What does a person say at a funeral for a man who was not able to do anything in his entire life? What does a person say at a funeral for a man whose greatest accomplishment was being able to roll over as an infant and young boy? What is a person to say at a funeral for a man who was never able to walk or talk or work or even dress himself? What does a person say at a funeral for a man who was never really able to do anything more than eat, sleep, and look around the room when he was awake? Is there anything to say?
So many of our funerals make the one laying in the casket out to be larger than life. I have two things to say on this one: one a serious comment and the other a joke. Please hear the one and forgive the other. The serious point: at my previous congregation, I remember officiating at a funeral where one gentleman stood to give a tribute to the deceased, and he spoke for 45 minutes about how great a guy this man was. This man was followed by a pastor who was a friend of the family who spent another 35 minutes talking about how great this man was. I shook my head wondering if the town of Seguin would continue to exist without this man so great an noble was he, and I asked myself if this was what funerals were about. First point.
Second point, the joke. I have told this joke at several funerals, and it bears relevance here as well. A young minister arrived at the funeral home to conduct the service for a member of the community. The minister climbed into the pulpit and proceeded to spend half an hour extolling the virtues of the man who lay in the casket. He proclaimed about how wonderful a husband this man was–doting on his wife, taking her on exotic vacations, lavishing her with fine gifts, and treating her as his queen. The minister spoke about how wonderful a father this man was to his children–offering firm yet fair discipline, never missing a sporting event, bragging on his children at every turn. The minister then proceeded to tell of how this man was a wonderful churchman–rarely if ever missing a Sunday, sitting on the front pew, tithing his income and then giving a bit more, making all church activities. Finally, the minister spoke of how the man was a tremendous, yet generous businessman–making his business strong, treating his employees fairly, upright and honest at all times. After the service, the young minister shook hands with the widow, and left. All of the attendees greeted the widow and walked out the door. The widow continued to sit at the front of the funeral home chapel waiting. After 20 minutes or so, the funeral director approached the widow. He said, “Ma’am, I figured you need this time to grieve. Stay as long as you like. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.” The widow looked up at the funeral director and sweetly said, “Yes, there is one thing. Can you please open the casket so that I can make sure that’s actually my husband in there?”
So often, we turn funeral services in to such endeavors. We see the life of the deceased with rose colored glasses. We see all the good things; all the good things they have done; all the great things they have said; all the precious moments we have shared. The memories flood our hearts and minds, and we make those people out to be more than they really were. And there is no possible way we can do that with Clifford. There is no way we can make him out to be larger than life. Cerebral-palsy will not allow us to do that. The fact that he was bedridden for most of his life will not allow us to do that. The fact that he had seizures daily will not allow us to do that. The fact that he could not say anything more than “nom, nom, nom” or on a really good day to sound out “O mom” will not allow us to do that. And maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t do that at all. Maybe just maybe we should turn the attention away from those who have died and instead focus on the One who will make them rise again.
St. Paul says this morning in the 8th Chapter of the book of Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
“...all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to His purpose.” Now, let me be very clear about this verse. St. Paul does not say that all things are good. No. There are things that happen in this life that are tragic. They are mystifying. They are evil. Clifford being born with Cerebral-Palsy was not good. Him having to be rushed to the hospital on a regular basis was not good. Him being unable to walk and talk and leave his bed was not good. Clifford dying at 28 years old is not good. If you think these things are good, then I suggest you might need to see a psychiatrist. And St. Paul would be one of the first to call these things bad as well, but I think he would then say, “But they work together for good for those who love God who are called according to His purpose.” They work together for good. Bad things will point us toward good.
You might wonder just how this is possible. Paul’s next statement leads us toward the answer, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” On the surface, this might not make much sense, so let me reframe this comment for you within the larger context of the Christian story.
