File this one in “Things they didn’t… and probably couldn’t… prepare you for in Seminary.”
Last night I preached a funeral sermon for a four-year old girl from our community who died unexpectedly this last week. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Part of the hardness for me, and I imagine other pastors in the same position, is the compartmentalizing of grief and personal feelings enough to be able to be present for the family in order to be able to face the hard job of preaching hope in the midst of tragedy and yet remaining, on some level…human. Grieving with those who grieve.
I’ve walked through the last couple of days numb, shaking… and this morning find myself raw and wanting nothing more than to be distracted.
In the midst of all this, I feel incredibly honored to be included, invited into this family’s pain and to have the opportunity to point to Jesus and (I hope) bring a measure of comfort and Good News.
Here’s my sermon, in part. I publish it here in the hopes that it can help others, whether those grieving or pastors who find themselves needing words for a similar occasion.
We are gathered here this evening to remember Vienne Juliet Piscitelli, to say our goodbyes to one who lived a brief but beautiful life- a life which, if tonight’s attendance tells us anything, touched many. Vienne means- “She who is full of life and vibrance” and truly that described her. As my wife Amy said to me often in the last couple of days- There was something very, very special about Vienne.
So, on behalf of Vienne’s parents, Mark and Jenny, I want to thank each one of you for being here tonight.
Though this is a very difficult day the scriptures make us this promise:
“The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone— as though we had never been here. But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him.”
He knows. He remembers. His love remains with us.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Let’s pray together:
Father of mercies and God of all consolation, You pursue us with untiring love and dispel the shadow of death with the bright dawn of light and the sure hope of new life and resurrection. You promise in your Word that you are close to the broken hearted- So comfort us we pray in our loss and sorrow. Be our refuge and our strength, O Lord, and lift us from the depths of grief into the peace and light of Your Presence.
What can we say when someone so young, so full of life and vibrance, is taken from us?
I’ve been asking myself that question for the last couple of days.
In this, as in so many things in life, there are no clear answers, no definitive “whys.” But in this, as in all of life, when we are short on “whys” we turn to a “Who.”
Psalm 16 says this:
“I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for He is right beside me. No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice. My body rests in safety. For you will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your holy one to rot in the grave. You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of Your presence and the pleasures of living with You forever.”
In those words are comforts and promises- not just for us here tonight grieving, but for Vienne herself.
First- that God is with us- that He has not abandoned or left us. Even in the midst of seemingly incomprehensible tragedy we can know that God does not simply understand us- but actually joins us in our suffering. The One who gave up His own Son to death that we might have life understands our pain and grief at this moment. And His promise is this: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted. He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.”
Tonight we grieve, but our grief is tempered by our faith. In the words of St. Paul, we grieve, but not as those without hope.
Because we have a God who does not simply understand our suffering, who does simply join us in our suffering, but one day, in His time, will end our suffering with the dawn of a new life, in a new creation, a broken world healed, our sadness and grief wiped away, and everything, everything, set right.
As Jesus faced the death of his close friend Lazarus, He felt what we all have been feeling these last couple of days. The Scriptures tell us that He not only wept, but it says a deep anger welled up within Him and He was deeply troubled. And the question is: At what was He angry? What troubled Him? And I think the answer is: Death.
Someone He loved had died, and as He saw the impact of that in the weeping faces around Him, felt the impact of that in His own heart, He was moved to tears and beyond.
Here’s what we need to know about this: we live in a broken world where terrible things happen. But… God is not oblivious to our pain. In fact, from the very beginning, He has set in motion the answer to all our sin, all of our brokenness and yes, even death itself- in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said to those who were weeping that day: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.”
So tonight, in the midst of our grief and our whys we place our hope firmly in a “Who”- in HIM- the one who is Himself, resurrection and life. And we commit to His sure and steady hands Vienne, knowing that
death is not the end, that this is not goodbye, but that on that great and glorious morning, her Easter morning, the One who says “Behold I make all things new” and “I will wipe every tear from their eyes” will call out her name and with that, call her into new life.
St Paul, speaking of that day, said: “Then, When our dying bodies have been transformed, This Scripture will be fulfilled: Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting? Thank God- He gives us victory over sin and death through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In the midst of our grief we find peace, knowing that now, Vienne is whole, at rest and at peace, safe in the arms of the One who created her and who loves her with an undying love. We find peace knowing that death is not the end, that though death may win some battles, the war is already decided and death will not have the final word, but the Creator of Life WILL.
Moments like this teach us to value life, to hold a little tighter to those we love- our children, our spouses, our parents and our friends, because in many ways, we just don’t know. We don’t know how long we’ll be with them.
But the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus adds on top of that wisdom something even better- and that is this: for those who are in Christ, who put the weight of their life, their soul and their future in the hands of the One who called Himself the Resurrection and the Life, the answer to the question “How long will we have each other” is forever.
So tonight, in our grief, I invite you- I urge you, to place yourself in the loving arms of the One who now holds Vienne tight, the One who promises her, and you and me- all of us, LIFE, and that everlasting.
Would you take a moment to silently offer your prayers to God- prayers of thankfulness for Vienne and prayers of comfort for her parents and extended family?
Father God, we are grateful to You for the gift of Vienne. We praise you for her life, and the blessing that she has been to so many. We now give her back to You, her Maker, the One who loves her more even than we, in the knowledge that with You is peace. We commit her to You, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I will now offer a final blessing to you all from Eph 3:19- the verse that was written on Vienne’s birth announcement:
May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.