I went to a barbecue this summer that some old friends of mine were hosting to celebrate the fourth of July. Some of you might remember my friend Jacob, who was just ordained last weekend – this gathering was out at his folks’ place. It was a really fun time – we ate hamburgers and hotdogs and ran around their yard playing croquet. We all discovered together that even if a game only barely qualifies as a sport, I will still be terrible at it. We lit off a whole mess of fireworks and just generally had a good time hanging out together.
However, what most sticks in my mind from the event is sitting and talking all evening with my dear friend Coco, Jacob’s wife. Coco is ordained as a deacon, and our conversation was particularly memorable, because while everyone was gathered there to celebrate and to blow stuff up and have a good time, Coco and I spent several hours talking almost nonstop… about funerals – and death. Heh, chalk that up to occupational hazard, I guess.
We talked about funeral liturgies and about helping people deal with grief; we talked about doing funerals for people you know and for people you don’t know; we talked about what depictions of funerals in shows and movies get wrong… It literally got to the point where I looked around and realized that *no one* was sitting by us anymore – there was just this clear buffer of space all around our two chairs.
I guess everyone has different ways of celebrating a holiday! 🤷🏻♀️😜
This does seem to be a particular quirk of most clergy I know, though. While I imagine that most regular people tend to avoid conversations about death and grief and mortality, I find it is often a central part of my conversations with other clergy. It just seems to be something that deeply – and actively – shapes the way that we look at the world. On especially spicy days, most clergy I know will tell you that – given the choice – they’d rather do half a dozen funerals than a single wedding. Not that we want half a dozen people to die, of course! And not that we’re somehow opposed to weddings – I think it’s just easier to find rich meaning in a well done funeral service.
I’m sure this all makes us sound like a pretty morbid bunch.
But lest you start worrying too much about our mental health (well, okay, you should probably worry a little bit about our mental health); allow me to explain: a preoccupation with death may be countercultural, but it’s not (typically) a cause for concern. While it may seem morbid and melancholy and depressing to focus on death as much as we do, what this actually looks like in reality is anything but.
It might sound strange to say, but there are few things in ministry more satisfying than a really solid, well done funeral. I had a lot of opportunity to reflect about this in the past week especially, with our pair of back-to-back funerals. As stressful and heavy as it was, as difficult and sad as it was for the families and for us as a congregation, I have to admit I left those two funerals feeling incredibly uplifted.
Though it sounds totally counterintuitive, I find that at the heart of every funeral, there is this deep, deep spark of radical joy. There is joy there, rooted deeply in the hope that is ours in Christ. We often talk here at church about how we have this hope of life that follows death – this hope in God’s promises to us of everlasting life in the kingdom. And we do believe it. But you believe something a whole different way when you can sense that your life, or the life of someone you care about, depends on it. I’m reminded of a C.S. Lewis quote from his book A Grief Observed:
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Walking through the darkness of grief and the shadow of death, we test that rope of our faith – and we find that Christ is indeed trustworthy and true.
Our hope of life in Christ shines out more brightly in the shadows than at any other time. There’s something about the experience of loss that seems to break us open to hear and receive the good news of hope and joy in Christ in ways that we resist doing the rest of the time. It’s not necessarily a happy or cheerful feeling – this joy is much deeper and more enduring than that. It’s the deep joy we feel remembering, in the deepest depths of grief and pain, that this isn’t where the story ends.
In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is waiting in the darkness of his prison cell – already suspecting that he’s not going to get out of this alive (and, spoiler alert, he doesn’t). He seems like he’s not sure what to believe anymore – he preached so confidently about preparing the way of the one who was to come; he even baptized Jesus himself and was there when the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended and God announced, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – but things haven’t exactly gone the way he expected they would. So he sends his own disciples to Jesus to ask him if it’s all really true. And Jesus sends them back with the evidence of their own eyes and ears – “Tell John what you hear and see: healings, good news, even resurrection from the dead; signs of the kingdom breaking in.” And it’s there in the darkness of his prison cell that John joyfully believes.
This gospel hope and joy shines out most brightly where there is darkness and suffering. Isaiah writes poetically about this in our first reading, using the imagery of wilderness and desert:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing… waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.Isaiah 35:1-2a, 6b-8a, 10
Christ brings with him a radical joy that goes, much, much deeper than any feeling of warm contentment or holiday cheer. It’s a feeling of profound, unshakable hope that actually shines all the more brightly in the midst of our shadow – the hope of life right in the midst of suffering and grief and oppression and pain and even death.
The ministry of John the Baptist and the coming of Christ himself herald the coming of this radical joy. This joy bubbles up through the cracks in our broken hearts, lifting us up with the inexpressible hope of life in Christ.
Therefore, we don’t need to live in fear when it comes to talking about the truth of our mortality or the reality of death and grief. Heh, we don’t need to avoid our weird friends who really, really like talking about funerals. Because when we acknowledge the truth of the shadows in our lives – the grief, the fear of death, the pain of loss – instead of running away from them, we find Christ there with us. Christ is there, turning the very valley of death and suffering into the path of radical joy and life.
So rejoice and blossom, O people of God, like the crocus in the wilderness. Be overflowing with joy, and tell everyone what you have heard and seen. Let the light of Christ’s radical joy burn brightly within your heart for all the world to see.