Love and death

Some sermons are of the moment. Today’s was one such. So I am posting most, not all of it. The readings included the Pharisees and scribes telling Jesus off for unwashed hands, and the love poetry of the Song of Songs.

IT has been a weekend full of funerals, public and private; for those whom we have loved and those whom we have watched from afar, from the epic homegoing of Aretha Franklin to the services for John McCain in Arizona and in Washington, DC. Some of you were at family funerals; some of you were with me at the requiem for Byrdie Lee.

At the heart of any and every Christian funeral liturgy is the promise of God’s enduring love: love that is not defeated nor diminished by death. Love that survives the death and decaying of the body. Love that lasts forever, and which takes on a life of its own.

It is this promise, of God’s presence with us, all of us, the living and the dead, that makes a funeral bearable, sometimes even joyful.

The readings we hear this morning are all about the here and now, this life, this body, these struggles to get by and get on and to get along with one another. Those struggles were obvious, too, at each of this weekend’s more public funerals. They were in the background and in the lives of women and a man who dealt in their lifetimes with conflict, with hardship, with the inhumanity of humans divided by the common and sinful cause of selfishness. Those struggles were present in the funerals themselves and in the reporting around them: the people who did or did not attend, the grace and the grudges, what they wore, where they went with their words or with their hands.

There are legitimate things to report and to reflect upon concerning such things. The Pharisees and other religious groups were not out of line nor outside of normal practice in sticking to certain conventions, traditions, and rituals. Where they ran into difficulties, with their criticism of Jesus, was in elevating such details above the fundamental concerns of Christ: the love of God, and the love of neighbour, and the change that should sweep the world if only we would observe those two commandments to the detriment of any other demands on our loyalty, our allegiance, our tradition. They got into trouble because they tried to use their conventions, their traditions, their local customs and details to diminish the gospel, to undermine the message that Jesus had come to bring; to question the authority of the Son of God himself.

Because he was treading on people’s toes. Because he was rocking the boat. Because he threatened to turn the whole world order upside down, as his mother and her ancestors had prophesied: scattering the powerful in the imaginations of their hearts, and empowering the humble and the meek; the Galilean yokel and the Greek flipping over the sophisticated Jerusalem elite.

The Pharisees were afraid of what such a revolution might do to their status, their stock, and so they set up their conventions, their traditions, their rituals as armour against the onslaught of the kingdom of God.

Of course, God is not deflected by our defences. Many Pharisees came around to Jesus’ way of thinking. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, risked ridicule and worse to flout convention and help Joseph of Arimathea claim his body from the cross. In fact, the two men were members of opposing political parties, but they set aside their differences in order to serve the body of Christ together.

There is something, after all, about a funeral that brings people together, in a common cause of love and remembrance.

The stress of grief can also exacerbate difference and division. The stress of fear, the fear of the Pharisees, led Jesus to point out to them that far from preserving the peace, their insistence on convention above all else put them in danger of all kinds of sin. The twisting away from God’s will, God’s love in order to defend our own position above all else, instead of the love of God and the love of our neighbour above all else, puts us in danger of all kinds of self-deception and malice. It murders the soul.

But love heals. …

… Love heals.

So when my time comes, I think I might ask for a reading from the Song of Solomon. After all, we heard so many times this weekend, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and such affirmation is fine, and well deserved by those we heard eulogized.

But it isn’t the approval of God that fills us with hope in the face of the unknown journey into life beyond death. It isn’t even the mercy of God that helps our souls to sing “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” at the grave.

It is the love of God, unquenchable, unstoppable, unearthed by the truth that accompanies our mortality, that makes our hearts soar even as they sag with grief.

It is the thought that God has whispered to Aretha, John, Dorothy, Byrdie; that God will sing to us almost as a lullaby:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away;

for now the winter is past,

the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth;

the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove

is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth its figs,

and the vines are in blossom;

they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one,

and come away.” (Song of Songs)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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2 Responses to Love and death

  1. rogert8248 says:

    You put that passage inside a new frame. Well done, good and faithful servant.

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