Reflections at a small family funeral
Those of us who are familiar with the scriptures find them comforting and encouraging in a time like this when we tend to be overwhelmed by circumstance and emotion. They have a power to center us, to remind us of what is important, enduring and true. We find them to be a comfort because we have been convinced that they bear witness to a God of mercy.
Those of us, however, who are not rooted in the scriptures often find them strange. Even the word “God” is hard for some of us. But our confession as a Christian community is that there is a heartbeat at the center of all things, a spirit, a breath, pushing and pulling the world towards justice and mercy and goodness and life. And we are persuaded that this power and purpose at the heart of all things is more than just an impersonal force. We are persuaded that this primal reality cares for us – individually and as a whole creation.
We are persuaded that this power and presence at the heart of all things loves us. It’s why we use the word ‘person’ when we talk about the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity – because we have no other word to describe a reality that is able to love and be loved, to be in relationship with us.
We are persuaded that there is a loving reality at the heart of existence partly because these ancient writings seem to be alive with that Spirit. God meets us in these words, speaks to us through them. They calm the heart. They guide lives. They reveal truth to us. They comfort us in sorrow. They shape our spirits. In these words we are encountered by that loving presence at the heart of life.
I know that the scripture gets used in some ugly ways. But when we choose not to use the scriptures as an instrument of our wants, will and desires, when we allow ourselves to listen for them to speak to us, a wondrous thing happens. This heartbeat of the universe speaks.
The scriptures remind us that life was meant to be good. They tell a story of this loving presence calling all things into existence. They declare that the world in the beginning was very good, and we lived in harmony with God and one another in a garden.
But that harmony was broken, and we lost the garden. Life became a sorrow and a toil. The first two brothers found themselves at war with one another and death came to haunt us.
But the story scripture tells declares that God doesn’t abandon his creation. God remains faithful to us even when we are not faithful to him. And God shows himself as a God who leads us into the future rather than a God that binds us to our past. God calls Abraham to leave home and go to a new land, promising him a new future. God leads the Israelites out from bondage in Egypt and guides them through the wilderness to bring them into a good land. God speaks to the people again and again through prophets to call them into the life God intended for them. Even in the midst of our worst sorrows, God declares that he is leading us to a day when the world is restored, when swords are beaten into plowshares and the lion lies down with the lamb.
The words of those prophets are written down and copied through the centuries because we can still hear God speak through them.
And then this Jesus comes. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of all that God speaks. In him we see the heart of God. We see him healing the lame, gathering the outcast, welcoming sinners, trying to persuade “the righteous” of God’s infinite mercy and love. Story after story comes to us of Jesus meeting broken people in a way that frees them and restores them to their families and community. He teaches us to call God “father” and to forgive one another – to love even our enemies – to recognize our neighbor as brother, as a member of our own family.
Jesus announces something he calls “the kingdom of God.” He declares that God is coming – indeed is present now – to reclaim and heal his broken and troubled world, to bring all things under the governance of his Spirit. That’s why sins are forgiven and the blind see.
The words we read from scripture – these few paragraphs this morning – are like a few brief clips from a movie we have seen before. They call to mind the whole movie, the whole story: Our noble beginnings, our troubled history, and God’s promise and presence to bring us towards healing.
We are not telling a story about morality. And we are not telling a story about positive thinking and happy endings. We are telling a story in which humans have a great deal of trouble following God’s way. And when we meet this Jesus, this living embodiment of the love of God, he is mocked, tortured and killed. But then there is this strange thing called resurrection. God undoes what we have done. God gives life where we brought death. And here we are encountered by a wonderful and humbling message: our greatest human ugliness cannot stop the work of God to bring us into God’s life.
And then this risen Jesus breathes his Spirit on his followers so that we can go forward in his life.
We are here today in the midst of the painful reality of death and hurt and our human brokenness. But here God meets us to speak again his word of grace and life. Our lives belong to him. And Howard’s life belongs to him. And God meets us with forgiveness and healing, with Grace and Life.
We can do nothing more to save Howard from death’s power. But God is able. God is able to bend swords into plowshares. God is able to lift the burden of our failures and sins. God is able to raise us up from the realm of death into the realm of his life.
This is the story that these few brief passages convey to us. This is the eternal word in which we place our trust and hope – today, and in the days to come.