Message Archive

Burial

02
May

Faithful through Uncertainties

Wisdom 3:1-5,9, Psalm 46, John 6:37-40 

Jesus said, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Eleanor Ward died with the faith that she would inherit eternal life as promised by our Lord.  Our Lord does not break his promises.  It is the will of the Father that all who accept and receive this gift of grace will not be turned away.  This reality is beyond our comprehension, but Eleanor now understands this great mystery as she resides now in eternal life.

Eleanor’s life was an ever-recurring series of uncertainties.  Even in death that came around midnight, we cannot be quite sure if she slipped into the embracing arms of Christ on Good Friday or Holy Saturday.  These are two days in particular that cause us Christians to pause.  Where was Jesus from Good Friday through Holy Saturday?

Our Gospel accounts assure us that Jesus died an earthly physical death on Good Friday and was buried, that he descended to Hell where he overcame death for all and for all eternity; AND He rose again on the third day.  In rising from the grave, Jesus vanquished death forever, meaning we are not to fear our earthly death.  Jesus has risen victorious over death.

And, we are redeemed  – justified by God’s grace alone through our faith in Jesus Christ.  We did not and cannot earn that grace; we cannot rid ourselves of that grace, even if we turn and walk away, the gift of God’s redeeming grace remains.

Eleanor understood this holy mystery through faith.  Faith is not based on certainty.  Eleanor’s life was a life of overcoming uncertainty through faith.  Orphaned at an early age by the tragic death of her parents, she was embraced by loving extended family who guided her through childhood into adulthood.  Encountering a young sailor at the US Navy submarine base in the Holy Loch near her home in Dunoon, Scotland, her life would take a vastly different direction than she might have expected.  Committing her life to that sailor led her to leave her family and home country and journey thousands of miles across a vast ocean into a quite uncertain future following the Navy wherever it led, embracing a new family, becoming a mother and teacher and best of all a grandmother, but never loosing that beautiful brogue of her Scottish upbringing, which was her anchor.

Day after day, for her life long Eleanor was faced with uncertainties – the greatest and most fearful being the diagnosis of cancer and the reality of quickly failing health.  But, Eleanor kept being faithful; she just kept being faithful – reaching into her faith for assurance that God was holding her and that, even in earthly death, all would be well. 

Our former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has been quoted as saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.  The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. 

If I tell you you are seated in a wooden pew, you do not need to depend on your faith to believe that you are seated on a wooden pew; you are certain that you are seated on a pew made of wood.  Thus, it is not required that you have faith that the pew is wooden.  You don’t need to take out your saw and cut into it to investigate.

On the other hand, our faith in everlasting life is fraught with uncertainties beyond our human limitations of spiritual understanding.  Our human doubtfulness leads us to continue searching for truth.  We are faithful, as Eleanor was faithful, that our Lord has kept his promise – the promise that none whom the father had given him would be lost.  The Lord asks only that we continue being faithful – just keep being faithful – just keep walking toward the light of truth.

In the book from the Apocrypha known as the Wisdom of Solomon we read that we are foolish to believe that death brings disaster and destruction; in death we are at peace, “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love.

Eleanor was bound in love by family and friends.  She accepted and received and embraced the love of Jesus Christ that was evermore present with her in her last days – present in the healing grace of the loving embrace of all who cared for her.

Eleanor abides with our Lord in that everlasting love; and he will raise her up on the last day as our Lord promises the Father.  None is lost.  Through faith, we can be certain.

27
Feb

Woodworkers

John 14:1-6

Woodworkers live into the lessons of life.  Instinctively, they see the potential of a fallen tree limb; they note the wood grain of a stair tread or a mantelpiece; they appreciate a distinctive mark in a wooden object that most of us would consider to be a flaw; yet to a woodcraftsman, it is a unique mark of beauty.  Woodworkers go about their carving and smoothing and fitting together of intricate pieces, striving to perfect the object of their craft, they delve into the intricacies of life; and, God is present.  When woodworkers open their hearts and minds to this presence, they live into holy moments when ordinary rough shapeless wood is crafted into a sacred vessel in which its natural God-given beauty is revealed – a vessel that carries guideposts for daily living.

