through the valley and shadows of death, there is a lot of work to be done. Visiting with, praying with, anointing for healing, and sharing the Eucharist was really my only contribution to George’s sermon at the end of his life. Those who attend Advent regularly understand that I often say our lives are the best sermons, the best testimonies that we can give. No matter the wonderful words that I choose, no matter how many hours I spend in preparation for a sermon, my effort will always fall short of how my parishioners live their lives in view of others: family, friends, and strangers. As we work our way through this, I will highlight George’s sermon more. I know his sermon was God-honoring and hope-filled simply by the way Babs and the rest of the family have dealt with his death. In fact, a few of you chatted with me yesterday about your impressions of George and your struggles with his death in light of a loving, redeeming God testified to by George. As the Gospel lesson George chose explains, even those struggles are ok.
Before we get to the real sermon part, though, we need to deal with an elephant in the room. Actually, it is a duck. I bring it up now as you will all see it when young George and the pall bearers process it out to the hearse waiting outside for its journey to the cemetery. It is hidden beneath the pall, reminding us again that no matter what we were in life, we are all equal in God’s eyes. What matters now is whether George chose to serve the Lord Christ. I will tell the story now so that no one feels bad about snorting with laughter later. . .
At my second visit to discuss this service, George was asking my thoughts about the life after death and the life after the life after death. We both agreed that if we have to spend eternity in church, God is really going to have to work on our hearts after our deaths, get some really good music and musicians, and give us breaks to sneak off to the Wedding Feast every now and again. You are laughing because you know George. George hopes there is hunting and fishing in heaven. He hopes there is golf. He liked the idea of sitting around a fire in the hearth with an adult beverage just chatting. As we got to the point of the discussion, George asked me if I thought it blasphemous or wrong that he be interred in a duck. Now folks, this is not my first rodeo. I have had a number of strange requests regarding weddings and funerals. But I admit I was a bit taken aback. Like you are now, I thought he meant a real flesh and blood duck.
I can’t remember if Babs or one of the boys brought the duck into the room, but he sent someone to fetch it to show me what he meant. It was a beautifully hand-carved wooden duck. More amazing to me, it had been painted. It had been painted so well that the feathers were almost iridescent. As I looked at this duck from different angles, the feathers seemed to change colors. Folks, I am not much of an artist. I am as left-brained as they come. But even with that handicap I could see that this was a beautiful piece of art. Two masters had contributed to its construction. “Well,” I mumbled, “it will look beautiful on the mantle.” “Mantle,” snorted George, “I’m going to be buried in that duck.” I could not believe he was going to put the piece of art in the ground, but George informed me that Babs was in not about to let him hang around on the mantle here until she passes. Now, you are all laughing, but it ended up a guffawing moment.
George asked if I was sure he was not offending God by being buried in this duck. I like to think in retrospect that this was a Holy Spirit moment. You all may have a different opinion. I told George that I was pretty sure he was not offending God. And just as George was relaxing a bit, I went on “but I am a little worried, George, that you might be confusing Jesus.” George tensed up a bit and asked “confusing Jesus?” I said “yes. What if He thinks you were supposed to be a duck and raises you as one on the Last Day for all eternity?” You think it was a Holy Spirit moment? We are laughing, and that is a good thing. George did not want this to be too mournful. No sooner than it was out of my mouth than others in the family were laughing that such would be his fate if he mistakenly went to duck heaven. Can you imagine all those ducks he killed trying to get even shooting at him? It was at that moment, of course, that I knew for certain that George was not only prepared to meet his Maker. He had wonderfully prepared his loved ones how to face his death and their own. Yes, his “coffin” might a bit odd; but it is entirely George.
George and I shared some similar interests, and we clearly shared a wonderful sense of humor. From that time on, I found it just a pleasure to be invited into his life and to witness his confidence and humility. In truth, he and I only had a couple of brief private conversations. George was so well prepared to die, he was always asking “what do I do next?” or “what happens now?” He wanted this service quick, and he wanted this service simple. If you wonder why there is no more pomp and circumstance, think of George. Did he strike you in life as the guy who liked to make a fuss, as the guy who needed to be a diva, as the guy who wanted to be the center of attention.
For this, his last testimony, George chose to share with all of us the beginning of the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. In some ways, the choice was inappropriate. Jesus is speaking of His own imminent departure. His apostles are about to be convinced that He has failed in His mission, that they were duped, that they failed Him, and any other number of shameful, fearful, or despaired thoughts. And Jesus is teaching them that their despair, fear, and doubts will end when He returns again. In another sense, though, George’s selection is certainly appropriate, for it teaches us a great deal about death in the life of a Christian and how we who witness such deaths should respond.
