The Grand Finale 7-30-17

I’ve struggled a bit with how to tell you about my mother’s last day with us, on the threshold between life and death. It was a painful day and it was a beautiful day. It was a day I will always remember, and it’s kind of personal. I’m not going to tell you everything about it  (though it might seem that way) I’m trying to tell you just the parts you need to get the point of today’s sermon – that the only thing God promises us about tomorrow is that God will be with us. My hope is that this reflection will get us all thinking about how we live in the light of that love.

Matthew 6: “Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear’ Those without faith are always running after these things.  God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow!  Let tomorrow take care of itself.  Today has troubles enough of its own.

2 Peter 3:11-15 Since everything is to be destroyed in this way, what holy and devoted lives you should lead! Look for the coming of the Day of God, and try to hasten it along.  Because of it, the heavens will be destroyed in flames and the elements will melt away in a blaze. But what we await are new heavens and a new earth where, according to the promise, God’s justice will reside. So beloved, while waiting for this, make every effort to be found at peace and without stain or defilement in God’s sight. Consider our God’s patience as your opportunity for salvation

July 30, 2017

Learning from Death: The Grand Finale 

At the memorial service for my mother on Tuesday, my brother John told this story:  “Two days before Mom left us I was sitting on the bed with her.” he said.  She had been focusing on the beauty and grace of her life, and also had been lying with her eyes closed for days. “Deep in thought, Mom quietly said “Thank you, God.”  I began to speak when, in an angry voice she said, ‘I wasn’t talking to you!’” John said he was horrified. He said, “As I looked at her, a grin spread across her face, non-verbally saying, ‘Gotcha.’  Mom did in fact get the last laugh.”

Today’s sermon is about the last laugh, the last word, the grand finale. In many ways, this is the most difficult of my four sermons on “Learning from Death.” It feels so final. As you will see, though, there’s a bit of a surprise at the end.

Let me start the week before Mom died. I was lying in bed on Friday night, tossing and turning. I was supposed to fly back to Philadelphia the next day so I could be prepared for that Sunday’s service. That evening, I had had a wonderful time with one of my oldest friends in the world, Bob Bernet. Bob and I don’t remember a time when we didn’t know each other. Our mom’s were best friends, and we went to church and school together.

I was tossing and turning because I couldn’t decide what to do. Mom had been hanging on for such a long time, it felt like I needed to get back to work, but the end was getting closer and nobody else was coming to be with her for the next week. Finally, I decided I had to stay with my mother for another week, no matter what, and as soon as I decided – I was able to get to sleep. As soon as I decided also, I realized how I could do it.

The next day, I called Bob and asked him if I could stay with him and his wife Pasna at their house. They said of course, and even offered me rides back and forth for several of the days I stayed with them. The next night we brought home Indian food from their favorite Indian restaurant (Pas is from India). And as we sat out in their back yard eating, the birds were singing.

I said, “Do you hear that song? That’s a Wood Thrush, the most beautiful bird song in North America!” They said they hear it all the time, though they hadn’t known what it’s called. this is what it sounds like.

So all that week, I got to listen to my favorite bird and pray and sing with my favorite person. I prayed prayers of silence and love and remembering. I sang all the songs we are singing in the service this morning. I must have sung “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” dozens of times that week and the other songs as well.

John was supposed to visit me here in Philly that next weekend, but I told him he’d better come to Cincinnati first. It was great to have him there. I told you last week about how my mother greeted him with everything she had left, joking and eating for the first time in days. Then she stopped eating and went to sleep for the next couple of days.

Late Saturday morning, John and I went for a walk together. He told me that she had only said one word to him the day before and he suspected it would be the last word she ever spoke. I asked him what she had said. He said her last word, the day before she died, was “Tomorrow…”

He didn’t know what she would have said if she had made it into a whole sentence. Maybe it was “Tomorrow, I’m done with this life.” Maybe it was, “Tomorrow, let’s have some more lasagna.” I heard the word as related to our scripture reading for this morning. Here it is from the Message translation, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” I heard it as, “tomorrow – I’m ready.”

When we got back to her room, she was sitting up in bed and having trouble breathing. We got scared and John sat with her while I tried to get a doctor or hospice care worker. Since it was Saturday, it was hard for people to get there quickly, but we finally got her a little more comfortable. John called our brother Jim to let him know what was going on. I went over to Mom and kissed her head and went back and sat down. And John pointed, and said “She’s gone.”

I held her hand and cried, then John did the same. We took our time to say goodbye and held each other and cried. We called our youngest brother Richard and he was already in tears because Jim had called him. For a time, we were all there with each other in the moment, not worrying about tomorrow, trusting in God’s presence in that sacred moment.

Soon, we began to call other family and friends – the people to whom she had gifted quilts and love and the people who had been there for her. I called Amo’s wife Helen to let her know how sweet it had been to pray for Amo and that Mom had now joined him beyond the veil. I texted my friend Bob to say that she was gone. He wrote right back, “The wood thrush just started singing.”

I’m still working through what it means to have lost my mother and father. It’s definitely a time of growth and change for me. One thing that has been working on me is my mother’s support for me in every situation. I really counted on that support when my work takes me out on a bit of a limb.

I’ve been thinking about how the gospel also provides that kind of support. Peter, for instance, in our reading from his second letter this morning, says, “what we await are new heavens and a new earth where, according to the promise, God’s justice will reside.” He speaks to the church’s active waiting for Jesus’ return to set things right. As that early community experienced the death of loved ones and leaders, they longed for the time to come soon and for their loved ones to be restored to that kin-dom.

The most profound thing I experienced in being with my mother through her journey in the last couple of months, was a sense of God’s presence in the moment, a sense of the moment including people like Amo who had already died, and my mother who was clearly getting ready. There were many surprises at the end, moments of humor and lightness in the midst of sadness and loss, moments of unexpected love and gestures we can’t possibly repay – except by paying them forward to others in grief, dealing with loss, or working for a better world.

I’ll never hear the call of the wood thrush the same way again. The gift of my quilt, the love of friends and my brothers, purple flowers and an oboe at the memorial – all carried surprises that helped deepen my sense of God’s presence with my mother and with me from before I was born to after her death – and, I am confident, beyond my own.

Responsive song: I Was there to Hear Your Borning Cry