Isaiah 61. 1-5, John 14. 1-6
Chris Burch’s funeral
Monday 21 November 2016 at Leicester Cathedral
May I say, firstly, what an honour it is to be preaching today as we say Farewell to our husband, Father, brother, friend, Chris? So, thank you to Roz for asking me. Chris and Roz came to my first retirement ‘do’ in Malmesbury Abbey, where Chris read one of the lessons. This was about 40 years since Chris, Roz, Ann and I had met. And it is forty years ago that Roz in particular came into our lives. My I tell you a short Holt/Burch family story as I begin? Chris, as I recall, was helping Roz, who was holding a 1974 New Year’s Eve party. She asked me if I would be back from my parents’ home in Ireland in time for the party? I said I didn’t know. But Roz knew, being a young prophetess at the time. Well, do get back, she said, Ann Jones will be there. And then to Ann: will you be back in time from your parents in Nottinghamshire for the party? I don’t quite know yet, was Ann’s reply. And you can guess Roz’s response! Oh, do get back. Douglas Holt will be there! What we didn’t quite know yet, she knew. Obviously, a career in matchmaking beckoned, but then she went and got married and then got diverted into social work!! A certain person told me I had to tell the story. Please see me afterwards if you reckon you have identified that person.
Now, Roz has chosen two Biblical passages for us to hear and ponder at this service, and I hope you will come with me for a few moments as we consider them, and in this setting today.
The first six verses of John’s gospel, ch.14, are well known and much loved. These verses are often read at funerals, and they are well chosen for today. Picture Jesus with his disciples, near the end of the public ministry of the young Jewish Rabbi, known and loved by many for his wisdom, his gentleness, his determination. People were beginning to wonder if he might, after all, actually be the Messiah. From Jesus’ point of view, he was still trying to help his followers to understand that for him there would be much suffering and a painful death, and not an armed insurrection against the Roman occupying army.
Jesus comforts the disciples and reassures them that his father’s house is huge, with many, many rooms. And He, Jesus, is going there soon to prepare places for them. The implication of the vastness of the father’s house is that it is open to all. The implication of Jesus’ preparations is that He loves his disciples. The text tells us that they need not worry. And no more need we worry. Despite all that troubles us, within and around us, there yet remains a place for us, provided by the God and Father of us all. Trust in God, says Jesus to us as well as to the disciples, and trust also in me.
That invitation rings out across the years, the centuries, and means the same, in whichever specific history it is heard. To Roz and to Martin and Bex, to all the family, and to us all, the comfort of Jesus’ words calls out: Do not let your hearts be troubled.
And then there are other words of comfort for us in Isaiah, ch. 61. The setting here is the Jewish nation’s leaders and many of her people in exile in Babylon. The centre of attention, therefore, is not the dying of one person—Jesus 2000 years ago, or Chris two weeks ago. And in a profound way, it strikes as just the sort of thing Chris would want. Don’t concentrate on me, he might be saying to us. For a moment, hear the word of the Lord through an Old Testament prophet, writing maybe 600 years before the time even of Christ, maybe even before that.
Hear this word of the Lord, written in a setting of incredible suffering and pain, and since then offered again to any in a similar situation. I can hear Chris saying something like: This is what God is really like, when we cut through all our problems, the difficulties of this world, and the evil that exists within it, come back to this word and hear it again.
The broken-hearted will be cared for, the captives will be set free; into the darkness light will come for possibly prisoners or possibly the blind. For those who mourn, there is comfort, for those who grieve there will be adequate provision. In exchange for the ashes of a life hurt and broken by experience, there will be a crown, a beautiful transformation beyond all imagining. Gladness, joy, delight will replace the burden of mourning. No more despair, but a heart filled with praise to God. What has been blown about in the wind will become firmly established. Ruins will be replaced, cities, devastated by violence and fighting will be re-built. Immigrants will come and work where they can find jobs.
I know, as you do, that the prophet two and a half thousand years ago knew nothing of Aleppo, but we know, and we are hearing the word of the Lord. As did Chris, who, coming from a privileged background, turned his mind, heart and strength towards the poor, the marginalised, the hungry, the outcast, the immigrant, the socially isolated, the despised, the broken-hearted, the despairing, the last and the lost, and, if I may say it in these words, loved them as Jesus had done. For Jesus too had heard this word of the Lord and quoted a good deal of it when he spoke to his followers early on in his public ministry. And Chris followed that example.
The last thing he’d want would be to inhibit our grief, and our expression of profound sadness at his death. He, like Shakespeare in Macbeth, would be saying:
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart
And bids it break.
But alongside our own grief, Chris would be pointing us still to the needs of others too, not to pretend that we are not shocked and hugely reduced by his passing, but simply not to forget the others. For there is a bigger story yet to tell, beyond my, our, even Roz’s story. It embraces all of us, all who knew Chris, all others in similar circumstances, all in any form of trouble, all in the whole world, who may now, hearing these words of the Lord, turn to him in trust and love. Here is the story of the universe writ small. Here is Chris’s story writ large.
For you know where I am going, Jesus said. Thomas, the believer, said we did not know the way. And Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. God, grant us your grace to come to you living the way, the truth and the life that Jesus lived. Amen.