Happy Birthday! (funeral sermon)

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

It may seem strange to say this, today: On a day we mourn at the death and loss of a loved one. A loved one, nonetheless who lived to a 103! A loved one whose 104th birthday is today! “Happy birthday Wilma!”

When we say a funeral service is a ‘celebration of life’ we affirm this with mixed feelings, to be sure.

Kind of like the other paradoxes in our lives: Because, for example, we know that we are better fulfilled in giving rather than receiving. Because, as people of faith, we know that it is in dying that we live — on many levels.

That is why a funeral service is like an Easter service when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That is why, the day Jesus died on the cross is called “Good” Friday. Talk about paradox.

So, with confidence, we gather today to have a birthday party. Because Wilma, a person of deep faith in the living Lord, lives today in heavenly glory! 

Happy birthday Wilma!

At birthday parties we often tell stories about the person’s life, to date. There is one story from early on in Wilma’s life that I wish to highlight: When she was five years old, the windows of the Halifax house she and her family were living in blew inward, planting shards of glass deep in the layers of the skin on her head. She and her family survived the famous Halifax explosion.

Until Wilma was well into her 40s she was pulling little pieces of glass from her skin. For a large chunk of her life, especially in her formative years, she had to live with this reminder of her near death experience at such a young age. She was, in the first part of her life, regularly made aware of the fragility of her life and the reality of her mortality. That with each step we take in life, death walks along close by. Maybe that’s why she lived so long.

We try to avoid death. We deny it at every turn. We don’t want to see it. And yet, in avoiding death we also avoid living. Living to the upmost. The key to a rich life is to be aware that our death is only one breath away. 

It is common knowledge that the most effective, greatest and skilled soldiers in history were men and women who were willing to die in giving themselves to engage each combat situation. When you accept your own death at any given moment, then you can truly live.

An incredible paradox, isn’t it? How can we live in the ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery of this reality?

Wilma, as I said, was a woman of deep and enduring faith — through it all. It’s amazing when you think about the history she lived through: the rise of the automobile; the radical advance of technology from wires to the digital age; the many wars and two world wars of the last century, the Depression and economic ups and downs, the social revolutions. Through it all, she nurtured, and was nurtured in, a life of faith in the God who died in order to live.

Perhaps a deep knowing of this leads one to bless others. Indeed, this is how I got to know Wilma in these last four years of her life. Mostly through touch. In the tradition of the church, a blessing of healing and grace was given primarily by the ‘laying of hands’. It was a challenge to communicate with her, and yet, experts affirm that 70% of communication is non-verbal.

Wilma’s image of God was of a gracious, giving, loving God. She bristled at me early in our relating when I said the version of the Lord’s Prayer that has the line: “Lead us not to temptation …” She stopped me right in the tracks of that prayer, right there: “Stop,” she said. “God does not lead us to be tempted!” she objected. So, we changed the words. And that is why you read a slight variation in that sentence in the liturgy today.

God is a God of compassion and caring. God loves. Even when we can’t. Even when our love is imperfect and fraught with our own sin and misgivings. God comes to us first with a word of compassion, healing and mercy. This is the God Wilma believed in.

Her mission in life, in the last few years, was to bless others who cared for her. I learned this when she was at Fairfield Manor in Kanata, that she would routinely bless the nurses that attended to her. 

And after our many visits there, she would lean close to me and kiss me on my forehead. She said: “That’s the kiss of Jesus, saying that he loves you. And I do too.”

I responded: “I love you too, Wilma.”

Then, ever true to her belief, Wilma said: “That makes the Holy Trinity — three loves!”

Perhaps, then, Wilma leaves us with the legacy of faith that doesn’t pretend life is meant to be perfect. Because she wasn’t. But life is meant to be lived as long as we are given breath, in order to be a blessing of love to one another, as best we can.

Because God does.

Amen.

An impossible call

After months of deadly fighting, the four tribes on post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged earth have achieved a tenuous peace treaty. The band of new comers barely catches their breath before they receive a signal for help. The distress call comes from somewhere in the borderlands, forbidden zones marking the territories occupied by the combative tribes. 

The earth’s inhabitants avoid these areas altogether now, anxious that any movements within the borderlands may be construed as aggressive. Those venturing into the forbidden land may be seen as provoking another war.

