Summary: A funeral sermon for a 79 year old man who had been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease for the last 18 years of his life, but never wavered from his faith. Perhaps my best sermon yet.
“Pastor, I wish you could have known Virgil in his younger years, before Parkinson’s took its toll on him.” I’ve heard that said quite a bit by both Virgil’s family members and friends since I came to Audubon last fall. From the things I’ve heard from his family and others in the community, I find myself standing here and in agreement with that statement, and yes, even a bit envious of those of you who’ve known him most of your lives. Yet, as I shared with Gladys, Mark, Cindy, and Rod at the funeral home this past Tuesday afternoon, I considered it a blessing and a joy to have been Virgil’s pastor in the final months of his life and to have had the chance to get to know him a little bit. For those of you who have known him a lot longer, you have some very special memories of Virgil. Gladys I’m sure has many precious memories of nearly 55 years of marriage that she will continue to treasure, Mark, Cindy, and Rod will have delightful memories of their father, his grandchildren have grand memories of their grandfather, and for his family and friends who knew him from all of his activities, you each have special, unique memories of Virgil. In the days that follow someone’s death, those who are left behind to mourn often share those memories with each other. Perhaps you’ve already done that in the last few days, and I encourage you to share those with each other and with Virgil’s family during the funeral lunch after the burial service at the cemetery, and also in the days and weeks to come. This morning, though, my task is to share with you the reason that being Virgil’s pastor was such a joy and honor for me, because I’m going to share with you the most important thing in Virgil’s life.
When Gladys called me Tuesday morning and told me that Virgil had passed away the previous evening, I had in my mind the words of our Epistle reading, remembering that on Saturday afternoon, when I had last visited him, he had shared with me that he was ready to get his running legs back. These two verses talk about the Christian faith and life in this world as running a race. Those of you who knew Virgil knew he was a good athlete, loved sports, and was quite a runner in his younger years. So when you think about Virgil’s love of running, and these verses from Hebrews 12, you just have to know there’s going to be a great connection there. So, let’s run with it if you will, and find out what this race was all about, in particular, in the context of Virgil’s life.
Our text for this morning in Hebrews 12 gives us the image of an athletic contest. Since it talks about a foot race, it’s easy to picture a track meet. Virgil, being a runner, had participated in his share of races over his life. At this track meet, we’re told we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, which are those who have gone before us in the faith, proclaiming the great deeds of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, or in the case of the Old Testament saints listed in Hebrews 11 just prior to this text, those who put their faith and trust in the promise of the savior to come.. The image of this race tells us that the Christian faith isn’t just a short sprint, started and over with in just a matter of a few seconds, but an endurance race, which lasts for a considerable distance and time. At the time the letter to the Hebrews was written, there was a LOT of persecution going on with the Hebrew Christians, and many of them were being tempted to drop out, because they didn’t think the suffering was worth running the race any longer. In a similar way, seeing the suffering that Virgil had to endure over the last several years as Parkinson’s robbed him of many of his physical ability and left him in a great deal of pain, it would have been very easy if Virgil had looked up to God, and said “this isn’t the kind of life in my golden years that I had in mind when I was younger, so if this is what happens because I ran this race, count me out.” Yet, Virgil didn’t see his race as a sprint, he saw it as a marathon, with a great prize at the end. Even if it meant having to jump hurdles along the way, or encounter detours or hardships in finishing the race. And just as a distance runner places their focus not on their pain, but on their goal, the finish line, Virgil kept his eyes focused on the author and perfector of his faith, Jesus Christ, who was the beginning and end of that faith.