Thursday, December 20, 2012

On the Journey: A Funeral Homily

Below is the homily I preached for the funeral of my grandmother. She passed away last week and her funeral was yesterday. Though we knew her passing was coming, the grief is still profound. I miss her very much... and look forward to seeing her again on the other side of God's redeeming love.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Iola Donna Vee Cramer, 80 years old, of Harrison, passed away on Thursday, December 13, 2012 in Clare, MI. Iola was born on April 4, 1932 to Peggy Hayne and Devere Hill. She was married to Harold Cramer on October 16, 1948 in Saint John’s, MI. Harold and Iola resided in Harrison since 1979. Iola enjoyed cooking—particularly pies—and traveling with her husband. They both enjoyed garage sales—though Harold was probably a bit more of the softie when it came to buying things than Iola was. Harold and Iola traveled all over the United States in their motor home and loved spending the winters in Zephyr Hills, FL. They had friends all over.

Surviving are her two sons, Jerry and his wife Valerie Cramer of Grand Rapids, MI, and William and his wife Rumiko Cramer of Clovis, NM. Three daughters, Sally Arnett and husband Augie of Ovid, MI; Linda Boisclair; and Patsy Howard and husband Philip of Monteray, TN. Numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Iola was preceded in death by her parents, her brother, Devere Hill, and her daughter, Peggy Cramer.

My name is Jared Cramer. I am one of Iola’s several grandchildren and I am honored to be ask to lead this funeral service and to give this funeral sermon.

It’s strange. When my father, Jerry, called me and told me that Grandma has passed away, a flood of several emotions went through my soul. I was almost immediately reminded of that rainy day in Tennessee four years ago when he called me to tell me that Iola’s husband, my Grandpa, had died. I remember that day sinking down onto the steps of the seminary I was studying at, tears flooding down my cheeks as the grief nearly overwhelmed me.

I felt strong emotions as well learning of Grandma’s death, emotions of grief and pain and sorrow, but other emotions as well, emotions that were difficult to untangle and understand. When talking about it with my wife, Bethany, I said how I think my own grieving for Grandma really began in earnest the last time I visited her in Clare, MI. Grandma was happy, not wearing her glasses but apparently watching TV nonetheless. I remember she was watching an Earnest movie. She seemed really happy to see me… but it wasn’t because she recognized me. Her mind had been slipping for years and when I visited her last I was just a nice young man who had come to say hello. I’m sure that within her there was some twinge of memory, some sense that she knew who I was, but it wasn’t visible. As Bethany and I drove away, the tears rolled down my cheeks as I knew the person who was my grandmother was slipping away.

Several of Grandma’s family have expressed that though this moment is hard—because it is always hard to say goodbye to someone you love—they also have a deep sense of joy. There is joy in this day, knowing that as Grandma journeyed from this mortal life she has journeyed to her beloved husband, Harold, and her daughter, Peggy. The loss of Peggy on the cusp of adulthood was a grief that neither Grandpa or Grandma ever recovered from. It’s been years since Grandpa has had a good pie—I’m confident that in whatever follows this life, no one can make pies like Grandma’s—and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see her.

Scripture has all sorts of various images and stories about what happens after we die, all sorts of ways of understanding what our existence looks like. Sometimes we read of Paradise, other times of Abraham’s Bosom, of Sheol, or of the New Jeruaslem, or Heaven. And theologians and Christians have gone back and forth for centuries trying to figure out what we believe happens after we die. Do we go immediately to heaven? Do we sleep until the last judgment? What’s the calendar? What’s the schedule?

Grandma and Grandpa, as far as I knew, were never ones for calendars or schedules. You and I live our lives scheduled down to the last minute of every hour, we know where we need to be and when we need to be there. And perhaps when they were younger, when Grandpa was still working at General Motors and they had kids in school, perhaps their lives were more scheduled then… but in the years I knew them that was never the case. There was always enough time for Grandma and Grandpa, enough time to sit around with family, to drink coffee—cold coffee even—all day and night long. There was always enough time to sit around a fire, to sit next to the person you love, to try to make something beautiful out of a piece of wood or a two-liter bottle. There was no rush—there was simply great joy.

