Thursday, March 20, 2014
Foretastes of the Kingdom: What does that banquet look like?
I have done a lot of funerals in my time as a parish priest. As many different types of people there are in this world, and as many type of families there are, that variety is apparent as we mark the end of our mortal lives here in this chapter of creation. Some funerals have been sorrow filled, with despair flooding our hearts and minds to the point where we have felt like we were drowning. Some were long expected, as when someone passes after a long illness. Some are consumed with heart-shattering shock, as in the death of a child--newborns in particular.
Some have been filled with an odd ambivalence. One comes to mind. I was called to the cottage of an elderly woman in order to prepare the funeral liturgy for her son. I knew almost nothing of the details of his death, only that he had passed and that she wanted to hold his celebration of life in the parish I was serving at the time. I arrived at her home, a sunlit cottage that was brightly decorated. There were lace antimacassars on the chairs, and lace doilies under our tea cups. There were porcelain figurines on almost every available flat surface. Herself, she was clear-eyed and white-haired, gracious and reflective on her own loss. I asked her how her son had passed:
"He died of a heroin overdose."
"I am sorry," I said. "That is a terrible loss."
"It is and it isn't," she answered. "I am sorry that he is gone. But, he has been gone for a long time. Drugs took him a long time ago. So, no more pain for him. No more stealing from me and others. No more drugs."
We talked some more, reflecting on her son's life and her experiences as his mother. We planned the funeral. Finally, there came the question of the sermon.
"I confess that I am not sure what to say, what I could say, to give you comfort in all of this," I offered.
"The answer is simple," she replied. "Just say, 'No more bad days.'"
And I did. Those words, coupled with a liturgy that focuses on us hearing the consolation of God and the promise that we will all be gathered up at the last for a common feast in the light of God's love continues to inform my theology and my pastoring for people journeying through the stark landscape of grief.
Yes, I really do imagine a grand feast at which all those we love, but see no longer, and we ourselves to boot, are welcomed. Everyone has a place prepared for them. That is what Jesus promised, and I believe that promise has been, and will be, kept.
But today, I confess, I am experiencing that feeling of ambivalence that I remember from that day in that woman's cottage so many years ago.
Someone has died. His name, besides "child of God?" It was Fred Phelps. He was that patriarch of a community that calls itself the "Westboro Baptist Church." Their primary ministry, at least the one that has gotten the most press over the years, has been to picket public venues and the funerals of fallen soldiers with anti-LGBTQ signs. Their testimony? That God, well...hates.
I know the sorrow and pain that this activity has caused. Our popular media is full of incidents where messages of tolerance and intolerance roil around this community's choices to protest what they do. Phelps' own family has been broken by this witness that he has chosen to make, and to model. It's not good news, not at all...just...hate.
And now, Fred Phelps has gone to his maker. Passing from this life into death and thus into resurrection, I pray for him and for those who mark his death. I pray for those who mourn, and for those who celebrate.
I give thanks for a God whose forgiveness is so complete as to heal and lift this broken man into the place prepared for him. He has healing and light in Christ. I believe that. I also pray that the hate he fostered in this life drains away, and that healing can happen this side of the kingdom for those affected by his work.
Knowing that God loves us all with utter abandon, even those who are the most lost, we can perhaps remember that even the most broken sinners are welcomed at God's table...and that at the last there will be light and life eternal.
That said, perhaps the best some can manage today is, "At least there will be no more (or at least perhaps fewer) bad days."
That is what the kingdom of God looks like to me, today. I pray for Fred on his flight to Christ. I pray for all who have remained as we struggle to remember God's basic directions to us....
...that we love one another as God has loved us.
Enough hate. That is the one thing that has no place at God's table.