The Funeral Anthem: A Meditation

Sermon for Sunday, September 13, 2020 || Proper 19A || Romans 14:1-12

Today’s sermon is a meditation. In a minute, I’m going to invite you to find a relaxing sitting position, which will be easier on your couch than if you were here sitting on a hard pew. I decided to offer a meditation today because recently I’ve been feeling my jaw clenching more and more. Sleep isn’t restful. I’m on edge all the time. I’d wager you are responding to the abnormally high level of stress in our society in similar ways. A friend of mine has a newborn in the NICU whom he says is there because he has to “remember to breathe.” I think that goes for all of us right now.

So, in lieu of my regularly scheduled sermon, I’d like to lead us all through a meditation designed to bring our ultimate future into this present moment. This is a meditation about God’s presence and promise when death is an ever-present reality. I’m offering it because today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans includes a paragraph that we read as the third stanza of the opening anthem at the beginning of every Episcopal funeral. All four stanzas are quotations from scripture, and I’d like to meditate on them with you this morning. This might seem like a strange thing to do – focus on words spoken after someone has died. But these words are shared with those who remain, and I believe these scriptural truths actually help to bring us more fully alive.

So please find a comfortable place to sit. Place both feet on the floor if possible. Hold your hands loosely in your lap. Close your eyes if you wish. Remember to breathe. And listen for the presence and promise of God as we reflect on our ultimate future.

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

Jesus spoke these words to Martha upon the death of her brother Lazarus. She heard he was coming – a few days late – and she rushed to meet him on the road. Jesus responded thusly right after Martha said that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died. Was this an accusation? Or was this a statement of faith? As with most things when the deepest yearnings of our hearts are laid bare before God, both were true. Martha could not accuse Jesus without believing. In times of trial, we rail against God. We rage. And we often fail to realize that our angry prayer is a symptom of deep belief. The psalmist often cries out, “How long, Lord?” Such a question is not doubtful but full of faith and expectation.

When Jesus says that he is Resurrection and Life, he encapsulates death. Death is nestled between life and resurrection, between life and new life. Death is a transitory state, not a permanent one, even though we who remain cannot fully perceive the new life of the one who has died. And yet, we get glimpses, feelings, resonances. We see a bird land on a branch and we know in a place beyond normal knowing that the dead are still fully alive to God. And so are we. And so we will be then as now.

The funeral anthem continues with words from the ancient book of Job, the earliest written piece of the Hebrew Scriptures. Job says,

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

Before these words, Job rails and rage, both at God and at the so-called friends who have come to offer him comfort. But the only comfort they offer happens in the week in which they sit with him before opening their mouths. When they start talking, every word stings. And so in their poor example, we learn that silent presence is the best way to console.

Yes, Job rails and rages, and then he speaks these words. He knows his redeemer, his vindicator lives. Job believes that he will recognize God when they finally meet face to face. He will recognize God because God has always been with him, has always been raising him up, even in the midst of hardship. Later God will remind Job that Job could never grasp the mind or the majesty of God, and yet God grants Job this promise of recognition. I shall see God. The future promise of apprehending God is real even in the present moment because to God there is no past or future. There is only the gift of now. And so the faith that I shall see becomes the conviction that I do see. God’s presence is everywhere and in all things and in both pain and joy.

The funeral anthem then moves to the passage we heard this morning from St. Paul.

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

Paul captures an essential truth – that none of us has been or ever will be alone. We live because God has spoken us alive just as God spoke Light into being on the first day of Creation. We appear to be discrete, individual units of life, but there has never been such a thing. We are all connected one to another and all to God. We belong to God in life and death, and it is the very act of belonging to God that makes us who we are. If we belong to God, then we are God’s possessions, and God gives us away to each other. 

That is why Paul tells us not to judge each other or despise each other. It is a poor recipient who judges or despises a gift. And we are all gifts of God that God is giving to the world. These gifts persist even after we die because the impact of each individual, no matter how humble, is incalculably grand. Therefore, we seek to make that impact the positive force that shows us to be gifts of God.

Finally, the funeral anthem concludes with a verse from the book of Revelation. The writer hears a voice from heaven speak these words:

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

“Happy from now on” or better yet, “Blessed from now on.” The same word begins each of the Beatitudes. The vision of heaven in Revelation is a vision of celebrating by the throne of God while God wipes away every tear from our eyes and a river flows for the healing of Creation. And, the Spirit reminds us, this place where we are enfolded by the immediacy of God’s presence is a place of rest. Again, our ultimate future is God’s present promise, and so the rest we will find in death is available now in the power of the resurrection. We find that rest not by dying, but by surrendering – surrendering our anxiety, our frustration, our disappointment, our need to be successful and secure surrendering all this into the hands of God. The Sabbath day exists to call us to such surrendering, to such rest. The Sabbath is a little death in the midst of life, like the silence before a song.

Throughout these words that open the funeral service, we hear God’s promise and we envision God’s presence, both in our lives now and in the life to come. In these days of crisis, fear, and stress, we cling to the promises and presence of God, believing in the depths of our souls that our ultimate future belongs to God. And so does our present, because both are one in the same to God.

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