Archive for the ‘death’ Tag

Funeral Homily for Br. Max Steele, BSG   Leave a comment

The following is the homily I gave at the funeral of Br. Max Steele, BSG, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 16 December 2017.
Scripture: Job 19:21-27
Psalm 150
Rev 7:9-17
John 11:21-27

The Gospel passage we’ve just heard finds Martha of Bethany—along with her sister Mary, and Jesus himself—in deep grief over the death of Mary’s and Martha’s brother Lazarus. It’s appropriate to imagine a sobbing voice—or even an angry voice—in Martha’s admonition to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

And if you’ve ever felt that feeling grief is somehow inappropriate for a Christian who believes in the Resurrection, take heart in verses 33 and 35 of this same chapter of John: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus knows what he is about to do; he has just told Martha “Your brother will rise again.” and still he weeps over Lazarus’ death and the pain around him.

We are all in this house of prayer today because we love and grieve for Brother Max. We love and grieve with Sonya and Sam.

Scripture assures us that Jesus grieves with us.

But it also assures us of more than this: When Martha talks about her brother rising in the Resurrection on the last day, Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection and the life.”

Brother Max had faith in this declaration. He had faith in all these Bible passages we have heard this afternoon: the redemption promised in the Job passage; the salvation promised in the Revelation. Like the Psalmist, Max was unabashed in his praise of God. He was an example for all of us to follow in his faithfulness to God’s call.

I met Brother Max when he and I interviewed for the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory in the spring of 2014. The two of us, with Michael-Julian Piper, had a few hours to get to know one another the evening before our interviews, and in those hours we shared our life stories and became fast friends. I went to sleep that night thinking, “if we don’t get into BSG, I want to start a community with these two guys.”

And the next morning, the three of us found that we were already community: the interview process is—appropriately—intense, and in between sessions, Max, Michael-Julian, and I met in the chapel to talk, pray together, and cheer each other on. We were all admitted that day as Postulants Prospective, and the three of us continued to be community over the next few months as we waited for Summer Convocation and the chance to actually join The Brotherhood: we had several phone calls to talk about life, theology, and our hopes and plans for our vocations.

All this to say: Max was born to be a Brother. Born to serve, support, and love the people around him. Born to be faithful to God’s call.

The Brotherhood has two mottos: “Servants of the Servants of God,” which I think we can all agree Max embodied; and “Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone the glory.” Shortly after we became Postulants Prospective, Max began to put “Soli Deo Gloria!” in his e-mail signature. It was completely natural and genuine in him to glorify God and not himself; it was so true to the good, humble servant he already was.

I’m moved by Max’s choice of the passage from Job, particularly the lines:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side…

It reminds me of a hymn we often sing at the close of Palm Sunday: “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded”; it’s number 168 in the Hymnal.

There’s an extent to which each of us dies alone. I know that Brother Max was surrounded in his final days by Sonya and Sam, by Brothers and other family and friends. And I know that his trust in God was so strong that he had a sense of peace about his death—that his only worry was leaving Sonya and Sam bereft. But none of the mortal humans at his side could share his experience of death; no one could entirely understand what was happening to him.

One of the blessings of the Incarnation is that God in the form of Jesus Christ has experienced death. That Jesus—immortal and eternal—has an intimate personal understanding of human mortality.

The last verse of “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” is:

My days are few; O fail not, with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour,
That I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife,
To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life.

Jesus was present with Max throughout his dying in a way that no other living human could be. And extended his arms from the cross to “guide Max to springs of the water of life, and to wipe away every tear from his eyes.”

Which brings us back to Jesus and Martha, weeping together at the graveside of Lazarus. In his Incarnation, God knows the deep sorrow of losing a dear friend. Jesus,  in weeping for Lazarus, with a company of mourners, bestows holiness upon the very act of mourning.

Even though we are confident that Max is with Jesus, and will rise again in the Resurrection on the last day, we grieve at his apparent absence from our lives here and now.

But Max is still with us. He is present in our memories of his sweetness, his warmth, his humor and laugh, his service to his fellow human beings.

