Homily for Waverly Mae McNeil
December 5th , 2015
I’ll begin by sharing a story to usher in my thanks for your presence here today. Then I will move
into some Homilyish thoughts (which I totally think should be a word) and I will close with a
poem and a prayer. Story, Thanks, Thoughts, Poem, Prayer. I want you to know where we are
going in this part of the service in the hope that you can relax and allow yourself to be carried by
the space created by these words.
There is a pastor I know back in Minneapolis who decided to take up running three years ago. I
followed his journey into running because he is that friend you have on facebook who always
posts their workout for the day.
In year one he trained and ran his first marathon. In year two he trained for and ran a 50 mile race.
But just a couple weeks ago he set out and finished a 100 mile race. 100 miles. He ran for 27
hours, 20 minutes and 25 seconds. Over 27 straight hours running.
This is incredible personal feat of endurance, but what stood out to me is that these kinds of races
are impossible to do alone. You need a team. You have a team there doing the race alongside of
you. Monitoring your hydration and nutrition, directing your pace, navigating the places to stop
and rest; and championing and empowering when its time to get back up and keep going, people
cheering and holding signs of encouragement along the way. All different kinds of loyal
supporting friends to make something like that happen. It takes a team.
If you are here today, you know in your bones the now near decade long monster marathon the
McNeils have faced and continue to participate in. We have been witness to a family that has
faithfully and unfathomably been able day in and day out to push the human boundaries of soul
and spirit and body and mind. They have faced terrain both terrible and daunting with enduring
grace and unstoppable resolve.
You also know how quick Matt and Shannon are to say…we could not have faced this alone. It
took a team. So on behalf of Shannon, Matt and Oliver thank you so much for being on the team.
You are the doctors, and the teachers, the classmates, you are family, and friends both new and
old. And some of you are fellow runners in Sanfilippo community sharing a bond you and you
alone fully comprehend. You are Restoration Church which I’m so grateful became family so
quickly. You are those who have been present in the most agonizing hours and those there to give
respite on the days where continuing on seemed unimaginable. You are the friends who
understood and shared in the joy, laughter, and thanksgiving of their amazingly rich family.
Thank you for being their team.
On their behalf thank you for your presence here today to ache as well as honor, to shed tears and
share your memories that celebrate the beautiful life of Waverly Mae so richly.
Each of you has an endearing perspective of how this brave family and Waverly in particular has
given you, inspired and shaped your life. Thank you for being here.
Matt and Shannon, we honor how you have shown us the seemingly infinite capacity of the
human heart to stretch in love. You have been a model to us of a rarely traveled road. A road
you never asked for, but one you have embraced and navigated with grace, perseverance,
tenderness, and determination. We are all so deeply honored by your friendship and by the way
you have chosen to live your lives. You are lights in a dark room. Your lives have created this
reverent space where gratitude and grief are welcome to exist and even encouraged to dance
We are all richer and deeper human beings because of the path you have pioneered. You have
opened your hearts wide to us and it is a treasure beyond measure. On behalf of the community
gathered here today, we say thank you.
And to my dear Waverly,
I’ve learned more from you than seems fair. Your pure life and joyous presence opened me and
my soul to a truer way of being in the world. You taught me to be present and comfortable in my
own skin in a way few ever attain. This was effortless for you and I have to admit that I am a
little jealous. I hope to some day be as good at it as you were. You are gifted in spirit in a way
that mine is chronically distracted. But you helped me realize that it is ok to receive help. I am so
grateful for the way you have been a shepherd for my soul.
Waverly, this community here today is here because of you. You have shaped us. We love you
and miss you.
Shannon and I both grew up in Macungie Pennsylvania. Which translates into English as Bear
Swamp…for anyone here who has real-estate ambitions. It’s rare to have a life long friend. We
experienced church together, we sang together, carpooled, went to high school together where in
the play Bye Bye Birdie we were cast as Mr. and Mrs. Mcafee, we went to the same college in
Indiana, where Shannon you met Matt, whose friendship to me is this really cool bonus. And
Shannon and Matt you conspired and set the stage for Sarah and I to fall in love and get married.
