Comfortable Words

It may seem morbid or a sign of the slow decay of Episcopal relevance, but I am of the opinion that the Burial Office is the best thing the Episcopal Church has to offer the world.    Its language is beautiful, though I think those who find the pronoun usage in the various anthems to be troublesome have a salient argument.  It balances well the tendency to err too far to one side or the other between “this should only be about Jesus” and “this should only be about the deceased.”  Even the rubrics, which yes, we should read and abide by, help make an Episcopal burial service an opportunity for reflection, prayer, and celebration.  For example, the requirement that the coffin “be covered with a pall or other suitable covering” ensures that whether prince of pauper, every soul buried from the church is brought in under the cover of their baptismal gown.  As and aside, for which I am well known, I have seen, on occasion, the use of the Episcopal or American flag as “other suitable covering”  I can understand the impetus for this, but would argue against so as to expand beyond “prince and pauper” to include “priest and solider” as well.  All are the same in death, for, as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “whether we live or, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

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Astronaut Gene Cernan’s burial at St. Martin’s Church, Houston, TX. Note the pall covering his coffin

If you were reading Sunday’s New Testament lesson and the middle portion sounded familiar to you, it is probably because you have attended an Episcopal Burial service sometime since 1979.  Romans 14:7-8 is an option among four anthems in both the Rite I and Rite II services.  Often strung together as one long anthem, said in procession, these words at the opening of the Burial Office set the tone for the rest of the service to follow.  These are words of comfort.  These are words of hope.  These are words of resurrection.  These are, in the parlance of our Rite I Eucharist, “Comfortable Words” meant to place the hearts and minds of the bereaved in the hands of the resurrected Lord through whom we all have access to the Kingdom.

In a world that seems to be disintegrating around us, these words might come just at the right time this Sunday.  With a major earthquake in Mexico, the 16th anniversary  of 9/11, Charlottesville, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma weighing heavy on our hearts, it seems prudent that we hear these words from Paul and have the Burial Office brought to mind.  In the same way that, in death, all of us come to the altar under the garment of baptism, so too, in life, we are all here on earth because of the gift and grace of God.  As Fitzmeyer puts it in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “This passage implies the service of God in all things, and it is the basis of life in the true Christian sense.  In life and in death, the Christ exists to Kyrio, i.e. to praise, honor, and serve God” (p. 691).  So, whether we feast or fast, whether we keep the Kalendar or honor everyday as a Feria from God, our lives are to be lived under the banner of our baptism, to the honor and glory of God.

Experiencing Resurrection – #Acts8 BLOGFORCE

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge invites us to share stories of resurrection:

As we move through the latter weeks of the Easter season, it’s important to keep the story in our heads.  There’s a lot of doom and gloom around cultural change and restructuring, but we are a people of the Resurrection.  The BLOGFORCE question before us:  “Where have you experienced resurrection, either in the church or otherwise, this Holy Week and Easter Season?”


I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this week’s question; thinking back over the particularities of Holy Week and Easter.  We had our first “real” Palm Sunday procession this year: eight blocks from the main intersection in town to our front walk.  Evening Prayer was delightful, with meditative music, provocative lessons, and earnest prayers.  Maundy Thursday is always challenging, but I got away with not having my feet washed, and I knew that God loves me.  Good Friday, as I read the Passion from John’s Gospel, I felt the tears welling up, and remembered what it was all about.  And then there’s Easter Day, what can you say about a day so bright and glorious.

Even as I took the time to remember all those events, I felt like I was still missing the point.  I had done plenty, but I wasn’t sure I had actually experienced resurrection.  Sometimes I’m not even sure I know what that means.  Life is just so busy, I wonder how much I really experience anything.  And then I remembered this weekend.

On Saturday morning, we buried a Saint.  It was one of those times where the procession leaves the church, but doesn’t require police assistance or a pretty white hearse.  We left the Narthex and turned right into the Memorial Garden where the Committal immediately followed.  As the service concluded, I raised my arm to offer the blessing, which is one of my favorites:

The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant: Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight; and the blessing of God almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you this day now, and forever more.  Amen. (BCP 486-7, I’ve apparently changed the ending in my memory, this is the version I say, which is not what is actually in the Prayer Book)

On Sunday morning, we baptized a Saint.  We welcomed the three-month old granddaughter of our Rector into the household of God.  The church was packed, the music was glorious, and my arms felt as if they were floating as I stood in the Orans position during the Eucharistic Prayer.  As the service concluded, I raised my arm to offer the blessing, the same blessing as the day before, the blessing appropriate for Eastertide, for Good Shepherd Sunday, and for a baptism, and I almost didn’t make it through.  It was in that moment, as I pronounced God’s blessing upon the gathered body of Christ, that I experienced resurrection.

Things aren’t perfect at Saint Paul’s.  Finances are tight.  Average Sunday Attendance has plateaued.  A group of people don’t like the music or the noisy children or whatever.  As much as I hate to admit it, Saint Paul’s is pretty much like every other church in the world.  We have our ups and down: good times and bad.  I’ve been bummed about this realization.  After eight years of hard work, I want to only have good stories to tell.  I want it to be fun all the time, but as I raised my hand to bless the people on Sunday, I felt peace and joy that only comes from God.  As I struggled to get those words out, I knew that God was in control, that his work and his will are to be done, that even when it isn’t going the way I want it to, as long as we remain faithful, it will head in the direction God wants it to.  I felt relieved, and for the first time in longer than I’d like to admit, I got out of my head and experienced the moment again.  I experienced God’s blessing pouring down upon his people, and upon me.  I experienced all of heaven rejoicing at the baptism one tiny little baby.  I experienced resurrection.

The Comforts of the Grave

I ended yesterday’s post with an intentionally provocative statement that nobody jumped on at all.  I love it when that happens.  I said it, however, with the thought that it would be my topic for today’s post, and since I can’t get it out of my mind, you, dear reader, are stuck hearing my prolost profundity again today.

“Of course, to get loosed, we must first be willing to step out of the comforts of the grave…”

Gives a whole new meaning to “roll tide”

Final resting places have come a long way since Lazarus was laid on a rock slab in a cave.  We’ve worked really hard to make sure that our graves are plush and reflect our proclivities in this life.  We may not bury our leaders with an army of terracota soldiers, but I’ve seen plenty of personal affects included in the caskets of loved ones.

Of course, this post isn’t really about dead people: at least not physically dead ones.  Instead, I’m pondering what it means to be comfortable in our graves as spiritually, emotionally, relationally dead people?  Worse yet, what about the relative comfort of entire communities of faith that are dead to the Spirit of God – waiting only for the great by and by so that everything can finally get put right.

Just outside the Bethany city walls, Jesus was the resurrection and the life, and he still is today.  He calls us to leave the comfort of our graves and to live with him in the resurrected life.  It isn’t easy, this resurrected life, because it means we are still living, breathing, feeling people.  It means we might get our heart broken as we seek to serve the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  It means that we might find push back as we call our communities of faith to resurrected life.  It means we might go places and meet people that we would have hoped we’d never meet as we share the Good News that Christ is Risen!

Maybe this is what Lent is all about.  The word itself carries a deep meaning of lengthening.  At least here in the northern hemisphere, apparently the only hemisphere anybody cares about, the days are getting longer and the sun is getting brighter.  The stone has been rolled away from our tombs and Jesus is inviting us out into the light.  Leave the comfort of your grave, be loosed, and enjoy the life of the Kingdom.  Today.