He is with us in the ways that his personality has rubbed off on Sonya and on his brothers and friends. He is present in Sam. We see him in Sam already, and will no doubt see him more as Sam grows.

And he is present in the Communion of Saints who pray for us and with us and walk among us. Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we are united not only with Christ and one another, but with every Christian who has celebrated the Eucharist over time. Max is there with us, probably saying to each of us in that wonderful Alabama-Tennessee baritone, “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!”

At this altar, we receive abundant, unconditional love from a God who knows and can empathize with our deepest pain and grief. We receive nourishment to give us strength and faith to go out into the world and serve God and God’s people, to God’s glory.

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side

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Dry Bones? Rotting Flesh? We Can Work Around That.   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 2 April 2017

Biblical texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45

The actor Ray Wise is probably best known for playing “Leland Palmer” in David Lynch’s Surrealist television show Twin Peaks. You may have heard that Twin Peaks is coming back to television next month, with most of the original cast picking up the story 25 years later.

In recent interviews, Ray Wise has told the story of David Lynch taking him out to lunch a couple of years ago and saying, “We’re bringing Twin Peaks back, and we want you to come be in it again.”

Wise replied, “But David, I’m dead! Leland died!”

With a mischievous grin, Lynch said, “We can work around that.”

Today we are beginning the fifth week of Lent, our time of engaging with our mortality; repenting of our sins, individual and corporate; and renewing our life in preparation for the joy and resurrection of Eastertide. And in today’s readings we get two hard-to-believe stories that foreshadow the mystery of Easter.

Sometimes the Prophets seem a bit like Surrealist filmmakers as they retell their visions. Ezekiel gives us here one of the greatest mystical encounters in the Bible, rendered in wonderful poetic language: “The hand of the Lord… set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones… there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” These bones are long dead—they have not seen blood or marrow or life for years, maybe centuries. “He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” We might add, for clarity, “only”: “O Lord God, only you know whether these bones can live.” But there’s an almost comical subtext here: “You tell me, God! They look pretty dead.”

Erica and I visited the Catacombs in Paris last fall: it’s a series of human-made caverns and tunnels that began in the middle-ages as an underground limestone quarry, that two centuries ago was used as an ossuary—a resting place for the bones of the dead.

So when you visit them today, you walk through chambers with thousands of dissembled skeletons stacked en masse. It’s quite a breathtaking sight, and really a sort of Ash Wednesday experience: someday we, too, will be a pile of bones.

But this is now what comes to my mind when I hear this story: thousands of lifeless, scattered skeletons that could not possibly return to vitality—and yet in this story, they do.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…

So I prophesied as I had been commanded… And then an astonishing thing happens: the bones assemble themselves into skeletons, and muscles and skin form on them. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, and as he does, the breath enters the bodies of the Dead and they live.

Ezekiel engages our imagination with this outlandish vision, that we might have a sense of God’s power to resurrect the dead.

Ezekiel is speaking here of a spiritual resurrection: the People of Israel are in exile and captivity, and deep despair.  They have let their relationship with God fall into disrepair: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”

Or as the Psalmist puts it: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord…

And yet God promises here that they—and we—can return to spiritual life and right relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading brings us from the mystical to the miraculous: Jesus, arriving intentionally too late to cure Lazarus’ illness, weeps at his gravesite, and then asks that the stone sealing the tomb be rolled away.

Martha, ever the pragmatic one, warns Jesus that there is a four-day stench of rotting flesh built up. Like the dryness of the bones in the valley, this is a great storytelling detail: in case you weren’t sure: there is no hope of life beyond that stone. Lazarus is unequivocally dead.

But Jesus prays; then he calls to the corpse in the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!

So too, Jesus calls us out of our graves. From the times, the places, the ways in which we find ourselves spiritually dead, God calls us forth individually and communally to new life, to resurrection.

Many years ago I was suffering from depression. And at that time I heard these stories of the Valley of Dry Bones and Lazarus with new ears, finding tremendous resonance in them for the death I felt I was experiencing; the stories gave me hope of a spiritual resurrection.

