People who preach -- usually, but not always, clergy -- need to understand who the audience is and what members of (and visitors to) that congregation need.
Often that's tricky because of different needs of different people in the congregation. That's what faced me this past Saturday when I preached at the funeral of my wife's sister, Leslie Von Bargen, at the First Congregational Church in Springfield, Vt.
I knew some of the folks listening were angry at God. I knew some just wanted a word of hope and an expression of traditional Christian doctrine about resurrection.
So I'll let you be the judge of whether I met those and other needs. Here's the homily I gave that day, preceded by the scriptural texts I used.
Psalm 61:1-5 (New Living Translation)
Hear this psalm of David about the assurance of God’s protection:
O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer. From the ends of the earth, I will cry to you for help, for my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the towering rock of safety; for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me. Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings. For you have heard my vows, O God. You have given me an inheritance reserved for those who fear your name.
This is the word of the Lord.
John 14:1-4 (The Voice translation)
Jesus is speaking:
Don’t get lost in despair; believe in God, and keep on believing in Me. My Father’s house is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get here.
This is the word of the Lord.
Please pray with me:
Eternal God in Christ, we gather here today broken-hearted but full of gratitude for the life of Leslie Von Bargen. So in your mercy I ask you to take these inadequate words of mine and make them your word of comfort to us today, for I pray it in the name of your very word, Christ Jesus. Amen.
Thank you for being here. Your presence honors Leslie and celebrates her amazing life.
I’m Bill Tammeus, husband of Leslie’s sister Marcia, and like the psalmist whom we heard begging God to hear his prayer, I’m here under duress. I’m here because Leslie heard me lead her father Eric’s funeral in 2002 and she asked that I do that for her. I never could say no to Leslie Von Bargen (pictured here), and you couldn’t either.
You know and I know that Leslie was a gift to us. I would say even a divine gift to us, except that many of us are, at the moment, so angry at God that it’s hard for us to hear her described as a divine gift, given that she was taken away from us way, way too soon, as was her own mother, who died at age 47.
And, by the way, anyone who pretends to know why such things happen is fooling you. Theologians use the word theodicy to talk about the question of why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is good.
That question is the open wound of religion, for all theodicies fail. Indeed, no religion has an exhaustive answer to the question of evil and suffering. That doesn’t mean we should quit asking questions about suffering but it does mean we should be humble and tentative about the answers we think we find.
In the end, we can simply say with the psalmist, “Let me abide in your tent forever and find refuge under the shelter of your wings.”
Leslie’s death was a body blow to us and maybe even to our faith. We acknowledge that, but in Christianity we also say that God understands our anger and our doubt. That’s because God understands body blows. After all, the execution of Jesus was a body blow to the faith that God had in humanity.
So it’s true that God sometimes disappoints us, especially when God seems absent or, worse, indifferent. But I want you to know that despite all of that God is, in fact, head-over-heels in love with you just as God was — and, much more important, still is — head-over-heels in love with Leslie Von Bargen. And there’s nothing we can do about that.
Speaking of Leslie, I assume you’re aware — because many of you knew Leslie longer and better than I did — that when you look up the word extrovert in the dictionary you’ll find Leslie’s picture next to the definition.
That girl could bring life to a convention of undertakers.
No doubt almost everyone here thinks he or she was Leslie’s best friend. And, you know what? You were.
Leslie was a sister, a daughter, a wife, mother, cousin, daughter-in-law, grandmother (oh, how she loved that new role, despite how little time she had to fulfill it), a friend and a sister-in-law, which is what she was to me, though I counted her as nothing less than the presence of the grace of God in my life.
I reveal no secrets when I say that all of us are profoundly distressed at her death. But I think it helps to acknowledge that. So let’s recognize that reality and not shy away from it. We want Leslie here — alive, healthy, kicky, generous, funny — and offering us her fabulous food, her endless supply of good wine, good drinks, good company, good laughter, good insights, good counsel, good love.
But all of that is gone except for the memories, and as a result our spirits are distraught and our tolerance for the mysteries that God lays on our hearts is, today, minimal. We are frankly fed up with such mysteries.
We want life to go on as it was. We want Leslie back. And we want her back now.
The hard truth, however, is that she is gone forever and that in demanding her back we are kicking against an immovable boulder, injuring only ourselves. And yet, as I say, it’s important that we name our legitimate anger and the disappointment that move us to kick against that boulder.
But what was it about Leslie that revved the engines of our love? Was it her spunkiness? Was it seeing her zip around in her little red convertible? Was it her insight? The way she seemed to take the measure of people and look for what was best in them, what was strong and what could be made stronger?
Was it her profound devotion to family? It seems as if every place I looked in John’s and Leslie’s home here and up in their lake cottage I found photographic evidence of her love of family.
Photos of son John Eric and daughter Julie growing up, for instance, were everywhere. We couldn’t use the bathroom without a picture of one or both of the kids staring at us.
Photos of her brothers and sister, her extended family and, most recently, photos of her grandchildren filled the spaces. In fact, to be able to find the refrigerator in their home, you had to know that it was hidden somewhere behind what seemed to be a family photo gallery in the kitchen.
Well, it was all of this and much more that attracted us to this extraordinary, generous, insightful, loving woman. What I personally found most remarkable about Leslie was her capacity to love, her ability to draw into her circle people she didn’t know along with people she did and make them all feel special.
When I spoke with her on the phone from Kansas City the other day the first thing she wanted to know was how I was. Imagine that.
I myself was a stranger to Leslie once, but that condition lasted only about 12 nanoseconds. If I loved her sister — as I did and as I do — I was all right with Leslie.
Each of us has stories to tell about Leslie. We’re not going to do much of that as part of this service today. If we did we’d be here for a month. But I want to encourage you to tell your Leslie stories to one another.
Remember the good times and even the hard times. Remember her stunningly remarkable courage in the face of her cancer. Remember her laughter, her hospitality, her ability to help make things at the (Von Bargen) jewelry stores run smoothly. Remember her wonderful sense of humor, her infectious laugh, her dedication to John and her children — indeed, to all her family — and their unmovable devotion to her.
It’s when we tell those Leslie stories, when we talk about those memories that we honor Leslie’s life and how much it meant to us. So I hope that over the next days and weeks and months and years we’ll all be hearing Leslie stories that start out, “Remember the time that. . .”
In this way, you will be responding to the words of Jesus we heard from the Gospel of John today, words that told us not to let our hearts be troubled. Jesus said he has prepared a place in God’s mansion for all of us, so he welcomes Leslie there with the kind of hospitality we came to expect from Leslie herself.
Marcia and I were blessed to be able to spend 10 days in Israel this spring. And, as you may know, religious traditions have identified not one but two possible spots in Jerusalem for the crucifixion of Jesus and the tomb in which his lifeless body was laid — one inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and one in the so-called Garden Tomb adjacent to a hill believed by many to be Golgotha, or Calvary.
The truth is that no one knows whether either site is historically accurate. But what Christians do know — and what each of those sites ultimately testifies to and celebrates — is that Jesus Christ conquered death.
So even though we are deep in grief today, we need not fret about Leslie. For her, today, all pain and suffering have ended and she is even now being surrounded by the joyful and everlasting love of the God of hope.
The Eternal One, from whom all blessings flow, has welcomed Leslie home.
And yet that same God is present today with us to share our sorrow as we commit Leslie into God’s loving arms. May it be so. Amen.
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SOME SYRIA'S RELIGION
As usual, the folks over at GetReligion.org are helpful -- this time in drawing on various journalistic sources to explain some of the religious dimensions of the fighting in Syria. If you're not familiar with GetReligion.org, surf around on the site.