Last week, we held a memorial service for a beloved member of our congregation. We laughed and cried and laughed some more, remembering our part of his 80 years. We sang hymns, then sang some more. When it was all over, we ate and laughed some more and cried some more. Gatherings like those are the Church at its best.
I could make a lot of guesses as to why those gatherings are the Church at his best. It's true, as Paul wrote, we don't grieve as those who have no hope. We're resurrection people after all. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Yet, it's more than that.
We don't just live with the Gospel of abundant life; we live with the Gospel that proclaims abundant life even in the face of death. Year after year, before we tell the story of resurrection, we tell the story of a terrible death by crucifixion. Before we tell of the hope of the resurrection, we tell the story of the hopelessness of the tomb.
And year after year, when death claims those we love, we proclaim resurrection while staring at the hopelessness of death. I'm not sure I could name all the funerals I've attended over the course of my life. I was a young child the first time someone my age who I knew well died. I remember sitting at the funeral of a dear friend when I was not quite 19. There have been funerals of grandparents and friends' parents and beloved members of the church. I have preached the hope of the resurrection and the assurance of God's love at the death of a 4 year old and an 80 year old and some folks in between.
That experience, of the Church and death and funerals, is one of those strange things that has taught me more fully than maybe any other experience what Church is--community, support, and hope beyond wildest imagination. And the proclamation, "Do not be afraid." Even death, in all its pain and weirdness and surprise, is part of our lives. And resurrection shall surely come.
All of that, I'm sure, is why, at 29, I have these strong opinions about my own funeral: buy me simple casket made by monks and bury me where there are mountains and lots of green things. The marker should be one that stands upright; if it must be flat, just skip it all together. Read John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" at my funeral and 2 Timothy 4:7 and whatever other scripture you like. Maybe the cloud of witnesses text from Hebrews or the story of Lazarus. We're resurrection people; I'm certain you'll find something. Sing hymns. Sing old hymns and new hymns, ones of mourning and ones of hope. Sing until you're tired, then sing some more. Laugh some and cry some and tell some wonderful stories about me. Eat some fried chicken and rich desserts.
Do these things, no matter if I die at 29 or 99. Do these things, certain that the God who called me near in life will surely not abandon me in death. Do all these things, certain that what we say every time the Church gathers is never truer than when the Church gathers at the death of one of its own: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.