A recent article on the funeral sermon in Liturgy by the theologian Todd E. Johnson reminds us that “What is being proclaimed is God’s action.” The funeral sermon proclaims that God is active here and now, amidst the tears and anger and numbness, and we can hope for resurrection even in this context. Let’s be honest. This can seem very cruel. Even if we first acknowledge pain and grief – that Jesus himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus, do we really want to proclaim that God is active before the body of a child? Do we want to speak of God’s grace before children who will grow up without the presence of the parent who had always shown grace to them? Can we refer to a just God in front of the coffin of the victim who will apparently never receive justice?
And there is a similar sense of incompleteness at the end of every single life. There is no death without loss, and nobody ever dies as the person that they should be. So what does the preacher do? It’s easy to avoid the thorny questions of God and resurrection and simply use the funeral sermon to just argue that things aren’t bad as they seem, or at least not as bad as they could be. So the preacher reminds everyone that the deceased had a good life with many blessings. She’ll never be forgotten. She made us all better people. That, perhaps, can be good enough. And we can go on.
If the temptation is just that – to avoid the risk of speaking of God, perhaps a good reading for the funeral is Acts 10:34-43. This, I think, is for two reasons:
1. In Acts 10, we read about “what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee” (10:37). This mention of Galilee might seem like a random geographical detail, but the Gospels mention Galilee in some form over 60 times. In Luke, the angel Gabriel is sent “to a town of Galilee” (Lk 1:26), and when Jesus begins his ministry, he “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Lk 4:14). Galilee, as Fr Virgilio Elizondo tells us, was a frontier region, suspiciously close to foreign nations, and a place of poor peasants whose speech was perhaps even recognizably “Galilean” (Lk 22:59). Part of the shock of Pentecost is expressed by the question “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?”(Acts 2:7). For, really, as someone had asked, “The Messiah will not come from Galilee, will he?” (Jn 7:41).
Remember that there is a sense of incompleteness at the end of every life. Someone might have been a great father, but he will never get to see and guide his children as they graduate, marry, have their own children. A war hero (or war resister) will never be able to tell her stories of courage and humility to others. A young man had only just resolved to stop drinking and using drugs and perhaps head back to college. This means that death marginalizes all of us – put bluntly, it means that one day we’ll definitely never be who we were meant to be. We will only be potentially a great father or mother. We’ll inevitably be the subject of sentences that include words like “if only” and “what might have been.” Death also marginalizes the survivors, who are now, whatever else, “widows” or “widowers” or “orphans.” This is why, in my own experience, the thing that you most want to say at a funeral, but that you can’t say, is “This is just wrong,” albeit in much harsher language.
But Jesus the Galilean reveals to us that this place of marginalization, incompleteness, brokenness, is not the place of divine rejection. Fr Elizondo articulates a “Galilean principle” – out of marginalization comes a new society of love and welcome. God was present in Jesus in a poor frontera. Thus, Jesus could seem woefully incomplete – incompletely Jewish, incompletely pure, incompletely educated, dubiously loyal, and so on. But here Jesus could cross over to be in contact with people of other ethnicities, and could also reveal how sin blinds us to the possibility of good Samaritans and causes us to neglect captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
Funerals are never good things. Death is always an enemy, the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26). But God can still be present at a funeral. Perhaps our awareness of an inevitable marginality – our own, those of all our loved ones – can make us suddenly realize that we ourselves live in a poor frontera like Galilee and are able to reach out to others whom we previously dismissed. Families might reconcile, and a newfound community of grief can surely transcend race, class, national and religious differences and strangely approximate the “kingdom of God,” which, after all, tax collectors and prostitutes might enter before us. “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). Can that realization be the presence of God among us, here and now?
2. In Acts 10, Peter tells us of “This man God raised on the third day” to which “we are witnesses” (Acts 10:39-40). We’ve already spoken about the danger of evading theological questions at a funeral and just resting content with establishing that things aren’t bad as they seem, or at least not as bad as they could be. Funerals can be about restoring some semblance of control – even if it is merely reassuring ourselves that nothing more medically could have been done, or that it was objectively better for this relative to die now without too much suffering, or that our present pain is merely a stage in a grieving process. But this can only be the semblance of control. Death is death.
The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that we are not in control. As C. Kavin Rowe reminds us, nothing arises out of death “naturally” for “death is the final boundary of natural human life.” Death cannot be the “prior reality” of anything. But that doesn’t leave us with a cold emptiness. For, as Peter had said earlier of Jesus, “But God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:30). Rowe says that this is a “fount of new reality out of which the novum that is Christian mission emerges.” No mere optimist could have predicted the resurrection, and thus it has real generative power. The place where we were most out of control, when Jesus was nothing but dead, when there was no real future, is specifically the place of God’s intervention.
We are called to witness to this intervention – “But God raised him” – in the community of the church. Because this resurrected Christ is the Lord of all bringing a salvation to all that is not the result of human achievement or any “prior reality,” the church cannot show any partiality at all – it must include members of “every nation” (Acts 10:35) and magicians and eunuchs and governors and widows and orphans.
And, thus, strangely, acknowledging that we are out of control at a funeral and resisting attempts to restore control (“At least she had a good life”) might get us to a radical hope that can include everyone at the funeral – those who are angry, doubters, those who do not know how they feel, those who rightly deny that anything could come from this.
I hope this is useful – I do feel a bit out of my depth here. Please let me know what you think.