Last night our church hosted a memorial service for the daughter of the former pastor, who died of suicide two months ago. Her service was eight hours away, where she lived, and we wanted to do something for former parishoners and colleagues here.
It turned out to be a beautiful and powerful service, a perfect blend of pastoral leadership (including the mom and her husband as well as four others of us) in music, word, and ritual. So many gifted people in ministry! My contribution was to host and to preach a short homily. Here it is:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God’s very self will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
~ Revelation 21:1-4
Many, many years ago, I heard the late Unitarian Universalist pastor Forest Church preach at Chautauqua. “Why do we have religion?” he asked. The answer? “Because we live and we die.”
We live and we die, and we have to make sense of those twin realities.
For those of us whose lives have been marked by the suicides of people we cherish, the entanglement of life and death becomes the question that relentlessly stalks our days and claims our nights.
“Choose life!” the Bible tells us. And most of us do. All of us here have seen how joyously people choose life when they are married, when a child is born, when labor work is satisfying and fruitful. And all of us have seen how tenaciously people cling to life even as they gasp their final breaths, how they long for one more day, or even one more minute.
But the choice for life is not always as easy, or natural, or hope-filled, as it might seem. For some, illness makes of death a release from pain and trauma. And those of us left behind are called to delve into that dark place in which we can understand, a bit, where our loved ones found themselves, marooned on islands of despair and longing, no longer able to see even a sliver of light at the end of tunnels that curve and swell and twist and turn and finally narrow.
And then – what becomes of those of us who would have done anything, anything at all, to preserve the lives of those precious to us?
We start looking. Where are the answers? A and T and E, I know that over time, you will find your own ways to live with the loss of S, and your own ways to live with the paradox of the stunning beauty of her flower-filled life entertwined as it was with the searing pain of her illness. I myself can offer only one small Biblical interpretation which has helped me. It comes from Mirslav Wolf’s book The End of Memory, in which he suggests that the new heaven and new earth held out as promises to us, the final fulfillment of the kingdom which has already come among us, this new reality in which every tear will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more -- this will be a reality in which even the memory of these hard things will be no more.
It sounds shocking, at first, and kind of horrifying. Memory no more? We all want to retain our memories, don’t we? Our memories of all of it, the good and the bad, the joy-filled and the heart-rending -- our memories which remind us of all that has made us who we are today? We don’t want to lose our them, not even the reminders of tears and mourning. We cling to our memories as if they are ourselves. Who we are. People of compassion because we have suffered, people of determination because we see what might be,
And yet . . . and yet . . . and yet, what if we are made for more?
What if we are not, as Wolf says, merely “the sum of our past experiences?” What if we are called to leave our heartaches behind and to receive ourselves as the people we were originally intended to be? People created for a garden? People created entirely for love? To remember and to know S, gardener, animal lover, daughter and sister and friend, as most fully and joyously her beloved, precious self?
It’s hard to imagine, tonight, when the loss is so great, that compete transformation lies ahead. That there will come a time when the heavens and the earth, even the tangible earth on which we live, will be transformed by the love of God into a mass of extravagant color and growth, into a garden in which brokenness and death will be no more, a garden in which life will flourish without recourse to the past.
Here, we live and we die. Sometimes the combination seems harsh beyond comprehension. But the promise is for life. Even when our capacity for this existence is crushed by illness and battered by sorrow, the promise remains. Life for S. Life for us all. Amen.