Funeral sermon for Albert, who died a few years ago at the age of 88.
Last evening at the funeral home I had the opportunity to meet several of you, and everyone I met was from a different state. Welcome to Minnesota. Grandson Ryan and I talked a bit about Garrison Keillor who has introduced our state to those who, like many of you, were not fortunate enough to have been born and raised here. His writings, I have heard, have made many people wish they could be from Minnesota. Keillor was for a long time my favorite writer of childhood memories– but not anymore.
Now my favorite is Frank McCourt who grew up in Limerick, Ireland. McCourt is a brilliant writer, winning the Pulitzer prize for his book Angela’s Ashes. But I don’t think he makes anyone wish they had grown up in the lanes of Limerick. He had a miserable childhood which he barely survived. Half of his siblings died of disease or hunger in childhood, and so they did not live long enough to write hilarious stories about it. But Frank did, and much of what he writes is just wonderful. He writes well, he is funny, and his stories contain much wisdom. Along with that, he is also at times way too crude and immoral for this old-fashioned preacher. But I put up with that because he has such an incredible story to tell, and he tells it with such brilliance, wit, and humor.
Frank McCourt has abandoned the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood, and so now as an old man, he approaches death not believing in the hope for the hereafter that the church proclaims. This is what he says about that: “My hereafter is here. I am as far as I am going, for I am mulch. It is my comfort to know that in my future mulch-hood I might nourish a row of parsnips.” I don’t agree with McCourt on that, and I don’t see much comfort in it, but he is half right. After all, in a little while when we go to the cemetery to lay Albert to rest, we will hear the words, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust… Out of the dust you are taken and unto the dust you shall return.’
That pleasant and cheerful face we looked upon this morning for the last time, those bright and sharp eyes now closed, those old wrinkled hands that worked so hard at so many different jobs, are now going back to the earth. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Near the end of Frank McCourt’s second book, he tells the story of the death of his mother Angela. Frank was by that time the father of a daughter, and he describes the scene at the wake when the two of them approach the casket. He writes: “Maggie kneels beside me, looking on her grandmother, the first dead body in her ten years. She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, no prayer; and that’s another sadness. She looks up at me and she says, ‘Where is grandma now, Dad?’” Being the great writer that he is, McCourt has an excellent sense of timing, and so he did not choose that time to talk about mulch. Rather, he said, “Well Maggie, if there is a heaven, she is there,” admitting in the book he was just babbling.
Words have always been at the center of Frank McCourt’s life. He was a quick-witted kid who talked himself out of many jams, he was a creative teacher in a tough high school, he was a stand-up comedian, and he has written three best-sellers. But he admitted that did not have any words for his daughter at a time like that.
As a pastor, my livelihood is also dependent on words. At 3:30 this morning I was wide awake, thinking about the words I would say to you in this sermon. I envy Frank McCourt for his skill at using the language. Any preacher would love to be able to write and speak like he can, minus the vulgarity, of course. But I can’t.
However, I am fortunate to have something to fall back on, something else other than my own inadequate words. You see, it isn’t only Frank McCourt that has no words for a time like this; none of us do. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;’ there is not much any of us can do or say about that.
But I do have other words to fall back on, words that make all the difference in the world. Words like “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord;” and, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again;” and, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus said, “Trust me. In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I go there to prepare a place for you, and I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also may be where I am.” And, “Therefore we do not lose heart; though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is only temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” And finally, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Wonderful words of sure and certain promises.
As a pastor, I am privileged to be able to be with people in the most important times of their lives. I visited Albert several times in these last weeks, and then even in the last hours of his life. I had no words of my own to give him, but I did have those words from God’s Word to read to him.
A couple weeks ago, when Albert was still very much alert, he had a visit from the doctor that was not very encouraging. I said, “Albert, you’ve bounced back many times, but it is not looking very good this time. Are you ready for this to go either way?”
“Yes,” he said, “I am ready. I have had a good life, and I have no complaints. But now I am tired.” That was Albert– realistic, content, and ready to take life, or death, as it comes.
My last visit with Albert was at the hospital the night before he died, and he was about as tired as a man could be and still be awake. He knew I was there, he could hear what I was saying, and he could even respond with a very weak “Yes.” It is a profoundly moving experience to be with a man in the last hours of his life like that.
After reading some words from the Bible and praying the Lord’s prayer, I added one last prayer. I prayed the old bedtime prayer for Albert who could no longer say the words: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I am sure that he fell asleep not long after that, and he did not wake up. That is to say Albert did not wake up here, but as the prayer says, we believe that even if we die here, that is not the end. “I pray the Lord my soul to take;” or as Jesus said, “I will come back for you and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” Frank McCourt was only part right about the mulch. Our bodies do return to the earth. But our soul goes to God and we will one day receive a new body. Thanks be to God.
–Book of Common Prayer