In the first Scripture reading for this funeral liturgy, we hear in the Wisdom of Solomon, “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” I’ve always found immense beauty in the poetry of this text, “In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster.” And though it’s unlikely that many of us think Iola’s going from us was a disaster, though we rejoice that she has now moved closer to her beloved Harold and her much missed Peggy, though we rejoice in that… it would simply be untruthful to say that there is no disaster in this.

Because I know there is disaster and destruction in my heart. I’m grateful my wife got a small chance to know Grandma, even to get a handwritten recipe from her for a casserole. And I did begin my grieving when she didn’t recognize me the last time I saw her, but there is still disaster in my heart and in my soul because with her gone the world has irrevocably changed. There is that much less joy, that much less light, that much less pie, that much less beauty.

And I suppose that’s one of the reasons I truly hang onto these words from the Wisdom of Solomon. Because given all of our doubts and fears about what happens on the other side of death, the promise of that first verse is profound: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them.” Grandma has journeyed on and we, her family and friends, have gathered to wish her well. That’s really what a funeral is, after all, it is a time when family and friends gather to pray for someone who has died, to wish them well on their journey.

Grandma always did love to travel, and now we gather almost like we used to at their motorhome, with Grandpa in the driver’s seat as they carefully back out the driveway (sometimes to the terror of those watching). We gather here to say goodbye, to wave, to pray, to wish her well, and to whisper to one another that it’s OK, that her soul is held in the hand of God himself and the torments of old age, the torments of grief as she missed Peggy and Harold, the torments of the slow slipping of a mind, all of those torments have gone. These torments shall never touch her again.

And I think this is where my confused emotions upon news of Grandma’s death come into play. Because in some ways I feel like a small child again. I want to climb into that motorhome. I want to be with her. I want to be with my Grandpa. I want to be with all of those I love who have been taken from me through the ravages of death, all of those who come to mind anytime you and I gather in a room like this one. I want to knock on that somewhat tinny door of the motorhome and say, “Please, Grandma, can I come, too?”

I feel like the disciples did in our Gospel reading for today. Jesus is telling them that he is leaving and that they’ll be coming along behind him. I feel like doubting Thomas who asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Do you remember what Jesus’ response to that question was? Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In effect, Jesus tells the disciples that the path to the Father, the path to him, is not one that will be marked by rigid points of theology or doctrine. Theology is important. Doctrine is important. But the way itself is not in a book or in an essay. The way is Christ himself. The way is a person, a person who lived a life of deep love.

And so, as badly as I want to follow along the path Grandpa and Grandma have traveled, as much as my heart feels the destruction of their departure, the blessed truth of the Gospel is that we do know the way along that path. We know the way along the path they are traveling. It is a way that Grandma certainly modeled. She lived a life of kindness and love, a life of generosity and grace. She knew that following Jesus had a whole lot more to do with the way you treated people than it did with knowing the right answers to a few questions. The way is there, the journey into God is laid out for you and for me. As we seek to live lives inspired by Iola Cramer, inspired by all those we love who have gone before, lives of generosity and hospitality, lives of love and kindness, as we do that we discover that we are indeed on this journey with them. We have not been left alone.

And we trust, we trust that as we commend Iola to Almighty God, that we do not say goodbye. Remember the words from Wisdom, it is in the eyes of the foolish that this Christian appears to have died. She has not died. In the words of the Book of Wisdom, “Her hope is full of immortality… because God tested her and found her worthy of himself.”

May God, through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, find us likewise worthy of himself. And may God give us the strength and faith to see through our grief to the blessed hope that at the end of this broken and hurting creation, there will come a time when God’s love will conquer all and every living thing will be drawn to God through the mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.