Even if we are not particularly gifted in the craft of woodworking as Ray was, we can relate to these lessons in the imagery.  For the most part, we all have our rough edges, but as we encounter one another, rub against one another, embrace one another, truly listen to one another, those edges are smoothed bit by bit.  Over time, through God’s grace, our roughness is honed and polished; we find our rightful place in the Body of Christ and we become vessels of the love of Christ.

At best, as we go through our lives with one another, our relationships carve us and smooth us in this way.  At times, though, we can imagine the knife slipping and gouging us, marring our beautiful appearance – completely redirecting our lives into difficult waters.  But, through our awareness of God’s presence in his healing grace, the scar of the gouge is transformed, and we find that something very different and much more beautiful quite unexpectedly emerges – something beautiful that would not have been revealed had the carving knife not slipped and our course not been redirected in ways that reformed and strengthened us.

As Ray and his fellow woodworkers see potential in rough wood, Jesus Christ sees potential in us much like he saw potential in each of the ruffians he called to be his first disciples.  Perhaps we appear singularly unattractive and ill-fitting.  But, as a woodworker loves his craft and strives toward perfection in his finished project, so our Lord loves us, and wants only what is best for us.  Through our faith we are formed to be disciples, smoothed and polished; our separate apparently unattractive ill-fitting pieces are shaped and joined together into a composite of beauty – joined together for the kingdom – the kingdom, which is here, and the kingdom that is to come.

Through the words of John’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that he goes to prepare a place for us in the Kingdom.  Jesus doesn’t break his promises to us.

Ray lived into this promise.  He was eager to share his love of woodworking, and he was eager to share his love of fishing and the outdoors.  He was eager also to share the life lessons that were made manifest in these pursuits.

On a fishing expedition in the marshy areas of Currituck Sound, as it seems fishermen always want to go just a bit further, Ray determined he needed to get across a narrow stream of water from one bit of marsh to another.  But, as he launched his first big long stride across what he thought was a shallow stream, he was suddenly horrified to discover that the stream was actually a deep channel; he plunged down down down well over his head, desperately gathering his waders to his chest to prevent their filling up with water, thus, weighing him down like concrete.

For unexplained reasons, Ray escaped that near-death ordeal; he’s never been quite sure why or how.  But, his clearest memory of an otherwise horrifying ordeal was not the horror – it was the peace that came over him as he plunged downward, resigned to the thought that this was his time – this was the end of his earthly life, AND he was very much at peace with that anticipation.  Ray never forgot that sense of peace; he would want you to know that sense of peace that only your faith in Jesus Christ can bring – the peace of our faith in the everlasting life that Jesus has prepared for us.

Ray, now, fully understands that peace; Ray is fully engulfed in that peace even more than he was fully engulfed in the waters of Currituck Sound, and there is nothing weighing him down.  As Ray shared with great enthusiasm his love of woodworking and his love of the outdoors, he shared his love of the Lord.  He would want to be remembered most for his love of the Lord.

We are grateful that Ray did not die in the deep waters of that channel; we are grateful that he lived on to share his love of Jesus Christ and his assurance of the peace that comes to us through our faith.  Just as he has promised, Jesus has carved our dwelling place in the kingdom.  Ray is there, with his sunshine smile, admiring the perfect craftsmanship.

Burial of Ray O’Neal

14
Jan

Father’s love

Revelation 21:2-7  Psalm 46  John 5:24-27

What you want to hear is why.  Our God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; our God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving.  Why does a child of God – so kind and giving, so loved, so needed – why did this child of God suffer so terribly and die so young leaving this precious family?  We just don’t understand, and I don’t have that answer.

But, Joel understands all of this now; and, one day we too, like Joel, will understand, fully, we will understand all that is God.  This is the true source of our peace, even when our hearts are so very broken.  There is peace in the acceptance that one day we will understand.

Certainly, Joel’s earthly presence is absent; but, mostly, Joel’s earthly absence is so present.  That absence will be so very present for so very long.

