Not many 95 year olds have a hundred people come for their memorial service, but Bruce was one of them. Bright, alert, playful, humble, a voracious reader, an inquiring mind, a scientist – it is hard to give the measure of a man in a few words. What helps to understand this sermon is simply to know that he had founded a weekly Men’s Breakfast and Bible Study at church sometime during the Vietnam War, and continued to participate until recently. In place of a luncheon, the men hosted a breakfast after the memorial service. For the Gospel text we read the beatitudes.
+ + +
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
The truth is, I don’t want to be here this morning. I want to be at breakfast, with Bruce sitting in the corner to my left as he always did for 10 years – and as he probably did in just that same spot for many years before. I want to hear his laugh. I want to ponder his questions. I want to have to pull him back a little because he’s read ahead and is asking questions about verses we haven’t gotten to yet. I want to hear about what he’s been reading. I want to read whatever magazine he has brought. But we are here. We are unable to hold back the relentless march of time.
Bruce lived very many rich and full years. We can hardly feel cheated. But nevertheless we do. Death is a thief, stealing away what is precious to us.
And what shall we say? We sing the hymns; we say the prayers; we read a few passages of scripture for their poetry and comfort; we remember and tell stories – but if that is all we do, it won’t be enough.
We are standing before the mystery of death. We are faced with loss and mortality and regret and all those haunting questions about the meaning of life and what, if anything, comes after. We need more than a little poetry and the comfort of a familiar hymn.
It is one of the sad things that has happened to the story of Jesus – it has lost its surprise. It is like a movie with a stunning and surprising ending, but we have heard the ending so many times it no longer wows us. It no longer cracks open the world to make us see everything differently.
We’re not even sure what we mean by the word god anymore. We come to the Easter services and go home smiling because we have watched children hunt for Easter eggs, not because we have been encountered by a tear in the fabric of the universe. The ancient witnesses tell us that God has undone the death of Jesus. Those first witnesses didn’t have an encounter with his spirit or his soul or his ghost. They touched him. They talked with him. They ate with him. But he wasn’t bound by locked doors or ever again by death. Whatever power or reality lies at the heart of the universe had done something totally unexpected. Instead of a resurrection of all people at the end of time, here is a resurrection of one person in the middle of time.
We can try to domesticate this story. We can mentally turn it into a parable or a fable or a metaphor. We can treat it as if it were a children’s story, like we have done with Christmas. So Easter becomes about eggs and bunnies and spring and the power of life in the natural world. But that’s not the story those first witnesses tell. They tell of the might of Rome utterly crushing a man who had embodied God’s healing and grace, who had radiated God’s Spirit and life. They tell of a shamed and tortured and broken body laid in a grave. And, then, the totally unexpected act of God that vindicated Jesus and robbed Rome of all its power. The threat of the sword, the threat of death, had lost its power.
So we stand today before the mystery of death – but we also stand here in the presence of that far greater mystery of a risen Jesus. We stand here is the presence of a reality greater than death. And we stand with the promise that Bruce’s life has been joined to that of Jesus.
At first glance you might think the resurrection is something you would shout from the rooftops – but the first disciples didn’t. It scared them. They didn’t know what to make of it. They had a hard time believing it. It wasn’t at all what they expected. But that resurrected Jesus showed up again and again and breathed his Spirit upon his followers until they were transformed by that Spirit, that dynamic wind, that living breath of the divine.
There is nothing in the resurrection that denies the pain and sorrow of grief and loss – there is just this other message that a new reality is breaking into the world. A message that is much more than the comforting promise that we get to be with loved ones after we die, a message that God’s transforming power is at work in us and around us to raise the whole creation into new life, into a perfect wholeness, into a radical healing – a healing that transcends sin and sorrow and death, that transcends all life’s brokenness.
So we stand today before the mystery of death in possession of this story of a yet greater mystery: the mystery of a grave opened, of Jesus risen, and a reign of God begun.
We stand before the silence with a promise that we are created for life not death – and that God, the power that lies at the heart of the universe, will not surrender us to oblivion.
We stand before the silence with this promise that a power has dawned into the world that will not rest until the lion lies down with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares.
We stand before the mystery with this promise that a power has dawned into the world that will not rest until all creation is gathered to a great feast on God’s holy mountain and the pall of death is lifted forever.
We stand before the mystery with this promise that a power and presence is at work in us and around us that will not rest until the earth is renewed and sorrow and sighing flee away.
A lot hinges on what we do with this promise. It doesn’t take away our grief, but it can direct our path, for if the destiny of the world is life not death, then every act of kindness, every deed of mercy, every decision to forgive, every choice to do what is good and right, every act of creation, every service of others, every act of love is a participation in the world that is dawning, is a participation in the promise that we are destined for life and not for death.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, are the peacemakers – they will be called children of God who are living already the life to come.
Such words are not mere poetry; they are a declaration of a world transformed by the life of God – a world in which, somehow, in the mystery of God, we will sit together again at the breakfast table. And Bruce will laugh and inquire and challenge. And we will hear again Ilene playing the piano. And we will sing again the hymns and songs of joy – even as we are invited to live that true and certain and imperishable life now.