By Zac Koons
This essay first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Living Church.
When I stepped into the pulpit, I noticed a young boy in the first row sitting with his mother. He was maybe 7, and he had Down syndrome. On any other day, this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. But at this particular funeral, it sent a lightning bolt of fear through my spine, because the only three things I knew about Warren, the man we were gathered to bury, was that he was 74, he loved cars, and he too had a developmental disability.
I suspect all preachers are familiar with the moment when, like wine exposed to the air, you realize your written words have taken on a different chemical makeup now that they are exposed to the bodies in the pews. It’s the moment that you realize your throwaway anecdote is actually named Ron and he’s sitting on the aisle in the third row to the right, or while saying “I wonder if you’ve ever felt betrayed” that your eyes meet the tears of the divorcée who apparently has decided to return to church for the first time in six months. My suspicion is that these moments bring fear to the preacher because they are the moments when we realize that we are about to learn, in real time, whether we are telling the truth.
I could tell the poignancy of this boy’s presence was not lost on the few who were gathered for this occasion. While I stepped into the pulpit, the boy’s mother retrieved him from playing in the aisle, kindly trying to persuade him to stay still. And it felt to me like the whole room shared in my moment of terrifying realization: this sermon — and really, this funeral as a whole — would now not only be about Warren’s past. It was also going to be about this young boy’s future.
Would the preacher ignore Warren’s disability and thereby imitate how so many in the world have chosen and will continue to treat this boy? Or would he over-sentimentalize Warren’s life, ignore the very concrete sacrifices required to care for someone with disabilities, and thereby make good news ring hollow? In short, would Warren’s disability, and by extension this boy’s presence, be treated as gift or an unwanted distraction in this assembly? Would we get to the other side of this liturgy and feel like resurrection hope included this young boy?
First, Lazarus became involved. It was — providentially — the chosen Gospel text. Jean Vanier, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, makes the intriguing suggestion that Lazarus had a developmental disability. Vanier offers several pieces of evidence for his claim: he points out how two adult sisters living with their adult brother made for an unconventionally shaped household, economically speaking, in the ancient world. This would imply not only that Lazarus was single, but also that both his sisters had forgone the financial security of marriage. Was it to care for their brother, perhaps? For what other reason would this text, written in an overtly patriarchal culture, refer to their house in Bethany as the “home of Martha” rather than the home of Lazarus? And most compelling of all, Vanier asks: What better explanation could there possibly be for the fact that Lazarus, even after being raised from the dead, never, according to St. John, spoke a single word?
After covering this ground, I preached what I imagined anyone would: I wondered if Warren’s family had seen evidence that Jesus had a special affection for Warren as he had for Lazarus. I wondered if there were times when they called on Jesus to help Warren and were mystified by his delay. I wondered in what ways taking on the burden of caring for someone with disabilities led their family to meeting God in unexpected ways. I assured them, whether they identified more with Mary or Martha, that just as Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, he weeps with us today. As Jesus called Lazarus forth from the grave, he will raise Warren to new life in his heavenly kingdom.
The sermon was fine. I think it was meaningful to the family to hear someone name ways in which those with disabilities can be gifts rather than only burdens. But the real magic was still to come.
In the graveyard, Warren’s body was lowered and we prayed the committal: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I ended the service by encouraging those gathered to linger — perhaps for a personal goodbye before the graveside and, if they wished, to participate in the old Christian tradition of casting earth on the coffin.
I stepped off to the side while siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews all took their turn before Warren’s body, each contributing their handful of earth. Eventually, after a brief pause in the action, the 7-year-old boy approached the grave. It turned out he was Warren’s grand-nephew, and he wanted to participate. His mom showed him to take some dirt from the giant pile beside them and to place it in the grave. He did exactly as instructed.
Then the boy kind of froze there before the grave, beside the giant pile of dirt. He stood as Jesus before the grave of Lazarus, in cosmic confrontation between life and death. We froze too, in rapt attention. Would he cry? Would he fall in? Does someone need to intercede? I half expected him to say, “Warren, come out!” I braced for a resurrection.
Eventually the boy decided to take a second handful of dirt and toss it on the coffin. Then he took another. Then another. And another. And all of a sudden, I realized what was happening: He was playing. The boy sat down and mashed his hands into the earthen mound, swiping and gathering in the motions of sand castle creation. His church clothes were ruined, but his mother — in a moment of Marian inspiration — let him keep playing. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Jesus wept, this little boy played, but the result was the same: the death of a loved one had been transformed into an occasion of resurrection hope.
One thought I haven’t been able to shake: Had another 7-year-old done this, would we — would I — have felt the same response? Would it have been just as beautiful? Would we have let it happen in the first place? Is it not more likely that we would have gasped at this child’s “indecent” behavior, dismayed by the parents’ lack of discipline and courtesy?
Was it precisely this boy’s disability that allowed us to glimpse a moment of resurrection? That is part of it. But it also required the patience and wisdom of a mother and an entire extended family, all of whom could have easily cut the moment short.
How does a family obtain such virtue? The same way you obtain any virtue: practice. On this particular day we were celebrating 74 years of this family’s love and care for a brother, a cousin, and an uncle; 74 years of learning, witnessing, and discovering the ways in which those with disabilities are gifts to our common life more than they are burdens. Warren, buried in the ground, was the seed that sprung up before our eyes that day in resurrection bloom.
In the beginning we had wondered whether this liturgy of resurrection hope might include those with developmental disabilities. But we had it the wrong way around. Warren and this boy were the better preachers that day, and neither spoke a single word.