October 20, 2019

Funeral Sermon: A Day Like Holy Saturday

The Entombment, Garofalo

Funeral Sermon: A Day Like Holy Saturday
Preached on the Occasion of a Young Adult’s Suicide

The worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well.

• Frederick Buechner, The Final Beast

• • •

The worst thing is not the last thing. Frederick Buechner’s words are about the only thing I can hang on to sometimes.

You, ______ and ______, my dear friends, have experienced what I would consider to be the worst thing imaginable: the tragic loss of a beloved child. You are in the midst of the worst thing.

I can’t, and won’t, try and tell you otherwise. I won’t blaspheme the sacred sadness of this moment. Every single parent here would tell you that this is our worst fear, our most dreaded circumstance, the one unnerving possibility that keeps us from sleeping at night.

At this time of year, when the church gathers to remember the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, it seems to me that what we are experiencing today is what it must have felt like on that Holy Saturday. On that day, all the disciples knew is they had lost the one they loved on Good Friday, but they as yet had no conception of what was to come on Easter Sunday. It was a dark day, a sad day. No one knew what to do or say.

But Holy Saturday wasn’t the last thing. It was the next to the last thing. And the last thing was best. And so today — this may be the blackest day, the bleakest day, but it isn’t the final day.

Most of us have a pretty good theology of Good Friday, the day when the unthinkable happens, when Jesus dies on the cross. And we know how to rejoice on Easter, the day when the unimaginable happens: when death is overcome through Jesus’ resurrection. But few of us know what to do on Holy Saturday, when we’ve just gone through the unthinkable and can’t yet imagine the unimaginable. However, someone has suggested that perhaps we have not really listened to the gospel story of the cross and the empty tomb until we have considered that cold, dark Sabbath in between.

We can feel utterly lost on days like Holy Saturday, when our beloved is gone and it’s hard to see tomorrow. On that first Saturday, for all the disciples knew, it was the end, it was the last thing. Hope was gone, the future uncertain. Indeed, it was hard for them to even think of tomorrow, because the day’s overwhelming despair swallowed up any vision of a path forward.

And where is God on a day like Holy Saturday?

Looking back, it is easy to see God in Jesus on Friday, when in willing love he goes to the cross and sacrifices himself for the life of the world. And of course, we celebrate God in Jesus on Easter Sunday morning, raised up, vindicated, Lord of life.

But what about on Saturday, when Jesus lies in the grave? Can we summon enough faith to see God in Jesus lying dead and buried in the tomb? Can we see God so fully identifying with our humanity in Christ that he not only dies like us but is also buried with us?

If we can, then we can know that there is indeed nothing in all creation that can separate us from God’s love. Holy Saturday assures us that God in Jesus actually takes his place in the grave with us. Right now, on this day we are experiencing between death and resurrection, Jesus is taking his place with ______ and also with us who stand at his grave weeping.

This three-day way of looking at things appears to have been in the Apostle Paul’s mind when he wrote these words: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).

It seems to me that Paul is suggesting that, in this broken life, while we remain subject to weakness and mortality, our lives often follow this three-day pattern.

  • We share in Christ’s sufferings. We are buried with Christ, becoming like him in his death. Only then do we experience the power of Christ’s resurrection.
  • Good Friday. Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday.
  • The unthinkable happens. And then all is dark. And only after we live through that darkness does the morning of resurrection come.

The worst thing is not the last thing. It’s the next to the last thing.

But it’s where we are now and it’s what we are experiencing today.

I want to encourage you, as the psalmist encourages us all:“Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

The last thing, the best thing, is yet to come.

Comments

  1. Ronald Avra says

    ‘Patiently waiting for the Lord’ Being strong and having courage are typically associated with initiative and action in popular thinking. Here we are told that the initiative and action are not birthed from our own thought, desires, or will, but from God’s purposes and time. Strength and courage are curiously necessary to cede control of the moment to the Father and in faith give Him opportunity to do His work.

    • Ronald Avra says

      “Who among you fears the Lord
      and obeys the word of his servant?
      Let the one who walks in the dark,
      who has no light,
      trust in the name of the Lord
      and rely on their God.” Isaiah 50:10

  2. CM, personal question:

    I think you once posted a some links to some helpful pastoral resources re: funerals, hospital visits, and the like. I love doing the work of pastoral care, but I feel like I’m in a season of lacking words for prayer in general, and especially so in ministry environments.

    I’ve been using the Divine Hours for my own devotional rhythm, which has helped tremendously. And when I make care visits I’ve been using some (slightly modified) Catholic and Book of Common Prayer prayers… but I’d like expand the breadth of my resources. Any suggestions?

  3. “This is ’40’…”

    Waited patiently for the Lord
    Inclined and heard my cry
    He lift me up out of the pit
    Out of the mire and clay
    I will sing, sing a new song
    I will sing, sing a new song
    How long to sing this song?
    How long to sing this song?
    How long, how long, how long
    How long to sing this song?
    He set my feet upon a rock
    And made my footsteps firm
    Many will see
    Many will see and hear
    I will sing, sing a new song
    I will sing, sing a new song
    How long to sing this song?
    How long to sing this song?
    How long, how long, how long
    How long to sing this song?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj8rzXBVmBY

  4. Thanks, Chaplain Mike. I started the day with the news that my neighbor’s sweet elderly mother, who was also a friend of mine, was murdered in her own home. This is “Saturday” in our neighborhood.