A Church for Times Like This

The phone call interrupted the weekly text study I host for pastoral colleagues. The female caller identi- fied herself as Gretchen Johnson, the wife of Jack Johnson whose family used to be members of the congregation I serve in west Los Angeles. She thought we might remember that they sent an occasional financial gift to the congregation, although she admitted that her husband had not been active in the congregation for many years. I asked how I could help her. Out poured the story of how her 35-year-old step-daughter Sheryl, Jack’s daughter from his first marriage, which had been performed at my congregation in the early sixties, had died the day before after a short but intense illness. The family, Gretchen wanted me to know, had all stood vigil at her bedside. She recounted how Sheryl had entered the hospital just a week earlier with symptoms that were originally suspected to be hepatitis but soon proved to be acute and lifethreatening liver disease. Sheryl had not belonged to any church, but Jack had good memories of my congregation and, besides, Sheryl had been baptized here as an infant. Could we host Sheryl’s funeral and a brief reception as soon as Saturday (this was Wednesday) and could I preside as pastor? I said “Of course,” and suggested that I meet with Jack and the family as soon as possible.

Later in the day I received a second call from Gretchen that the family meeting was possible early that same evening at the church. When the appointed hour arrived, in strode a commandingly well-groomed, tanned fellow who looked in his mid-fifties. I couldn’t help but think of him as an aging “surfer dude” of about the vintage of the original Beach Boys. Accompanying Jack was an attractive though timid woman he introduced as Janet, Sheryl’s mother and his ex-wife.

Both had evidently been through a great deal of strain and were genuinely grieving the death of their daughter, which had come upon them so suddenly. And yet the several days of vigil at her bedside while she was in a coma and as her body was shutting down had clearly also meant that her death had come as something of a relief. They smiled wistfully as they recalled their wedding in our church and Sheryl’s baptism. And then came the story of their lovely daughter, their elder daughter it turned out, who at one and the same time was the joy of their life and a “party girl” who had never grown up and, they said, “had the mental age of a 17-year-old.” Without ever using the “a” word, they described Sheryl as a person who loved to party and who had never been confronted honestly with her drinking problem. Except, they admitted, by her husband Frank, to whom, it turns out, she’d been married for just a little less than a year.

So where was the husband, I asked? Shouldn’t he be in charge, or at least, involved in the preparations for the funeral? “No,” Jack insisted. He wouldn’t know how to handle something like this. As the conversation continued, it became clear that there was no love lost between Sheryl’s father and her husband. Jack seemed to look down on Frank and wanted me to know that it was only for the sake of appearances that there would be a reception at the church at all. The plans called for a second “private reception” (at which, it was clear, Frank and his family would not be among the guests) at the Johnson “compound” in a tony western suburb.

Who would be likely to attend the funeral, I asked? Both assured me that the church would be full to overflowing with Sheryl’s friends, who would largely fall in the category of her “party people buddies.” Would there be persons designated to speak eulogy, I wondered? Yes, several persons, including Sheryl’s younger sister, probably a fellow teacher, an old friend, and, if he felt up to it, Jack said that he intended to speak as well. If he was not up to it emotionally, he inquired if he could count on me to read something he’d write. I said, “Sure.”

I explained that as pastor I’d preside at the service and would intend to use the funeral liturgy of the church. The parents nodded their heads, but Janet needed to tell me that she didn’t want the service to be “too Christian.” She explained that she’d entered a “larger” Buddhist phase of her own spiritual journey, as had her younger daughter Kate, and that they wouldn’t want me to say anything that would offend anyone present, which would include those from the synagogue-housed preschool in which Sheryl had taught. I assured them that I had no intention of being “offensively Christian” but that in presiding at a funeral of a person baptized in our own congregation, it would be my responsibility as a pastor of the church to read Scripture and pray in the name of Christ. That would be okay, they assured me, but nonetheless evidently hoped that I had checked the box marked “generic funeral.”

I suggested some hymns we might sing together, but they were quickly rejected. Organist? After some thought this was ruled out too as being too churchy and maudlin. But they had already decided on a Hawaiian slide guitarist who, it turned out, had been the hit at Sheryl and Frank’s wedding just months before. He had already been engaged and would play before, during, and after the service. I said okay (and was actually somewhat relieved not to have to get my very proper organist mixed up in all this!).

What about Scripture texts, I asked? Nothing came to mind. Janet knew that she didn’t want the twenty-third Psalm. I mentioned several possibilities, and just as I was about to say, “Let’s leave it up to me,” I happened to think of Ecclesiastes 3,   I explained that I would intend to use the funeral liturgy of the church. That would be okay, they assured me, but nonetheless evidently hoped I had checked the box marked “generic funeral.”  a much-loved passage by pastors in tight spots–with the added benefit of its words having been set to music by a rock group in the sixties, thereby attaining a certain cultural familiarity. They liked the short excerpt I read for them, so we were on. We decided that the funeral would be set for 4:00 Saturday afternoon, but they wondered if they could have access to the church and fellowship hall at 2:30 in order to do some final decorating with flowers and photos. On second thought, Jack informed Janet, let’s tell all Sheryl’s friends and Frank’s family that the service is at 3:30, because you know how they’re never on time anyway. But we’ll really begin at 4:00. I shrugged my assent. I had meetings away from church Friday and Saturday until just before the funeral, so I encouraged them to let me know early if there were any changes in plan.

