Memorial & Blessing: Life & Death, Love & Loss
You are aware that I don’t believe in coincidence.
I also don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.
I also don’t believe that God never gives us more than we can handle.
Today’s reading, strangely enough, is one that is often used at funerals and memorial services. The Revelation to John is written in the genre of “apocalyptic prophecy”. In other words, it is a series of stories written in which the old will die and the new will be born. It is a series about the triumph of good over evil.
Scholars have spent their academic careers trying to decipher the Revelation to John, or the Book of Revelation. Sometimes we hear of the end of the world coming on a specific day. Or we hear of the “rapture” happening at a specific date and time. Every guess thus far has been incorrect.
I believe that the Revelation to John is not a mystic puzzle. I believe it is a mystery which is divine and not meant to be interpreted into modern day language. I believe it is a sacred mystery which cannot be deciphered into a set of mathematical calculations. Sometimes a mystery is simply meant to be a mystery.
The one we love remains with us - whether they are cremated, buried or cryogenically frozen. There was a common belief in a physical resurrection, such as the one described by the prophet Ezekial in the Valley of Dry Bones. This gained favour in the second century prior to Christ’s birth. It is a hot button issue and can be hotly contested. There is scripture to support both a bodily and a spiritual resurrection. As I am still very much alive, I don’t know which one is correct.
The ancient Hebrew tradition believed that there would be a physical resurrection and thus all the bones of the dead must be retained in order to receive the physical resurrection.
This idea never sat well with me; partially because my Dad was an amputee, and I can tell you he would be very displeased to learn that he would be an amputee in the next life, as his amputated leg became a biohazardous waste. Thus it would not be available to pack in a sarcophagus (literally, a bone box) that would hold the bones of the family altogether.
For many devout Christians they believe in a physical resurrection and thus cremation would never be an option for them. Cremation has been around since the time of the Egyptians, roughly 3,000 BCE. It became the preferred choice for North Americans in the 1960’s as society was embracing a simpler way to mourn the dead.
Today, the word memorial or celebration of life has replaced the term Funeral. Funerals, at one time, were dirgish affairs where all assembled wore black, and entered a period of mourning which lasted from a few months to a calendar year. During that time, the grieving would wear black or a black armband. Ladies would wear black veils and mirrors would be covered in the home.
In the Jewish faith, this is called sitting shiva. Shiva literally means seven and is the number of days the mourning would sit in near silence surrounded by friends and family who would attend to their needs, especially ensuring they ate, drank and rested.
Following the seven days there is a time of Shloshim in which a time of thirty days is observed as a time for the mourning to re-enter the world which was suspended when their loved one dies. The unveiling of the monument or headstone typically occurs one year after the date of the death. On the anniversary of the death the Yahrzeit is observed by lighting a candle or lamp to reintroduce light into the darkness following death.
As we live in an increasingly post-Christian world, one should never make assumptions about an individual’s belief system.
More and more these days I hear from people who want a memorial or Celebration of Life but without all the God talk and whatnot.
What I have discovered more and more often is that the deceased and those who are related to the deceased did have a faith or belief system, one that is referred to as “spiritual rather than religious”. There was a time when this phrase would elicit a sigh and probably an eye-roll, but no longer.
Yesterday I presided over a Celebration of Life for a thirty year old non-binary sweetheart who died of a brain anuerysm. It was sudden and shocking, especially for their parents, family and sweetheart. The Fernie Community Centre was packed with hundreds of mourners and another mass of mourners gathering by Zoom.
I was asked to remove the prayers from the service, which I grudgingly did. There were three people speaking giving a Eulogy or Reflection and every one of them spoke, in some fashion, about the faith of the deceased. They didn’t use the word “Faith” but rather energy, relationship, aura, karma, etc. etc. etc.
As they spoke I thought of my own beliefs as “a religious person”. And honestly, given how many people define “religious: I can honestly say that does not reflect who I am.
Twenty years ago I asked a group of ChurchGoers of varying denominations and a group of spiritually aware folks to define “religious” and “spiritual”. The results were quite shocking.
The ChurchGoers group defined religious as:
community, common faith, relationship, works of service, works of justice, coming together to share common beliefs
They defined “spiritual” as:
airy-fairy, disconnected, nonsensical, irrelevant.
The Spiritually aware folks defined spiritual as:
community, community action, common beliefs, community service, social justice, joining together to share common thoughts and actions, relationship.
They defined “religious” as:
rules above relationships, stodgy, disconnected, irrelevant.
I should re-do this survey and see what/how/if the results have changed.
Whenever I preside at a memorial or funeral or Celebration of Life, I touch on the following points - in no specific order.
Language is important. Words matter. Don’t make assumptions about another person’s faith based on your own faith. Words that one person can find comforting i.e. “There's another angel in heaven” can be very hurtful and even cruel to someone who doesn’t believe that way.
When my Dad died, one of his colleagues came to me, literally clutching her pearls with a beatific expression on her face. “You must be so happy,” she said. I do not have a poker face, so I’m certain she saw the look of disbelief on my face. “You must be so happy,” she repeated “Your Father is resting in the arms of Jesus.”
