Today I had the honor and responsibility to lead a very informal service for my family in remembrance of my sister, Sharon. I’m not an ordained…anything, really, but it was a family-only thing at one of her favorite places, Whitey’s Fish Camp, and I was as qualified to lead a service as Whitey’s was to be a church.* Thanks to a good friend who actually is a priest, I was able to draw on an order of service, readings, and prayers appropriate to the occasion.
But there’s a slot for a homily. I reflected a lot about what I learned about sin and God’s love from my sister and my family and thought I should share some of it here:
One of the old jokes I learned in seminary was about a new pastor who had finished his first sermon at his first church. He was standing in the back, being complimented by the congregation as they filed out, when an old guy grabbed his hand, pulled him aside, and said, “Son, a sermon should be about three things. It should be about sin. It should be about God’s love. And it should be about half as long as what you just did.”
Obviously, I don’t need to tell a joke to warm up a crowd that is family. But that joke kept coming to mind, because as I reflected on Sharon’s life, I realized that watching her from my vantage point really shaped my theology, my understanding of sin, my understanding of God’s love. I’ll shoot to keep this half as long as a sermon.
Because of where I fell in the family, I never really knew Sharon before addiction knew her, and I was home for some of the hardest years of her life, when she was on her own and out of control. Of course, I’m also blessed to have known her after that, and her marriage, which is my easy mental tent peg for when she turned her life around, is only about a year or two separated from April’s and my marriage.
We get sin and addiction backwards in our culture. We think of addiction as being about doing a lot of sinning, a lot of bad stuff that makes God mad. I don’t think that’s right. Watching how Sharon struggled with addiction, I realized addiction, rightly understood, is the best way I can understand sin.
Sin, like addiction, is the fierce upstream current we have to fight against in order to move toward the light and be the best person we can be; in Romans 7:19, Paul talks about how “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do,” and that’s the force of addiction as surely as it’s the force of sin. Fighting that current takes a ton of courage, and let’s not fool ourselves, we all face addictions. For some of us, they are invisible or socially acceptable, like judgmentalism or anxiety or achievement. For some of us, they are relatively benign, like caffeine or smartphones. For some of us, they are visibly destructive and bring the added current of physical chemical dependency, and they can create a sense of shame that tricks us into staying away from the very love that is the only thing that can help us. To push against that takes a courage we should all admire. That’s what I saw in Sharon. That’s what I understand about sin.
We get God’s love wrong, too. A lot of people seem to think of God’s love as something you have to earn, like he’s an accountant that audits your moral books before paying out blessings. There are legalists who think that way even today, just as there were Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Those legalists complain that a lot of other people today think of God as just an easy grader; he’s still a judge, in their estimate; but he’s willing to let things slide if you show good effort. Those are both wrong; that’s not the love I know.
I saw what God’s love looks like when I was living at home and mom and dad were dealing with Sharon’s wild days. I saw their pain. I saw how many things they tried in order to get Sharon back on track. I saw how much it hurt to realize that the nature of human agency is such that you couldn’t make somebody want something, even if it was making your own child come back to who they really were. And I saw that, even when they tried “tough love,” the “tough” never, ever drowned out the “love.”
That’s the love of God that I know. The love of a parent who wants to return a child back to who they really are and are willing to do anything it takes to make it happen. I learned that from watching Mom and Dad with Sharon. I know families who finally gave up, who cut their lost child or sibling out of the mix. But even when Sharon wasn’t around, she always really was, and we were as happy to welcome her back to herself as the prodigal father welcoming back his prodigal son. And we are blessed — so blessed — that she brought David with her. This is a family full of marriages you can look up to, and Sharon and David’s definitely is among them.
One more thing I learned about life from Sharon is resilience. There were some false starts, some rehabs that didn’t take, and my assumption was that in staring down alcohol it would be all or nothing, that if she ever fell off the wagon it would be to roll all the way back to the bottom of the valley, probably never to get back up.
Sharon had some down times; I think as much as she loved the holidays, they were particularly tough. But those times when she got tripped up, she kept getting back up and shaking it off, and that was a wonder to see. That taught me what resilience was.
I can’t say for sure what happens after death. Christianity proclaims a Resurrection at the end of time, but we also talk about heaven right now. Either way, I believe that death completes the returning of ourselves to wholeness, peace and love by returning us to our source.
I picked the Gospel that I did, the one about the “Good Thief” who asks Jesus, while they’re both being crucified, to remember him. And what Jesus says is “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today. With me. Paradise.**
I don’t think Sharon had too far to go. Wholeness? She picked up the pieces of the brokenness we all share, and she made it into a whole. Peace? She may not have been perfectly peaceful, but she set aside the restlessness of her younger days. Love? As I said before, she was always the most loving member of the clan.
Last Sunday, our pastor talked about how we can only really love when we know we have been loved, and I know Sharon felt that. That is, if anything can be, the silver lining of the awful timing of her passing. On her last day, she got to soak in the reality that she was SO loved that her sister would give up her kidney for her. May we all feel that much love on our last day.
*Side note: Should you ever go to Whitey’s, do check out the hand-carved tribute to the late Jimmy Van Zant. It’s not exactly a saint’s icon, but it’s the culturally appropriate equivalent.
**That part I pretty much stole from Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. In appreciation, I encourage you to buy not only that book but his coming-soon Barking at the Choir.