Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Joy in the Middle of Sorrow

[This is the text of the sermon for today's funeral for Violet, an 89-year old member of our Saint Matthew family who died this past Thursday.]

Philippians 4:4-8
I sometimes teased Violet, calling her the Energizer Bunny. Back in the 1950s, she was told that she could probably expect to live only five to seven more years. Yet, Violet kept going and going and going.

Even in the two-plus years since I became her pastor, I’ve seen Violet confound expectations, surviving major challenges to her health.

But what was even more remarkable to me than Violet’s physical survival, was the cheerfulness with which she did keep going. Despite complications from her Addison’s Disease, going blind, being confined to a bed or a wheelchair, and finding it increasingly difficult to hear, Violet remained a person on whom her family could rely for a supportive ear, an interested heart, and a cheery welcome. Love and laughter emanated from Violet any time you saw her. She gave of herself unstintingly.

And this wasn’t something she offered just to her family. In the past several days, people from Saint Matthew have commented on how she was always so caring and affirming to others. She got along well with Ruth, her roommate at the Skilled Nursing Center. And whenever I came to visit, she was happy and welcoming. She enjoyed the monthly Holy Communion services I do at the hospital, something that came about as a result of efforts by Shirley and Violet. It has become an important part of my ministry; but it will seem odd when I return there next week and not see Violet.

What exactly was the source of Violet’s capacity for dealing with life’s setbacks? And how can her family and friends, those who mourn her passing, have that same capacity, not just as you deal with the grief you feel today, but also as you face your own challenges in your own lives?

Well, it doesn’t take a Doctor of Psychology to figure out that, in part, Violet was by nature, a person prone to greater cheerfulness. Some people are just like that and they’re huge blessings to the rest of us!

But that wasn’t the only source of Violet’s upbeat tenacity. Our second Bible lesson for worship this past week at Saint Matthew was Philippians 4:4-7. Philippians is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the first century church at the Greek city of Philippi. Paul wrote this letter while he was a prisoner, confined much as Violet must have felt confined in recent years.

Paul was imprisoned by the Roman Empire for being a Christian. Violet was imprisoned by advancing bodily degeneration.

No matter the source of confinement though, confinement isn’t enjoyable. It makes you feel that life is going by and you have no chance to participate in it. Confinement, whether due to injustice or the ravages of age, will almost always breed resentment, bitterness, and anger in those who are confined, and understandably so.

But some rare people show us that it’s possible to be joyous even in the midst of bitter, adverse experiences. And some show us the truth that the last freedom all of us have, even when all other freedoms have been taken from us, is the freedom to choose how to respond to our circumstances.

From his confinement as a prisoner, Paul writes these remarkable words in Philpppians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You see, joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness happens for a time and is gone. It’s subject to moods and circumstances.

Joy, on the other hand, is a way of life born of constant contact with the Lord Jesus Christ, Who by His death and resurrection, has conquered sin, death, and futile living. Joy is the Baptismal birthright of every Christian.

Joy belongs to those who know that in adverse, sad, or even tragic circumstances, we can leave worry behind. We can turn to God in prayer in Jesus’ Name and let God hear our requests and trust God to do what's best. We can experience a peace from God that goes beyond human understanding. We can know that we are safe in the arms of Christ even when this fleeting life ends.

Knowing that we are in the hands of Jesus also gives us the freedom to take up the lifestyle that Paul commends in the very next verse of his letter to the Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Paul’s words aren’t the shallow exhortations of a motivational speaker to “accentuate the positive.”

Just before our lesson, in Philippians, and in his other New Testament letters, Paul acknowledgea that life can be tough. It can be unfair and unspeakable tragedies and challenges may befall us. Paul, as I said, wrote these words from prison. So, he was no pollyanna!

But when you know that Jesus Christ has set you free from sin and death, you know that He can also set you free from the constant anger, self-pity, and self-hatred that confine so many people who, unlike Paul, never have been arrested or who, unlike Violet, never sat in a wheelchair, never went blind, or never fought a chronic disease for more than fifty years.

Christ set Violet free to do live precisely the life Paul commended to the Philippian Christians. She could focus on the honorable, the pure, the pleasing, and the commendable. She took delight in little things. She gave you--she gave all of us--love and laughter.

Violet’s great legacy to you is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the source of all true joy.

Jesus Christ is the One Who sustained Violet and Jesus Christ is the One Who can sustain you today and in the days to come.

And so, as you deal with the loss of one who loved you much and who you loved much in return, this is my simple message: Trust in Jesus Christ, the One Who conquered sin and death for all who will dare to turn from sin and believe in Him wholeheartedly.

As you surrender each day to Christ, He will give you strength and peace and everlasting life and, as Violet showed you, Jesus will also give you joy that nothing can destroy!

God bless you.

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