Before I could stop myself I said “If you were as good a friend of my dad’s as you claim to be, you would know that they were not on a first name basis.”
Should I have said it, probably not. Was I glad I said it? Not at the time.
My dad called himself an “Orthodox Agnostic” which does NOT exist. He believed in something greater than himself, but was not prepared to call that “something greater” by any specific name. I call that something greater, God.
By this lady’s own words, because my Dad did not proclaim his faith in Christ crucified for our sins, etc., etc., he would not be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven.
Which in all honesty, would be fine with him. He didn’t believe in a physical heaven or hell. Neither do I. I believe that heaven is a state of mind, rather than a physical place. It is the very best day you have had to the power of a thousand.
And because of my belief in Jesus, I do not believe there can be a physical hell, especially hell after death.
I talk about legacy which is especially difficult when the person who died is young. I give those assembled homework, which usually results in more than a few rolled eyes, and ask them to find someone they don’t know well and share their favourite story about the deceased. And then invite the person they are chatting with to do the same.
Those assembled are asked to picture a thread of a certain colour, it doesn’t matter what colour. As we share stories of the deceased, we begin to weave a beautiful tapestry which resembles all the things that were important in that person’s life.
I give advice on grieving. To breathe deeply, to drink lots of water, and to be gentle with yourself and each other. Grieving is life-long and cumulative.
It has no end date or a set date of expiry. Grief is messy, exhausting and frustrating, similar to being knocked over by a wave while standing in the ocean.
And just when you think you’re doing really well, you’ll hear a song on the radio or something will come into your mind to remind you of the deceased and you’re taken back to Square One in grieving, as though it has just happened.
Which is why it is so important to be gentle with ourselves as well as those around us. Everyone processes grief differently. There is no single way to do it. Rather there are multitudinous ways, and in their own way, each way is correct.
Today we are gathering for two celebrations - one a celebration and memorial for Shirley Morris. A long-time member of Fernie Knox United Church. I believe she was, at one time, the organist. I met Shirley less than a handful of times, yet she left quite an impression on me.
Bev had brought Shirley to Church who sat at the back – why do all the deaf folks sit at the back – and I was introduced to her. She shook my hand politely and looked me up and down, just once. “I hope I can hear this one” she said as I walked back to the front of the Church. I smiled.
As I was preaching I noticed that Shirley was paying attention. She nodded at some of what I said. She frowned at some of what I said. And as I said “Amen” she said “Well, at least I could HEAR this one.” Which again, made me smile.
We are also celebrating a loving ministry that Knox has undertaken for a great many years. Prayer shawl ministry. In the time I have been with both Christ Church Anglican and Fernie Knox United, I have seen a dozen or so prayer shawls sent all over Canada. When our beloved Archbishop was going through a difficult time, she received a prayer shawl from the Knox Knitters.
She takes that shawl everywhere she travels and wraps herself in it when she needs comfort. +Lynne received that shawl nearly two years ago and still talks with great pride about what it is and where it came from. It has gone to the House of Bishops, it has traveled the Kootenays with her and it will likely go with her to the Lambton Conference in England.
When we allow ourselves to be fully present and fully vulnerable we are able to open ourselves and our souls to the Divine. Whether gathering for memorial or blessing; whether we are celebrating life, death or life after death we are never alone. Whether we are excited with love or devastated from loss, we are called to care for one another.
The final piece of advice I give to a family that is grieving, is to learn to sit in uncomfortable silence. I advise friends to sit in that uncomfortable, awkward silence and simply be. Don’t try to fix anything. Don’t try to say the right things, because there are no “right things” to say aside from “I’m sorry.”
What I would call the Ministry of Presence, or what a family may call Simply Being is the greatest gift you can give to the mourning. No pressure to talk or entertain the visitor. No small talk necessary. No talk necessary. Simply being there, together, can be the tonic a wounded and aching soul needs.
The Revelation to John tells us:
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21.5-6, NRSV)
From life there will be death. From death is the promise of new life. Whether you call this a life-force, energy, karma, krishna, nirvana or anything in between, I know this as the greatest gift.
There will be a time when the old ways die and the new ways are born. There will be a time when a mortal need not fear death, because it will be the end of pain and suffering and the beginning of truth and light. There will be no more war, no more disease, no more famine. There will be light and love, joy and happiness. It will be a heavenly banquet with more food and drink than can ever be imagined, yet nothing will be wasted. Every day will be the very best day.
And may I suggest, while we live our mortal lives, that we live as though the kingdom of heaven is already here? Use the “good dishes”. Burn the “special candles”. Eat the cheesecake. Rejoice and be glad. Feel the positive emotions as well as the negative emotions. Give thanks for the small and large blessings of your life. And know dear ones, that you are loved more today than you were yesterday, yet not as much as God will love you tomorrow.
Let the Church say, “Amen! Alleluia!”
The Reverend Andrea L. Brennan, Incumbent
Elk Valley Ecumenical Shared Ministry
Fernie Knox United Church & Christ Church Anglican
Fernie, British Columbia
Sermon for 15 May 2022 - Revelation 22.1-6