Sunday 23 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 …


Anonymous said...

A timely sermon as the Assisted Dying Bill goes before Parliament. Thanks.

John Hartley said...

Dear Kim,

I agree with all the words you've said, and I like very much the way you have shared memories of Helen and given significance to her last few years. (I wonder whether the gentleness of Christ will sway my behaviour if / when I reach that state?)

But I wondered if you had ever adopted the model of speaking about the deceased, then having the bible reading, and then speaking about the bible reading - so that your "address" is divided into two parts, enabling you to do full justice both to the deceased and to the scripture? Many years ago I resolved to do this at funerals, because without it I saw clergy being trapped into drawing out lessons only from the deceased's life and not from the scriptures. It's a formula I would recommend.

In Helen's case 2 Timothy 1:12 springs to mind, for none of us knows in what way we will have to suffer in the years which remain to us. The verse invites a sermon about how Paul could justify his certainty, and how we can be sure too - a sermon that considers not only how Helen is safe in Christ's arms but also the grounds on which we can rest in his arms too.

Every blessing, yours in him - JOHN HARTLEY

Unknown said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your comments, which, as ever, are both thoughtful and helpful. Your practice seems sound to me. I guess, however, what I generally try to do is to place the person's life in the context of the Christian hope to which the scriptures witness without necessarily preaching from a specific text. In this instance, the Galatians 5 passage did seem to me to speak to Helen's character, but the theological dimension of the homily is not so text-specific -- though I had previously and purposely read from Psalm 139 with its theme of the inescapability of God's awesome presence.

Two other points regarding this particular service. (1) The two tributes, by granddaughter and son, pretty comprehensively covered Helen's life and character, so my take on Helen was, I think, rightly personal and brief, and my job simply to preach the gospel. (2) The two tributes took over half an hour, and quite apart from the issue of congregational attention-span, the entire service was at a crematorium, so there were time constraints. (In fact, to be honest, I started to get quite anxious during the second tribute, with an ear to the words but an eye on the clock!)

Finally, on your suggested text. I don't mean to be captious, but the suffering that Paul refers to in II Timothy -- the setting is a prison in Rome where Paul is awaiting his imminent execution -- is specifically Christian suffering, i.e., suffering that is the direct result of witness, whereas Helen's suffering was not. To be sure, your point about the safety and certainty of the Christian hope stands whatever the origin of our suffering -- which, again, is why I don't feel it is necessary to preach from specific texts at funerals. And, of course, Christian funerals -- or rather our Services of Death and Resurrection -- are informed by and infused in the scriptures from beginning to end.

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