This is a sermon given at the Amble Memorial Sanctuary in So. Sidney, MI where I was invited to preside over the 47th Annual Service in this historic Danish church.
Reading: Ps. 27:1-5; John 11:17-44
First of all, I would like to thank you all for allowing me to be a part of this memorial celebration. Memorial Day is a day to remember the lives of those who died in active military service. But just recently in the graveyard outside this church, I officiated the burial of the remains of Sgt. Mae Johnson, a WAC in WW2 and a longstanding member of my congregation. And so we must also remember those whose service continued long after the bombs ceased. I myself have never served in the armed forces, but I do believe we cannot make any sense out of our own life, without having some understanding of the end of life. Memorial Day helps us to do just this.
As young children, my cousin and I would wonder how our time would come to an end. Through illness, accident, war, or a natural disaster? Will it happen suddenly or gradually? Eventually, we grew up. He became part of the elite Special Forces, and I became a minister. We would both discover on our own terms that there are no answers for such questions, so why bother spending any more time worrying about them?
I believe it is blessed ignorance that none of us know how our lives will end. But what we do know is this: Right now, at this very moment, someone, somewhere, will take their last breath. It might happen because of the horrific wars we continue to wage on humanity. Or it might happen because of a poor diet, a bad decision, or maybe it’s time for the sun to set on a long and prosperous life. Yet still, human beings find it fascinating to ask questions about death and dying. Most of my non-religious friends wonder how a God of love, a God whom I worship, can allow bad things to happen…especially to good people.
When something bad happens to someone good, faithful Christians hold to the hope that God has a plan. And maybe God does. We don’t know for sure, and that too is blessed ignorance. We don’t know why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But what we do know is that God could ask us the same question. Why do we allow it?
In the long history of this church building, we have witnessed two destructive World Wars and countless violent conflicts that have claimed millions of lives. We have watched the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts unfold, and allowed the genocides in the Soviet Union, China and Rwanda. There is still the ethnic cleansing around the globe. We too have also witnessed AIDS killing our children, global hunger destroying our neighbors, and the rise of terrorism spreading fear among all nations. While we ask God why he allows such bad things to happen, we should be asking ourselves why we are not demanding justice and peace from our leaders.
These events are stark reminders that we cannot remember the lives of people we love, without being reminded of the grim reality of our human sin, and our own brokenness. Each one of us, in our own way, has been scared simply because we have lived. But what separates the faithful from the faithless is we hold to the hope filled words of Christ who said, "Don't let your heart be troubled. Trust in God and trust also in me” (Jn. 14:1). We may not be sure if God has a plan, but we do have the assurance that the love of God , which dwells in Jesus’ heart, comes to us, and offers us consolation and comfort.
We see this in John’s gospel account of Jesus raising Lazarus to life. Here Martha and Mary are mourning their dear brother’s death. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the pain these sisters are feeling. We know the anger that is raging inside them. We know what it’s like to feel scared and alone. And we know what it feels like to want to scream out to God, “Why?”
It should be of no surprise that Martha questions Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” It is as if she needs to put blame on someone. And still to this day, God seems to be the perfect scapegoat. How quickly we are to forget the wisdom I once read on a bumper sticker, which said, “Birth is the leading cause of death.” Perhaps life is all God has planned for us. If that is the case, then how we preserve life should be our most important issue. Jesus is there for Martha. He gives her comfort in her time of grief, and the assurance that death is not the end. Her brother will live again Jesus declares. And then when Jesus sees Mary crying, he is so moved that he cries to. The King James Version sums it up simply as "Jesus wept."
Here we have the shortest sentence in the Bible, yet it packs the biggest punch. God isn’t just with us, but suffers with us. God feels our pain, and takes our pain as his own. The cross is a stark reminder of that sacrifice.
Jesus, the Blessed One, weeps. Jesus weeps over the death of his friend. But he also weeps when he overlooks the city of Jerusalem, knowing it will soon to be destroyed. Jesus weeps over all losses and devastations that fill the human heart with pain. He grieves with those who grieve and sheds tears with those who cry. The violence, greed, lust, and so many other evils that have distorted the face of the earth and its people causes the Beloved Son of God to weep. We too have to weep if we hope to experience God's consolation.
The world has seen no greater love than the love that Jesus gives us. St. Paul writes in Romans, “But God proved his love for us in that while we still ere sinners Christ died for us.” God’s ever flowing and all-giving love frees us from the sin that found its way into His perfect creation. In his life and at his death, Jesus exemplified God’s divine love; his compassion, empathy and sympathy that he shows towards others, God shows to us through him. Through Jesus’ sacrificial love, we come to be one with God. No war, famine, or natural disaster can take that away.
In our time of death, Henri Nouwen writes this, “Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.”
Every American soldier who marches on to war, to protect and preserve our national interest, we remember them on this day for their sacrifice. But it is in the way we love and serve God that we will be remembered throughout eternity. When we share our compassion, empathy and sympathy with others, we are building more than a relationship between the wounded and the healer. We are living out a covenant between equals. As brothers and sisters, children of a living and loving God.
As members of God's family, we must never forget the grace given to us by God is the grace that we give to others. As we move closer to being reunited with those who have gone before us, may we never forget the promised hope of salvation in which such membership into God’s family offers freely to anyone who desires it. When we can leave this world with grateful hearts, grateful to God and our families and friends, then our deaths can become sources of life for others.
I can’t think of a better way to be remembered, in this life and in the one yet to come.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”