Monday, November 8, 2010

Sermon for Oct 22 2010 Memorial Service at Good Shepherd Hospice

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 139:1-18
Memorial Service- Good Shepherd Hospice
Oct 22, 2010

There are moments in which the preciousness of life is so clear: the birth of a child, a first kiss, the death of a loved one. Each marks an ending, and a beginning.

Birth marks the end of time in the womb; a time of mystery ends as new life enters in, ready to experience and influence the world.

A first kiss signals that for better or for worse, the age of innocence has come to an end, but a first kiss is also a harbinger to the sweet sensuality of life and the importance of deep, loving relationships.

And death: yes that marks the end of one’s time in this world, but I believe that there is something beyond death that leads to a new kind of beginning, another mystery that none of us can fathom.[i]

Hebrew has phrases that refer to the idea of an afterlife. One term is “the future world”, another is “the future yet to come.”[ii]

Let me share with you a story; a fictional one, I’m sure, that holds an element of truth: A man was diagnosed with cancer. As a way to regain some control, he met with his pastor to get his funeral in order.

He chose what was to be read, what songs to be sung. He had a final request: “I want to be buried with a fork in my hand.”

The pastor couldn’t hide her perplexed look. The man explained “My favorite part of going to potlucks was when the main course was cleared. Someone would always lean over and tell me to keep my fork. I knew something better was coming along, like key lime pie or chocolate cake. Something wonderfully sweet with substance!

“So when people see me in my casket with a fork in my hand and wonder ‘Why?’, I want you to tell them ‘The best is yet to come.’”

The pastor hugged the man, sensing this would be the last time she’d see him alive.

Sure enough, at the funeral, people asked “Why the fork?” The pastor answered, with a smile that spoke of eternity, “To remind us that the best is yet to come.”

The best is yet to come…you may wonder how can I say that when we have gathered with collected tears, experiencing our own sense of loss and grief.

Because, I believe in God, and that God is good. I also believe in a creative, loving God. Therefore, I believe that whatever is good and right never truly disappears, but returns to God, the source of all blessings, whose abiding love never ends.

Because of this, I believe that we can trust God; we can trust God with our living, our destiny, we can even trust God with our death.[iii]

That’s part of what I glean from Psalm 139, a testimony to our loving God, who is there before our beginnings and after our endings.

“You have searched me and known me,” the psalmist sings. “You formed me in my mother’s womb; you saw me when I was unfinished, when I sit, when I rise, even before I speak. You lead me and your hand supports me.”

The unending presence of God in our lives, even when life ends, is celebrated: “If I go to heaven, you are there. If I go to the land of the dead, you are there.”

The songwriter makes this claim: that when we count our days, and come to the end, we are still with God. There is comfort and there is poetry in this proclamation of faith, knowing that even when the sands of time have run out, we are still in the presence of our Creator.

Which means that because God is eternal, so are we…

…Today, we have gathered, from different faiths and denominations, each with each its own poetic understanding. Many of our poetries claim that when people die, they live on. You can call this heaven, reincarnation, resurrection, or energy.

And because God lives, I believe that when a loved one dies, they live on as well. One way they continue to live on is through us; the people they loved, the lives they’ve come across. Let me share with you what I mean by this.

I have had many people in my life die. Over the years as I’ve aged, I’ve discovered just how much I’ve become like them. I look at photos and see how my legs, face, stomach have filled out like theirs. That makes sense; for I have inherited their genes.

But genes are not the only things we inherit. I believe we can also inherit their culture and personality. Sometimes it can seem silly and superficial.

For example, my grandmother had a great sense of humor, a bit on the blue side. She also had a long tongue that she could touch the tip of her nose with, which fascinated me. Sadly, she died when I was 9, before my youngest sister, Samantha, was born.

But just the other day Samantha sent me photos of her and her sons. In every picture they were being silly, sticking out incredibly long tongues. It felt like, for a moment, that Grandma was alive again, popping out through them, to say hello.

Sometimes the ways our loved ones live on are more concrete. For example, my grand-father was a member of the VFW, held poker games in the basement and kept a refrigerator stocked with spicy foods and beer. He was also a pretty good cook, making the best western omelets you’ve ever had. He died when I was 16.

Come to my home; you’ll find people over and a kitchen stocked with spicy foods and cocktails. I also like to cook. Whenever I attempt to make eggs, it’s as if he’s right there, even if they never taste like his.

Many of the things my grandfather did and who he was in terms of friends and food have wonderfully infiltrated my own life, making me want to more consciously incorporate them into my own being.

Four years ago, I made a discovery: Grandpa was the chaplain for the VFW. I don’t recall ever knowing this; that he was a spiritual leader who offered comfort to those in their time of need.

Did I inherit my calling from him? Is my ministry a way in which my Grandfather, though dead for 24 years, still lives on?

I believe that there are many ways our loved ones live on through us and our children. Their hopes and dreams; temperaments and talents, their joys and tears; sometimes we can even see it in our own eyes when we walk past a mirror or come across a photo.

It’s not just blood relatives who live on through and with us. There are those we meet that we emotionally and intellectually take into ourselves.[iv] Rarely are we left unaffected by someone who has come into our life. They can be our teacher, friend, someone we took care of.

I recall a parishioner with a series of ailments. He and his wife played cards on a daily basis to maintain his dexterity and mental capability; I’d join them on occasion.

He went to hospice and was given two days to live. Through a quiet courage, he told his wife he was ready to go home, which for him meant being with Jesus. Instead of discounting him, she expressed her love and granted him permission to go home.

He defied all expectations by living another 8 months, I believe in part due to her healing acceptance. He spent his last days in his own house, each day another chance for them to be together with family and friends who visited, not in pity, but in love.

Whenever I play a game of cards I feel reconnected to him. And although I do not carry his genes, I do carry his story which has influenced my ministry, and allowed me to encourage people he’s never met.

I know that in some way, some how he is still present, just as my grandparents are.

Just as I believe your loved one, your father and mother, your sister and brother, your son and daughter, your grand mother and father, your dear friend, your co-worker, your patient, your husband, your wife are.

Love does not stop because someone has died. Relationships do not stop because someone has died. Nor does the importance they have played in our lives.

The death of a person does not have to freeze us in our living or stop the love we have for those who have come before.

Though they are out of sight, they do not have to be out of our hearts and minds.

For whether we realize it or not, they have influenced and shaped us so much, that what we do, how we think, what we like, all are an extension of them. Through us, they live on, and will be passed to our loved ones.

In conclusion, as Psalm 139 states, it is God who knew us before we were born; who formed us, who is present in all we do and wherever we go, and that even when we reach the end of our days, God is still with us.

God is the eternal good, therefore our goodness will also remain eternal and eternally present.

Good from good, good to good, never to be fully lost. Ready with a symbolic fork in our hand for that something better that is coming next.

All thanks and honor be to the Creator of life who fills us with a spirit of being and connects us in ways we can not even imagine.

Amen and amen.
[i] Influenced by John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 1998, pg. 201.
[ii] Marc Angel, “Afterlife: A Jewish View” in A Dictionary of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue, 1995, 3.
[iii] George Lea Harper, Jr., from the phenomenal book Living with Dying: Finding Meaning in Chronic Illness, 1992
[iv] Spong, 213.

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