Monday, May 7, 2012

Running the Race Set Before Her: Funeral Sermon for my Grandmother

My grandmother died last week, and the pastor of her church graciously invited me to preach at her funeral. This sermon may not be of interest to my regular blog readers, but I'm posting it here mostly because it's an easy way for my family and my grandmother's friends to access it.

On Wednesday, I joined some family members in Simsbury to be with my grandfather and start making arrangements for my grandmother’s funeral. In the midst of the shock and grief, we found ourselves recounting stories about my grandmother. My mom and my aunt both remembered something that my grandmother had said: that when she died, she wanted the “Theme from Rocky” playing – that instrumental piece that opens with victorious fanfares, and evokes the story of Sylvester Stallone becoming an unlikely boxing champion. They both remembered it, and I think they even mentioned it to Pastor Chung, which was probably a new one for him. With apologies to my grandmother, we’re not going to play the Theme from Rocky today. But I loved hearing this story because it told me that my grandmother thought of death as a victorious event, the culmination of a great feat of strength and skill.

The book of Hebrews speaks of some of the great heroes and everyday people of the Old Testament, men and women of faith who have died: Abel and Moses and Rahab and on and on. The author names all of these people, and then says this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This scripture imagines life as a race, a great athletic feat in which we are cheered on by those who have gone before us. Life as a race, which is sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. Life as a race, a race which ends in triumph and glory.

My grandmother ran quite a race. Married fifty-five years, mother to five children and grandmother to thirteen grandchildren, she loved her family fiercely and with great affection. She thought of us as her team, and it was us against the world. When one of us was struggling, she was totally on our side, rooting for us, and booing the other team, whether it was an employer or an ex-boyfriend, diabetes or the Red Sox. When one of us was winning, she was proud, but not surprised. We were her team, after all… and she was sure we were the best team.

She valued learning, and she worked to keep expanding her mind throughout her whole life. She read avidly; she once shared with me a list of the hundred greatest books of the century, with little check marks beside each one she had read, and she planned to read them all. When she became a senior citizen, she qualified to take courses at the University of Hartford; she took a series of courses in classical music and aced every test. Some people take up bridge in their retirement; my grandmother not only took up bridge, but took bridge lessons. She loved learning about her faith: she came to visit me at seminary in 2008; we talked about the year-long Bible study course she was taking at this very church, and when she visited my New Testament class, I was struck by her detailed note-taking and thoughtful questions.

She had a generous heart, and she loved to give people things she had made. ¬Once, it was braided rugs which she made with my grandfather. More recently, she would knit prayer shawls for this church’s prayer shawl ministry. Our homes are full of things she made for us, from the prayer shawl she knit me when I was in seminary to the Christmas stocking she made my cousin when he was a baby. And then there was her baking: pecan pies and Russian tea cakes, homemade cookies and English muffin bread. She knew that gathering at the dinner table nourished not only healthy bodies, but healthy souls and healthy families, and many of the fond memories that we’ve shared in the last few days have been memories of things that happened at the dinner table.

The dinner table, appropriately enough, is one of the images that scripture and tradition offer to us to help us envision what God has waiting for us on the other side of death. But it is not the only image. Scripture offers us images of a place where there is singing and rejoicing, a place where there is healing and wholeness and the end of pain, a place where God’s will is done. Jesus speaks of his Father’s house, where he has gone to prepare a place for us. We speak of death as crossing a river, entering the holy city, going home. In Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, we hear a resounding promise that death does not have the final word: as Saint Paul writes, death has been swallowed up in victory.

We have a lot of different images for the world to come, and I suspect that there is something true enough about all of them, and that what lies on the other side of death is beyond anything we can quite capture in words or grasp with human minds. Those shimmering, ephemeral images can seem awfully insubstantial as waves of grief wash over us. We want something solid to grasp: we want to know where she is, and exactly what it is like, and whether she can see us. It is desperately hard to say goodbye, and harder still to rest in the assurance of things not seen. But for my grandmother, who has run her race and taken her place in the great cloud of witnesses, those questions have been answered.

Today we’re gathered in grief, to remember the time we had with her and say goodbye; today we hunker down in our own sorrow about having to live without her, looking to God and to each other for comfort and consolation. My family knows that I cry easily and frequently, which always bothered my grandmother… whenever anyone started to tear up, she would say, “Oh, honey, don’t cry. Don't cry, honey.” That never stopped me, and it is not stopping us today. Today we gather with our sorrow and our loneliness, to hear words of comfort like the 23rd Psalm, and songs of consolation like “There is a Balm in Gilead.” But when the waves of grief subside, I hope we’ll remember that, for Grandma, it’s the Theme from Rocky all the way.