A sermon for the funeral of Paula Cooey, by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN.
March 30th, 2023

A year ago, give or take a week or two, I met with Paula at hers and Phil’s home on Osceola, to record a presentation she had written for a Lenten retreat based on the Seven Last Words of Christ. What she wrote was simultaneously profound, and deeply painful to hear. By then her breathing was already labored, and because of the risks of Covid, she needed to limit her exposure to other people so we were recording her talk in lieu of an in person presentation. Paula selected the words from today’s gospel, “I thirst” as the inspiration for her meditation, and what flowed out of her, mingled with tears, was a brilliant reflection on the nature of human need, suffering, and desire.

Paula was no stranger to the subject of desire. In fact, one of her last published works, Willing the Good: Jesus, Dissent, and Desire was a rich and extensive meditation on the subject. As we wrapped up recording in her living room last spring, our conversation turned then to her own yearnings, feelings that emerged in the wake of her diagnosis, desires that were painful to speak aloud. She longed for more time, to see the world, to see all of you. It might seem strange to say such, but she wished she could see all of you gathered here just as you are now, only to be able to greet and embrace you, to share laughter and stories, and break bread with you. There was a deep sadness in those expressed but never fulfilled desires. But, it was a sadness mixed with gratitude and a recognition that in her suffering she was profoundly and integrally connected with the Divine. As she said, so beautifully, in her presentation that afternoon,

“For me it is precisely at the point where we acknowledge our deepest needs, our suffering, our vulnerability, that full humanity and full divinity meet, that we as humans in all our nakedness encounter God, willing to share human suffering as God’s own. ‘I thirst’, the revelation that God suffers too, with us and in us, in our deepest needs, in our most profound dependencies. Those words, ‘I thirst’ sanctify those very human needs.”

For Paula, this solidarity of suffering, which brought her into a tangible communion with Jesus, in the words “I thirst”, also called her to see a similar solidarity with all of humanity. This recognition was wrapped up in the call to serve others, and was intimately connected to the command to love her neighbors as herself.

The great Annie Dillard once wrote,

“A man who struggles long to pray and study Torah will be able to discover the sparks of divine light in all of creation, in each solitary bush and grain and woman and man. And when he cleaves strenuously to God for many years, he will be able to release the sparks, to unwrap and lift these particular shreds of holiness, and return them to God. This is the human task: to direct and channel the sparks’ return. This task is tikkun, restoration. Yours is a holy work on earth right now, they say, whatever that work is, if you tie your love and desire to God. You do not deny or flee the world, but redeem it, all of it — just as it is.”

And, this is the world as it is, a world where our dearest friends struggle and suffer and ultimately die too soon, a world where inequality and injustice are so commonplace we are daily in danger of being indifferent, a world where might and money often hold more sway than mercy and grace. Yet, we yearn for something more, for healing and hope, for some sense of common cause with our siblings and all of creation, to be in kinship across our many lines of difference. So we strive and grapple to desire what God desires, and to love our neighbors, and to restore the world. This wrestling and struggle, which Dillard describes, is no stranger to many of us. It certainly wasn’t to Paula. Like Jacob, and many of us here, Paula strove with God to understand the world and to love it as God does, to recognize the needs of her neighbors and to serve these needs, and like all of us, undoubtedly she wondered why, so often, all we have to show for the struggle are our wounds and a limp.

But, we do not always understand.

The great American novelist and professor of writing Norman Maclean wrote of his father, a strict Scottish Presbyterian minister, wrestling long into life with the problem of why we can’t always seem to help those who need it most, whose grappling with suffering in his family and in the world left him with wounds often too deep to name, said “we can love completely without complete understanding.”

And so we strive and we wrestle and we bear our wounds, knowing that just as we desire to know and be known, so God desires to know us, loves us completely, even as we cannot completely understand. As the Psalmist says today “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me…you discern my thoughts from afar…even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely…Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” God’s love searches for us, yearns for us, claims us in life, and holds us even in the midst of great suffering, grief, and even death.

Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians,

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Love, the desire to care for, serve, and uplift another, the yearning to heal what is broken, to mend and minister to what is hurting, to be with another, a beloved, such is our thirst and such is the thirst of our God who made us and claimed us, the God who suffered and suffers still for a hurting world, who joins us in our grief over the death of Paula, and into whose hands we commend her this day. I think Paula wanted us to remember this thirst, that God has for us, and which, in solidarity with one another, we can have for a broken world – bound together in our hurts and struggles, and by this thirst, we can be about the healing and restoration each of us is called to.

In her book on desire, following a long reflection on the pain of 9/11 and the subsequent ugliness of our national life, the brokenness that was made even more evident in our politics and cultural discourse, Paula wrote this, and I will close with her beautiful and profound words:

“I am now confident that, by grace, we can will better, and willing better, we can, by grace, do better than we do, if we just get over ourselves and move on. If, instead of fixating on ourselves, our families…we fix firmly upon the other, the one in whom Jesus…tells us he dwells, we will have no time for fear. We will be busily, even joyfully, engaged in and by God’s desire. Though we will come into the middle of things and leave before the end without knowing how it all turns out, this joy, by grace, will be enough.”

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