Lamentations 3: 17-18, 21-26; Psalm 103: 8, 10, 13-17; 1 Corinthians 1: 51-57; Matthew 11: 28-20
We come together today to remember friends, family, husbands and wives, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and all that we held dear and all who left their mark on our lives, for the good or not so good. We mourn them all. Many of us still have paper address books, where it is not so easy to delete names. Some of us even leave those who have passed on in our electronic contact lists. It is not because we deny that gap in our lives and in our hearts, but because we know instinctively that even when a living beings stops breathing, a heart stops beating, that life is not simply deleted from the universe.
Pollsters have numbers for us about who says they believe in God or believe in heaven, or believe in life after earthly death. They tell us that such beliefs are trending down. I suspect that people’s lives are often filled with stress and over-filled schedules, and there is little time to consider such issues.
Yet I will tell you that I spend little time wondering if I believe in God or heaven or eternal life – and that is because I have confidence in all of them. I have spent enough time with people, time with the dying, time in the scriptures, time in prayer to know I believe. I don’t pretend to know the how or where or when or why or who. I don’t need to know the answers to those questions – because I trust what I have seen and heard and read and felt. It is not a belief based on emotions, but rather a kind of knowing at an entirely different level.
I have lots of good company with my beliefs. There are four sets of readings designated especially for this day, with the option of many more which are listed in the Order of Christian Funerals. That book offers 7 Old Testament readings, 19 New Testament readings, 10 Psalms and 19 Gospel readings. This is belaboring the point, I’m sure, but I took this great math class, learning about combinations and permutations, so we have 25,270 different combinations of lectionary readings for today. I’d say that means lots of other folks through the years would testify on my behalf if my beliefs were questioned.
All that, however, is really only evidence. None of that really dulls the pain when we lose someone we hold dear. One priest friend told me to think of old coal burning train (just for a moment we will set aside the environmental concerns). The engine, you know, the locomotive, moves the train. What comes directly behind the engine? The coal car, of course. The engine cannot move without fuel. What comes behind the coal car? Well, the freight cars. The freight cars are where we would put our emotions, our feelings. Emotions are important, just as freight is important. But the coal car is our faith, and that’s what fuels us. That is what makes us know that we can move through this life, despite the hard times and the big losses.
Even more than “get us through,” faith presents an entirely different scenario to consider. What do our readings suggest? The first reading, paraphrased, says, yes, life can knock the stuffing out of us. But the Lord is still there, the creator and shepherd of us all. The Lord brings a new day every morning, a new start, and new hope. Healing can be slow, but God is with us through it.
Our Psalm says, yes, life seems all too short and far too fragile. But God is love and love is eternal. Love does not seek to punish, but to reward, love seeks us out. Love will hold each of us close forever.
St. Paul in our 2nd reading tells us we have immortality in our future. Things will not always be as they appear to us now. Things can and will change. Death is not the winner. Love and life are, in the end, victorious. God has created us to be part of that victory.
Finally, in our Gospel, Jesus assures us of his presence and his help in the times when the burden seems to be just too much.
Many saints, as death drew near, have written that they looked forward to what came next – not in despair or in a maudlin or selfish way, but in anticipation of great joy. Part of a Christian funeral is the concept of celebrating the life that is to come. So we stand in the great flow of life. Behind us, we miss those who are gone, but rejoice that they are safe with God. Ahead of us, we wonder about the future, but look forward with confidence that we will join them when God “wipes away every tear, when there will be no more death, no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain.” For all those things will have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)