I almost never, ever post sermons on my blog because 1) if people cared that much they’d show up at church and 2) there’s nothing worse than reading someone else’s sermon on a blog. The church website is one thing; for me, at least, the blog is something else entirely. So, unless I ever change the name to something exciting like “Father Tim’s Sermon Blog” don’t expect to see sermons here (as compelling, engaging, humorous, spiritually-uplifting, and life-transforming as they may be).
Enough people have requested copies of this one, however, that I’m making an exception. This was preached last week at the funeral of parishioner Chris Henderson. Chris was a young man who died of cancer at 37 leaving behind his wife Heather and three-year-old son Colin. They’re an amazing family and it was a privilege to get to know them throughout this process. Please keep Heather, Colin, his sister Emily, and parents Linda and Richard in your prayers in the days, weeks, and months ahead. And may Chris’ soul and the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace and rise in glory.
A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evanangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 16, 2011.
After the cancer had moved into his bones and caused Chris’ right arm to fracture, I spent a couple of hours with him and Heather and her parents in the Emergency Room at South Shore Hospital. As we were waiting for his transfer to Mass General in the midst of a snow storm, and Chris was in excruciating pain, I asked him if he had ever broken anything before. And without missing a beat he looked up at me and said “Just a lot of hearts.”
Throughout his valiant battle with the disease that would take his life, Chris never lost his sense of humor. And while many of us come together this day with hearts that are indeed breaking over a situation that seems so unjust, we can also give thanks for having known a man of profound courage, faith, and love. A man whose devotion to family and friends was the trajectory upon which his life was defined.
If there is one thing that the Christian faith teaches us about death, it is that it is not the end. Through his resurrection, Jesus destroyed the bonds of death by bridging for us the giant chasm between this life and the next. And so, while Chris’ mortal body has passed away, his soul has not. His very essence has not died but has rather entered into a larger, more abundant life. A place without suffering and without reproach; a place of hope and joy and peace and comfort. Now I realize this can feel like cold comfort in the midst of such raw and bitter grief. Just because Jesus took away the sting of death does not mean that death stings any less. Especially when a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend is prematurely taken from us.
But the good news for us is that in the life of faith there are no permanent goodbyes; there are merely temporary farewells. Though our mortal bodies pass away, we live on eternally. And on the last day we, too, will rise with Jesus Christ and join with Chris and all the faithful departed from every generation who have come before us. That is both the hope and the power of the resurrection.
And so while we’re left with many questions about why this happened; about why such a beautiful life was cut short; about why God chose to call his servant Chris home; there is no doubt about where Chris has gone.
A few weeks ago – although it quite literally feels like a lifetime ago – Chris was sitting in this very space – right there in the front row – as we baptized his niece, Lydia. He was having a good day and he was so clearly thrilled to be here to mark this special occasion. His mother, Linda, recently shared with me that Lydia was wearing the same white baptismal gown in which Chris was baptized.
And what a profound connection. Because in baptism we are buried with Christ in his death and raised with him in his resurrection. In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Not for awhile or only if we’re on our best behavior. But forever. A forever that begins as the sign of the cross is made upon our foreheads and continues to mark us as Christ’s own even as we remember, in our humanity, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
On Thursday night as the family was gathered at Heather and Chris’ home on Hersey Street, I administered the Episcopal Church’s version of Last Rites. Chris was resting comfortably and quietly as we said the Litany and I anointed him for the final time – again making that sign of the cross on his forehead in remembrance that he would always belong to God. At the end of our time together he slowly but quite deliberately reached out and took Heather’s hand. It was a moment that transcended words. A moment that spoke volumes about Chris’ priorities in this life.
And in the same way, at virtually the same moment, Jesus was reaching his hand out to Chris; welcoming him home into that place where there is no pain or suffering or grief but only life eternal.
Everyone sitting here in this packed church has been indelibly changed for having known Christopher Henderson – Topher to so many of you. For those who have known him and loved him, know that he will always be a part of you. That while his body was broken his spirit will never die.
And so we’re left with a choice. You can either be defined by death or defined by resurrection. Chris chose to be defined by resurrection; he chose to live as an inspiration to others – not that he would necessarily admit that. But his grace and humor and humanity will survive and inspire us long after this day. And that’s the legacy he leaves behind for each one of us. I encourage you to reflect upon the ways in which your life and the priorities that define you might be transformed for having known this remarkable man. That is his living, lasting legacy. And life is too short and precious to be lived any other way.
And finally, to Heather and Colin, Chris will always be a part of your family because he will always be a part of you. Just as nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even death – so nothing can separate you from Chris’ loving presence – not even death. And that is the good news in the midst of our sorrow. That is the resurrection hope in the midst of our despair. And it is why “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”