I am serving as moderator of a session for a church without a pastor. One of their long-time members died last week and I was asked to officiate at her funeral on Saturday. Although I met briefly with her husband and one of her sons a couple days before the service, I did not know the lady at all. I am clear with families in this situation that I cannot do a eulogy for a person I do not know. What I can do is proclaim the promise of resurrection as a representative of the church who ordained me and of whom the departed is a member.
I’ve done many funerals in my brief time as a teaching elder. The meditation I used this weekend is not entirely new, but rather pieces of others I’ve written over the years. I’m not sure it’s a great piece of prose, but it does feel like a meditation that can speak to everyone who has known loss, even if they are not Christian or people of faith. I know there are some pastors who consider public events like weddings or funerals as opportunities to evangelize to those who are never otherwise in church. For me, such occasions are opportunities to remind people that they are loved and that the person they are missing is not lost, but loved.
I also like this meditation because it references the last stanza of one of my favorite hymns. When I die, I hope someone thinks to have this hymn sung at my funeral!
Your sure provisions gracious God
attend me all my days;
oh, may your house be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
Here would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.
Romans 8:26-28, 31-39
26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When I was a little girl, I had a recurring nightmare about being lost in an unfamiliar place. I can still remember feeling the panic of disorientation in my chest. My heart beat faster and faster as I struggled to figure out exactly where I was.
And then in my dream, I saw the familiar figure of my mother on a crowded street corner and I ran toward her as quickly as I could. As I was running to her, she began walking away from me, heading in the opposite direction. I called out her name and she just kept walking as I struggled to get to her, yelling out to her over and over again as she moved farther and farther away from me, eventually disappearing altogether into a crowd of people.
Some years later, I read that this kind of dream is not an uncommon one for children and adults. The dream, of course, represented my fear of death and of losing my mother. I was fearful of losing the most important human connection a little girl could have in order to feel safe and secure.
But here’s the thing: our fears about losing important human connections are not at all irrational are they? Our fears of being lost are neither childlike nor naïve. We will all eventually lose one another — and leave one another — through death. Our worst nightmares will play out in our lives. The experience of loss is an unavoidable consequence of being human enough to take the risk of loving someone enough to miss them.
When we gather together on occasions such as today, I think we feel that same panicky catch in our throats and pounding in our hearts. We are reminded how fleeting our connections to one another really are. Days like today have an ethereal quality. These days and weeks after the death of someone we love are liminal, in-between times — time out of time — that feel as unreal as a bad dream. The connection to V, a loving wife, mother, grandmother and friend may feel as if it has been snapped like a dry tree twig in winter, leaving us as bewildered as children, even if we are all grown up.
But in our reading from Romans this morning, the apostle Paul talks about a reality that is more real than death, more reliable than any dream, and more lasting than any human connection. Paul reminds us of the one connection that is never broken, and the one love that endures forever. What lasts through all of time is the love of God as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul reflects back to us our deepest needs and our deepest fears and baddest bad dreams in one fell swoop. Paul assures us that we will not – and cannot – be separated from God. We are never, ever lost in this world, even in our loneliest hours.
No matter what nightmares haunt us, no matter where we go or what we do or have done to us, no matter what bleak stuff life throws at us, there is nothing on heaven or on earth that can separate us from God.
Paul asks many questions: “Who is to condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or peril, or sword?”
Paul’s answer is always the same – NOTHING.
NOTHING has more power than God’s love for us. And God’s love is perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ who came to take everything that is broken in us or by us, and put it back together. The healing power of God’s love still happens in every moment of our lives through the creative breath and healing power of the Holy Spirit.
So while it may have felt as though V was slowly being taken away, that we were being robbed of her gifts and her presence – Paul assures us of the exact opposite. That while horrible things like age and illness happen, God is still at work making things new. None of these things – not even death itself – can separate us from God’s love and from the power of the resurrection.
When everything else has gone from us – youth, memory, beauty, health, even our very lives – one thing endures.
This constant love of God, which is the heart beat of the universe.
The enduring love of God that seeps into our lives and moves from human heart to human heart, not requiring words, but the shared experience of our human lives together. And when our lives are over, that pure and gorgeous love receives us, redeems us, and plants us in the very heart of God.
V has returned to the heart where love begins.
The heart of God who created her, and also created you and me.
The heart of God who loved her through each moment of her life, the joyful and the scary, the celebrations and pain.
And it is God’s heart and God’s love which will keep us connected to V. Forever.
It is a poignant, terrible, beautiful fact of which we are painfully reminded this morning — as long as we are alive, people we love will go and come and go. We are strangers and guests, husbands and wives, co-workers and friends, children and parents, family and lovers. And in every human relationship, there is brokenness and beauty
What finally disrupts the coming and going of life is death. And all we can finally know about that broken branch is the unceasing promise of God for us. We can believe that V has arrived to a settled rest wrapped in God’s grace and love. One day you and I will follow that same path when we will become who we always meant to be, even when we didn’t know it. No longer a wayfaring stranger. No more an awkward, out-of-place guest. No longer suffering all the pain and griefs and disappointments and longings of life on this earth.
V is who she was created to be which is God’s beloved child. Safe and sound. No more nightmares. She is finally at home in the heart of God.