We have come together today to give thanks for a life. We have come to tell stories and share memories. We have not called our gathering a funeral or memorial service, the family were quite clear that the purpose of today was to celebrate NAME`s life and so that is what we have called it.
Sharing stories and memories, saying thank you, celebrating a life, these are good things to do. Today as we hear stories shared we learn more about NAME, about what others knew and thought of him, about what made him a special part of life in Grande Prairie. As the stories are told we may be moved to sweet tears, or to a fond smile, or a hearty chuckle, or full-fledged laughter. Laughter and tears are both signs of love. They both come from the heart. And they are both good things. So tell the stories, let the laughter ring and the tears flow. That is a great way to honour NAME and his memory.
But that is not the only reason we have come together today. For most of human history, at least as long as we have intentionally developed communities, humans have known that we need to do something to mark the passing of a loved one. We need some way to say good bye, to give thanks for how they touched our lives and some way to look forward to the life following the death. We join together in that long tradition today. It is not enough to share the stories, we also need to be reminded that there is hope in life continuing and to be reminded that we are not alone in our time of grief.
In the United Church Creed we find these wonderful, yet mysterious words: “In Life, In Death, In Life Beyond Death. We are Not Alone”. In his letter to the Roman church Paul states his firm belief that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. If these statements are true, then life continues. Life still wins.
In the Gospel of John, just before his death, Jesus tells his friends that he goes to prepare a place for them in a house of many rooms. In this lies the implicit promise that there is something beyond our last breath (otherwise what is the use of preparing a room?). There is something more. That is about all we can say with certainty. There is more. Last Monday, as NAME took his final breath he was welcomed into the place that had been prepared for him with the open arms of love, the love that has surrounded him since his birth,the love which holds him and us in arms that will never let us go.
And for those of us who are left? Where is our hope? Because let us be totally honest. Even as we celebrate a life that was full and well-lived, even as we give thanks for gifts that have been shared, even as we know that death is an inevitable part of life (as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminded us so many centuries ago), we know that the death of a loved one leaves a hole in our lives. We know that it brings feelings of pain and sorrow, that it may leave us wondering what life will be like now that our loved one is gone. What promise does “In life beyond death” hold for us. Where is our hope?
I remind you now of the words of Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.... He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. ...The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
God is with us, our rock and our strength. God is the one who gives us strength when we can't keep going. God is the one who helps us deal with (cope with?) life in all its randomness and unfairness. God is the arm we lean on, the shoulder we cry on, the one who picks us up and carries us when our strength fails. God cannot remove the hardships of life but God is there as we journey through those hard times. Right now life may seem dark and hard. But God's hope is that we all make it though the darkness and once again walk in the light of hope and faith.
Another Psalm uses the imagery of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. That is God's hope for us in our grief – that we find a path through the valley of shadow and back out into the light. But we don't need to find that path alone. In fact I would go so far as to say that we shouldn't try to find that path alone. We find and walk the path with God as our companion and guide. On that road we may meet God in many guises. In the phone call from a friend who calls “just because”. Or in the person who drops by with a dish of food. Or in the gathering of friends and neighbours to share stories. Or in the sense, almost impossible to describe but very real, that we are not alone, that someone is in the room with us. But however we feel/see/meet the presence of God we know that we are not alone.
NAME has come to his time to die. There is nothing anyone can say that changes that fact. And so we come together to celebrate his life, to give thanks for the gifts he shared, and also to name our grief and to seek hope in the face of death. We know that life's hardships are somehow easier when we face them together so we support one another. And we share the words of faith – Life Wins. Somehow life still wins. Death does not have the final word. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. Thanks be to God.