IN THANKSGIVING FOR THE LIFE OF
22 July 2017
Based on Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 23, and Matthew 11:28-30
About six weeks ago Gladys’ family contacted Lyonsville asking me to lead this memorial service. They had never met me, I had never met Gladys, but this is Gladys’ church. This is not the first time I have officiated at a service for someone whom I never met – neither the first time in my career nor the first time since serving Lyonsville.
I am always grateful when family members supply their reflections, both in their own voices and in writing for me to read on their behalf. It is a greater task to both eulogize a life and place that life in the context of our shared faith. When family and friends can offer their remembrances, then I am left to the focused task of reflecting on the conclusion of a life of faith.
Someone once asked me if it is easier or harder to officiate a service for people I knew or never met. My reply then is as it is now: it’s different.
Over the past six weeks, as I have prepared for this service, I kept encountering memories of two very significant experiences that have influenced every funeral and memorial service I attend or lead.
One was a seminary mentor, a professor of pastoral care, who said that no matter what the loss, it was never just about that one loss but all the losses we encountered in life. It’s right there in the opening words of the liturgy: We gather here as God’s people, conscious of others who have died and of the frailty of our own existence on earth.
As we gather today to remember Gladys and celebrate her life, this day is not only about our losing her but all of our losses – all the people whom we have loved and who have died, the friends who we have lost touch with over the years, divorces and job losses and the losses that come with moving from house to house or city to city.
The second experience requires a longer story. My senior year of high school, I started to work at a Dairy Queen. I already knew the owner, Bob, because I was a frequent customer at the Dairy Queen; because my parents owned a business, they knew each other. And Bob was a good church man – not at the congregation I attended, but one to which my congregation was connected. At the time I started working for him, he had been the head usher at his church for 25 years.
I worked at that Dairy Queen for six years, so I got to know Bob very well – as employee-employer, then as a mentor, and eventually as a friend. It did not take long working for Bob to recognize the difference between his usual work clothes and his funeral clothes. He’d arrive at the Dairy Queen in a tie, slacks, and his patten Florsheim shoes. Being the cheeky teenager I was I’d say “So whose funeral were you at today?”
He’d reply with the name and then something like “And it was such an uplifting service.” Then he’d list off the musical pieces, the scriptures, give a summary of the sermon. Eventually I started to ask him “How did you know this person?” “From church” was a common answer, followed by “from right here” (meaning the Dairy Queen) or the theater or Chamber of Commerce. But the one’s that really caught my attention was when he’d say “I didn’t know them at all. I never met them.” I think the first time he said that I had no response, but the second or third time I remember blurting out “Then why did you go to their funeral?”
Bob’s mother had died when he was 19. Because of the kindness he was shown then, he made a point of attending every funeral service he could. In his words, it is our Christian duty to support one another at this time when we both grieve and proclaim the resurrection. As a 17-year-old, I did not really understand that, but given that I am still thinking about over 30 years later, it obviously made a huge impression on me.
I don’t think I ever told Bob this, but I looked forward to his funeral. Don’t hear that the wrong way: I did not look forward to Bob’s dying or death. But Because of his faithful witness to so many people by attending funerals, I held a certain hope for Bob’s funeral.
And that changed how I, as a pastor, came to lead funerals. It is never about the one loss but all losses, so whatever I say and do at a funeral must rise up to the expectations that Bob had for funerals.
I did not get to attend Bob’s funeral. I did not hear about his death until almost six months after his passing. But because of the way he lived I am able to celebrate the life of one who I never met – because we grieve and proclaim the resurrection simultaneously, and it is our Christian responsibility to be here to acknowledge our common loss and our common hope.
While we are here today remembering with thanksgiving the life of Gladys Clendenin, we also remember the life of her beloved Charles because their lives were intertwined. We also remember others whom have passed: for me that includes Bob, but also Doug and Donna and Deborah and Wally and so many more. I am sure you have your own lists. And that is part of memorial services: it’s never solely about the one whom we remember today, because we are all connected to one another. Remembering those others does not diminish our memories of Gladys, but instead gives her a new context: she is now part of the great cloud of witnesses who had encouraged our faith and whose memory encourages us to faithfulness.
Gladys was part of a unique generation for this congregation who sustained and grew this church as an extension of their roles as parents, as a neighborly neighbors, and as devoted providers of hospitality. Those three roles overlapped outside the church and intersected here at Lyonsville. Our culture will never replicate the era which produced those church folk. They have left us with a legacy that cannot be reproduced, but a legacy of faith which inspires us to be the church today.
It is because of those whose lives are remembered today for their faithfulness, who we now thank God for their entry into the cloud of witnesses who encourage us to remain faithful, that I am able to repeat the creed found in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
We believe there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
and we know that in everything God works for good with those who love God,
who are called according to God’s purpose.
We are sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.