June 2, 2008
On John 11:1-45, The Raising of Lazarus.
It is a terrible honor and a grievous privilege to preach this funeral sermon for Vincent Walker. This sermon will be in two parts. This first is about Vincent, and the second is about his family and us. Nineteen days ago, at his kitchen table, in the presence of Deborah, he told me a remarkable story, a testimony, actually. I told him he needed eventually to tell it to others as well, so now I must do that for him.
As you know, Vincent was very sick since January, and we still don’t know exactly what his sickness was. Even the tumor on his brain stem left so much unexplained. He was paralyzed on one whole side. He struggled to recuperate, and he finally was able to come home. About a month or so ago he had a sudden total paralysis, but through water and touch and prayer he experienced just as sudden a healing. The doctors can’t explain it, and he was convicted that it was miraculous. I gave him examples from scripture and experience to confirm his conviction, because a miracle is simply a physical event that first, defies our explanation, and second, that leads to wholeness.
Was it healing? Yes. Even though he died so soon thereafter? Yes, because healing is not just physical recuperation, but when you are made whole, morally and spiritually. And that particular experience was the climax of a general process of healing that Vincent had been experiencing through the whole course of his illness. He dared to say to me, in Deborah’s presence, that his illness had been good for him; not that the illness itself was good, but that he had gained from it, and not least in terms of gratitude and spirituality.
In the hospital wards and waiting rooms and even on the sidewalk he had been touched and moved by the prayers and grace of even perfect strangers. And although he had always known of God and believed in God, he now had a whole new level of experience with God. And he felt that his sudden physical healing was the climax of that.
I told him that he had experienced an early foretaste of the final resurrection. Like with Lazarus in the gospel. The raising of Lazarus was not the final resurrection, but a foretaste of it, for Lazarus would someday have to die again. But the power of the Lord Jesus finally to call us forth from the grave is the very same power to call us to rise up out of sickness.
I have reason to believe that the voice of Deborah was the last voice Vincent heard. I know whose was the next voice Vincent heard. It was the voice of Our Lord, calling him, like Lazarus, "Come out"; calling him, "Vincent, come out of your death and come into the presence of your God."
And so, for us who remain here, we must bless God, if only at the level of our faith; we must bless God, because Vincent has reached his goal. Earlier than he expected, no doubt earlier than he would have wanted, but we are not given the choice of when, and in moments of clarity we recognize that this is for the best. But when we look back over the last few months we have to understand that Vincent must have been getting ready, practicing to hear the voice of God. His last few months were preparation, were they not?
I have wondered how Lazarus must have felt when he was told by God to return. Like winning a race and being asked to run it again. We might imagine that if given the same chance as Lazarus Vincent might ask to come back, for the sake of his wife and his two boys. From our perspective that makes sense. But our perspective is so limited, and we know that Vincent is already seeing the future of his family from the perspective of eternity, and the perfect knowledge of the grace of God, so that even about his family, it is well with his soul. And his witness to us who are left behind would be to hold fast to this same God whom he beholds with unveiled sight.
The name Vincent is from the Latin for the victorious one. For him it his final victory but for Deborah and Justin and Evan it’s a grievous loss. Justin and Evan are young enough that the pain is not so sharp, though they will feel the ache of it for years to come. Deborah already feels the greatness of her loss, not only of her husband and her co-worker, but, as it seems to me, her best friend, and the father of her sons.
It is pointless to lessen the loss by comparing it to the losses from the earthquakes in China or the cyclone in Myanmar or the War in Iraq, for every loss by death is infinite and incalculable. It is not for nothing that Jesus wept; even though he knew what he would do, still he wept. It is unchristlike not to weep and grieve this loss. And even to groan as Jesus did. I am certain that in spite of God’s awful wisdom in calling Vincent home right now God also grieves for his family left behind. It wasn’t just Jesus in his humanity that wept, it was also Jesus in his divinity. God is grieving here for us.
It’s right in the midst of death that Jesus calls us to our deep capacity, which we so rarely go down into, but keep ourselves upon the surfaces. We are spiritual. We are the creatures that are special because we are spiritual, and we are designed to live by faith, not sight. So must this family do now.
And we all of us are called to support them according to the nature of community we have with them. The community of their families, the community of their church, the community of their neighbors and their friends. We must support them and encourage them to live out of that deep place in our spiritual capacities that can sense the long-term healing of the world, and that can work the reconciliation of this grief into a long-term wisdom and compassion. It is for us to help them through the inevitable temptations of frustration and resentment and bitterness. Grief can mature into wisdom, and anger into compassion, and it is only the heart that is broken that is open.
In the Biblical Book of Judges, Deborah was the judge and the leader who was proven stronger than any man, and she led the children of Israel out of misery. Deborah Rennie Walker, I don’t know strong you feel, but I recognize in you an inner toughness and resilience. You must be the leader now, and you must judge, and keep your eyes upon God’s promises like your namesake did.
In the history of the early church Justin was the pagan philosopher who converted to the faith and learned to understand the ways of God for the larger world, and gave his life for it. In the history of Celtic Christianity, Evan is the Celtic version of the name of St. John, who mystically saw deep into the heart of God, and was a friend of God, and wrote this story of Jesus and Lazarus to encourage the early Christians during loss and persecution. So we will pray today that as God has seen fit for Vincent to be victorious ahead of time, so the Spirit of God will strengthen these three to be strong and tenacious in their hold on the world and no less on the promises of God, so that they too may be victorious, and even in their loss and grief, honor thereby the name that is their legacy, Vincent Edward Walker. Rest in peace.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.