Thank you for that.
I remember getting our young kids together for the first time at the McDonalds play land in
Trexlertown, we were both in town for either Thanksgiving or Christmas, I don’t remember
which. I believe Waverly was 2 and Sam and Ellie were 3 and 4. We had the usual new parents
banter of “remember when we used to hang out in cooler places and have conversations that
included complete sentences.”
You had what felt like this exotic entry into the world of the US Foreign service and got stationed
in London so you could care for Waverly’s ears. It’s this memory seared in my mind because it
was a moment before either of us had ever heard of something called Sanfilippo. It didn’t exist.
Nor could we have in our wildest imaginations conceived of the narrative arch from that day to
There is this line in chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel. It comes from the mouth of two battered
disciples returning to their home in Emmaus, 7 miles from Jerusalem. They meet and are
explaining to a stranger that Jesus had been brutally murdered three days before and to top it off
they heard rumor that some of their friends encountered angels who were announcing his
resurrection. This whole turn of events was both devastating and disorienting And they say to the
stranger “But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
“But we had hoped”….This was not at all how the story was supposed to go.
Each of the four gospel accounts tell the death and resurrection story of Jesus as having this
similar disorienting affect on its first followers. John has Peter returning to the old family fishing
business, Luke has Cleopas and Mary returning to Emmaus. Mathew simply states all the way to
Christ’s ascension that “some believed and some doubted.”
The account that I couldn’t get out of mind since the day Wavey entered Hospice was from the
Gospel of Mark. The earliest manuscripts of Mark actually have it end at verse 8 of Chapter 16.
The women go to the tomb and hear an angel announce resurrection and then it ends with this…
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to
anyone, because they were afraid.”
That’s how Mark ends it. Now there is a later 2nd ending that finished the account similar to an
outtake of an extended cut dvd. That’s not to say verses 9-20 of chapter 16 aren’t as good.
Perhaps Mark was hounded by his nieces and nephews at the next family meal… “Uncle Mark
don’t leave us hanging…what happened next?” and he would continue with the rest of the story
and maybe for the 13 year old boys in the room he threw in the bit about playing with snakes.
But most likely the first congregation hearing Marks gospel was in Rome and their first hearing
would have had it end abruptly with the women trembling, bewildered and afraid to say anything.
I have come to really admire this original ending. I think it was a bold move on Mark’s part. I
like it in the same way I love a song whose artist chose not to resolve the last chord of the
score…but intentionally leaves the listener with the tension of something yet to be resolved.
Sometimes a story can become too familiar that it had loses the original tension. And it takes an
artist to write in a way that keeps the hearer engaged in the story, because ultimately it is a story
for us to know how to live out, not a story simply to know how to tell.
On the first easter day Mark leaves us their at the scene to join a real experience of death and
profound loss. Not just the loss of a friend, but the loss of a worldview. A loss of hope. A loss
of faith from its first witnesses. As Luke put it…“But we had hoped”.
A few observations:
First, It is ok and necessary to grieve “the we had hoped parts of our own lives”. You need
permission to Name them… “we had hoped” and admit that “it didn’t happen the way we had
hope”. Admitting and naming are necessary pre-requisite to accepting and the grieving.
Second, It is ok if your current concept of God and faith doesn’t work anymore. The gospels
present the expectation that we probably are holding unto views of God and life that need to
experience a kind of death, before new mature forms of faith can be reborn. Yes, this is can be a
terrifying prospect, but it is also necessary and perfectly normal.
Third, It is good for me to remember that the good news announced by the angels was
disorienting not pain relieving. Their words did not provide a bypass around suffering. I believe
the hope of resurrection is powerful, but it isn’t a short cut to a happy ending.
If an angel sitting on the side of an empty tomb announcing resurrection is still not able to prevent
the terrifying experiences of loss in the disciples…then we probably should not expect that our
words will somehow help us avoid the face of our own grief. We can give each other grace in
what words are and are not able to do.
