Tag Archives: theology of the cross

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.

Which Jesus?

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As young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, I served at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches. We used to have regular meetings of all the Lutheran clergy in the area, both Missouri and ELCA. One of the the guys who was almost always there was Priit Rebane, an older pastor who served the historic ELCA church in downtown St. Pete. I had the greatest respect for Priit.  He was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and to me, simply oozed pastoral wisdom out of very pore of his being. Priit was the kind of pastor I wanted to be some day. At one of our meetings, he told a story. (Priit, if you ever read this, I hope you’ll forgive inaccuracies; it was 25 years ago, and the particulars are a little fuzzy, but this is how I remember it.) He told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination.  He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. By his own estimation, he was a young theological hot shot, headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His grandmother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.”

At our Night Prayer service last night, we read from the Gospel of John about some Greek seekers who asked a couple of Jesus’ followers to introduce them. “We wish to see Jesus.”

For those gathering in devotion this week, it’s easy to see ourselves in those wanting to get more of Jesus than a mere glimpse. In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. So, we want to see Jesus.

But what should we tell one another and the world about Jesus this week? In all the conflicting reports of who Jesus was, what he wanted, and what he was trying to accomplish, it doesn’t appear to be as easy as, “Tell them about Jesus.”  By all estimations, he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, gave his followers an example to follow. Some would argue even that he was a zealot, or a gentle man who inadvertently got caught up in the politics of the times.

In his own words, Jesus invites us to see something different. Last night we read how, as he approached his own impending death, the image he wanted people to behold was his being lifted up, his moment of glory (John 12). He invites us to view the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. He invites us to see his enthronement as king of the universe.

Yet that glorification comes as he ascends the throne of the cross. In that cruel, paradoxical enthronement, we are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity and creation.

“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all things to myself.”  That’s the thing. In his death, he was drawing all people, all things, into the restored unity of God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the whole world.

I think that’s pretty important in these days when too many of us who identity ourselves with Jesus are seeking to create divides — between the good and the bad, the sinners and the righteous, those who get it and those who don’t, those who stand for biblical values and those who don’t, those who welcome and those who don’t, those who are racist and those who aren’t, those who are Christian and those who aren’t — to pause for a moment and realize that we’re getting it way wrong. His intention was not to create divides, however well-intentioned we might be. His intention was to draw us to God. All of us. Period.

Maybe that’s the Jesus that Priit’s grandmother was looking for. It’s the image that I hope gets burned into our being this week, the image that gets so seared into our minds and our hearts that it starts to issue in the way we behave. That would really be something.

“My God, My God, Why Don’t You Just Fix Stuff?”

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My God, My God, why won’t you just fix stuff?

We have known almost from the beginning of our lives that things are not right. When that kid in second grade looked over Mary Grace’s shoulder, copied the answers, and got the same perfect score she did, we knew it was not right.

When we passed the note in junior high and someone else got in trouble for it, we knew it was not right, and yet we did not say a thing.

I knew every time I rode my bike past that ramshackle house where the migrant workers landed for several weeks every year that people should not have to live like that.

When we figured out how to game the time-clock in that summer job, we knew it was not right; and yet it seemed so easy to justify. “I work hard. I deserve it. No one appreciates what I do around here.”

Now, what we know is not right is so much bigger. It’s hard, O God, not just to bury our heads in the sand. What we see in the world cannot be what you intend for the world. You do not intend for The Ukraine to be the setting for a power play in which people are coerced, controlled, and killed. You do not intend for Syria to be decimated and hundred of thousands of innocent people to be killed. You do not intend so much strife and division in the land where your Son came to bring peace to the world. You do not intend for innocent people to die daily in shoot-outs over turf wars in Chicago neighborhoods only 20 miles from where we live. You do not intend for ferry boat accidents to take the lives of high school students. And on and on and on.

You do not intend that there be so much garbage in the oceans that we can’t distinguish between pieces of trash and pieces of tragedy. You do not intend for there to be places where the air is so foul that living creatures cannot even breathe without becoming sick. You do not intend that we who have perfected the art of excess burden the rest of the world with our garbage.

And we know the pain and heartache of brokenness even closer to home. In our own families and our own lives, you do not intend for beer and bourbon and valium and vicadin to take control of peoples’ lives. You do not intend peoples’ lives to be consumed by cancer or heart disease or MS or ALS or Alzheimer’s.

For our whole lives we have heard that your death on the cross was so that our sins could be forgiven and that we could have the promise of eternal life. We believe that, as far as it goes. Tonight it doesn’t seem to go far enough. What about everything else? What about your promise that you sent your Son to save the world? How is that working? Why does it seem that there is no progress toward the kingdom of peace that you have been promising for years, for centuries, for millennia?

Tonight when we would love to have answers, we see only a cross. We see and witness and reflect on the event of your own Son handed over to sinners just like us to endure cruel torture and eventual death.

And so, tonight, we wonder. What does it all mean? How does it all fit?

Tonight we see no reasonable explanation. Least of all tonight do we see any reasonable explanation. So maybe tonight we are called simply to trust that you are God. That in the death of Jesus, all of our violence, our cruelty, our self-centeredness, and our greed are wrapped up and placed on his shoulders.

Tonight, we feel your absence. We wonder about your silence in the face of all of it. We know it would be easier to find other gods: to keep busy, to make a name for ourselves by doing good work, to perpetuate the fallacy of perfectionism, to honor the needs of our own families and expect that others will take care of themselves, to look at the big problems in the world and convince ourselves that they are not our responsibility and we can do nothing about them.

But then we look at the cross again. We see that in our Lord Jesus’ determination to follow his work and his purpose to the very end, you intended to create something new. You have created a people who would die to themselves and rise again to your larger purposes. So that when we look at Jesus’ broken and dying body, we see somehow, mysteriously, that you do have other intentions than what we see superficially. We see that through the cross you have called us to that larger vision and purpose in and for the world you have created, the world you love beyond description.

Tonight as we stand in the shadow of the cross, you do not stand over us in anger or judgment thereby inducing shame. You do not call us in such a way that overwhelms us. You simply call us to the cross. You call us to kneel before it, even to kiss it. And you promise that in your Son’s death, we are given life. Not life as an end in itself. Life as a means to bring life to this broken, hurting, strife-torn world.

So, dear God. My God. Our God. Accomplish what you will and what you intend. Work in us. Accomplish what you will. We are ready. We are willing. We offer ourselves to you. At the foot of the cross.

(A sort-of sermon at Faith Ev. Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois on Good Friday, April 18, 2014.)