Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Funeral Meditation on John 11:27-37

Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
    When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.

~Alfred Lord Tennyson

In looking for a passage of scripture to share with you today, I confess I had something fairly specific in mind. I wanted a passage that portrayed a strong woman openly and confidently expressing her opinion. I wanted this woman to be challenging someone who was a recognized authority figure. And, of course, I wanted a passage that at the same time managed to convey our Christian hope in the resurrection. In short, I wanted a passage that would honor D., whose life we gather to celebrate on this beautiful winter day, and only a strong, opinionated woman challenging an authority, while at the same time hoping against hope, seemed appropriate.

And so I found my way to this story of Martha and her sister Mary, mourning the loss of their beloved brother Lazarus. As you can hear, Martha is not too happy with Jesus, because he was late in arriving, too late, in her opinion, to save Lazarus. But what Martha doesn’t seem to understand is this: Jesus is mourning Lazarus every bit as much as his sisters. Jesus loves Lazarus every bit as much as they do. And Jesus, though he has a point to make, is filled with anguish at the suffering he sees before him.

And so are we. D. was battling this terrible disease the day I met her, and every day since. I never knew her, as many of you did, at the height of her strength and spirit. I didn’t know her, as you did, when she  took her many trips—to Europe, and South America, and the Canary Islands, and China, and countless other places. I didn’t know her, as you did, when she worked tirelessly to assemble our church Museum, named in her honor in 2007. I didn’t know her, as you did, when she was Sunday School Superintendent, or president of the Ladies Aid Association, or an active member of Session.

Still, I can claim with confidence that I did know the essential D., a woman who, the day we met, gave me her unvarnished opinion on matters concerning the church and the presbytery. I knew the essential D., who cared deeply, passionately, about this church into whose membership she was baptized on the same day as her lifelong friend, M. I knew the essential D., who, when the time came at last to face her own mortality, did so with the resolve of the poet, confident she would see her Pilot, her Maker, when at last she passed from our sight.

But D. did not go gentle into that good night. Along with Martha, she raged against the dying of the light, and she fought the good fight for four long years. Let me be clear: death is a thief. It steals from us, and D. clung to the life she loved. Why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t any of us? Our lives are precious gift from God. As the psalmist says, God forms our innermost parts. God knits us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and in life and in death we belong to God. What a glorious calling: to live our lives in the presence and the service of our Lord and our fellow human beings. D. lived out that calling, with gusto, until her body simply wouldn’t allow her to do so any longer.

The suffering of those we love fills us with anguish. The death of those we love fills us with sorrow. And, like Martha, we challenge Jesus, we call upon God to help us to make sense of it all. And this is what Jesus says to us: He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And he calls upon us to believe that this life, though it is good and rich and beautiful, is not all there is. He calls upon us to trust that death does not have the last word. He calls upon us to affirm, with Martha, with D., that yes, Lord, we believe.

The story of Martha and her brother Lazarus does not end here. Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb and calls him out, raises him from the dead. But Martha makes her statement of faith, her affirmation in Jesus, in life beyond this life, in hope against hope, before that happens. Martha makes her statement of confidence in Jesus before she really has any evidence to back it up.

We and Martha and D. are all in the same boat together. We know that death calls upon each of us, that we are summoned to embark upon that ship, mostly, before we feel ready. We know that death will steal those we love from us, whether it is they or we who embark first. And still we are called upon to put our faith and hope in Jesus’ affirmation that death is not, will not be, the last word. We are called upon to be like Martha, to declare, yes, Lord, I believe in you. Yes Lord, I hope in you. Yes Lord, I trust in you.

About a month before D. died, P. and I shared communion with her in her home. D. always eagerly accepted when the church offered an opportunity for her to receive the Lord’s Supper. We prayed that day, in gratitude for this church, which brought us together. We prayed in gratitude for that sacrament which shows us how God gives his own life for us and to us. We prayed in hope for D., that her pain might be eased and she might grow stronger. After communion, we held hands for a final prayer of thanksgiving, and, though I encouraged her to stay seated, D. insisted on struggling to her feet, and she gripped our hands with her own, surprisingly strong ones. That, for me, was classic D.. Jesus was there, present with us, and D. stood, weak as she was, to affirm, Yes Lord, I believe. Yes Lord, I hope. Yes Lord, I trust.

And so we commend our beloved sister in Christ into the welcoming and embracing arms of her Pilot, her Maker, her Lord and Savior. We trust that D. will forgive and even appreciate our sadness as she embarks. We trust that this strong and opinionated woman is not gone, only gone from our sight. And we trust, with Martha, with D., that she will rest in peace and rise in glory. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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