Christianity is not alone in the world’s religions when it suggests that God took on human flesh and lived among us. There are other world religions where the gods come to earth and humans, but Christianity is unique in what it proclaims about what happened when God came to earth. For you see, when God came to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God came to be a part of our condition not to be apart from it. This means, Jesus of Nazareth–the God incarnate, came into this world and experienced all that we experience. He hungered; He thirsted; He was sick; He was imprisoned. In addition to this, Jesus–the God incarnate–was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, tortured, and crucified. On the cross of calvary, God died. Let me say that again, on the cross of calvary, God died. No other religion will ever say that God died, only Christianity does. Once more, Christianity does not sugar coat this; yes, we know that Jesus’ death was a part of God’s plan of redemption for the world, but Christianity does not call the brutality of what happened to Jesus good. There is absolutely no sign that the disciples were happy about Jesus’ being arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and crucified. In fact, the Bible tells us quite the opposite: they were scared; they were devastated; they lived in hiding. The death of God was a traumatic event where it seemed like evil had triumphed.
But that was before the great reversal. That was before the earth shook and the stone was rolled away. That was before the dead came to life, and the Father raised the Son. All of the evil that had been done to Jesus was unmade. All of the pain and agony and injustice was reversed. Death had suffered a major blow. The last word was not death, but life. Jesus became the first flesh that was raised from the dead, and the promise for those of us who trust in Him is that we are joined to Him as brothers and sisters and what happened to Him will happen to us. From death will be resurrection. From despair will spring hope. From darkness will spring light. All things whether good or evil will be brought to resurrection. All things will work toward good: new life: hope. This is the promise on which we stand.
“...all things work together towards good.” So, is this it? Do we simply await for God to make all things new? To undo the bad that happens in our world? Are we left to simply cry our tears thinking God will one day act but is powerless to act right now? Of course not. God continues to act; not always in the most miraculous of ways, but in real, concrete fashions right here and now. For you see, God left specific instructions to His church to feed those who were hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, clothe those who are naked, and visit those who were sick and imprisoned. And He left His followers with the following words, “Whenever you do this to the least of these, my brothers, you do it unto me.”
“Whenever you do this to the least of these, my bothers, you do it unto me.” If there is anyone who represents the least of these, it is Clifford. One who could not walk or talk or care for himself. One who could literally do nothing without the assistance of another. The care and concern we show towards people like Clifford reflect our deepest understanding of the Christian faith; for if we understand Jesus’ words, we know that we are not simply taking care of Clifford, we know we are taking care of Jesus.
I guess what I am trying to say here is, God used Clifford to expose us all to Jesus. God used Clifford to give us an opportunity to take care of Jesus. God used Clifford to give us an opportunity to show that God is living and active through His people. “...All things work together toward good.” When we take the Christian faith to heart, we know this to be true not only in the future, but right here and right now. Clifford may not have done much of anything in his lifetime, but he moved hundreds of people to show God’s compassion and fulfill the command to “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.”
At this point, you may be in agreement. You may know about the people who helped build the Washburn family a home. You may know about the people who have worked to make sure the family was provided for when health issues arose. You may know about all who offered their support of time, money, and prayer. You may say that this is all well and good, but Clifford still had to suffer; Clifford still had to die.
Yes. He did. That’s why we are here today. We are grieving his death. But this service isn’t just about Clifford. Clifford isn’t the main focus here. The main focus is on Jesus. The main focus is on the good news that Paul declares about those who find themselves in Jesus. “..those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” You see, God never abandoned Clifford. God loved Clifford. Jesus loved Clifford. Just as He loved the world. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.” God sent the Son into the world to save Clifford. And Clifford heard Jesus call his name on March 26, 2004 as Clifford was baptized into the body of Christ. Clifford became a child of God; not by his own work or merit, but because of what Jesus did on the cross at calvary. Through Jesus, Clifford was justified or made right with God and became a brother to Jesus. And this means the same thing that happened to Jesus, happened to Clifford. As Jesus was glorified and raised to eternal life, so now Clifford has been glorified and raised to eternal life. He is now able to walk, and talk, and run, and play, and sing with all of God’s creation–maybe even doing a bit of harmony with Elvis.
“...all things work together toward good for those who love God.” This means that when we too trust in Jesus and His work, we will share in eternal glory. We too will be redeemed and given eternal life. We too will be reunited with those who have gone before. Sure, we grieve this day, but we do not grieve without hope. We grieve with a vision of what will be. We grieve with a vision of the time when we will be in God’s presence–when we will see God and then Clifford able to do what he never could do in this life. It will be a wonderful sight. A sight when the goodness of God is fully revealed. It is a sight that fills us with tremendous hope. In the days ahead, hold onto that hope. Amen.