Tag Archives: theology of death

Sermon at Eliana’s Funeral

IMG_0086On Sunday afternoon, we held the service to commend Eliana to God’s care. It was a hard and beautiful time. The church was packed beyond capacity; so many family and friends came to help us sing Eliana across the river: family from all over, friends, neighbors,  members from Faith Lutheran Church where I am the pastor, members from Acacia Park Lutheran Church where Chris is pastor, pastoral colleagues from across the Chicago area, colleagues and partners in our community work. It was a glorious gathering. Todd Carrico, our music director did a fabulous job of leading the song, and did the assembly ever sing! They sang for us when the words were stuck in our throats or held back by tears. 

I don’t usually publish my sermons as part of this blog. Sermons are contextual and best heard in the assembly as they are preached. This one is no exception. However, in some ways, this sermon is a continuation of what I have written in the past few posts I’ve shared here, thoughts about promises and resurrection and what all that could mean as we grieve Eliana’s death, a life too short and in which there was too much pain. 

The sermon was based on the lessons Chris and Liz chose for the service: Isaiah 43:1-3a, 4-7, 18-19, Psalm 139:1-17, Romans 8:26-27, and John 4:1-15. Often in the sermon, I use what in the printed word seems to be an ambiguous “you.” In most cases, I’m addressing Eliana’s parents, Chris and Liz Honig.

Eliana Frances Honig. Eliana. God hears. What a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl. Eliana’s world was pretty small and pretty limited. Nearly her entire life was spent in the confines of a small room on the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit of Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago. Yet, she was Eliana. There is both joy and a deep sense of sadness today. Only in her death do you get to introduce her to the world. When you penned her obituary, you told us about a beautiful, brave little girl who was a fighter, who sparred with her nurses and had her own unique way of curling up her feet and touching her bandaged hand to her cheek, who in spite of her near constant pain tried to soothe herself, and was responsive to the gentle sound of your voice and touch, even when there were so few places you could touch her.  I think she must have been the most well-read 8 week old on the planet.

What you have described is Eliana, a girl with her own personality in spite of her EB, a unique human being who was not defined by her disease. God created Eliana. God created her in God’s image. From the very beginning God knew her and God loved her. While her skin disorder made her life difficult and painful, she was formed wonderfully, and you, her parents, were able to see how extraordinarily she was knit together, how remarkable and complex she was. She was, in spite of her disease, in spite of her short life, a precious human life with consciousness and will and the ability to connect with those few people who were able to come to know her.

And she was loved. Oh, was she loved. She was loved by mama and papa, Grampa Frank and and Gramma Luann, Grampa Jim and Gramma Sheryl, Aunt Shannon, Uncle Tim and Aunt Stacey, nurses Kate and Ursula and Sara and Stephanie, Dr. Henna, Dr. Mancini, Dr. Chamlin. Oh, that child was loved. And not because she was any of those amazing things that appear in her obituary. She was loved because of her life. Your love for Eliana allowed you to see those amazing things in her. The mutual love of child to parent and back again brought joy to you and to everyone who got to know Eliana.

That joy is muted today because the sad truth is we are not intended to bury our babies. I have no words to make sense of why we have to do that. For all of my faith and all of my theology, I have never been able to put together a cogent explanation for the kind of suffering that Eliana experienced, and the suffering of parents who lose their children.

At first glance, the gospel lesson has little to say to those who are grieving the death of a child. Jesus is enjoying a little verbal sparring with a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. They happen to be at the old well of Jacob in the middle of the day. Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman should be talking to each other. Yet the conversation goes on and in response to the woman’s questions and yearnings, Jesus talks about water and thirst and the possibility of never being thirsty again and about how one’s deep thirst can be slaked by a water that brings eternal life.

On April 7, on the morning before she went to surgery to have a feeding tube inserted, Eliana was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Though it wasn’t an abundance of water, it was water with the Word that brought to your precious daughter the gushing springs of life. It wasn’t exactly the baptism that you had imagined. It was not at church, and beautiful Eliana traded a lacy white baptismal dress for Aqua-phor soaked dressings that wrapped her wounds. Still, in the application of water of from a tiny plastic vial along with the words of the gospel, it was living water; it was water that gave her springs of life with God.

When we mention this promise of eternal life, though, I hope we won’t immediately and automatically fall into the pious platitudes that offer little help when our grief is so raw. “Well, she’s in a better place,” some are quick to say.  I say that being held in her parents arms would be a fine place. There is truth in the promise of eternal life. We don’t have to speak of Eliana as if she has disappeared, disintegrated into nothing. She lives, having passed through the gateway of death into life in God’s nearer presence. God has welcomed her with the loving arms of one who says, “Fear not, precious little girl. I have called you, Eliana, and you are mine.” The pain that was so much a part of her life her on this side of the river is over. She has been made whole. Her baptismal promises she has received in all their fullness.

Those promises, true though they may be, seem small consolation in the face of Eliana’s death. Her death came way too soon and it leaves us feeling empty and cheated. I’m not ready to hear words that tie it all together in a nice clean bow so that now we are expected to make sense of it all and move on.

So many people were praying for a miracle. Frankly, I would have settled for less than a miracle. I would have settled for a little luck and a little time.  Those gifts were not given. And I can’t for the life of me imagine why. If asking God for healing is something we are allowed to do, then why are some prayers answered and others not? Another theological conundrum for which I have no answer.

Is that why you chose the passage from Romans? Because words for prayers have run dry after the one thing you so desperately prayed for has been denied?