Just a few verses prior to this reading, we are reminded that Jesus, as fully human and fully divine, shares in our sadness and mourning. Three times in the last three chapters, Jesus is described by our translators as “deeply troubled.” I do not know whether we in modern America understand the depth of that trouble indicated by John. The word that is translated as “deeply troubled” seems shallow in our ears when we consider the circumstances. When Jesus stands before Lazarus’ tomb, when Jesus speaks of the Cross, and when Jesus comments on Judas’ betrayal, the author describes Him as tarasso. I do not know about you, but “deeply troubled” does not seem to capture how I feel about betrayal, about how I would feel about my death, about how I feel about the death of a loved one or good friend. How about you? “Sucker punched in the gut?” “Feeling abandoned and despair?” “Unable to stop crying?” How would you describe your emotions in such events? That is how Jesus is described when betrayed, when facing the Cross, and when facing the death of a loved one.
No doubt all of us gathered here today feel some sense of tarasso. We may not use that word as did the apostle John, but we are all here to remember the hole that has been created in our lives by this death. That hole or chasm is, of course, biggest for Babs and the kids and the grandchildren, but all of us are here because we recognize something terrible has happened, something mournful has happened. A few of us might even be here out of anger and uncertainty. More than one person grabbed me yesterday at the visitation to express the unfairness of George’s passing. He “deserved” to die an active death, not the pain and hurt that we presume he experienced with this death at the hands of cancer. Some of us may even be angry that George misplaced his faith in a God who would not save him when he needed that God the most. What kind of God lets relatively good men like George die the way He did, suffer the way He did, refuse to heal him the way He did? That anger, that sense of betrayal, that feeling of having been sucker punched in the gut – now you understand the feelings of Jesus described by John. From His example, we learn we are supposed to feel this way. From His example we learn that it is ok to feel this way. From His pain we learn that Christians are not supposed to be pollyannish, accepting every hurt or pain with a silly laugh or “God wanted me to go through this.” There is no great lie we tell ourselves and others than “God wanted me to experience this.” Our God is good. Our God is loving. Our God wants only good things for us. Death was not part of His plan. Jesus cries at the death of His friend just as we cry at the death of ours because this, this is not the way it was supposed to be.
The other part of George’s sermon that I want to highlight is this idea of rooms, the way we translate monai. There is an idea out there that Jesus has a hardhat on, much like a foreman, and that He is constructing mansion after mansion for those of us who call Him Lord. The word does not merely suggest a physical place, like the grandest hotel ever created, nor does it express a better quality of place, like a subdivision of mansions. What is the fear that Jesus is addressing in the hearts of His apostles? Like us with respect to George, they fear their loss of fellowship with Him. If Jesus dies, what happens to us? What happens to His ministry? What happens to the world? This simple word refers only to a place of residence, a place of abiding, a place with our own names on it. Jesus is teaching us and His apostles that there is a place in the Kingdom to come with our names on it. For all the sadness, for all the anger, for all the tarasso we feel at George’s passing, we know, as did he, that there is a place for Him in his Father’s Kingdom.
During our couple private talks, George barely complained and he barely worried. When I touched upon my own worry that I might be absent when he passed, George, in one of those wonderful moments of insight, reassured me that it was ok. He understood the words of Peter. If Jesus had risen from the dead, he was going to be alright. It didn’t matter if his pastor was around; it did not even matter if Jesus raised him for eternity as a duck. His Lord had the only words of life, and there was nowhere else to turn this late in the game.
All of that brings us to the real focus of George’s service. George did not want this service to be about him. He wanted this service to point the way to the Lord in whom he had placed his faith, the Lord in whom he trusted to comfort your mourning and to redeem even his death. George wanted us all desperately to see that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God and the source of true life. In this day and age of modern America, it might seem mean or too simply to make such an exclusive claim. After all, the world wants us to believe that possessions matter most, that our reputations matter most, that our careers matter most, that any number of things that we cannot take with us when we die matter most. A faith like George’s, where he affirmed that there was something unique, something unapproachable by other means, the Redemption offered by Jesus Christ, is rare. And yet those are the last words he chose to leave you. “Jesus said I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I am the Life.” Jesus’ claim is not that He was a good teacher among many teaching a truth; Jesus’ claim was not that of a good life coach from among many offering a choice from among many; Jesus’ claim was not some silly idea of “living in the minds” of others or other ephemeral existence. Jesus’ claim is that He is the Way to the Father, He is the way to all Truth, and that He is source of all Life. And that we might know His words were true, God raised Him on that Easter morning some two thousand years ago, testifying to the disciples and to us of His ability to keep all His promises to us! Nowhere else in history is such a ridiculous claim made. Nowhere else in the collected wisdom of man is an idea considered. Nowhere else has such hope been offered.
Brothers and sisters, that is the testimony that George hoped you heard from him during his life and his passing. No doubt some of you heard it more directly and more clearly than others, but that was as much a concern of his as was “what do I do next?” Jesus was the source of his hope? Jesus was the promise of his redemption? And Jesus was the way in which he hoped to see all of us again, when all our tears, all our anger, all our tarasso had been wiped away, and we see with eyes what we see today by faith.