As many of you well know, there are many folks in our faith community who have lost someone precious in the past year, two years. I want to honor that our community, individuals and families within our community, have been well acquainted with death and have borne grief, endured struggle, and shown wisdom and strength. At our best – and we’re not always at our best – we’re in this together, and even more importantly we’re in this with Christ as a living spiritual presence. That last part is important because grief in some cases can be a very isolating experience. Christ himself knew a death that was as isolating as they come.
Some of these encounters with death and experiences of loss in our midst have been quite private; some have been quite public. Some have lashed and stung. Some have come with great struggle. Some have even been traumatic (and I try to never use that word lightly). Some of these encounters with death and experiences of loss have been a quite peaceful experiences of homecoming. It may be many years in coming, but the reality of the mortality of those precious to us, the reality of our own mortality, can bring about for us a state of awe before the mystery of God and the power of God’s grace, it can bring about gratitude, fullness of heart, honor for the cycles of life and death, sure knowledge of soul survival and new life everlasting.
There is wisdom to be found here. Great peace. Peace beyond understanding. This way is not easy. But it is real, and it leads to a reality that is greater than what meets the eye. Our Christian tradition compels us to be honest about mortality. You won’t find it in the pop feel-good forms, you certainly won’t find it in our culture at large, which is deeply uncomfortable with the raw facts of life, but true Christianity challenges us to confront those raw facts, and the raw limits of our lives. Commitment to Jesus requires us to confront our mortality. Sit with it, really abide with death. This is not so that we become obsessed with death, and sad all the time or angry, fatalistic, hopeless. Actually, the opposite comes of faithful attention to mortality. By attending to the reality of death with the help of wisdom, we can become free to be fully who God has created us to be, in full reliance on God. Because when we admit we are powerless in the end, completely powerless, this can help us surrender our small sense of self to the power of the great source of all being, God.
The guide here is the wisdom of love. That’s what Jesus taught and revealed. I venture to say that all of our encounters with death and experiences of loss have been stories one way or another about love … which doesn’t mean uncomplicated love. When someone in our family dies that can lay bare lack of love, just as it can lay bare the fullness of love. But the story is about love. When we have dared to love someone, we have dared to feel the pain of their loss When we have dared to love someone, we have dared to share in the fulness of life with them, in all that life brings, joys and delights, breakdowns and breakthroughs, struggles, sorrows, labor, play, and rest. In love we dare to join in the fulness of life and we dare to join in the fulness of death.
“Love is as strong as death,” that’s the wisdom from the great love poem in the Bible, the Song of Songs. Love is as strong as death.
Many folks have had experiences where a departed loved has a kind of presence at times in our lives. Love, it seems, can draw the souls our dearly departed to venture back close to this realm and speak to our souls. It’s mysterious, I can’t say I have it figured out, but many people report these kinds of experiences. We don’t often talk about them because they’re quite intimate and we don’t know how people will react. Often people react in unhelpful ways. These are the kinds of experiences that we hold close and ponder in our hearts. And they aren’t always comfortable. But the outcome seems to be experiences like forgiveness, grace, mercy, what we need to say goodbye and to live as fully as we can with the life that we still have.
But “Love is as strong as death” can mean even more than that. Remember, we are not as strong as death. Not even close. Death renders us powerless. Death is inevitable and completely beyond our power to change. When someone we love dies, we feel that powerlessness most acutely. The reason we feel that powerlessness is because of the power of our love for them.
We are not as strong as death, yet “Love is as strong as death.” Because the power of love brings us up to our powerlessness before death; and the power of love can bring us through it. Why? Because love can lead us to God.
We are able to love, in all its joy and agony, because God has first loved us. All love in creation flows from the Source of all love and flows back to the Source of all love. So, if we can surrender to the current of love that courses through us, we can let it sweep us beyond ourselves, past the limits of our lives Out, out to the great Love Supreme, the All Merciful, the Almighty, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of us all, the Holy One in which we all live and move and have our being, Who ushers us beyond ourselves to the Realm of Peace that Surpasses Understanding.
We can practice in our lives this surrender to the Power of our Holy God – We can practice in prayer, in song, in silence, the practice of being completely honest before God about who we are and who we aren’t, we can offer ourselves in need of mercy and forgiveness, We can practice by allowing Jesus to guide us on the Way of Jesus, this is a good way … Growing more and more past our enthrallment to the forces of merely human powers, past the forces of fear and violence, greed, lust, domination, judgement, grievance, cowardice … We can practice by growing as we can into loving God with all our mind, heart, body, and soul, and loving and serving our neighbors as ourselves, We can practice by living love as fully as we can: showing kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly with our God, hearts full of gratitude. The more we practice surrender like this to God in our lives, the easier time, I believe, we will have when we come to our end in this life, and we must offer back to God everything we have and everything we are, and go on that long journey back to the source of all love and all being. As we say in our funeral liturgy: No eye can see, no ear can hear, no imagination can even conceive the peace that God has prepared for those who offer themselves fully to God’s Love Supreme.
Thanks be to God
(Delivered August 26, 2018 at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)