With Thanksgiving for the Life of Earl John Schoff
December 16, 1943 + December 28, 2017
Matthew 2:1-11, Psalm 23
My two tasks in this sermon are, first, to remind us the good news of God with us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and that his life, death, and resurrection are connected to and blessing for John’s own birth, life, death, and what is still to come.
My second task is to keep it short. Because in a worship service John always had the timer running, pointing to his watch, and so it wouldn’t be right if I failed to honor that sense of him now at his service.
So before the clock ticks too much, I’ll jump straight in with my first task. It probably seems like an unusual Gospel reading to hear about the wise men and baby Jesus at this funeral service, so I’ll explain why it seemed fitting to me. See, today is January 6, the 13th day after Christmas. You may be more familiar with the 12 days of Christmas. That’s because the season stops on day 13 with a new festival called Epiphany. And Epiphany is marking the visit of the wise men and how Jesus is made known in a shining star and adored by these gift-bearing visitors.
I suppose I have to admit I’m kind of a church nerd and since this used to be one of the biggest celebrations of the year, outshining even Christmas, but since it passes with almost no attention these days, well, you might think I’m just inflicting this on you since you happened to show up today for a church service here at the funeral home.
But it’s not that I’ve got a captive audience. No. With this coincidence of the calendar, I was thinking that this story applied well for John, that those gifts that the magi brought, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit with his life and his relationship with God.
So an easy place to start is with frankincense. It’s often understood that the wise men brought it as a religious symbol, representing the holiness of this baby Jesus and how he would be a priest on our behalf. The frankincense was marking the sacrifices of the temple and prayerful devotion. “Let my prayer rise as incense,” it says in a Psalm. Such religious devotion was apparent in John. Always identifying with his family’s Catholic background, I recall him sitting in the back row of the congregation during the Lutheran church service, quietly praying the rosary (which Lutherans don’t normally do!). Like a wise man bringing a gift of frankincense, John showed holy devotion to God.
That brings me to the second gift: gold. This one we don’t need to think of as a metaphor for something else; we can take it as plain old gold or wealth that the wise men brought as a gift in adoration of Jesus.
Since we’re keeping track of John’s timer for the service, I can tell you that as he pointed to his watch, telling me even before the service got started that I should be quick to wrap it up, sometimes John’s timekeeping came with an observation something like, “Those slots won’t play themselves.” If you’d say that in addition to his devotion to participating prayerfully at church that he was a dedicated participant in the casino, it also came back around and the two meshed together because he’d also report back that he was going to be adding to the offering plate as it went by because he’d had a good day of winning. John didn’t value wealth only for its own sake but understood its place amid his commitment to God, as a response to God’s blessing and goodness for him.
That brings us, finally, to myrrh. Of the gifts that the wise men brought, this one may be the strangest. If you don’t really know what myrrh was, you’re in a pretty good place to understand it, here at the funeral home. Myrrh was used as an embalming oil, an aromatic ointment to anoint the dead. Within the story, from his birth it is a marker that Jesus would go on to face death, and that he would suffer for our sake, but that not even that could separate us from the love of God.
For John, it marks in another way the finger pointing at the watch, that our days are numbered and eventually our time is up. We in some ways can cherish that with him because he survived through some pretty desperate medical moments in the decade I most knew him. But we are also confronted with it now because his life was over too quickly and suddenly.
And yet, with that reminder of myrrh, we remember that even in death, as much as that has temporarily severed our relationship with John and we consider it a terrible loss, it has not cut him off from God and, therefore, not finally separated us from being reunited with him. John is bound to the death of Jesus, and also to his resurrection. The anointing of myrrh, the embalming of death, is not the end. In baptism, where John was anointed as a baby with the chrism oils by the priest, in that was a gift from God to him. We repeated something of that long ago baptismal promise as we voiced together our Psalm: You anoint my head with oil, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
That’s about the shortest sermon I’ve managed to give, and with that, I’d better stop, because otherwise somebody will tap their watch. But remember, the best is yet to come.