Whatever depths of pain, grief, loneliness, and despair you may be in, God can raise you into new life. In God’s Kingdom, even death is not an obstacle. Dry bones? Rotting flesh? We can work around that. We can work through that.

Our parish has been experiencing a kind of death and resurrection over the past year-and-a-half as we said goodbye to a beloved rector and look forward with hope to a new one.

And many of us are feeling that our very nation is dying in some ways right now. But there is always hope of resurrection.

As Christians, we are always practicing resurrection. Both in the sense that we practice our faith, which is based in resurrection; and in the sense that we might practice a speech or a musical instrument.

In vowed religious life we have a saying: “Every day we begin again.” We are all continually practicing dying and being resurrected into greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ, until the day Christ comes again to lead us all into the final resurrection, living in unity and peace with all of God’s people.

There’s another common element in these two stories that we often overlook: did you notice how both the bones in the valley and Lazarus return to life? Through the will of God, manifest through the words of a human being.

God doesn’t simply animate the skeletons—as God could no doubt do: God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to them, and to the breath. Remember that to prophesy is to speak for God; the Hebrew word that we translate as “prophet” literally means “spokesperson”.

In the Gospel story it’s important to consider Jesus’ dual nature—fully human, fully divine. It may be the divinity of Jesus that resurrects Lazarus, but it does so through Jesus’ human voice: Lazarus, come out!

And it’s not just Jesus who does this: He commissions the disciples to raise the dead, and we have examples in Scripture of at least Peter and Paul doing so.

All of this means two things: first: God loves and can resurrect you.

And second: as we are disciples, called to follow and emulate Jesus, this points to our own calling to be agents of resurrection. We can help raise the spiritually-dead through God’s love as it is manifest in our words and actions—our care for our beloved siblings—known to us and unknown. We can pray, and prophesy to the Spirit to reanimate our loved ones. Sometimes it is enough simply to see and acknowledge the death they are experiencing. To be present with them, and weep with them, as Jesus did and does.

As with so many other stories in the Bible—the Virgin Birth, the Feeding of the 5000, the Parting of the Red Sea—whether you are a pragmatic Christian who sees these stories as legend and metaphor, or a mystical Christian who sees them as mysterious and real—we can all believe in the truth of these stories, which is that God can do the impossible; God loves us enough to do the impossible; and more often than not it is through us mortal human beings that God will do the impossible!

“Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Alone   6 comments

“My days are few, O fail not, with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour”

Palm Sunday both begins and ends with tears for me. The beauty in the liturgy of palms with which the service begins, with the gorgeous hymn “All Glory, Laud And Honor” never fails to stir my heart and bring at least a little shine to my eyes. But it’s the closing hymn that really gets me, especially in the past few years.

Palm Sunday ends as Passion Sunday: the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem quickly gives way to the recounting of his arrest, trial and death on the cross. And the service closes with an a capella singing of “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded,” which I always want to attribute to J. S. Bach —the tune is used several times in his St. Matthew Passion—but Bach just adapted the harmonies; Hans Leo Hassler is the composer. The words are by Paul Gerhardt and translated into English by Robert Seymour Bridges.

My father’s death (in 2007, from colon cancer) cemented in my mind the idea that each one of us dies alone. Many of you are now knee-jerking platitudes about God being with us, but let me finish. And others are remembering that I’ve told you my dad died surrounded by his family, which is true. And yet: what fear might have been in those final days was his alone, as was the particular sense of loss; it was his life that was ending, not ours. We could sympathize, but not empathize.

So when I sang the final verse of that hymn on Sunday, my voice broke several times as I thought of Dad’s fear—fear that he masked with his usual air of self-confidence—but that I sensed may have been there nonetheless. I believe that he came to a certain peace about his death on his last day, but it took several days of working through that fear and grief in a fugue state. And still the journey was his alone to make.

But perhaps the empathy that we could not provide for my dad is exactly what the cross is all about. In Jesus, we have a god who knows death, who has gone through death, who can truly empathize with the dying in their fear, their feelings of having been forsaken.

The last two lines of the hymn, following those quoted above, are:

“That I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life.”

Posted 5 April 2012 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

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