Some will say, “It is God’s will.”  Others will say, “All things happen for a reason.”  True, perhaps, but those thoughts are not always very helpful in grief.  Many of us will say less than helpful things in our desperate attempt to bring comfort.  Better, I believe, to acknowledge that God’s Good reigns over all – that there is no tragedy or evil – no hardship or grief that is not overcome by the power of God’s healing grace – no sadness that is not assuaged by the goodness of God, which is love.  In every human condition, there is love; there is good.

Kelly, Sierra, and Gage, Sharon and Bob, in this, your deepest grief, you are lifted and carried by the goodness of God expressed in the loving community that surrounds you.  Total strangers weep with you – This is the Goodness of God’s love that, in God’s time, overcomes all grief.  This is the goodness that will bring strength at the times you struggle to breathe.  This is the Good News – the reality – the peace that allows us to celebrate Joel’s life and legacy, even though our hearts are heavy.

Our message is the Resurrection message; our host who makes this celebration possible is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The ultimate Goodness of God came to earth in the human person of Jesus Christ who was born as Joel was born, who loved and lived on earth as Joel loved and lived on earth, who suffered as Joel suffered, who died much too young as Joel died much too young.  Our Lord came to earth to live and die as one of us; our Lord willingly took our sins into himself; our Lord patiently and willingly died and descended to hell infested by our sins.  There, our Lord destroyed sin and death forever and rose victorious from the grave – all for us, each one of us, with no partiality.  Jesus Christ rose victorious from the grave that we might not die but have everlasting life.

Our greatest fear is our earthly death, and even more so, the earthly death of those we love.  Yet, our Lord assures us we need not fear death; our Lord is victorious over death.  Joel now resides in that everlasting victory over death; Joel runs free of suffering where “mourning and crying and pain are no more,” [Revelation 21:4] as revealed to us in the Revelation to John, which we heard earlier.  Joel would want us to hear this Resurrection message on this occasion and carry with us this message of resurrection as we grieve the presence of his absence.  He would affirm the words of Jesus, as recorded for us in John’s Gospel, “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”  [John 5:24]  The key, Jesus says, is simply to believe.

Joel was patient and gracious in his earthly suffering.  I did not know Joel before he had become critically ill and was recovering from his radical surgery.  Yet, I remember being impressed on that first visit in the hospital by the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit.  I knew on that day that whether Joel lived or died he would live out his earthly life in the awareness of God’s healing grace, which he so readily embraced.

Do not go from here believing that Joel was not healed.  True, his physical body – the temporary vessel of his soul – was not healed of its infirmity; but all was and all is well with his soul.  Joel knew he was healed by the Holy Spirit; In baptism, he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Joel knew this.  I believe he knew that we are not promised physical healing, but we are promised spiritual healing if only we will embrace the healing power of God’s love.  If only we believe.  Joel embraced this healing power.  Joel was healed unconditionally.

Ideally, God’s unconditional love is never more visible and realistic to us than in the unconditional love of our earthly fathers.  Fathers bear an enormous responsibility – a responsibility that is very difficult for anyone else to fill.

It is said that our image of God creates us.  As children, the adults in our lives are earthly gods to us, especially our fathers.  Whether good or bad, our image of our heavenly Father is formed by the image of our earthly fathers, and our image of God, our heavenly Father, creates us.

Joel leaves these precious children much too young, much too soon, but he leaves them with the incredible gift of the understanding of a father’s unconditional love – he leaves them with the image of God’s unconditional love for his children, and this image of God will shape their lives in incredible ways.  Joel left much too soon, but he left this incredible gift.

Fathers, mothers, parents, teachers, all adults, as you celebrate Joel’s life, as you grieve his absence, carry this image of God’s unconditional love; carry the awareness that we form the image of God in the eyes of our children.

Sierra and Gage, your father could not have loved you more and, truthfully, there is nothing you could have done that would have caused him to love you any less.  That is the gift of our heavenly Father sent down to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, and passed on to you by your earthly father.  Your father lives forever in this gift of unconditional love.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Chesapeake, VA