The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
April 16, 2017
Funerals are kind of a funny thing. I’ve done well over a hundred of them at this point in my life, and I can tell you that no two are the same. And let me tell you this, whatever weird things you have going on in your family, no matter how hard you try to hide them, will come through in the funeral. Have a son who has a dysfunctional relationship with his dad? That’ll be there. Have an alcoholic uncle? He will show up drunk. Have siblings who can’t get along? They will fight over the color of the casket. Funerals are a strange thing. Perhaps the strangest funeral I’ve ever done was early in my career, and I have told some of you about it anecdotally. I was doing a funeral for a younger man, maybe in his 30s. This man, I found out from the funeral directors, had a drinking problem and this is what had killed him. Sadly this was not uncommon in Scotland. So I dutifully wrote down the family’s contact information and set about connecting with them. Now, my usual habit in these situations is to set up a time to go visit the family to learn more about the deceased. This was especially important in Scotland as I never knew the people. So I would usually go over there and we would choose music and Scriptures and they would tell me stories and then we would have the funeral. It was a good system.
So on this occasion I called the family, as I would, and a man who I assume was a brother answered. I told him who I was and why I was calling. The man was silent for a moment and then he said, “let me get his mother.” She got on the phone, and I said, “Hi, my name is Phillip Blackburn and I will be doing the funeral for your son. Could I make an appointment to come over and talk to you about him?” I will never forget her reply. She almost shouted into the phone, “Well what do you want to talk about? He’s dead!” I was stunned by that, and I don’t remember what happened next, but I do remember the only time I saw his family was at the funeral, and I did the funeral for him knowing nothing about him but his name and that he died from alcoholism.
While this is the most extreme example, I have many others. Funerals always bring everything to the service. You know we just had a funeral on Friday. It wasn’t a very big one, not many people there, but it was important. On Friday we placed a crucified Jesus into his tomb once more. And it makes me wonder what the first funeral was like. We don’t know much about it. We know the women were the most faithful, all the Gospels tell us they watched his crucifixion from some distance or another. And perhaps the beloved disciple was there too, John says he was. But outside of that we have no idea what was going on with the other disciples. We know Judas was racked by guilt. But what about Peter? What about Thomas or James and John? What about those guys? You can bet all the stuff came to the surface. Some would have been afraid of being captured and crucified themselves. Perhaps the dysfunction in their midst, which the Gospels allude to, would have come to the surface. Maybe they would have argued about who Jesus loved the most. Maybe they were tormented with regret, thinking about the things they didn’t say. And maybe somebody came up to one of them and said, “I want to talk about Jesus.” And the disciple could only reply, “What do you want to talk about? He’s dead.” I don’t know exactly what happened, but I have a good idea.
Death always reveals character. It brings everything to the surface, you understand. And in the case of Jesus’ death this is certainly the truth. In Jesus’ death, you see, we learn something very important about the character of God. Let’s just think this through for a minute, shall we? You’re God and you are having a tough time with your beloved creation. So you send down the Messiah, your Son, the divine light who will transform the world and reconcile humanity to you. Jesus comes into the world. From the moment of his birth, it seems, he has a target on his back. Nonetheless he fulfills his mission. He teaches, he preaches, he heals, he performs miracles. He tells us to be people of love and he attacks the hypocritical power brokers who keep the people in ignorance and poverty. He does all these things and for his troubles he is murdered. You’re God. What is your response? Luckily we are not actually God, and we know God’s response. God’s response is grace. Specifically God’s response is the grace of this day. Grace is what this day is about, grace in the face of all our sin and anger and anxiety. God responds to this mess with grace.
I see grace at funerals all the time and when I see it I am always stunned by its beauty. I saw it not that long ago. I was doing a graveside service for a woman I did not know. She had wanted something brief and simple but sometimes the living don’t want things to be too brief and simple, so I asked the gathering if anybody had anything they would like to share about her. Several people piped up and then I remember a man said he had something to share. He was an older man, well into his 70s if not his 80s, and he said this, and I’m paraphrasing, “When I was a young man, I saw her and I was in love with her instantly.” He smiled, and then he kept going, “And I think she was in love with me for about 6 weeks.” Everybody laughed. He continued, “but then she moved on.” He paused. “She was a special lady.” And that was it. That was all he had to say, but it said so much. It was such a beautiful moment and he had been carrying those words around with him for so long.
I saw her and I was in love with her instantly. God loves us that way, you know. It’s not a fleeting thing. It never has been. The arc of history bends toward the love of God. God’s love is a love that is all consuming, which shapes God’s presence in this world and in our lives. God’s love was embodied for a time in this world by Jesus Christ, and now it is supposed to be embodied by us. God saw us and loved us instantly. And we, well, we loved God for about 6 weeks. Our love is not so perfect or so enduring. Our love of God comes and it goes, it ebbs and flows. Sometimes it burns white hot and sometimes it is barely kindled if at all.
But the story of Easter reminds us of something important and vital. It reminds us that God is not a God of vengeance and wrath. God is not a God of vendettas and grudges. God is a God of grace. Grace! Do you understand? Grace. God stands here today, looking at you from the span of history looking at you, and says to you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “you are special.” You are special in spite of it all, in spite of your failings and sins, in spite of your grudges and your waning passions, in spite of it all, you are special. That, my friends, that is grace. That is Easter. That is who you are.
That man I buried in Scotland, whose mother would not speak to me, I am sad to say I have forgotten his name. It is lost to me, but it is not lost to God. And what fills me with joy and hope is that this Easter Sunday, this grace which you and I experience this day, it was not just for you and me. It was for him too. It was for him in the midst of his demons which drove him to death, the grace of God, the love of Jesus, the empty tomb, it was all for him too.
There was a funeral Friday, but today, today there is a resurrection and that tomb which was left empty so long ago has filled this world with the grace of a loving God. Amen.