The last few weeks have been rather tough in the life of our parish here in central MN. The busy-ness of Holy Week was followed by the death of a 16 year old member, followed by the death of an 82 year old member. Things are starting to settle down again here and life moves on (which feels wrong somehow). I will begin crafting and posting worship helps again this week. By way of apology, I am including the sermon I wrote for the 16 year old’s death (with names changed), hoping that it might be a help to someone struggling to offer the Gospel in a similar circumstance. I found the book, “This Incomplete One” to be a wonderful resources in crafting this difficult sermon.
Gospel Reading: John 11:21-27
I have been very blessed to know Christopher. I arrived here in this parish in the summer of 2013, and got to know Christopher pretty quickly in LYO and in confirmation. He was a reliable participant in both. As we made our way through the stories of the Old Testament that year, I grew to appreciate his willingness to talk and his honesty in the face of difficult questions.
His friendliness was readily apparent too. He was the one texting and calling others to make sure they’d be at LYO for some kickball or a round of thing-in-the-dark or whatever activity we had planned. I’ll never quite understand his desire to play kickball in work boots though…he may have gotten more distance on his kicks, but they couldn’t have been easy to run in!
I had fun with him on our trip to the National Youth Gathering in Detroit too. He was a blessing to the group that went. Ready and willing to participate in the Gathering activities, service work, and group bible studies; whatever the plan was he ready to be a part of it. Although my tradition of making my LYO groups try new foods didn’t go over that well with him. I could not get him to try Thai food for the life of me! I have been blessed to know Christopher.
I have many memories of Christopher from LYO, from confirmation, from our trip to Detroit, from church, from potlucks, from service work, from board game nights, from Camp House, and many other circumstances and situations. But some of my favorite memories are probably from VBS. My very first experience with this parish was VBS in 2013, I hadn’t actually started yet, but I brought my daughter by to participate. Funnily enough, I don’t think Christopher was there that year, I believe he was up at Camp House helping to get it ready for camp.
But in the next two years he was there (at least for part of it). He worked alongside an adult leader in the games station of VBS. And I can still clearly remember watching him helping to herd those bible schoolers through all sorts of games and activities. And what struck me the most about Christopher was his desire to see everyone participate. That would become something of a theme with Christopher. He wanted the kids to feel included and welcome. I distinctly remember watching him working so hard to get one of the younger kids, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who didn’t want to join the others in playing on the playground, to play Frisbee with him…to have fun and feel welcomed. I have been blessed to know Christopher.
As my mind turned to VBS and Christopher, I thought of one of the lessons we taught at VBS last year. Our theme verse was Micah 6:8, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” But the lesson I’ve been thinking of in particular was on our third day that week, we focused on the portion of the verse that talks about “love kindness.” The word for kindness there is one of those tricky, but fun Hebrew words you find in the Old Testament. It’s the word hesed. It’s tricky and fun because it’s one of those words that are really hard to translate into English because it has so many possibilities.
In Scripture it is often translated as kindness, or mercy, or loyalty, or even love; in the Psalms it is often rendered as “steadfast love.” It’s a tricky and fun word because it conveys a powerful concept: the deep, abiding, eternal, and undeserved love that God has for us (and we sometimes have for each other). In thinking about Christopher my mind has returned again and again to that concept of hesed.
And it is no wonder that it has! Christopher has certainly known hesed, steadfast love. He knew it from his family. The love and support they have showered him with over these last two years (and before), has been a powerful example of hesed. In his faith statement for confirmation he wrote that his faith began around the dinner table at grandma and grandpa’s house with saying grace before meals. I’ve heard from his cousins about games of hide and seek played at dusk, and board games (some friendly, and some perhaps overly competitive) enjoyed on weekends. Christopher knew hesed from his family. Christopher knew steadfast love from his family.
Christopher knew hesed from his friends. I have seen, again and again, Christopher’s openness and friendliness lead to powerful relationships. Was he friends with everyone? Perhaps not, who is? But he was open to everyone and willing to try to have relationships with others. And others responded to that. Christopher showed hesed to others and others responded with hesed of their own. I watched deep relationships being formed on our trip to Detroit. I know several of his friends in particular showed hesed to Christopher and I’m sure many others of you did as well. Christopher knew hesed from his friends. Christopher knew steadfast love from his friends.
Christopher knew hesed from his community; all of his various communities: his neighbors, his church, his school. You all have showered him and his family with support, with prayer, and with hesed, with steadfast love. In these recent weeks I know they have received more food than a family 10 times their size could eat! They have received countless cards and gifts. Christopher knew hesed from his community. Christopher knew steadfast love from his community.
And most of all, Christopher knew hesed from God. He wrote that faith statement for confirmation a few months after his first surgery, the one to remove the tumor from his brain. And in it he wrote that the experience of cancer and surgery had shown him how important his faith is and how it drove his attitude (that kind, open, welcoming attitude of his) towards others and his own challenges. Christopher knew hesed from God. Christopher knew steadfast love from God.
But as I have been thinking about hesed these last few days I have come to a new understanding of it. In accompanying Christopher and his family through this hard, hard, time; I have been amazed to see, again and again, how they have endured through it all. And so, I think, maybe there’s another translation of hesed we could consider. “Steadfast love,” certainly! “Loving-kindness” or “loving-loyalty,” yes. “Mercy,” sure. But I think it could also be “enduring grace.”
Christopher certainly endured. He endured surgery, and pain, and weakness. But he never stopped caring, and he never turned bitter. We had a hard talk a couple of weeks ago; and he admitted to me that as he faced death he was mostly worried about his Mom (sorry [Dad], he worried about you too, but he obviously trusted your strength). And isn’t that just like Christopher? He endured and still cared, still loved.
[Mom] and [Dad] have certainly endured as well. I have watched as they have done everything in their power to support, care for, and love Christopher. I have seen the tender kisses from his mom. I have watched as his father carried Christopher and helped him get to wherever he needed to go. And you two have endured. You’ve been angry with God, I know. And that’s ok, I have been angry with God too. But you have not turned bitter…you have endured.
[Sister], and the rest of the family have endured as well. I have watched as you have hovered around Christopher for these last weeks in particular. Doing all that you can to love and support him, and his parents. [Sister], I have watched you reach out to your cousins in love and support, even while this burden weighs you down too. You all have endured.
By the grace of God you all have endured. And that’s the thing of it. We have at times wondered where God is in the midst of this cancer and death. We have at times felt abandoned and alone. But we have endured. By the grace of God we have endured. We have at times hoped and prayed and looked for a miracle; a miracle that did not come. We have joined with Martha in saying, “Lord, if you had been here, [Christopher] would not have died.” And we have endured. That’s where God has been in the midst of this terrible journey.
And maybe that is the miracle. That by the hesed of God we have endured. By enduring grace we have walked this journey. By enduring grace we shall continue to walk it. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane prayed that the cup might pass from him. But he endured. He endured betrayal, arrest, and abandonment. He endured insults, and torture, and cruelty. He endured the cross. He endured all of this for our sake. And he did not endure in vain. For the story does not end with the enduring of all that tragedy. It ends with relief. It ends with resurrection. It ends with life.
And so we too can endure. By God’s grace we can endure. Until we too find that relief. The relief of resurrection and life. The relief that is now, already and forever, Christopher’s. Amen.