The following is adapted from a funeral homily by David Gruenwald. The original names have been changed for the sake of privacy.
Baptized in 1989. Died in 2019, far too young, from a disease far too terrible.
A great kid, raised with love and compassion by the best family one could ask for. He was raised by a loving family, went to a Lutheran school, raised in the church, but none of that guaranteed a life free from addiction. None of them are to blame. None of them failed.
But starting his freshman year, maybe even the summer before, his road took a turn that eventually brought us to today. Paul made choices that would lead to an early grave and a lifetime of grief for those he loved and who loved him.
It started with pill parties, binge drinking, and weed. But it didn’t end there. He graduated to harder drugs and injecting needles… until one day fentanyl stopped his heart, and broke his family’s.
The story of addiction is not dissimilar to the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Basically, the son took his inheritance, left his father heartbroken, went and squandered it on prostitutes and blow (that’s a paraphrase, not a direct translation!). Then he realized what a mess he was and what a mess he was in, and “the prodigal” went back to his father.
And as the parable goes, the father ran to him, gave him the best robe, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, and threw a feast for his son who was dead but is alive again, he was lost, and is found. And they celebrated. Naturally, Luke 15 illustrates the love of God for us, that no matter how far we run or how long we are gone, we are still His son or daughter. And that same love is the love Bob and Sarah gave to Paul.
But what would have happened if the son did it again? Because that’s the more accurate version of addiction. Sober, then pills. Sober, then the bottle again. Rehab, then heroin. Rehab again, and then they’re injecting fentanyl. Over and over again the prodigal son’s cycle is replayed in those suffering with addiction. Assuming Jesus continued the story, what do you imagine would have happened the second, third…the fifteenth time the son went away and came back wrecked? Would the welcome have been any less? Would his place as “son” ever been in question?
No matter how many times Paul oscillated between sobriety and the sharp end of a needle, the promises God made to him all those years ago in his baptism were never in doubt. He was, and always is, a son. This doesn’t mean God didn’t care about the drugs. He cares; he wanted better for Paul, just as his family and friends did. But God’s love is constant. With or without sobriety, God’s love, guaranteed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, is forever. And that is what gives us hope today, for this body, this son, this brother, for this family, and you his friends, that this is not the end of the story.
It was at this altar that Paul first received the blood of Jesus, some sixteen or seventeen years ago, and it is at this altar that Jesus’ blood made Paul holy, even when Paul’s blood was polluted with opioids. It was Jesus’ blood that spoke forgiveness for him then, that speaks for him even now that Paul’s blood has been drained and replaced by formaldehyde. It was Jesus’ body Paul received right here, that Paul ate, that even now covers his body symbolically through this funeral pall, and will still cover his ashes once he’s cremated, saying, “This one is mine. Paul will always be mine.” Every death looks the same underneath this funeral pall. Overdose, suicide, old age, cancer, it doesn’t matter except that Jesus keeps his promises, and Jesus covers them all.
Here, like Paul, like his family in the months, years, and decades to come, we receive that body and blood. We live in joy of our baptismal promises, and we hear of the love of Jesus that promises no matter how far you run, he follows. The love of Jesus promises that no matter what you put in your bodies, he has redeemed your bodies and loves them even when fentanyl runs through them, when alcohol is destroying the liver he created within us. The love of Jesus that promises that no matter how deep your wounds or painful the scars, he will erase them. No matter how dark your past, he has forgotten it—and tomorrow is a new day.
May that love of Jesus, which is yours even if you don’t want it, or if you don’t think you need it, may that love of Jesus give you hope in your grief, and peace now and forever, as we lay to rest this prodigal son, Paul. Prodigal son, but a son of God nonetheless. A son, a brother, a godparent, a friend, a forgiven and redeemed child of God, now, and always.
David Gruenwald is pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in St. Louis, MO.