Learning from Death: Humor & Courage 7-23-17

My brother John, came into town three days before my mother died. I knew that she would pull herself together to greet him with everything she had. I was interested to see, because she didn’t have much left. She had been sleeping or laying still with her eyes closed for most of the previous week. John came into the room and the jokester that he is, addressed Mom who was sitting up a bit, with her eyes closed. John said, “Are you ready to party, Mom? I’m here! Time to party.” She may have responded just a bit, because he kept going, “I don’t want you to drink too much now!” She opened one eye a bit to create a little wink. She whispered, “You keep an eye on me.”

Our second reading this morning is the one we are using in my mother’s service on Tuesday. Paul contends that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. It’s become one of the favorite readings at funerals around here and in many churches. As we read it this morning, I invite you to reflect on how this is true for the loved ones who have continued to be a presence of support and love for you after they have left this earth.

Romans 8: 26-39   The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit expresses our plea with groanings too deep for words. 27 And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying, because her intercessions for God’s holy people are made according to the mind of God. 28 We know that God makes everything work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to God’s purpose. 29 They are the ones God chose long ago, predestined to share the image of the Only Begotten, in order that Christ might be the firstborn of many. 30 Those God predestined have likewise been called; those God called have also been justified; and those God justified have, in turn, been glorified.

  31 What should be our response? Simply this: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” 32 Since God did not spare the Only Begotten, but gave Christ up for the sake of us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that God will freely give us everything. 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? Since God is the One who justifies, 34 who has the power to condemn? Only Christ Jesus, who died—or rather, was raised—and sits at the right hand of God, and who now intercedes for us!

   35 What will separate us from the love of Christ? Trouble? Calamity? Persecution? Hunger? Nakedness? Danger? Violence? 36 As scripture says, “For your sake, we’re being killed all day long; we’re looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of God who has loved us. 38 For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, 39 neither heights nor depths—nor anything else in all creation—will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.

[Let’s take a moment to reflect in silence on how we have experienced God’s love and presence, even in, sometimes especially in, the presence of the shadow of death.]

July 23, 2017

Learning from Death: Humor and Creativity

When I graduated from seminary and was ordained as a pastor 31 years ago in 1986, my mother presented me with a gift that is very precious to me – the Cathedral Window quilt that is hanging over the pulpit. She had clearly been working on it for a long time, had finished it a while early, and was impatient for me to have it. She said, “I don’t know if you’re ever going to get married, and I can’t wait any longer to give it to you.”

So she presented me with this beautiful gift which Charlene Reim, one of our newest members, has offered to help me unfold for you. As a new person at the church, she was curious about it, and asked what it was doing here and I realized that few people have actually seen it whole, at least for a while.

My mother often told me how much she loved making this quilt for me, how much she enjoyed choosing the colors of the fabric and deciding what beautiful color to put next to another beautiful color. I have many gifts from my mom, but this may be the most precious.

 

This passage from Romans is also one of the most meaningful in all of scripture, as Paul instructs people about the ways of the Spirit, and the depth of God’s love for humankind. Paul is talking to people who have been experiencing more than their fair share of hardship, persecution, and death. Christians in Rome expected that the coming of the Messiah would ease their burdens, but sometimes it seemed that becoming Christian made things worse.

I don’t need to detail how that was true. You know the tension between raised hopes and a deeply discouraging present reality. You have a sense of how historically that was true for early Christians at the center of a corrupt empire. We know how it is true in our lives in the places we have experienced the hope and promise of a community of faith and love and then have people in our midst deal with painful health problems, difficult family situations, or the death of a loved one.

Let me go back to talking personally for a moment and then relate back to the bigger question of God’s presence in any kind of hardship. Clearly, Paul was addressing bigger issues than I am in my life right now. My mother’s death is not a terrible tragedy. My mother was ready to die and she lived in a place where she had excellent care in a privileged environment. I’ve told you stories the last few weeks about how it was an actual blessing to be with my mother before her death – in prayer, singing, and silence. Folks have been more than kind in reaching out to me and recognizing that the death of a mother is a major event in my life.

I feel totally blessed to take time to reflect in these sermons on what we can learn about God’s presence during difficult times. This is an opportunity to look at how it is true that we cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ no matter what.

Over two years ago, as we prepared for a family reunion for my mother’s 92nd birthday, I wrote to everyone in my extended family who had received a quilt from my mother as a gift. Over 30 people sent me pictures of their quilts, and I put them into a book as a gift to my mother, a sign of her legacy as an artist. When I presented the book to her at the party, she looked at each page and then looked up with an expression of awe, joy and wonder. She showed that book to everybody who visited for months afterward.

You could make the case that my mother’s memory lives on in a very tangible way all over the country through these quilts. We might even relate it to our scripture reading to say that my mother’s God-given creativity is one of the ways that death cannot separate her from her family in and through the love of the Living God. This is true also of her sense of humor that passes down from generation to generation, and of her gardening which has its own legacy to it. It’s true of the love of four brothers for each other and their own gifts to their families and to the world. All of these gifts and legacies make it easy to see how death cannot and will not separate us from the love of the Living God or from her love for that matter.

[It got me to wondering the other day when eternal life begins. For my mother, did eternal life begin when she died, or did it begin when she understood that she had not really been alone one minute since the family reunion for her 92nd birthday? Did it begin when she gave people these quilts, or when she made them? Did it begin when she cared for dozens of children in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as a nurse and as a captain in the Army? Did it begin when she became a member of the Presbyterian Church of her youth, or did it begin at her baptism?]

In the end, the claim that death cannot separate me from my mother is an easy lift, compared to what Paul is claiming. Paul’s claim is much more powerful – talking about God’s eternal presence always and everywhere, especially in the deep suffering of a whole community, early deaths, oppression on a big scale. He claims that God is not absent from any of those places, but connects in those places especially..In other words, Paul is not worrying about convincing people that God is present in the loss of a loving mother who died at an appropriate time. He’s working to understand God’s presence in the loss of loved ones in their community who die horrible deaths for their faith at the wrong times.

Paul’s claim is that nothing will separate any of us from the love of God in Jesus Christ no matter what. It is not our accomplishments or our families or our fortune that connects us eternally to that love. No mis-fortune or calamity, persecution or hardship can dis-connect us from that love. Loneliness or cancer, AIDS or heart disease, heroin abuse, or homelessness, or arrogance or privilege – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, not even death.

So I feel confident to lead the celebration of my mother’s life on Tuesday, because it’s easy to feel this connection to her life in the Living God, her legacy and her gift. I’ve cried my tears. There may be more this week, or the next time I pick up my phone forgetting that I can’t call her anymore, but I know God is with us through the tears and the hurts, the joys and the laughter. God was there for our first cry and God is with us through every trial of our lives, every difficulty we face, & beyond the end.

This is God’s good news. Let’s sing about it.