Saturday dawned clear and bright. Since it was the second Saturday of the month, I was scheduled to lead our Men’s Bible Study at 8:00 a.m. before heading off to my meeting half an hour away. When I returned from my meeting in the early afternoon, I set to work readying the sanctuary for the funeral. Two-thirty came and went with no one showing up from the bereaved family. Eventually a florist delivered some flowers to the church, and a little after 3:00 the Hawaiian guitarist showed up. I showed him where to plug in his amp, and he began to warm up with what I have to admit were some nice, mellow riffs, lending a certain South Sea charm to our rather Nordic sanctuary.

Soon after 3:00 people slowly began to filter into the sanctuary, but there was still no sign of Jack, Janet, and the rest of the family. At 3:30 the Hawaiian guitarist began his soft and soothing prelude as the church began to fill except for a couple of pews reserved for family in the front. The clock ticking (now fifteen minutes after the advertised starting time), I found myself pacing back and forth on the front steps outside of the church when what seemed a knowledgeable friend of the family approached me and agreed to inform the now tightly packed crowd that we were still awaiting the arrival of the immediate family. As people continued to flow in, I happened to notice that our sign board in front of the church proclaimed that the sermon title for the next day’s service was “An Expedient Death.” I couldn’t help but wonder if any of our guests had been struck by the title’s sad irony and hoped they didn’t think it was intentional!

Suddenly a white stretch limousine pulled up, and Jack and immediate family emerged, carrying a photo montage and bulletins. After a quick trip to the bathrooms, they rushed into the narthex breathless but unapologetic, now at least a full twenty minutes late for their loved one’s funeral (or fifty minutes late by their advertised starting time). Gretchen, Jack’s current wife, quickly took charge of getting the photos set up on an easel and organizing the family to follow me into the front of the church. The congregation had by now resumed their places in the pews, and by 4:30, now a full hour after the publicized starting time (and an hour of Hawaiian guitar prelude later), I finally welcomed the assembled crowd to our church and asked them to bow their hearts for the opening prayer of the church’s funeral liturgy.

Next came those stunning words of St. Paul’s from Romans 6. Were it Easter, or even a “normal” funeral of an active church member, we would have gone on to sing the grand baptismal hymn we always sing, but, alas, the decision had been made against singing any hymns. So how could I get this message across? How could I convey the good news that is the promise into which Sheryl had been baptized right here in this very baptismal font? This was clearly the issue I faced pastorally. Singing the song of faith to or with a congregation that didn’t know the tune or the words was not an option. What to do?

Fortunately, as I’ve long since learned to trust, the Spirit can be expected to intercede in times of perceived weakness, even in the guise of the soothing strains of a Hawaiian slide guitar, “with sighs too deep for words.” After my opening greeting, prayer, and reading from Romans, there followed a series of heart-felt eulogies, each interspersed with a brief guitar interlude.   How could I get this message across? How could I convey the good news that is the promise into which Sheryl had been baptized right here in this very baptismal font?  The first of these, I well remember, was an absolutely beautiful and simple rendition of “Amazing Grace.” (The guitarist, I’ve since come to think, was without a doubt an angel sent from God.) Eulogists included an old childhood friend, Sheryl’s younger sister, a co-worker from the Jewish preschool, and finally Jack. All had truly good words to say about Sheryl and helped to set her life in context. Her younger sister was perhaps the most honest in testifying to how she, the “nerdy” younger sibling, always longed to be more like her pretty and popular “cheerleader” sister who went out of her way to include such a “dweeb” in her own social life, even after Sheryl had left home. Sheryl’s sister alone, herself now a wife and mother, managed to reach out and af- firm Sheryl’s bereaved husband, Frank, to whom I had not been introduced but eventually who I identified as the guy with the ponytail sitting in the front row. Her teacher/ co-worker testified to how Sheryl’s dazzling personality extended to her effectiveness in working with pre-school children and with her fellow staff–it was clear that there had been much genuine mutual affection. Jack, as you might expect, had the hardest time emotionally, but he too, nattily clothed in bright pink shirt and tie and designer black suit, managed to give voice to his love for his dearly departed daughter.

Then came my turn to speak eulogy, not in terms of the deceased herself, but the good Word of God, articulated as best I could into the midst of this particular gathering. Since my ordination over thirty years ago, I’ve learned to trust in the truth of God’s promise, which was spoken over me then from the prophet Isaiah, that the Word “will not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In that confidence, I mounted the pulpit and introduced the readings from Scripture with these words:

There are two readings from Hebrew Scripture that I would like us to hear together this afternoon, words that are not meant to be mental anesthetics to dull the pain you’re all feeling in the wake of Sheryl’s sudden death. But rather these are words treasured by the community of faith into which Sheryl was baptized that have helped orient both the synagogue and the church for precisely times like this– times from which God’s chosen and God’s baptized people have never been immune.

