Monday, 24 August 2015

Homily for Helen: a funeral sermon

As her minister, I had known Helen for 17 years when she died in a nursing home a few weeks ago, aged 89. Born in poverty in a Scottish mining village, with self-sacrificial support from her parents and immense personal dedication, Helen won a scholarship to a local private school. A lover of Latin, she went on to study modern languages at the University of Glasgow, and became a language teacher. Shortly after her husband died five years ago, Helen was stricken, inexorably, with Alzheimer’s disease. (King Lear: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”) My homily followed tributes given by one of a myriad of grandchildren and the second-born of her five sons. 

Sons, grandchildren, friends:

Andrew, Louise, thank you. We have all listened arrectis auribus – “with ears erect”, that is, very attentively. Got to have some Latin for Helen, right?

What comes quickly to mind when I think of Helen? Three things: dress, character, feedback. In dress, simplex munditiis (I’m on a Roman roll!) – “simple in adornments” – that understated elegance, expressed in those nicely coordinated pastel colours. In character, well, listen to a different translation of those wonderful verses in Galatians I just read: “… affection for others … a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people … loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (Galatians 5:22-23, The Message). Isn’t that Helen? And then feedback – to my sermons, I mean. When, after a service, people say to the minister something like “you’ve given us a lot to think about this morning,” sometimes that’s code for “I didn’t understand a thing you said!” or even “I don’t believe a word of it!” But with Helen, it was genuine, and more than just “something to think about” (which is fine for a lecture but not for a sermon), maybe even something that touched, moved, encouraged her. Which was certainly something that Helen’s gracious comments always did for me.

So we have heard about Helen in her youth and prime and golden years, her deep Christian faith and selfless attentiveness to others, and we are thankful for the ways she informed and shaped our lives. But over the last 4 years or so – well, the less said the better? Absolutely not. For that would be a cover-up, and it would be a denial of how, at least for me, Helen remained, to the very end, my teacher in tenderness. Yes, the full moon had become a “waning crescent”– the dulled perceptions, the fading speech, the mental disarray, all symptoms of an illness that has been poignantly called “the forgetting” (David Shrenk).

But am I not still “me” even when I have forgotten who I am, Helen not still Helen? And you – through Helen’s forgetting, did you not do the remembering for her, as you loved her in new ways: as you spoke her name, held her hand, talked about the “old days”, or were just there? In all these little ways, however helpless and hopeless you felt, you expressed to Helen: “How wonderful that you exist!” And even when her moments of recognition went into total eclipse, the eyes ebbing into a blank stare, did not Helen’s creator remember her, embrace her, shine his light in her darkness? Does not God, in his grace, remember those – us – who, with minds intact, yet forget him all the time?

Yes, in these portentous times when the so-called enlightened and progressive grow ever more impatient with long-term care for the infirm and vulnerable elderly, I trust you know that even in her affliction, there remained an indestructible preciousness, dignity, and sanctity to Helen. For that is the extraordinary, crazy idea that Jesus brought into the world: that people have value, infinite and immutable value, not because they are autonomous, rational, healthy, useful, productive – the go-to human of our woefully banal market-driven culture – but simply because they are loved. That is what it means to be human – to be created in love and for love and, finally, to be perfected by love, God’s love, in what Christians call eternal life. Yet even now, in Christ, this life begins … yes, even now this life begins …

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