Thursday, March 29, 2012

Death Has Been Swallowed Up In Victory

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 29, 2012

Funeral Sermon for Mary Wilde Chewning
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 139
1 Corinthians 15:53-58
Psalm 23
John 14:1-6a

Death Has Been Swallowed Up In Victory

The lesson I just read is an excerpt from the Evangelist John’s account of the Last Supper. Jesus has gathered for a final meal with his closest friends and disciples. They are all beginning to face what they probably had been denying for a while: their friend, their teacher, the one they had recognized as the messiah – Jesus – was going to die.

In John’s account, Jesus tries to reassure his friends – and tries to reassure us here today - do not let your hearts be troubled – in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places – I go to prepare a place for you – I will come again and will take you to myself – and you know the way.

But, all these centuries later we can still hear - and maybe even feel - the sadness and the bewilderment in Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

To which Jesus replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

Two thousand years later, many of us do a pretty good job of denial – denial of our total dependence on God and denial of the fact that we - and the people we most love - will all die.

One of the ways that the Church tries to push back at our denial is the season of Lent – the season that offers 40 days of preparation for Easter - the season that began on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is a tough day – it’s a day that offers a dramatic reminder of our dependence on God and a very tangible reminder of our mortality.

If you’ve ever received ashes you know how powerful getting that smudge on your forehead can be.

Imposing ashes is one of the most moving experiences I have as priest.

As we mark people with an ashen sign of the cross, we say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It’s especially moving when I really know the person – have some sense of their struggles and hopes. It’s especially moving to mark the ashes on babies and young children – a reminder that even those so young and so full of life and promise will not be exempt from death. And it’s especially moving to mark the ashes on someone gravely ill – someone who is in the thin space between this life and the life to come.

So we begin Lent with ashes. We begin a season when we Christians are invited to take stock of our lives, to reflect on the ways that we have turned away from God and the ways that we have been less than loving toward our brothers and sisters.

Lent is a season when we are called to sacrifice. Some people - maybe some of you here today – give up something like chocolate, or wine with dinner, or maybe smoking. It’s a season when we sacrifice something unnecessary – or even hazardous – in order to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God.

Here in church we do our best to create an environment that sets an appropriately somber tone. The shiny silver and brass are put away, replaced by wood and pottery. We priests wear somber purple vestments. And we don’t say the great celebratory word “Alleluia” until the Easter Vigil.

But, although each year we go through this somber exercise of Lent, we Christians know how the story ends.

It would be morbid – and, frankly, unbearable – to impose ashes on all those foreheads if we didn’t know how the story ends.

But, we know that after the forty days of Lent, after we remember the sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday, after we remember the time when all hope seemed to be lost – we know that the story ends with the great celebration of Easter.

The silver and brass will be back, we’ll be in white vestments, and the Alleluias will ring out as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, we’ll celebrate that, yes, ”Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

On Easter, we’ll celebrate God doing what God always does – turn death into new life.

And, really, that’s what we’re about here today. A Christian funeral is like a little Lent and a little Easter.

We begin today with a little Lent. We come here this morning with sadness that we will not see Mary again in this life. Meeting Susannah and Chris and Ray at the hospital and hearing wonderful, often funny stories about Mary made me very sorry that I didn’t get the chance to know her. And then, reading Susannah’s marvelous remembrance that’s in your bulletin makes me even sadder that I never knew her – never knew this strong woman whose life both reflected and transcended her time and place – never knew this woman who was willing to repeatedly reinvent herself – never knew this “righteous soul” who most loved being a mother, the role that allowed her to best reflect God’s own perfect love.

Although she lived a long, full life, I know it still would be wonderful to have her with you even for just a little longer.

We begin today with a little Lent. We come here very much reminded of our mortality. And maybe that reminder is causing us to take stock of our own lives. If we were to die tomorrow, how would we be remembered? Would we be remembered as caring and faithful people? Would we be remembered the way you remember Mary?

So, yes, today we begin with a little Lent. But, we know how the story ends.

We know how the story ends for Jesus. We know how the story ends for Mary. And we know how the story ends for us.

So, you may have noticed that we’re taking a break from Lent this morning and we’re celebrating a little Easter.

There’s no somber purple today – we’re decked out in our white vestments. And there will even be some of those otherwise forbidden alleluias!

At the end of the service, during what’s called the Commendation, Lauren will read words that echo both the solemnity of Ash Wednesday and the joy of Easter.

She’ll say, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

So, today is a little Lent – a day to mourn the loss of a righteous soul and maybe face some things about ourselves that we usually try to deny.

But, more importantly, today is also a little Easter – a day when we celebrate that “death has been swallowed up in victory” – a day when we celebrate God doing what God always does, turn death into new life – new life for Jesus, new life for Mary - and new life for us all.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!