Thursday, August 22, 2013

God Never Lets Go of Us

The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 22, 2013

The Funeral of Stanley Oglesby
Job 19:21-27a
Psalm 139:1-11
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6

God Never Lets Go of Us
            As a priest, I guess I’m sort of a professional Christian. I spend much of my life thinking about and talking about how we come to know God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
            There are some times, though, when I catch myself feeling kind of surprised that Christianity ever really took off as a religion. It amazes me that faith in Jesus spread from a small group of frightened and dazed followers in Palestine two thousand years to the millions of people all around the world, including right here in Jersey City, who claim Jesus is Lord.
            Christianity’s popularity surprises me because our faith really doesn’t try to sugarcoat life. Our Christian faith is honest about suffering, loss, and despair. Our Christian faith is honest that all too often life can feel like – that life is, in the words of our reading from Revelation – a great ordeal.
            We never claim that being a Christian means we’ll live a life without suffering. Just the opposite, often.
            The Christian honesty about life’s suffering, loss and despair has its roots in Judaism, of course.
            In our first lesson this morning we heard a passage from the Book of Job – the powerful tale of an upright and righteous man who is sorely, sorely afflicted. Job is afflicted for no really good reason. We’re told there’s a little heavenly bet made between God and Satan on whether Job will finally crack and curse God. Not such a great reason for so much suffering.
            Job never quite curses God. But, man, he sure suffers – he sure goes through a great ordeal – he sure experiences loss – he sure despairs.
            At one point, Job cries out, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me! Why do you, like God, pursue me never satisfied with my flesh?”
            Job’s suffering, Job’s losses, and Job’s despair were all too real.
            Yet, throughout his great ordeal, even when all hope seemed to be lost – especially when all hope seemed to be lost - God never lets go of Job.
            And then there’s Jesus.
            Although we Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God, we’ve always insisted that Jesus was a real flesh and blood human being. Jesus lived and walked among us. Jesus shared in our humanity. And the gospels are clear that our brother Jesus knew real suffering and painful despair.
            Jesus knew the pain of rejection when the people in his hometown refused to accept him, leaving him seemingly powerless to heal and to teach.
            Jesus knew the pain of loss when he wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
            Jesus knew the pain of betrayal when one of his own turned against him and just about everybody abandoned him to die alone the shameful death of a common criminal.
            Jesus knew the pain of saying good-bye to those he loved – of looking at their confused and frightened faces – of hearing Thomas say, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            Jesus knew the searing physical pain of dying on the cross – the nails driven through his wrists and feet, the thorns thrust on his head, the gasping for breath as his dying body strained for air.
            Jesus knew the emotional and spiritual pain of dying on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
            Yet, throughout the great ordeal, even when all hope seemed to be lost – especially when all hope seemed to be lost - God never lets go of Jesus.
            And then there’s Stanley - and there’s us.
            Today we are experiencing real suffering, loss and despair.
            I never had the chance to meet Stanley but listening to his mom, his sister and his niece – reading his obituary – and hearing the remembrances today - really make me wish I had known him.
            I know you all would have loved to have him for a lot longer. He lived his life with love, zest and compassion. He was someone who managed to pull off being both a boxer…and a model. He was someone who loved all kinds of animals. He was a faithful Christian. He was someone who was a devoted husband, father, son, grandson, brother, and uncle. He was a caring and reliable friend. He was a trusted and respected coworker.
            And he looked good doing it!
            (His family told me he resembled Billy Dee Williams. I took that with a grain of salt until I saw the pictures. It’s true!)
            But, like for all of us, at times life was a great ordeal for Stan.
            He experienced great suffering, loss and despair.
            In the midst of all that suffering, loss and despair, like Job and Jesus and so many others before him, like many of us here today, there must have been times when Stan cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”
            And maybe Stan couldn’t feel it, but throughout the great ordeal, even when all hope seemed to be lost – especially when all hope seemed to be lost - God never let go of Stanley.
            And God still hasn’t let go of him and will never let go of him.
            When Jesus died on the cross, it looked like that was the end of the story. Thomas and the other first frightened and dazed disciples must have thought that they had been fooled – that all their hopes were destroyed – that death really was the end for Jesus and death was the end for us all.
            But, three days later, love defeated death once and for ever.
            God never let go of Jesus.
            God never let go of Stanley.
            And God will never let go of us.
            So, yes, today is a day of suffering, loss and despair. We will miss Stanley.
            But, today is also a day of celebration.
            It’s a day to celebrate the life of this wonderful man.
            And it’s a day to celebrate that Stanley is now with the God of love who never let go of him – the God who never lets go of us.