I then read Psalm 139 and introduced the second reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Beginning with the well-worn but rich words of “For everything there is a season…,” I paused at the end of the ancient poem to acknowledge that this is the part of Ecclesiastes that “we’re all familiar with or at least have heard before.” But I went on to say that immediately following these words the Preacher goes on “in less poetic but even more pointed words to ask and observe: ‘What gain have the workers from their toil,'” reading on through verse 15, which includes the important if troubling and pointed passage:

God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before God.

The two readings concluded, I then launched into the sermon:

Now I know that those are a lot of words to process. And you can judge how they “fit” the situation in which we find ourselves here today. You all knew and loved Sheryl. You knew and loved what everyone has called her joy in living–a person fun to be around, a person who indeed found meaning in her work as a preschool teacher, but also a person who didn’t care for herself and her own health as well as she might have, a person who lived beyond her own body’s ability to cope. You know better than I who never met Sheryl and only know what folks have told me. And so it’s better for me to stick to what I do know as a pastor of the church with a good bit of experience with peoples’ living and dying. And what I do know is that Sheryl was a baptized child of God. In fact, she was baptized in that very baptismal font right here on October 8, 1967, and the sign of the cross was made on her forehead, and she thereby entered into God’s eternal covenant and became an heir of God’s eternal reign and a member of God’s holy church here on earth.

That didn’t make Sheryl any “better” than anyone else. It didn’t stamp her “ticket to heaven,” as some people sometimes joke about baptism. Rather, it made Sheryl one of us who’ve thereby been marked by God to be God’s special agents in the healing of our world, the mending of God’s good but broken creation. Whether Sheryl lived out that high calling to her fullest is not mine to judge. But I do know that her status before God, as both the Psalmist and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes testify, is God’s doing and not hers or ours to determine.

We here in the church are drawing to the end of the forty day season of Lent, a season of repentance and change of heart–“life change” someone has recently called it– that is symbolized by the purple banners and altar cloth you see adorning our sanctuary. We began our Lenten pilgrimage together with folks from our nearest neighboring church down around the corner, smudging one another’s foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross as we heard intoned over us the words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes put it, there is indeed “a time to be born, and a time to die.” The mortality rate remains for us humans 100%. We all shall surely die. In the Gospel reading we’ll hear in our churches tomorrow, Jesus visits the tomb of his friend Lazarus and, Scripture says, “Jesus wept” at the death of his good friend. More than that, we’re now just two weeks away from the day we Christians remember as the day of Jesus’ own death, Good Friday. Jesus himself once died a painful, even shameful, death. In fact, he was executed as a political subversive and a religious blasphemer– that’s what the cross signifies.

And yet, the good news is that Jesus not only died as we all surely die. He died in some strange and mysterious sense for us–on our behalf, taking our place. And because of Jesus’ own giving of himself for us in such a supreme act of self-giving sacrifice, God vindicated Jesus, raising him from the dead on the third day. Now I know that’s an incredible story. Jesus’ first followers thought so too when those first women came running to tell them that Jesus had risen from the dead. But it’s the truest thing, the best piece of news, we could ever hope to hear. And you know what? It’s true whether we believe it or not! Now that’s the truth into which Sheryl was baptized, a truth that depends not on our believing it, but on God’s keeping God’s own promises.

There’s lots more that needs to be said about Sheryl and what her death portends for you, her friends and family. But that’s your business, to allow the hole that Sheryl’s death creates in your lives to be filled with truth and meaning and promise, with all the best that God has to offer. May God’s blessing be upon you as you continue to do the hard work of grief, which includes facing the truth that her life ended way too soon and what that means for us who are still very much in the midst of life.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the community of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

From there the service quickly moved to its conclusion. After this there were brief conversations with some of those attending, including the parents of the bereaved husband, Frank, whom I never did get to meet. There was only a perfunctory nod from Jack as he thrust an envelope into my hand with a check for the church. There was no visible sign of what effect the service, the Scripture, the sermon had on anyone attending. There was no interment or scattering of the ashes that I ever heard about. No subsequent word from the family at all. I haven’t even been able to find a phone number or address for them.

I remember feeling glad that after the service I’d had a free moment to come back into the sanctuary and stand in front of the collage of photos of Sheryl that had been placed near the altar. She indeed looked to be just the gorgeous and vivacious young woman everyone said she was, the life of the party but also a loving sister, daughter, friend, teacher–a baptized child of God. The promise of God’s atoning love in Christ had been spoken there that day–well or weakly, who’s to judge?

“You ought to have a church, George, for times like this.” Were we–are we–that church? Requiescat in pace. Amen!

John Rollefson is the pastor at Lutheran Church of the Master in west Los Angeles, California. In the past thirty years he has pastored congregations in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Ann Arbor. John and his wife Ruth are the parents of two grown sons.