[This was shared during a memorial worship service for the family and friends of a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran in Logan, Ohio. The service occurred in the Saint Matthew sanctuary.]
Several weeks have passed now since Elly’s death. While I know that George, Elly’s extended family, and all her many friends saw Elly’s passing as a release from her suffering, the grief—the sense of an empty place at your table, of an empty place in the studio where bowls were spun, glazed, and fired for Empty Bowls, and of an empty spot at the meetings where hospital auctions were planned—that sense of emptiness is great for all of you today. I too will miss my monthly visits with Elly, where I shared Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion and God’s Word with her and where, as we got to know one another better and better and we laughed over these past thirty-four months.
When the emptiness of grief comes to us, there are several ways we can react. One way is to take death, futility, and grief as the final words over our lives.
But there is another way. It’s the way commended by Jesus in the lesson from the Gospel of John in the New Testament that we just read. Jesus has been comforting His disciples in anticipation of His cross. All the disciples know with certainty is that in Jerusalem, with the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government fearful of Jesus, bad things might happen. What good, they might wonder, will Jesus' death bring?
Jesus tells them—and us—not to be troubled. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
For the follower of Jesus, that person who repents for sin and bets their whole lives on Jesus Christ, which is what faith is—betting our all on Jesus, futility and emptiness, grief and death do not have control of us. The follower of Jesus lives each day in the certainty that the Savior Who died to erase sin’s power over us and rose from death to give us new life, has prepared places for us in the house of God the Father. We know that, as the other lesson we read, from the New Testament book of Romans, reminds us, “nothing…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
None of this is to say that trusting in what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus will make our grief go away. Knowing how the stories of all believers in Jesus end—that places are prepared for them with God--doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve the loss of those we love and care about. Jesus knew that His friend, Lazarus, believed in Him. Jesus knew that as a believer in Him, Lazarus would spend eternity with God. But when Jesus considered Lazarus’ death and how Lazarus was no longer there among his family and friends in the village of Bethany, Jesus still wept.
Grief is real and don’t let anyone ever tell you that Christians shouldn’t grieve.
But for the believer in Jesus, there is more than grief and loss. It’s to underscore this truth that, in the latter part of our lesson from John’s gospel, Jesus says to the disciples, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas though, speaking for people like me—thick of head and slow in the pick-up--asks Jesus honestly, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is so overwhelmed by grief, loss, and fear, that he can’t see what he has already seen and experienced.
Thomas already knew that Jesus was God in the flesh. He already knew from the many signs Jesus had performed, that Jesus had power over death and life. But Thomas was afraid that, without Jesus right there physically present to him, he would lose his way, that all the sorrows and sins of life would overwhelm Him.
It’s then that Jesus tells Thomas words that I hope all of you can claim for yourselves this morning. When you’ve lost your way. When all of life seems vain and pointless. When grief grips you and sadness threatens to morph into despair, recall Jesus’ words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus, the crucified Lord, reclaimed life…not just for Himself, but for all who believe in Him.
Jesus is the only way to the Father and those who follow Him, even when they grieve, are never without hope!
In a way, the empty bowls that Elly made and helped others to make each year stand as a fitting symbol for us today. For the person who is hungry, there is nothing more daunting or frightening than an empty bowl they can’t fill on their own. But Hocking County’s Empty Bowls events take that symbol of defeat, emptiness, and death and turns it on its head.
The empty bowls that Elly and so many of you here this morning have made, sold, and bought through the years have helped to fill the bowls and the bellies of many people, giving them the power to go another day and the hope to keep waking up the next day. Those empty bowls thus became a symbol of hope, love, and community for the hungry.
Today, you and I gather in the bright, illuminating shadow of another symbol turned on its head. In the ancient Roman Empire, crosses were reserved for the worst enemies of the state. Execution on the cross was a horrible way to die and there was no possible reprieve from death for the criminals nailed to them. But Jesus’ mission of love and mercy could not be stopped even by death on a cross. After the seeming defeat of the cross, Jesus, as I've said many times before, would not stay dead. His resurrection turned an instrument of death and a sign of hopelessness, the cross, into a symbol of God’s deathless love.
This morning, we grieve. But we also have hope. The Savior sought by Elly every time she reached out her hands to take the bread and the wine of Holy Communion, has prepared a place for you.
All who believe in Jesus will be united with God and with all who have trusted in Christ in eternity. Our tears will be wiped away. Our griefs erased. And our emptiness filled with an eternity of joy and laughter. Even today, we have so much to look forward to.
God bless you!