I sometimes look at old sermons when I get stuck in writing – and, sometimes, I even like what I find. Struggling with the message for the funeral this last week led me to this message deep in my files.
I had a chance to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC some ten or twelve years ago. I still remember that moment vividly. The path to the monument slopes gradually down as you descend to that long, shiny, black wall bearing the names of all those who died. Along the base of the wall are small tokens left behind, a deck of cards, a bottle of beer, a photograph or flower that symbolize some moment in time, some depth of memory, some private sorrow.
When you’re down by the wall the noise of the city falls away. You don’t notice the crowds. For a moment everyone is alone with their thoughts and their grief.
At the far side, the path rises up again into the ground level of the park and then, once again, you hear the traffic and the street noise and you remember that you are in a city and there were other things you were going to do, and you go on your way back to normal life – a little quieter to be sure, but back to normal life.
A funeral is like this it seems to me. It is holy ground where for a moment the world is left behind and we lose track of all that is around us to deal with our own private griefs.
And we have many griefs: of parents and spouses, of friends and coworkers, of lost dreams and hopes, of mistakes and sorrows of things left behind.
We have many griefs. And more will come in life. That is the way it is.
Sometimes it seems that we bear more than our share. But this is our lot as human beings. Since our first parents rebelled from God and were driven from the garden, we have come under the shadow of death. We no longer live in idyllic bliss. We no longer live in perfect communion with God. We no longer hear the sound of his footsteps in the garden.
It says in the biblical story that the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit of the tree she would become like God, knowing good and evil – knowing life’s joys and life’s sorrows. Like a child too eager to grow up, she reached for the forbidden fruit. Like an adolescent who doesn’t want to let anyone tell her what to do, who wanted to make all her own decisions, she ate the fruit. And gave it to Adam. And he ate. And their eyes were opened.
Their eyes were opened to fear. Their eyes were opened to shame. Their eyes were opened to tragedy, suffering and dying.
Like everything that seems too good to be true, the serpent’s promise was too good to be true. They were not able to be like God. Though they wanted to be the center of everything, they could not manage their world. They found themselves hiding from God and one another. Their labor in the fields became a battle against the weeds. The joy of children came with pain. Cain rose up in jealousy to slay his brother. Death became their companion.
So we live in a world not only of death, but of tragedy and sorrow. A world of unexpected losses. A world where relationships can be fractured more easily than they are repaired. A world where loneliness and sorrow haunt even our most joyous moments.
It is a beautiful world. The moon rise, the sun set, the brilliant reds and yellows of fall, the winter white of a fresh blanket of snow, the glorious green of spring – it is a beautiful world. But it is not what God made it to be. God did not intend that we could be cut off from each other. God did not intend that it should be so hard to communicate. God did not intend that death should tear our hearts in two.
The story of the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a happy ending to a sad story. It’s not an optimistic notion that terrible events can have a noble outcome. It is about God’s determination not to let death have the final say over human life. It is God’s cry against all evil and tragedy. It is God’s cry against all hopelessness and despair. It is God’s cry against all that keeps human life in bondage.
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s firm and utter declaration that our lives do not belong to death; they belong to him.
The journey of human life is the journey of discovering that our lives belong to God.
The journey of human life is the journey of discovering that our lives are not our own: that our lives have their beginning in God, that they have their end in God, and that they are to be lived with God and for God – which is also to say, they are to be lived with our neighbor and for our neighbor.
Sometimes it takes us a long time to discover this. Sometimes we have known it all along without ever realizing it. The secret of life is trying to learn it early, and well.
Our lives belong to God. The waters of baptism, which are such a central image in the funeral service, are a visible reminder to us that our lives belong to God. And if our lives belong to God, then they don’t belong to death. And, in the end, graves will be empty and heaven full.
For this reason we have more than tears this day as we come to lay Warren to rest; we also have hope. For we have heard the witness of Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection. We have heard the testimony of all the Biblical writers. We know that God intends life for us. We know that death will not have the final word for Warren. Neither does death have the final word for us.