Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Aida Suarez

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 25, 2009

The Funeral of Aida Suarez
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 23
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9
John 14:1-6a

The Language of Love

One of my favorite parts of my job is teaching the youth confirmation class. I’m a little surprised I like it as much as I do, because, I wouldn’t have expected a class full of teenagers that meets on Sunday nights to be fun for them or for me.

Part of the fun, at least in the two years I’ve done it, comes from the fact that the kids are all over the place when it comes to their faith. Some have been involved in the church their whole lives, rarely missing a Sunday. And there are others I’ve never seen before and who, for all I know, haven’t been in church since their baptism.

Wherever they are in their faith, I try to make the class a place where, maybe for the first time, they can have an adult conversation about Christianity.

We cover a lot of ground in the class, including a couple of sessions on the Bible.

As a little exercise I hand out different English translations of the same Bible passage. We read them aloud, noting the many differences, both large and small, among the different translations.

As you might guess, discovering all of these different translations in the same language freaks these kids out. These are all in English yet they’re so different. Since they are good American schoolchildren they want to know the right answer. They’ll ask, well, which one is the right translation?

The truth is, I tell them, that I have my preferences, but I’m sure each translator could make the case for how he or she translated these verses from the First Century marketplace Greek of the New Testament.

The important thing is not to get caught up in particular translations or individual vocabulary, but instead to focus on the meaning, the essence of each particular passage.

In the passage from the Gospel of John that I just read we find Jesus with his closest friends at the meal that came to be known as the Last Supper. Jesus has already gotten down on his knees and washed the feet of his friends. Jesus has told them if they want to be his followers they must do the same – if they want to be great they must offer loving, menial service.

And now Jesus has told his friends that he will be with them just a short while longer. Jesus tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Finally, as the end draws near, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place where they will once again be together.

All of this happened nearly 2000 years ago in a place far away from Cuba, Jersey City or Brick Township. Most scholars believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic and we know that the Gospel of John was first written in Greek.

And, yes, there are many different translations of this passage.

But what is the essence of this passage? The essence is that Jesus is running out of time and so he’s trying to get his message through to his friends. The essence is Jesus telling them – and telling us - to love by serving. The essence is Jesus telling them – and telling us - not to worry, it may seem like everything is lost, but in fact love is more powerful than death.

Jesus may have spoken Aramaic, the gospel was written in Greek, but what we are hearing is the language of love.

Over the course of her long life, Aida Suarez knew all about the challenges of translation. Since I’ve never lived more than 30 miles from where I was born, it’s hard to imagine the journey that was Aida’s life.

Imagine being the mother of young children in Cuba whose husband went ahead of her to America to lay the foundation for a better life in a new land. Then imagine coming to this strange new land, coming to Jersey City, unable to speak the language and yet faced with the challenge of raising a growing family so far from all that was familiar, all that was known.

Aida knew all about the challenges of translation.

But Aida was able to overcome and transcend the challenges of translation because she spoke the language of love.

Many times my wife Sue has spoken of her memories of her mother day after day working double-shifts at Colgate, then coming home exhausted and falling asleep sitting in her chair. Then getting up and doing it all over again the next day. Aida did this not because she enjoyed the work, but out of loving service for her family, out of her sense of duty to do all she could for her family.

Aida overcame and transcended the challenges of translation because Aida spoke the language of love.

I only met Aida and Rey when they were older and living down the Shore. Since my Spanish was limited to the signs I saw on PATH trains, “La via del tren es peligrosa” and “No fume” it wasn’t so easy for us to communicate, but since both Aida and Rey spoke the language of love they welcomed me into the family with warmth, laughter and pleasure when I polished off plate after plate of delicious food – and I still miss those great meals topped off with strong coffee and delicious flan.

Seeing Aida and Rey speak the language of love together was a delight and an inspiration for all of us who are married. Of course they sometimes exasperated each other, but sitting at their dining room table it was obvious they still adored each other even after so many years and such a long journey together.

And, if there were ever any doubt, Rey proved he also spoke the language of love by taking care of Aida on his own as Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind – taking care of her until just a couple of days before his death.

Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Aida’s last years were difficult. We are all well aware that Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and it did its worst to Aida.

The disease took away just about everything, but not quite everything. To the end Aida never lost her essence. Right to the end Aida spoke the language of love.

For us, dealing with a person who has Alzheimer’s disease is an extraordinary experience. For people who work in nursing homes, unfortunately, it is part of the daily routine.

Yet, when it became clear that Aida’s life was drawing to a close so many of the nursing home staff were genuinely saddened that she was going to die. Over and over they came by to say good-bye, to give her a kiss, to tell the family how much they loved her. And, amazingly, some of the staff from her old nursing home across the road, where she hadn’t lived for a couple of years, also came over to say good-bye to Aida.

These good people who face so much suffering every day recognized that Aida had never lost her essence – that to the end she had spoken the language of love.

Now Aida’s long and not always easy journey has come to an end. Her essence has returned to the God who imagined her into existence. Her essence has gone to the place prepared for her, the place where love is the only language.

Aida’s journey has come to an end but for us the journey continues. When time was growing short, Jesus got on his knees and washed the feet of his friends, speaking to them in the language of love, saying this is how you are to live. Love one another as I have loved you.

In the life of Aida Suarez we see that it really is possible, no matter what happens, to speak the language of love.