Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Very Present Help in Trouble
(a funeral homily on Ash Wednesday)

As I waited in the Narthex to greet parishioners after the 12 o'clock Ash Wednesday service, the hearse pulled into the parking lot, and the fire trucks began to arrive.  The Church was to commend Sarah Truitt Chase, 23, to our Lord at 3 o'clock.  Sarah was a volunteer fire fighter, receiving the far and wide support and prayers of that community.  I grabbed a cup of cold water and exchanged my purple stole for a white one.

The liturgies of the Church hold us, teach us, comfort and challenge us.  Many times as priest, I find myself taught, held, and challenged by liturgical "accicents" - combinations of worship experiences born of pastoral response.  Like a funeral on Ash Wednesday.  "Even at the grave we make our song..."  No surprises by the combinations - indeed, a funeral on Ash Wednesday feels almost especially appropriate - ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  But nuances emerge that unite the holy and the ordinary in profound and simple ways.  Like when you first roamed the halls of your school after hours, lights off, teachers gone.  Or when you roamed the ballpark after all the fans had left and the House that Ruth built was yours.  A holy, ordinary intimacy for which the best word I know is grace. 

I only met Sarah one time: over the course of two days, here in this same, holy space. The occasion was her grandfather's funeral not quite five months ago. In that brief time, I experienced Sarah as a young woman of conviction, compassion, and uncommon grace. Her life was a life lived on purpose.

The loss of such a life - the loss of Sarah - is a great trouble. A great and unexpected sadness. I remember Vicki's remark to me on Monday, that a mother is not supposed to be prepared to attend her daughter's funeral. It's not supposed to be like this. And Brian, who lost his bride two days before the resolution of custody issues which was to allow Sarah and Brian and Anya to live as one family under one roof. Devastating and unexpected loss. Profoundly felt loss. Trouble.

So the Scriptures speak to us, remind us: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. In the gospel, Jesus tells his friends, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." And he gives them these words not as a happy platitude on a sunny day, but as he prepares them for great loss and trouble: his departure from them, Jesus's own agonizing death. "Do not let your hearts be
troubled." "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."

On what grounds does Scripture say these things, even in the face of death?

The Church teaches that because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, we too shall be raised. This is our hope in times of trouble: that nothing, not life,death, heights, powers, nor anything else can separate us from the love we know in Christ Jesus. Even in death, God is our very present help.

That's what the reading from Revelation is about. It's a picture of the heavenly realm. Every nation gathered, all things made well, but if you look carefully, the picture of the heavenly realm is not without its trouble. A chaplain who worked in a psychiatric ward and knew therefore something about trouble asked me once: "Have you ever noticed that it doesn't say that there aren't any tears - no more trouble - only that God himself is present to each tear, to each face on which they're born, with the promise to wipe every tear away?" She said to me: That feels honest.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. This is at the heart of what Christians believe it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

May you remember this strength through your tears - the good and holy tears of love and loss and grief. May you know the presence of our God who is present in trouble. Sarah herself receives this promise in its fullness today: not that there are no more tears for her - only that the present trouble, her loss - has been met by the tenderness, the parent-like lovingkindness of God. The God who even now wipes Sarah's face, too.


  1. Thank you for posting this. Do you mind if I copy it for Sarah's daughter Anastasia? I'm making her a scrapbook to help her understand when she's a little older...

    1. You're welcome. Absolutely, feel free to copy for Anastasia.


Dear Bishop Sumner,

Grace and peace! I am writing to request the renewal of my license to officiate in the Diocese of Dallas for the coming year.  Of cou...