But I do know from experience that here is nothing more insufferable than a religious person
trying to administer the gospel like a pain reliever. Handing out trite phrases of hope like
children’s strength Tylenol to someone with severed limbs. I only know this because I am guilty
of this malpractice. Hello my name is David, I am a recovering religious distributor of the gospel
as pain avoidance. This was my concept of faith that needed to experience a death, before I had
any hope of rebirth. Faith as an assertion of illusory control on the universe with special access to
divine altering interventions to its unpleasantries. Yes, that had to die for me.
The stranger on the road to Emmaus recast the story in a different light to the devastated disciples:
A story of entering suffering rather than the ability to manipulate or avoid it. And it was in the
context of a shared meal of broken bread and wine the eyes of the disciples were opened to the
reality that their guest was the risen Christ.
The two proclaimed to each other “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us
on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Matt, when you said your last goodbye’s to Waverly by reading the last line from her favorite
book HEIDI “If I spend every moment, for the rest of my days, thanking God for all His
goodness to us, that would still not be enough.” My heart burned within me.
Shannon whenever you write and share so vulnerably your daily journey with Waverly…it is like
having communion. It is a Holy meal. A Eucharist.
Eucharist. Translates from Greek as Thanksgiving. Eu – good. Charis – grace. The good grace,
the good gift, Thanksgiving. The eucharist mystery is that in the broken body and poured out
blood of Christ we discover the divine and saving life. And Christ invites us to do the same in
rembrance. Not just to take bread and wine but to actually live eucharistically: lives broken open
and poured out for one another. For I believe that when we choose to live Eucharistic lives…we
give each other eyes to see the Divine life present with us. We begin to recognize God with us in
the same way that those two disciples did.
Matt and Shannon you have chosen to live Eucharistically. You’ve raised two amazing kids and
have touched us with burning hearts. Waverly is our witness that there is a life stronger than
death and a gift that Sanfilippo is unable to steal.
Frederick Buechner said it this way “there is a holiness deeper than horror and at the very heart of
darkness a light unutterable.”
And again he writes… “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”
These final words are for Waverly.
Waverly, your life has given me a burning heart. And not just me, you have inspired so many.
Thank you Sweetie. I want to close with a poem you inspired. Several years ago your Mommy
and Daddy asked if I would help with your funeral. I locked myself in the bathroom and
cried…because the bathroom is the only place Mommy and Daddies can maybe go to sometimes
be alone. These words have been burning in me since that day. They are what you have taught
Dedicated to Waverly Mae McNeil on December 5th , 2015
by David Landt
I didn’t know sorrow was sacred.
I avoided this veiled sacrament.
My fear of suffering led me to shallow spaces
Where I remained safe from love.
Yet love persisted.
Quietly beckoning me to breathe.
Inviting me to inhale life’s true air.
And love turned
Introducing me to Joy and Sorrow.
I was shocked to see them together.
A bit appalled at their marriage
I judged them an ill suited pair.
But they took me into their home
And adopted me as a son.
I wasn’t aware that I was an orphaned soul,
It was their welcome that exposed my estranged condition.
The reality was terrifying
And my fear triggered a reflexive flight,
But I was caught . . .
enveloped by an unwavering parental embrace.
And there in the strong arms of Joy and Sorrow
I felt Both
for the first time
In all of their excruciating splendor.
So great was the height and depth and length and width
of this expansive space
That it tore open every seam of my being.
I was being both drawn in and destroyed.
My end would certainly come soon,
Shattered into a million unrecoverable pieces.
Still they held onto me and whispered warmly in each ear.
“Allow this experience of being broken open.
Do not resist this pain.
For it is the old skin giving way
To your heart’s new spacious size.”
I found remaining to be a grace . . .
An experience of the sacred.
And I have come to know Joy and Sorrow
As a match made in heaven.
Let us close with this adapted prayer from the book Guerrillas of Grace.
Make of us some nourishment for starved times,
Some food for our brothers and sisters
Who are hungry for hope,
That in being bread for them,
We may also be fed and be full.