Inspired by Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, and All Saints Sunday
Earlier this year I had an experience that I knew someday I would share from the pulpit, I just didn’t know when. Well, today is that day. I had received a phone call from a local funeral home. The lady on the other end asked me if I could do a funeral for a local woman who had recently died. I said sure but she interrupted me to say, “Well, this one’s gonna be a little different.” I said, ok, how different. She said, “Well, other than you, no one else will be attending.”
I said, ok and then offered her a pause to explain further, which she did. She said that none of the remaining family were very religious and weren’t interested in being present, but wanted to honor her wishes to have a Lutheran funeral and this is the best they could do. So she asked, “Are you still willing to do it?” And by her tone I think she was expecting me to say no, but I said yes, I can do that. And very gratefully she said goodbye.
Now, though I said “Yes, I can do that” I had no idea what I would do. God knows I’m no stranger to funerals but I couldn’t help but feel like I was on new ground there. Nevertheless, the next morning I put on my collar and dress slacks and dress shoes, my funeral clothes, and went to the funeral home with prayer book in one hand and anointing oil in the other.
The same lady I talked to on the phone the previous day greeted me gratefully and showed me to the room where the body was, told me to take all the time I needed and awkwardly closed the door behind her, probably wondering the same thing I was, what in the world does a pastor do in a situation like this? And there I stood, with my prayer book in one hand, anointing oil in the other, in a room that was probably not as dark and small as it felt, just myself and the body of the deceased.
As I stood there and pondered how I was going to handle this, I felt myself growing a bit self-conscious and awkward at the prospect of doing a funeral all by myself in that small, dark room. But I immediately pushed that aside because I thought, she deserves better than that. In my mind I knew, she didn’t care. She was at peace with God, she didn’t care that no one but a stranger with a book and some oil attended her funeral.
But I have this thing about respect and the dignity of another human being that I just can’t seem to shake. I was made aware of this one night when I was a chaplain at Hershey Medical Center in Pennsylvania. I visited with a family whose father was actively dying, unresponsive, unconscious. I prayed with them, listened to their stories, and did my best to comfort them, as best as anyone could in a situation like that.
Honored to be invited into one of the most intimate moments in a family’s life as they said goodbye to their loved one lying in that hospital bed. And when I felt it was time to go I said goodbye to them and left. But halfway down the hall I stopped dead in my tracks because it was then that I realized I never said goodbye to that dying man. Now, he was unconscious, I knew that, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow disrespected him, that I had not honored his inherent dignity as a human being. And as you can tell, that really left an impact on me. So, fast forward seven years, in that small, ever darkening room, where I was not going to make that same mistake again. But the question remained, what do I do?
Any of you watch crime dramas on TV like NCIS? Well, one thing I’ve noticed that is common on a lot of those shows is coroners talking to the deceased while they perform their autopsy. And it may look a little weird at first but then you realize, that is their way of honoring the dead, of paying their respects. And so, without giving it much thought I began talking to her, well, more precisely, I started asking her questions.
Like, “How did this happen? How did you end up here, alone, with me, a stranger, in this small, dark room?” It just seemed so wrong, on so many levels. And there was nothing I could do or say that would make it right. But something else I learned about myself as a chaplain in that hospital was, that isn’t my job. It isn’t my job to make things right in people’s lives, or in their deaths. My call is to proclaim the promises of God, and so that’s what I did.
I prayed the prayers of our faith. I read the ancient writings of our spiritual ancestors. I proclaimed the promises of God, the same promises that were proclaimed at her baptism, in some Lutheran church, in some unknown place, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” And as I spoke those words I traced the cross on her forehead with anointing oil as some Lutheran pastor did so many years ago on her infant head—oil from the same bottle that I use to anoint your heads at the Great Vigil of Easter.
And at some point I realized that this was indeed a funeral of one, but not of one person, me, but of the one body of Christ of all times and places. I can’t even begin to try and explain that or rationalize it, but I knew we were not alone in that small, dark room, that didn’t seem so dark anymore. Just as we are not alone in this room.
|Communion of Saints by Ira Thomas|
I know, that sounds very mystical, maybe even a bit magical, hard to wrap our heads around or even try to understand. And honestly, I’m not even sure that’s my calling, to try to explain such things, even if I could. But what I do know, is that I am called to proclaim to you this and every day, that you, children of God, have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with cross of Christ forever, and therefore, you are not alone, never alone. Thanks be to God and to the Lamb. Amen.