That's a cheap pun I know. Several weeks I was speaking with a parishioner and she asked me what my favorite part about being a priest is. I answered, "Funerals."
I think it is because funerals are emotionally charged events, where people are truly themselves, without guile; and funerals also afford us the opportunity to proclaim the Easter Gospel, even at the grave. I also remember that the earliest Christians were essentially a funerary society: giving decent burials to those who couldn't afford one.
What follows is my sermon for Mike Michael.
Funeral Sermon for Mike Michael 12/10/11
I didn't know Mike. The first and last time I saw him was at Plantation Estates last week when I delivered last rites to him. I had gotten the call that Mike was dying, and I hurried as fast as I could to get out there. One of the secrets of us priests for our dealings with families at the time of death is that you can tell what kind of relationship the family has with the dying person almost immediately. As I rushed into Plantation Estates, Jean welcomed me warmly and introduced me to the receptionist. She introduced me as Father Josh “who was going to help us see Mike off.” “Who was going to help us see Mike off.” It was right then and there that I knew that whoever Mike was, he was loved, he had lived well, and he was prepared for death.
In talking to various long-time parishioners here at Saint John’s about Mike, what was reported to me over and over again was Mike’s enduring kindness. That was the word, kind, not nice. The people didn’t describe him as a nice man, they described him as a kind man. Kind, goes a lot further than nice doesn’t it? Nice, to me is barely civil. But kind, kind carries with it a love and empathy for others that nice just can’t get close to. Mike was kind . . . that and he loved golf.
In my brief talks with Mike’s family I learned that Mike had suffered great loss in his life; the untimely deaths of several siblings, the passing of all his family and his friends. But even in his death Jean had a sense that Mike was going to be with his brothers and sisters again. Indeed in today's Gospel reading Jesus describes going ahead of his disciple's to prepare a place for them. He uses these words, "in my father's house there are many dwelling places." To me this means that God, understands who we are even if we don’t, indeed that there are infinite ways to follow him. It is my understanding that Mike left the church for several years but came back here at St. John's. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus is letting us all know that we do not know the hearts of people, and that only he does. God knows who we are and how to deal with us, even more than we do ourselves. Mike was something of an enigma wasn’t he? He was not exactly effusive in his emotions, he played his cards close to his chest. But he showed his spirit in other ways, his work with Habitat for Humanity, his lifelong commitment to Jean, his kindness, his devotion to Saint John’s. And today we say goodbye to this kind soul.
The funny thing about death is that we think it is so final. Shakespeare describes it this way: “But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn, No traveler returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others we know not of.”Death is the great unknown for those in the world. But for us Christians we tell a different story about death. Our story goes like this: Jesus is not simply the son of God. Jesus is our trailblazer to that undiscovered country, to death, and back again. It turns out that Shakespeare was right, except that one traveler has returned. And, like Jesus tells us today in our Gospel reading, he goes ahead of us to prepare a place for us. We believe that through our baptisms we share in the death of Christ and by dying in Christ, we share in his resurrection. So for Christians, death is simply the door into God. It is of course hard for us to lose our loved ones, for us to lose Mike, and grief is not unchristian. But we are Christians, we are Easter people, not Good Friday people. We are a people who stand, not crushed at a cross, instead we are a people who stand in awe at an empty tomb. And it is this hope that allows us to say Alleluia, even at the grave; even as we see this kind soul off to be with his Lord, where he, with an unveiled face, beholds his Lord. So goodbye Mike, and in the sure hope of Jesus Christ the Risen Lord we will all see you on the other side. Amen.