Monday, January 16, 2012

Christian Funeral for Michele Ann Bonk


Matthew 5:1-12; Revelation 7:9-17; Lamentations 3:22-33

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Peter and Paulette, family and friends of our departed sister in Christ, Michele, dearly beloved of our Lord and God – I know the unspoken question pressing against the backs of your teeth, screaming to be shouted to the heavens. I know the bowel-churning question that wells up in your throats and escapes as an empty, dry-heave of wordless emotion. I know the question that threatens to isolate you and imprison you and devour you from the inside out. I know that question, for I have swallowed it, I have eaten it, I have vomited it, and I have internally screamed that question too. That question is, “Why?”

Why do people suffer? Why do the wicked so often seem to prosper while the good and the innocent suffer and die? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are all really the same question, and we’ve all asked them from time to time. But, today, gathered here as we are to remember Michele, and to console each other, and to receive consolation from the Words and the Gifts of our Lord and God, I know that we’re all asking the same question. “Why? Oh my God, why?” Why must a healthy, vibrant, kind and loving young woman be stricken with such a rare, horrible, and utterly debilitating disease? Why must a faithful Christian girl, smart and beautiful, with so much promise and a full and rich life ahead of her gradually disintegrate before our very eyes? Why was she spared death so many times over a decade only to be taken from us in the end, smashing our hopes and making us ask these unanswerable questions? I know that you have asked these questions, and I know that you are asking them now. I know that I have asked these questions too. And, our God knows that we have asked, and He knows that we are asking, “Why?”

Well, there actually are answers to your questions, but, situated as we are somewhere in the middle between the beginning of all things and the end, the answers are often not very satisfying to human reason and wisdom. For instance, we must remember that suffering is the result of our sin, which in turn is the result of evil in this world, evil injected into this world like a poison by Satan. That is to say, God doesn’t cause suffering, sin does, men who sin do. But, please understand, however, that I am not suggesting that it was Michele’s sin that caused her to become ill, for it was no more Michele’s sin than it was my sin, or your sin, or our First Parent’s sin, but it is simply sin that is the cause of suffering and death, sin that we each are conceived and born in and with, sin that we all share in common. As St. Paul has written, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “there is not one righteous, not even one.” Thus, the answer to the question “Why suffering?” is not that “God causes suffering,” for, suffering is only and always the result of sin.

However, there is another answer to your questions that may be even harder to understand from our human perspective, and that is that, while God is not the source and efficient cause of suffering, nevertheless, He does willingly and actively permit and allow suffering to befall us. Now, to exhibit this truth, we need only to consider the afflictions and suffering God permitted Satan to bring upon righteous Job. When Satan challenged God by saying that Job only loved Him because He had so richly blessed him, God permitted Satan to take Job’s wealth, to kill his children, and to afflict Job’s own body with horrendous and torturous suffering that His righteousness might be proven true. Indeed, when all of Job’s friends and even his own wife exhorted him to curse God and die, Job’s response was simply, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Eventually, Job’s sufferings became so great that he began to ask the same question that you are asking. The answer that the LORD provided Job can be summed up in this way, “When you’re God, then you can demand an answer.”

Yes, God willingly permits and allows suffering to befall us, but He has never permitted anything that He was not willing to suffer for us and to sanctify through the sufferings and death of His only-begotten Son, Jesus. The Prophet Isaiah says of the LORD’s Suffering Servant, “It was the will of the LORD to crush Him; He has put Him to grief.” Likewise, St. Paul writes of the suffering God permitted to come upon Jesus saying, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” I think that we tend to make much too lightly of the suffering and anguish that Jesus experienced in Gethsemane the night He was betrayed, for there He prayed like no man has ever prayed that His Father would provide another way and remove the burden of suffering from Him. But though He prayed so fervently, in horrible anguish of body and soul, three times petitioning His Father, He ended each time of prayer saying, “LORD, not my will, but your will be done.”

