Isaiah 25:1-4; Romans 8:32-35, 37-39
Religion has always tried to help people face the mystery of mortality. Dealing with death is the one constant in every age and culture. It happens to everyone; I hope that’s not news to you!
Humanity’s capacity to create symbols, and our need to bring order to the world, gave rise to rituals around death long ago. Those rituals offered the cultures in which they developed ways to find meaning in life and in death. Over time, different religious traditions evolved, each with its own understanding of what happens at death and how to treat the end of life.
This summer we visited several archaeological museums in Europe. Each one introduced us to ancient ways of navigating the loss of life. We saw mummies, complex burial vaults, carefully selected items placed in graves – jewelry, drinking vessels, weapons, amulets, and other items. All of that tells us something about how our ancestors dealt with death. We can imagine the gatherings held on such occasions, where laments were lifted, stories told, exploits recounted, gratitude expressed, and religious response offered.
That is essentially what humans still do at funerals in every culture and religion, but when death comes in sudden and overwhelming numbers that is not possible. In Derna, Libya, there are now more than 11,000 confirmed deaths from the catastrophic flooding last week, and that number could grow to more than 20,000. Body bags stacked anonymously in mass graves violate the rituals we long for at the time of death and extend the trauma. Let us keep the survivors who have lost so many in our prayers. To offer help, look for information on our website tomorrow on how giving for Libya relief through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Death on that scale is not common, but mortality is never very far away. There’s no way to avoid facing death. What matters is how we attend to it. That’s a basic task of any religion, certainly ours. Responding to death with courage and hope is at the heart of Christian proclamation.
We may think of our congregation as being primarily engaged in Sunday worship, in justice and service, or education, or music and the arts. We’re known in the community for those things, and they are part of our mission, but there’s another dimension to our ministry that may not be as widely known. We help families move through the loss of a loved one, and we do it often.
Last week Westminster held five memorial services or funerals – the latter being when the body is present. And this week we have two more. That pastoral work is central to our life as a Christian community. We have something to say at the time of death.
Today’s scripture lesson from Romans affirms the power of God’s love. The Apostle Paul is confident that God’s love conveys us from this life to the next. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?”
Then he answers his own question – and this is our response to the age-old wondering about life and death.
“No,” he says, “In all these things”- the stuff that happens in life –
“We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
I’ve preached on that biblical text than any other in my 40 years in ministry – some 300 sermons. That’s because it’s the scripture of choice at memorial services. It’s the funeral equivalent of the “love chapter” in I Corinthians used at almost all weddings.
For that reason, I’ve been reluctant over the years to preach again from Romans 8 on a Sunday morning. But with retirement coming at the end of next month I decided that the text offers such a strong affirmation of our hope in life eternal it needs to be heard one more time.
Most people would rather attend a wedding than a funeral; in contrast, as I’ve said before, most ministers would prefer leading a memorial service. At a memorial service pastors play an essential role in helping those assembled to face death and not be undone by it.
A Christian memorial service does three things. First, it invites us to name the sorrow and acknowledge the loss. The pain is real. No matter how long and wonderful someone’s life may have been or how welcome their release from suffering in this world was, there is, nonetheless, an absence, and absence in the heart they once occupied in our lives. So, we express our grief and do not deny it.
Second, at a memorial service we remember the life of the one who died. We tell stories of their legacy, the love they shared, the values they lived, the difference they made. We laugh, we cry, we revel in our memory of who they were to us.
Memorial services, especially when in a more secular setting, are often called a celebration of life and sometimes the subject of death itself can be oddly taboo. In a Christian funeral, we do not avoid mention of the end of life. This is the third piece: a memorial service gives us the opportunity to face death squarely and proclaim the core of our faith: that God’s love carries us from this life into the mystery of life eternal.
During the construction of the US Bank Stadium back in 2016, a worker fell to his death in an accident. I was asked to speak to the workers when they came back onto the site for the first time two days later. I was there at the start of their work day, very early in the morning. The workers assembled on the future football field, in their safety vests and hard hats.
I was introduced, and when I stepped to the microphone, 1200 hard hats quickly came off. It was their way of making that construction site sacred space. That moment transcended time. It could have been any community gathered anywhere in any age, to mark the loss of one of their own.
I looked out at them and did what I do at every memorial service. I acknowledged the pain of losing a co-worker. I said his name to honor his life. And I spoke of the hope we have in the unseen force of love that is stronger than death. Then I offered prayer for his family and friends and all bearing sorrow that day. With my “Amen,” the hardhats came back on, and a new work day began.
I imagine most of those workers were grieving that day, and also ay have been facing their own mortality. A construction site, especially a massive one like the stadium, can be a dangerous place. However difficult, that’s important for us to do from time to time.
Jews are preparing today for Yom Kippur. It begins at sundown this evening and continues for 25 or 26 hours until nightfall on Monday. Yom Kippur invites Jews to remember those who have died and to examine their own lives as they enter a day of fasting.
It is something like our Ash Wednesday, when we reckon with reality and remember that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Ash Wednesday invites us to consider the inevitability of our own deaths. We hear that again at memorial services in a part of the liturgy called the Commendation.
Imagine for a moment these words being said at your memorial service:
“All of us go down to the dust;
Yet even at the grave we make our song,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with all your saints,
where there is neither pain nor sorrow nor sighing,
but life everlasting.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant…Tim, Steve, Mary, Alan, Bob, Nancy.” Drop in your own name. “We commend your servant…”
“Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”
As is often true of anything we don’t fully understand, we tend to avoid the subject of death, as if it might not notice us and slip by. We may not like talking about the end of our lives but ignoring it can lead us to fear it and cause anxiety when it does comes near, as it will. Our time on this earth is fleeting; coming to terms with that truth helps us live with more purpose and live more fully in each day.
The Bible is not afraid of human mortality. Throughout the texts of the older and newer testaments we hear the repeated promise that God intends to do away with death.
The ancient prophet Isaiah imagines an invitation to a mountaintop feast – and this is proof that even back then when someone dies people started to eat together as a way to process their grief –
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines…
And God will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples…
God will swallow up death for ever (and) …
wipe away the tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:6-8a)
In Revelation, we hear that same promise this way:
“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
The Apostle Paul puts the promise like this:
“Behold! I tell you a mystery…We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (I Corinthians 15:51-52a, 54c)
The old hymn echoes the promise:
“Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
glost in wonder, love, and praise.”
(Charles Wesley, Love Divine, All Loves, Excelling; 1747, vs. 4)
That is the promise we bear as Christians. We will hear that promise in a few minutes at the font, when we baptize little Roselyn Natasha.
The common thread is that death is not final. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. (John 11:25)
With that assurance we take our place with people of every age, every time, every place who have faced death either on a small or large scale, and wondered what it means. Our response is to hold fast to the Easter promise of eternal life. That’s why we call a memorial service a Witness to the Resurrection. We share the Apostle Paul’s conviction that nothing – nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord..
God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
In this season as I wind down my ministry with you, we’re thinking a lot about benediction. A benediction is a blessing. Our faith claims that the blessing of life from God continues after our earthly experience into the mystery that ultimately awaits us.
Love never ceases. It’s the final blessing. Hope is fulfilled.
Life after life. The Benediction never ends.
Thanks be to God.