(I preached this sermon at St. Alban’s on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at the burial of Helen Fadal Murphy)
Part of the privilege and the blessing of being a priest, is to hold hands with the dying and to pray with them. With Helen, I only had this privilege once; yet it was a time that I will not soon forget. What sticks in my head so much is Helen’s smile. It was beautiful. And so simple. And so extraordinarily lovely and warm. As we held hands and prayed, I could see her reading my lips as I prayed for the blessings, joy, and peace that only come from God our Father. I offered thanks for Helen, God’s servant, and for her life, her love, and for her smile.
I’ve heard many stories about Helen in the past few days, and I’ve been struck by the struggles she endured in her life. Tragedy and sickness were not strangers to Helen; indeed for many years, they were her companions. The more and more I prayed and reflected on Helen’s life, the more lovely her smile grows in my mind. Despite the death of her son, despite her lack of hearing, despite her liver transplant – Helen gave smiles freely. She even gave me, a priest she hardly knew, a smile that made me feel right at home.
That wasn’t the first time Helen had ever smiled. I can envision Helen smiling on her wedding day, in this very church. I can envision Helen smiling at the birth of her sons. I can see Helen smiling at Little League games and at the number of neighborhood children that graced her life. I can see Helen gently smiling at the doctors and the nurses who worked with her for so many years.
I would like to think that Helen was smiling because she knew something we didn’t know; much as I envision Jesus smiling at Martha. In the midst of her pain and anguish at the loss of her brother, Martha approaches Jesus: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds with a promise, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha puts her trust in the Lord, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And then I see a smile grow. The corners of Jesus’ mouth pull up, his face softens, and there is a glint in his eyes, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
I see Helen smiling because she knows just how true these words are, because in so many ways, she experienced the resurrection in her life. She was given a new organ, part of her body was remade and renewed. Because of this great gift, she lived to see the birth of her two beautiful granddaughters. She took great delight in her family, and lived for many years in gratitude for the great gift of her life. Helen smiled because she knew and experienced just how wonderful the gift of resurrection truly is.
And Helen smiled because she knew that this wasn’t the end of the story. Sure, she had tasted resurrection, but that was just an appetizer. The fullness of God’s banquet was still before her. That smile, that smile that touched so many lives and spread so much love, was Helen’s way of saying, “this is not the end.” Hope ever lies before us. This is the hope of the resurrection, the hope of a renewed body, of being with our Lord, and with Helen, and with all the saints who have gone before. This is the hope that we, like the Lord Jesus, will have our very own Easter, when the stone of death is rolled away and the dawn of a new life breaks over the eastern sky. With such a blessed hope, Helen could not help but smile.