Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2023 || Epiphany 4A
On this day of our Annual Meeting, I’d like to spend this sermon time fulfilling a request from a number of people over the last few months. Today, I am going to share with you some of the elements of the funeral homilies I have preached over the last year. Because funerals are mostly attended by family and close friends, very few of the members of our church have heard me preach at a funeral. And yet we are all grieving in one way or another the deaths of so many of our church family – 23 of whom we have buried in the last year. A funeral homily is my chance to set the life (and new life) of the person who died within the greater context of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So today, on this day of our annual gathering, we are going to remember those who have died, and I am going to share with you some thoughts on heaven and the eternal love of God.
But first, I’d like to read the names of the people who have died in the last year. Some of them were decades-long members of the church, others were new members, others had a more tangential connection to this community of faith. Yet all of them are threads in the great tapestry of human connection that God’s love is constantly weaving. In order of their funerals, we lift up to God Rafael Ortiz, Ann Rose, Malcolm Wheeler, Emily Barrett, Lee Vincent, Marguerite Schmidt, Doreen Noonan Hess, Giacomo Roberts, Katherine Sonnenberg, Walter Schultheis, Robert Clay, Craig Gilbert, Dorothy Carlson, Sandra Eddy, Margaret Greene, Paul Edwin Glass Jr., Rebecca Jackson, Ruth Jacob, Donald Brown, Wilhelmina Gaudy, and John Harrington. We also lift up John Upholz and Ann Lazarek, who were part of our community, but for whom we did not hold funeral services.
Each one of these people touched our lives, either directly or indirectly through that vast tapestry woven out of God’s eternal love. There are two pieces of Holy Scripture that we read at the majority of their funerals. One is First Corinthians 13, St. Paul’s wonderful poem about love. More often read at weddings, I prefer to hear this reading at funerals because it speaks to the eternal nature of love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And then Paul says the three truest words in scripture: “Love never ends.” These three words form my entrance into the mystery and the power of the resurrection.
Love is like energy. It cannot be destroyed, only changed. The pain we feel now because our loved ones no longer walk among us – that pain is love. Better known as grief. Grief is love; love tempered by loss. True love always has two elements. One is that our love always exists within the greater love of God. And two, true love is always reciprocal; that is, love exists as a flow between two beings, not simply from one to the other.
Taken together, these truths about love reveal to us how our deceased loved ones participate in the eternal love of God, even now fully embraced and enfolded by that love. Since true love is a flow between beings, and since grief is a form of love, then we know that their love did not end when they died. Their love lives on, stitched into God’s love, and thus God’s love still stitches them to the fabric of our hearts.
The power of the Resurrection makes this stitching possible because the promise of the Resurrection is the promise of eternal relationship with God. And this is where the second passage from scripture comes in, the beginning of John Chapter 14. The passage takes place during the Last Supper. Jesus knows he is about to go to his death, so he takes this final opportunity to tell his disciples many important things. In John’s Gospel, the concept of belief is shorthand for an abiding relationship. So when Jesus tells them to “Believe in God, believe also in me,” he isn’t talking about assenting to a certain set of doctrines and dogmas. He’s saying, “remain in relationship with me.” And then he speaks of life after death: “I go and prepare a place for you. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” So for Jesus, what we call “heaven” isn’t defined by a location or any outward trappings. For Jesus, heaven is eternal relationship with our eternally loving God.
Jesus asserts the eternal nature of this relationship in his last words in the Gospel of Matthew: “I will be with you until the end of the ages.” And Paul picks up this same promise in the words from the Letter to the Romans that form the basis of every healing prayer I ever pray: “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.” Jesus, unwilling ever to break his promise to be with us, offers us (and all who have died before us) the gift of resurrection.
Even now, in this earthly life, we receive this gift of eternal life lived in the enfolding love of God. Our loved ones received this gift, and still our hearts break. This is only natural for the way we experience our love for them has changed. Jesus wept, too, at the grave of his friend Lazarus. We grieve. And we believe. We believe that their love for us and our love for them still connects us; our threads are still woven together with their threads in that infinite tapestry of God’s love.
So, heaven is not a place with gates and clouds and harps. Heaven is eternal relationship with our eternally loving God, this God who holds us all – living and dead – in the hollow of God’s hand. Awash in this eternally loving embrace, we find heavenly rest. This rest is a special type of rest. This type of rest does not happen upon sleeping or relaxing. This rest is not a cure for exhaustion, but a cure for restlessness, the notion that we just need to do a little more or be a little better or fix this or change that – and then everything will be okay. But then it never is because this restlessness happens at a soul level. Our souls call out for rest, and we find it only in the eternally loving embrace of God. As Saint Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they find rest in you.”
We rest in the eternally loving embrace of God, here and now, and there and then. This loving embrace is the foundation of love now and new life to come. This loving embrace is the promise of the resurrection. And this loving embrace keeps us connected to all those whom we love but see no longer, for they too remain embraced in God’s love.
On this day of our annual gathering, we are still joined by those who have gone before us. May their memory and legacy live on in our continued service. And may God grant us the grace to feel their love still, for we are all, alive and dead, connected through the eternal love of our eternally loving God.
Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash.