Sermon for the Burial of the Dead, Rite I

About 8 years ago, just before I entered Seminary,
my uncle Ben took me aside at a family dinner
and he gave me the best advice anyone has ever given
about being a good preacher:
Ben gave me a very serious look; he fixed me with his gaze.
“Short sermons,” he said, “less than 10 minutes.”
I am going to honor Ben by following his advice today.
I want to talk with you today about faith …
specifically, what Ben’s life and death—
his living and his dying—
can teach us about having faith.
I am glad I knew Ben; glad I loved him as an uncle;
glad even now as I deeply grieve for him,
because, in his living and especially in his dying,
Ben proved that faith and love are at their strongest
when you keep them in spite of hardship.
We are here because we loved Ben
and because we still love him
somewhere in our love and our grief
we are meant to find hope.
I loved Ben.
He was always larger-than-life to me
But I don’t think I really got to know him …
I don’t think I really learned how strong Ben was
nor how loving he could be
until he got sick.
I visited him in the hospital once, at Sloan-Kettering in New York.
It was the first time I had seen Ben as a hospital patient
He was lying in bed, and he was connected
to all kinds of tubes and bags of fluid.
Some of those tubes would be going home with him.
I asked Ben how he was doing.
And Ben, as only he could do,
communicated volumes in just one word:

In that one word, I heard pain and frustration,
but I also heard hope, and a little bit of humor.
Ben was never afraid to laugh at himself.
We sat with Ben and after a while he said,
“Do you know what is helping me through this?”
He took out a prayer book, and he read the following prayer:
“Strengthen your servant Benjamin, O God, to do what he has to do
and bear what he has to bear, that, accepting your healing gifts
through the skill of surgeons and nurses,
he may be restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
Ben paused, and indicated the tubes and bags to which he was connected …
some of them, to which he would be permanently connected,
and he said, “This is what I have to do, and what I have to bear,
and I have to learn how to have a thankful heart about that.”
Those words really stuck with me,
and I hope they stick with you, too.
Because even though Ben was speaking from pain and frustration,
I believe he was speaking with a heart of faith.
I believe that even in the worst of his suffering,
Ben knew something:
Faith and love are only worth having if you suffer with them.
If faith and love are your companions in hardship
not just in good times,
but in the worst of times,
then faith and love are yours to share with others.
I know that Ben shared his gifts more freely
after he was faced with his own mortality.
I know that what Ben was trying to say from his hospital bed was this:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me …
he has sent me to bring good news …
And because God’s Spirit was with Ben, it was speaking through him.
Ben’s prayer was answered …
he was restored to great usefulness in the world—greater than ever.
As the years went by, Ben went through
cycles of bad prognoses and miraculous recoveries.
Seeing him at family gatherings was like a slap in the face …
but it was not his appearance, sometimes affected by chemotherapy,
that shocked me.
It was the twinkle in his eye, and the warmth in his smile …
the strength with which he clasped your hand.
(He stopped shaking hands, I noticed … no more casual pleasantries for Ben …
Ben clasped your hand ... he held on to you
as surely as he held on to his life).
Without a word, with one bright-eyed look,
Ben told you the secret of having faith.
“I’m still here. Every day is a gift.”
There could be no greater usefulness in this world
than to spread this good news.
To Ben, faith was something that was not complicated.
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
and most importantly, death is not the end.
If you were going to have belief,
might as well really put it through its paces.
Ben had great days and Ben had rotten days, and lots of days that fell in between
and I believe he learned
to see each of those days as a gift from God.
I know that, through the way he lived his last years,
Ben was trying to say to us:
Try to cultivate this attitude in your life.
When you wake in the morning, try saying,
“I’m still here. Every day is a gift.”
Try it not just when you wake up feeling refreshed,
but also when you wake up exhausted, alone, or afraid.
You will be surprised
at the richness this attitude will bring to your life.
You will be able to see the hand of God
guiding and healing you.
You will begin to understand
that God’s ultimate goal for us
does not lie in this life,
but in eternal fellowship with him.
Suffering and death are not the last words for us;
there is a great family waiting to welcome us
just it has have welcomed Ben.
Ben’s good news to us
is nothing less than the good news of Jesus Christ,
who has given us a garland instead of ashes
the oil of gladness instead of mourning
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Ben understands now what we only understand in part;
his broken heart is healed, and he is free from all suffering;
let your own broken hearts be healed,
and know that you grieve
because you loved so deeply.
I hope you will take every day as a gift—
every moment, whether rich or rotten,
is a chance to love your neighbor and your enemy
a chance to hope in something greater than yourself
a chance to discover what heaven is like.

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