This sermon was both a challenge and a joy to write. Mostly because, at first, I did not want to write it. Let me back up a few steps. This sermon is the eulogy for my Uncle Melvin, who departed this life on March 7, 2011. As the resident minister in the family, not only do you get to bless the food at Thanksgiving, but you are also looked to to deliver a word of comfort and hope in the face of the death of a loved one.
I was hesitant. I recalled the words of Rev. Dr. Gary V. Simpson, my preaching professor at Drew, who counseled us against preaching eulogies for our family members because one, as family we need to be together, and two, you never know how grief is going to manifest itself. But how do you say no to your closest cousin, in age and relationship, when she asks you to preside at her father's funeral? You don't. You can...but really, you can't.
The kid in me, who likes to have tantrums and wag her fists, wanted to be able to grieve Uncle Melvin's death in my own way and in private. The insecure girl in me wondered if I would be able to stand, literally, to declare what thus saith the Lord. The faith-filled woman in me was trusting God to speak to my heart and stir up a word specifically for my family during this hour of grief. The prophet and priest in me recognized the awesome privilege of being able to function in this way in my family of origin.
I started out on Tuesday, after being asked if I would officiate the service and eulogize Uncle Melvin, knowing that I would preach from Psalm 90. I just knew it. I read the entire Psalm, but I kept getting stuck on "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away...So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90:10, 12). I was thinking about Uncle Melvin, who lived to be seventy-three years old and who wrestled with lung-cancer (and the treatments that accompany it) for what seemed like forever. I thought about those of us left on this side of glory, and how we need to live our lives well, counting our blessings along the way. And then I got stuck. The words wouldn't come...but the tears certainly did.
By Wednesday morning, when I arrived at church for Bible Study, I was a mess. I looked good on the outside, but inside I was struggling. So, I walked into my pastor's office and, to make a long story short, I sat on his couch and wept as he ministered to me. He encouraged me to seek God's face not only for a word of comfort for my family, but for one that would strengthen me in the days ahead. He encouraged me to proclaim to love and comfort of God and my vision of the eschaton—last things—as outlined in the words of Scripture.
When I left his office, I felt free. Not only did I feel free, but I was free. The ideas and words were flowing. The Spirit was moving. My focus was shifted from "the days of our years..." to "Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations" (Psalm 90:1). As I meditated on what it means to understand God as our home, I made a journey over to the first six verses of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. And then the most amazing thing happened...the Lord brought to the forefront of my mind my fondest memory of my Uncle Melvin. It was the story I had rehearsed over and over in my mind. It was the story that I had told several times since Uncle Melvin's passing. It was the story that connected the text of the Bible to the text of Uncle Melvin's life.
By Thursday, I had an outline. On Friday I was confined to bed, so not much written sermonating was happening. By Saturday evening, the floodgates opened and the word was written. By far, this was the most exciting sermon to write (after the blockage was cleared, of course). Why? Well, because it gave me a chance to work through and articulate my understanding of what happened when we depart this life. It also gave me hope, looking forward to the day, when I will be at home in the presence of Almighty God.
Text: Psalm 90:1; John 14:1-6
Title: There's No Place Like Home
It is customary in these moments, when a clergyperson leads a funeral procession, to utter the words found in the first verse of the 90th Psalm which begin, “Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.”
Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Dwelling place. House. Home. Habitation. Residence. Refuge. Abode. A place of retreat. A place of rest. A place if safety. A place where you live. A place where you flourish. A place there you can be vulnerable. A place where you are comfortable. A place where you are at ease.
Luther may have understood that a house was not a home--a dwelling place--until the love of his life was there, but the Psalmist declared that God is our dwelling place.
God is our home. God is our place of rest and refuge. God is...
Beloved Family, I stopped by this morning to proclaim that in this hour of grief, in these moments of loss, that home is the place to be. I stopped by here this morning to proclaim that our true home is in the Presence of God. I stopped by to remind us all, myself included, there is comfort in God, who is our dwelling place.
And that got me to thinking...
Each of us in this room could tell stories about encounters that we had with Melvin. I could tell you a few. How he used to slip me cash whenever he saw me, until I was old enough to start making my own money. How he used to call me Big Bertha...whether I was chubby or slim.
But one of my fondest memories of Uncle Melvin imprinted in my mind is from Christmas of 1982. I was in the second grade, and like every second grade girl at the time, I was immersed in Barbie culture. That particular Christmas I begged for and received the Barbie Dream House.
And I can remember my father and Uncle Melvin, two grown men, trying to put this house together. Black coffee drinking, Uncle Melvin, putting together Barbie’s Dream House. Strong man, Uncle Melvin, putting together Barbie’s Dream House. Uncle Melvin? Barbie Dream House? You all know, there is nothing Melvin wouldn’t do for those he loved, even putting this big dollhouse together for his niece.
If you remember the Barbie Dream House, you will recall that it was a beautiful home. It was grand and had many, many rooms. Barbie was doing it! The version in the early eighties was a step-up from her humble abode in the sixties. In the sixties, Barbie had a cardboard, fold-up, one room, studio apartment. But for Christmas of 1982 she had moved up in the real estate world. This Dream House was multi-storied and even had an attic for storage. She had several bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and living room. Her house came fully equipped, though not fully assembled, with a pool and winding slide. But if I recall it honestly, the house didn’t have enough room for furniture AND Barbie, Ken and Alex. It was a big house, a beautiful house, with plenty of rooms and yet not enough room.
But I must tell you that Barbies Dream House pales in comparison to the house that God has prepared for His children. Hear these words of Jesus found in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John:
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
Jesus begins with, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Jesus was speaking of a pain and disappointment that happens on the interior landscape. He was speaking of the heartache that comes when death arrives, even when it arrives with warning. He wasn’t necessarily speaking about sadness per se, but rather he was instructing His disciples then, and us today, to stand strong in the face of death, because it may seem that death will have the final word, but Jesus ultimately will have the last word because He conquered death and rose from the grave with all power in heaven and on earth (NIB 740, Matthew 28:18).
In My Father’s House there are many mansions. In this home there are many mansions, many rooms! Another translation puts it this way, there are many dwelling places. In the ancient tradition, in Jesus’ time, to speak of a dwelling place, was to speak of a residence, a resting place, for the righteous. And this home isn’t a place—like the neighborhood that I live in now—where you can live right next door to someone and not know them. This home is a family dwelling. It is the place where God’s family dwells! Where you know and are in relationship with everyone in the house. It reminds me of the stories that are told about when our family had a home on South Second Avenue, here in Mount Vernon. Some of y’all lived there, others had been there, and some of y’all know the kind of place I’m talking about. One house with several units. Grandma upstairs with the twins and Muffin. Mildred and her children on one floor. Lois and hers on another. Open doors, open kitchens, open hearts. Always a bed available if somebody needed one. It seemed there was always plenty of room in this house. But, if we tell the truth, at some point, there could have been one too many folk up in the house.
Beloved, there is plenty of room in God’s house. There is plenty of room in the presence of God...all we have to do is receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior. There is plenty of room for all who believe in Him! Plenty good room!
And what I like about this home is that we do not have to buy the home. We don’t have to be mindful of the market. We don’t have to research the neighborhood, the school system, and such. We don’t have to take out a loan. We don’t have to renovate the house. We do not have to clean the house up. We do not have to prepare the place…decorate it and such. All we have to do is accept Jesus, and His love for us: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. And that everlasting life, beloved, is in the dwelling place that Jesus is preparing for us, even now. That is good news!