The distress signal calls the young troop into action. As they prepare to leave the relative safety of their compound, the elder statesman turns to the leader of the rescue mission and says, “We’ve lost people and shed blood to make peace. Don’t mess this up.”

Of course, such dialogue functions as foreshadowing — meaning, yeah, they’ll likely do just that: mess it up. Such a story line, or a variation thereof, sounds like many in popular fiction and TV today.(1)

When the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). This is no walk-in-the-park calling. The appointment from God is not a nice, extra little job to do as a hobby. This is not a proposition for an easy, comfortable life-style. This is not an extra-curricular weekend, work-life balance proposal.

The stakes are high. Your life is on the line. Everything you have and know is placed at great risk. You are more likely to fail. You can really mess this up. Not only for yourself, but for a whole lot of people.

Can we really be hard on Jeremiah (oh, and Moses, Sarah, David, Isaiah, Mary, Zechariah, Timothy and others in the Bible) who first questions the call from God? Doubt the veracity of the claim. Question the wisdom of such a move. Balk at the incredulous proposition of this word. Jeremiah understandably doubts his ability, and knee-jerks into finding excuses: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (v.6). 

It is the natural, human response. God, though, does not give up on us.

A caution: This is not a word just for the professional religious. Another excuse today would be for the people of God to dismiss this text as irrelevant, pertaining only to those discerning a call to full-time ministry and ordination. There is here a word to all who face seemingly insurmountable odds:

A call to attend with care, compassion and dedication one who is dying. A call not to give up, but persevere in a course of action. A call to leave an unhealthy relationship behind in order to embrace an uncertain, unclear future. A call to stop doing something without being certain about what will replace it. A call to change one’s mind and adopt a different approach, perspective and opinion on a long-held belief. A call to do something or go somewhere that you had never thought possible in your life.

Now, we are all saying, “Oh, Lord, I can’t do that. Impossible!”

“Do not be afraid … for I am with you to deliver you” (v.8).

When against all the odds we are faced with an incredible task, our relationship with God is brought into sharp focus. What we really believe about God rises to the surface. Our faith is exposed. What do we see there? 

I wonder whether in anxious moments of life we expect God to do something for us — intervene with thunder and lightning to show the way unambiguously in a booming Charlton Heston voice from above; or, more to the point, do the thing that needs to be done while I stand on the sidelines, spectating.

I wonder whether in the anxious moments of life what we really need to ask is not what can God do for us but who can God be for us? (2) When we are down-and-out, will God be our comfort? When we face a decision, will God be “the source of our courage, the keeper of our troubles, the teacher of our prayer, the guide of our pathway, the nurturer of our virtue, the companion of our soul”? 

The being God, rather than the do-ing God, keeps the boundaries clear as to who needs to do what job, and whose job it is anyway to work as prophet “over nations and over kingdoms” (v.10). The being God won’t give in to our responsibility-shirking tendency to pass the buck on the job we are called to do. When we actually risk doing it, nevertheless, God will be there for us. God will not forsake us. No matter whether we fail or succeed.

There is a wonderful grace that comes with the promise of God, as it did to Jeremiah, to be with him through it all. Yet, this grace comes not in words alone. This grace is not reserved nor exclusively confined to the realm of the abstract — a dis-embodied, disconnected cerebral, mental event. This grace is not the purview solely of an internal process.

God’s grace is embodied. It comes to us in the real world. “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth …” (v.9a). Touched. The image is rather odd, yet similar to the burning coal that touches the mouth of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his call (Isaiah 6:6-7). 

God validates, confirms, and communicates the call through the concrete, material aspects of our lives. Some may call it a ‘sign’. I prefer seeing it in terms of what you need in order to do the job. God supplies us, gives us the resources and personal support we need, to get the job done.

When we confront and respond to an impossible call, God will have already given us the gift we need to do it. We may not see it, acknowledge it or make sense of it right away. Yet, God equips those whom God calls to do what seems impossible. A poster used to hang in my home office: God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called. We are qualified to do what we must.

What has God already given to you, in order to do the impossible thing standing between you and God’s beautiful vision for your life, and the life of the world?

(1) – such as “The 100” CW TV, season 3 episode 1, based on the books by Kass Morgan

(2) – Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door” Green Press Initiative, 2008 digital version, Week 2 – Knocking on the Door, p.18-19