It was the LORD’s will to crush Him. God willingly sent His Son to the cross to suffer and to die for the sins of the entire world. Jesus prayed fervently, He prayed like no man has ever prayed before, that God would remove the cup of suffering from Him. But, in faith and trust in the goodness and love and wisdom of God, Jesus submitted His own will to that of His Father. And, I ask you, what did Jesus cry out in anguish and agony and suffering on the cross as He died? “Why?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Quoting Psalm 22, Jesus identified Himself with every person who has ever been devastated by untimely loss. No one was ever more innocent, yet no one ever suffered more severely both the attacks of Satan and the divine justice of God. The greatest miscarriage of justice was also its highest expression, for in the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Christ, we are forgiven and invited to become citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

Simply knowing that God knows best and that all things work out for good doesn’t take away our pain. But the pain Jesus felt sanctifies and gives purpose to our suffering. Believing in the resurrection doesn’t immediately call the dead to life, but it guarantees that the dead in Christ will rise. The Christian still asks, “Why pain, suffering, and death?” God still answers, “Because I love you and desire to make My strength perfect in your weakness.” He weakens our own strength through tragedy that He might strengthen us for life everlasting.

Death is a reality we all must face, for it is the wages of the sin that we all bear and continue to commit. But it was the LORD’s will to crush Jesus in death, and Jesus willingly submitted to that suffering and death in perfect fear, love, and trust in God His Father and in perfect, selfless, sacrificial love for you His neighbor and brother. Your God desires that you place your fear, love, and trust in Him too, and so, He permits you to suffer and to be weakened that He might be your strength, for His strength is made perfect in weakness, and when you are weak, then you are strong with the grace, mercy, love, peace, and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ.

Think about it, is that not what Jesus is calling you to in the Beatitudes? Is He not calling you to suffer with Him in poverty of spirit, in mourning, in meekness, and in hunger and thirst? Is He not calling you to suffer with Him by being merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful even while men persecute you, revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you because of Him? Is He not calling you to share in the sufferings that He has sanctified by His own innocent blood shed for you to purchase you from sin and death? The Beatitudes are not a checklist of things you must do to be obedient to Christ, but they are the very description of Christ Himself. Likewise, they are the description of those who are in Christ, His disciples, who share in His sacrificial sufferings for others even as He has suffered for them and has sanctified their sufferings.

Why did Michele have to suffer and die? I can’t answer that question. In fact, I’m asking that question right along with you. But, I can tell you that God permitted it to happen for a reason that may only ever be known to Him. And, as horrible as it was and is, God has promised to work it for good. And, though it may be hard to accept, I believe He already has. As Michele’s lifeless body laid in the Emergency Room, there was a steady stream of nurses who came with hugs and tears in their eyes to share their sorrow and grief and condolences with Peter and Paulette. I’ve never seen anything like it before. These strangers who, in their profession, see hundreds and hundreds of patients, many of whom suffer and die, were somehow touched by Michele and by Peter and Paulette. They felt a connection to them, one that I wholeheartedly believe comes from the witness God made of them as they loved Michele and cared for her and ministered to her over these past ten years. Those nurses could see that love, that sacrifice, that suffering that Peter and Paulette showered upon Michele, and it was unique and special. They could see that love and it was a testimony to their faith and to their God. Even though God had allowed them to be reduced to terrible weakness and suffering, in their weakness He filled them with His strength. And, it wasn’t just the day Michele died, but it was over the entire ten year course of her affliction. How many people, how many lives were impacted by the powerful example of faith, love, trust, and sacrifice exhibited by Peter and Paulette and the rest of the family as they attended to Michele? God only knows.

But, that’s what it means to baptized into Jesus Christ, “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” We are called to die to ourselves and to live to God in Christ Jesus. Jesus teaches that, to be His disciples, you must take up your cross and follow Him through death and into life. Peter, Paulette, dear family and friends of our sister in Christ Michele, I know what you’ve been waiting for, what you’ve been hoping for – you’ve been waiting and hoping and praying for a miracle, for Michele to get better. I’m sorry that she didn’t get better and that her long, degenerative disease finally took her from you. But, I want you to know that God keeps His promises. He has heard your prayers. He has seen your suffering and your love. And, He has kept His promise to His precious, dear child Michele. For, He has taken her out of this great tribulation and she is before His throne this very moment. He who sits on the throne will shelter her with His presence. She shall hunger no more, and thirst no more. The sun shall not strike her, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne is her Shepherd, and He has guided her to springs of living water, and God Himself has wiped away every tear from her eyes. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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