The Spirit will hold you up. The Spirit will gather your sighs and your cries, your bone-deep sobs and your anger and the sadness and take them to God and God will hold them in God’s heart, loving you in the midst of what is inexplicable. The promise that the Spirit will hold you is nearly identical to the strong and gentle words of the prophet: “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Somehow God was with Eliana through her ordeal and she has had her homecoming. Somehow God is with you in the midst of facing her loss. And here’s what gives those promises their teeth, what makes them more than nice, empty words.  When God chose to come among us in Christ, God risked becoming vulnerable to all that this broken and fallen word might have to offer. In the last days of his life, Jesus experienced the worst that a broken and fallen world could throw at him: abuse, and beating and mockery and finally a cruel, torturous death. There is no place we can go where God has not already been; there is no horror we can experience that God has not already endured. In Eliana’s cries of pain, God was not distant but by her side. In your grief and sorrow, God has not abandoned you, but is in fact carrying you. When you pass through such unspeakable loss, God says, I will be with you, I will carry you.

Look around you Chris and Liz. Look around you at the community that has carried you and promises to carry you into the future. When you can’t believe, they will believe for you; when you can’t pray, they will pray for you. When you don’t feel like taking even one step, they will be here to walk with you. The loving arms of God hold you fast through the people of Acacia Park Lutheran Church, Faith Lutheran Church, your family, your friends and all the others gathered here today. We are holding you today.

In a few moments, you will be invited to this table to receive the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We will sing. With saints and angels we will sing. We sing because that’s what we do when there is nothing else that we can do. For a brief moment, the curtain that separates us from those who have already crossed over is opened and we join the saints and angels in their song. Eliana is singing that song, and we sing with her. She is enjoying that feast of victory at the banquet table of the Lamb. When we receive our morsel of bread and taste of wine, we join her at table, she eating the feast of victory, and we a meal in which God promises to sustain us for the journey that for us is not yet over. In the bread and wine comes the promise one more time: when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

I’m with Zeke

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Zeke Emanuel has unleashed a bit of a stir with his recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  In just the past week, two responses to Emanuel have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, one by Mary Schmich, a regular Trib columnist and the other presenting an opposing view from a Chicago physician. My own posting of the link to the article on the Facebook page for clergy in my denomination generated a flurry of responses.

Manuel’s musings carry some weight. He’s the Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and was the founding chair of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health until a few years ago. And besides it all, he’s an oncologist.

He makes a pretty strong and reasoned case for 75 years as a complete life. Even though there is loss for family when someone dies at that age, he writes, there is an equally compelling loss for living beyond that. (Really you should read the article.) I don’t think you have to agree with everything Emanuel argues to be grateful at way he has opened up and important and significant conversation. Emanuel labels our obsession with prolonging life, “The American immortal.” We snicker at the ancient Spanish explorers galavanting around the Americas searching for the fountain of youth; yet we have made their search look sane compared to the amount of money we spend to put off the inevitable. He writes, “I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive.”

I couldn’t agree more. As someone whose vocation is in part to help guide people spiritually through the end of their life and into the life beyond, I have seen the incredible burdens the denial of death places on persons and their families.

And it has often struck me in the middle of it all that we seem to pay only lip service to what is at the heart of our faith, namely, that the gift of life that we have here, while important and significant, is temporary, the down payment on a life that will last through our physical death. What does it mean, for instance, for Paul to write in his letter to Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain?” We’re happy to talk about the part about living in Christ now; but we act as if we don’t believe the part about dying as gain.

Even more troubling to me is the way we clutch on to this life with a white-knuckled grip. We seem to be willing to go to any expense, any trouble, and grasp at any thin hopes in order to prolong what we know rationally to be only temporary in the first place. Eastern religions have long suggested that we can only find happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life by letting go, holding on loosely, if you will. And while this thematic thread hasn’t been emphasized in western Christianity, I wonder if it might be in part what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)

I wonder further about how the notion of the stewardship of life plays into all this. Emanuel makes a glancing reference to the matter of stewardship when he talks about using up resources that might support the coming generation when we enter into costly treatment after treatment only to stave off for a time when we all know is inevitable. I think the matter of the financial cost of extraordinary medical treatment is worth thinking about, but I think it goes even deeper than that. The emotional energy required to care for the feeble and frail is staggering and often issues in both emotional and physical exhaustion. I ask again: for what purpose? To stave off for a time what we know is inevitable.

Some of the criticism of Emanuel has been of his equivalence of creativity and productivity with the worth and value of a life. What about relationships? Relationships give value and worth to people; relationships are important, enduring, and nurturing beyond physical and mental vitality. There’s no question about that.  Yet that’s only one side of the equation. These relationships, too, are only temporary; we talk about the persistence of relationships beyond death, though I’m not willing to say with precision what that means. At the least, it’s not necessary to put a one-sided value only on relationships this side of physical death as if that’s all there is.

Some of the negative reaction has been to point to examples of creative and productive life after 75. Emanuel doesn’t dispute that. Neither do I. What’s at issue is that at some point, all of us have to come to terms with this reality: our life is temporary; we are going to die. And to grapple with the question of the cost of prolonging life by medical intervention, often extensive and expensive medical intervention.

I’m prone to agree with the heart of Emanuel’s argument. I might argue about whether 75 is the age; maybe it’s 80 for me. More than that, I want to cultivate now the character of hanging on to this life loosely. I want to live it in gratitude, to steward well my physical, emotional, and intellectual health, to live in the vitality of good relationships with my family, friends and others whose accompaniment on this journey brings delight. I want to participate in the work God has given me and us toward the redemption and healing of the world. And I want to live every day in the knowledge that it’s temporary. When it’s over, I want simply to give thanks and live into the fulfillment that I cannot even imagine.

About ten years ago, I taught a several session adult forum at our congregation exploring the Christian theology of death. Through the course of those six weeks, we had some pretty amazing and candid conversations. There was something significant about opening a necessary and helpful conversation for which no one seems to want to break the ice. I’m glad Zeke Emanuel has given us another opening.