Thinking About Death

A Sermon for All Saints Day

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | November 3, 2019

On All Saints Sunday it is good for us to reflect on our daily lives, on what is truly important, and to consider what sort of legacy we will leave behind.

On this observance of All Saints Sunday I wish to share three stories with you. Shameless Plug #3: These are all found in my book, which will be available for your Christmas shopping on December 15.

A funeral is sometimes used as a teaching tool. It is common for fundamentalist pastors to use the occasion of a funeral as an opportunity to try literally to scare the hell out of people.

However, I once attended a memorable funeral that was used as a positive and very moving teaching opportunity. My cousin Terry, four years older than I, was a remarkable person, freckle-faced, red-haired, with a winning smile and the Irishman’s gift of gab. While growing up, I very much envied his easygoing confidence in any social situation. Terry married a lovely college classmate named Joanne. Together, they had two beautiful children. Terry became a very successful sales manager.

At age forty-four, Terry died of cancer. I was devastated.

I wasn’t alone. Terry’s family was active in a large suburban, upper-middle-class Catholic church, and over a thousand people gathered there for his funeral. I sat in the back, wishing to remain anonymous, barely able to control my emotions. The very gifted and compassionate priest led a warm and meaningful service, though through the haze of my grief I was only half-aware of the proceedings. I was looking down at my feet when the words of the priest slowly formed into meaning in my brain: “Now Joanne would like to say a few words.”

What?! I panicked. I was already just barely holding it together. Now, I believe it’s perfectly fine to cry at a funeral. But I was afraid I wasn’t going to just shed a few tears. My grief was so intense that I thought I might start sobbing and wailing, maybe even throw up. I desperately wanted to flee. But I was in the middle of a pew, a dozen people on either side of me. Trapped.

I watched with trepidation as Joanne made her way to the pulpit, a green backpack slung over one shoulder. She thanked everyone for coming and for loving Terry and the family. She mentioned all the support the family had received during his illness.

Then she said words to this effect: “This illness has been terrible, of course. But at the same time, cancer has taught us a lot of things. And I would like to share with you some of the things we have learned in these past few months. Terry, as you know, always dreamed of being a successful businessman.” She pulled the backpack off her shoulder and set it on the pulpit. Then she reached in and pulled out a copy of Forbes magazine and showed the cover to the crowd. “Well, Terry achieved that goal. But cancer taught us that success in business doesn’t matter.” And Joanne tossed the magazine over her shoulder onto the ground.

“We have a nice house. Four bedrooms. Large lot. Terry was so proud of our home and he always wanted everything to look just right.” Joanne reached into the backpack again and pulled out a House Beautiful magazine. She held it aloft. “Cancer taught us that houses don’t matter,” she said, and tossed the magazine over her other shoulder.

She paused to look around at all of those freshly-scrubbed, beautifully-coiffed forty-somethings gathered in the church, before going on. “As you know, Terry always liked to look good . . . and he did.” Smiles and a few chuckles from the crowd. In my experience, he was always impeccably dressed. I wondered if he did yard work in his dress clothes. Joanne continued, “In recent weeks he said to his friends, ‘You’ll be able to recognize me in heaven. I’ll be the only one wearing a necktie.’”

Even I had relaxed to the point that I could join in the laughter on that one. Joanne peered into the backpack again and pulled out a GQ magazine. The model on the front didn’t look any handsomer than Terry always had.

Joanne held up the GQ and said, “In the last few months, Terry didn’t look so good. At all. But we found that it didn’t matter.” She flipped the GQ into the air and it splayed onto the floor.

“For years Terry’s dream was to someday own a Porsche. Four years ago he achieved that dream,” she said then, and by now we could predict the fate of the copy of Car and Driver she pulled out, a beautiful black Porsche convertible on the cover. “He loved that car. He kept it spotless. He washed and vacuumed it every Saturday. He shined the tires! But this year we learned . . . cars don’t matter.”

Joanne looked at the magazines strewn around her, then out at her friends. I looked back at her, tears streaming down my cheeks, extremely grateful now that I hadn’t found a way to escape the sanctuary before I got to hear her speak.

“Cancer taught us that all that matters is your relationship with God and with the people in your life,” she said.

This second story comes from my time as a care center chaplain. Harriet was a dignified ninety-year-old who spent her days in the social area of her unit on long-term care. She had thick, shoulder-length gray hair and always wore blue sweaters to match her eyes. You could tell she had been a physically strong woman at one time, but now her back condition made it more comfortable to lie down than to sit up, so when not in bed, she stretched out flat in a recumbent wheelchair. Harriet had gradually lost her eyesight, and when I met her, she was entirely blind. In fact, she no longer bothered to open her eyes at all. In the two years I knew her, I never saw her sit up or open her eyes.

But Harriet was entirely sharp, and I enjoyed visiting with her each day for a few minutes. We talked current events, weather, her childhood on a South Dakota farm. Her son Jim, who was still working full-time, visited from his home thirty miles away every single day. (I’ve mentioned this a time or two to my own kids—planting the seed.). He was a large man, with a ruddy face and white shock of hair, always pleasant as he chatted with the staff, and so kind and gentle with his mom, holding her hand, sometimes stroking her hair.

Harriet had not changed much in the two years I had known her, but eventually her medical condition began to spiral downhill. The nurse practitioner thought she was probably in her last couple of months. About two weeks after this assessment, Jim came for his daily visit. Afterward, he related the story.

“I wheeled Mom into the library, where we could be alone. We chatted a bit and then sat in a companionable silence. All of a sudden, Mom sat straight up! She opened her eyes. Wide. (And, Chaplain Bill, her eyes never looked so blue.) She stared straight ahead and got a huge smile on her face. Then she lay back down… and was gone.”

After a holy silence, Jim continued, “It was such a privilege that I got to witness that.
Clearly, she was seeing the next world.”

This final story I shared at Dick McLain’s recent memorial service, so some of you have heard it.

When we who are in charge of such things plan worship services and ceremonies, whether it’s a typical Sunday service, a wedding, or a funeral, we want things to go a certain way. We do our very best to make sure things go exactly as planned. But they rarely do.

The deceased was a huge Elvis Presley fan. She had been to two of his concerts and owned all of his records. So it was decided that as the family entered the worship space at the beginning of the service, “Love Me Tender” would be softly filling the sanctuary.

But when the day came and the family started down the aisle, the funeral director hit the wrong cut on the CD. Instead of “Love Me Tender,” the gathered loved ones heard the jaunty horn lines of “Return to Sender.”

Which is perfect! That is precisely what we are doing at a funeral. Our loved ones do not belong to us. We merely borrow them for a while. And eventually we have to return them to the One who loves them even more than we do, the One who fashioned them, and, for a time, loaned them to us.

Let us pray. Eternal God, before whom generations rise and fall again. We thank you for the gift of life, for the gift of family and friends, for the blessings of each day. And above all, we thank you that your love never ends. We pray this in the strong name of Jesus, Savior and Lord. Amen!

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