“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
[1 Thessalonians 4:13]
I have tried to avoid making these blog posts a summary of my week’s activities or a reprise of homilies I’ve preached. But yet it seems that, as much as I would like not to do that, I do it anyway. It’s my version of Paul’s words from Romans 7:16, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Therefore, allow this preamble to serve as an apology for what I am about to do – tell you about my week’s activities and repost a segment of a homily I preached this past week.
On Saturday, November 8, I received word that one of our pastors had died of a massive heart attack. The Rev. Arthur E. Cubbon had served St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Stow, Ohio, since 2008. His obituary can be found by clicking HERE.
I must confess that as bishop, I expected to do pastor’s funerals. But I believed those would be the funerals of retired pastors, those who had faithfully served in our parishes and lived well into their golden years, not one of an active, robust 60-year old. This one came out of the blue. Shock doesn’t begin to describe the emotional impact of such a calamity.
When tragedy strikes, I tend to be one of those people who asks very few questions. I simply begin doing what my vocation calls me to do. I checked in with his widow, the Rev. Leah Schafer, to make sure she was being cared for. I called the deceased pastor’s congregation council president to find out how I could help. It so happened that I had no scheduled parish visit for Sunday morning, so I asked if they would want me to be present for their worship services.
You may find it strange that I would ask permission to be with people in grief. But, as I’ve been counseled, bishops should not take it for granted that we have blanket permission to impose ourselves into the middle of a congregation’s affairs. Yes, this situation was an exception because of its catastrophic circumstances. But I asked anyway, and my request was enthusiastically accepted.
So in essence I preached two funeral sermons – one on Sunday to comfort the congregation in its mourning, and the other on Tuesday as we celebrated the life of this faithful servant. To say that both were difficult is a classic understatement.
I have been with many grieving families over the course of my time in ministry, but never with an entire congregation. This was a first. I prayed for the right words. Based on the reactions of parishioners, my prayers were answered.
But my most challenging moment came as I distributed communion and looked into many a tear-stained face. I had to summon all the self-control in my being to keep myself from crying right alongside them.
Tuesday was no easier. What buoyed me on that day, however, was the presence of nearly four dozen clergy, many of whom vested and processed into the sanctuary ahead of the casket that contained the corpse of their now-absent colleague. They were not just Lutheran, but clergy of several other denominations with which Art had collaborated in mission and ministry during his time at St. Stephen’s. It was an overwhelming demonstration of solidarity and fraternity of the vocation we share, and a powerful witness to the faith which we proclaim. It was the comfort and support I needed at this particular time.
As we approach the end of the calendar year the lectionary readings for our liturgies tend to focus on the end times. Several of them lend themselves to funerals. As I read the texts for Sunday, the 9th, I concentrated on the epistle from 1 Thessalonians and the opening verse: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [1 Thess. 4:13]
And I preached to the congregation:
We do grieve this morning. It is a natural reaction when one loses someone dear to them. We grieve because of all that Pastor Cubbon meant to us – to this church, each individual member as well as the corporate community; to this synod, and to the community of Stow. And we linger in that grief, but we don’t wallow in it. We don’t grieve as those who have no hope. You see, death for the Christian is entirely different from that of the unbeliever because we share in Christ’s victory over death.
My homily also included the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading from Matthew: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” [Matt. 25:13]
Those words took on a whole different meaning for us last Sunday morning.
There are many people who were far more qualified to preach the funeral homily on Tuesday morning. Those who knew Art far better than I did. Those who had more stories to tell than I did. But in God’s sense of order, the responsibility fell to me. I can only hope that throughout the four days, from the time of his death to the day of his funeral, I did justice to Art Cubbon’s memory. And far more importantly, I pray that God was glorified.