Saturday, May 07, 2011

Hope for the Living

[This was shared during the funeral for Dale, a member of the congregation I serve as pastor, earlier today.]

Psalm 23
Romans 8:31-39
John 11:17-27

Over the past three-and-a-half years, as his pastor, I’ve gotten to know Dale a bit. Because Dale, who was never a talkative man from what I have gleaned, was increasingly silenced by illness in this period, some of what I’ve learned about him has come from others.

One day, for example, while visiting Dee at her house, she showed me a beautiful piece of furniture that Dale made for her dining room. He was a tremendous carpenter!

But his talents weren’t confined to carpentry, of course. Luke used to tell me about how knowledgeable Dale was when it came to anything mechanical or, as Luke would put it, “handy.” (High praise from Luke!)

From everyone—from Dale himself—I also learned how much Dale loved the outdoors. He loved to boat and hike. Were it up to him, I think, Dale really would have kept a “home, home on the range.” (A song he loved to sing.)

In later years, unable to hike or travel, he enjoyed, when the weather allowed, sitting on the deck amid the trees and the chatter of the birds. (I know he appreciated the gift of the “birdie cam” he recently received.)

Dale’s love of nature was also reflected in the home he built on that hill near Lake Logan back in the 1970s. This dwelling did not always meet with Elaine’s approval. As some of you will remember, the first time I visited Dale and Elaine, she commented on their house, “Dale says it’s secluded; I say it’s isolated.”

From that, I learned something else about Dale (and Elaine): whatever differences in their personalities, these two who grew up as classmates in a rural Michigan one-room schoolhouse, were a team. Dale smiled when Elaine said things like that to me. It was the smile of recognition of a “discussion” they had rehearsed countless times before.

Sometimes, Dale’s smiles would turn into laughter that I loved to hear: the breathy, hearty laugh of someone truly tickled.

I came to know Dale also as a man of great intelligence.

And I also experienced Dale as a caring person. When someone was in the hospital, he wanted to know how she or he was doing. He relished telling me how things were going with Sandy’s and Perry’s lives and work and with his grandchildren. He enjoyed it when neighbor Butch brought his own granddaughter Isabelle, a young ball of energy, along for visits. After I had a heart attack last summer, I mentioned that the church council was after me to take it easier; Dale fixed me with a stare and asked bluntly, “Are you doing it?”

On top of all this, Dale was a man of quiet faith. He was always anxious to receive Holy Communion during our visits. Even when it had become a struggle for him to move his hand to his lips, he determinedly ate the bread and drank the wine that are Christ’s body and blood. And no one ever more sincerely thanked me for bringing the Sacrament to him.

Dale was truly grateful for the grace and love of God, whether he saw it in the meticulously engineered beauty of the created world or in the gift of Jesus on a cross, Whose death and resurrection brings eternal life to all who turn from sin and believe in Him.

And it is to this I want to point all of you who grieve Dale’s passing today. At one level, Dale’s death brings a story to a close. With that, there will be, understandably, some sense of relief. Dale had suffered from multiple maladies over an extended period of time. His suffering is ended. But his death is a sad ending for all of you, too: A father, a grandfather, a friend, a strong presence, is gone.

But you can take heart. You can have hope. Dale’s passing is also a beginning. The Gospel lesson from John which I read a few moments ago tells the story of what happened one day when Jesus went to Bethany, the hometown of friends: two sisters and a brother named Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

The sisters and the whole town are grieving when Jesus arrives. Lazarus was dead. At first, Martha seems to lash out at Jesus. "Lord,” she says, “if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

But to Martha in her grief and her confusion, Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again” and “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” He then asks Martha to trust those assertions. Jesus asks her to believe them, to believe in Him.

Jesus asks the same thing of you this morning. You see, if the promise that Jesus makes to share His Easter victory over sin and death isn’t true today, it isn’t true. It is precisely for moments like these that Jesus makes His promise to be the resurrection and the life!

And our faith in Jesus’ resurrection promise isn’t just a hope whispered against the grim realities of life. After telling Martha that all who believe in Him will live with God forever, Jesus gave a sign of His capacity to make good on His promises. He stood at the place where Lazarus' body had been placed some four days before and commanded his friend’s dead bones to come back to life on this side of eternity. The voice of Jesus, God in the flesh, spoke with the same voice as the One Who called the heavens and the earth to life in the first place. In response to the command from that voice, Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, back into the embrace of his family.

Of course, Jesus would, shortly after the events at Bethany, give an even more emphatic sign of His authority over life and death and sin. After bearing the weight of all the sin of human history—including your sin and my sin—on the cross, though Himself sinlessness, Jesus rose to life again. The Bible says of the crucified and risen Jesus: “God raised Him up, having freed Him from death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”

Fortunately, God recognizes how hard it is for us to believe such good news, especially on days like these. That’s why He sends the Holy Spirit to any of us who want to believe. If we will pray to the God the Father in the Name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will help us to believe in the same Lord so welcomed by Dale every time he gratefully received the Lord’s Supper and listened to God's Word...the same Lord he so reverenced every time he joined the Saint Matthew family for worship over the radio on Sunday mornings.

In the days and years ahead, you will miss Dale, just as you have missed Elaine. Grief is natural and understandable when the love runs deep and the memories are piled high.

But those who follow the risen Jesus don’t grieve like others do. We have hope. We belong to a Savior Who rose on Easter.

Because of Jesus, Dale will rise too. So will all who believe in Jesus.

May God fill you with this hope and the peace that comes from it in the days ahead…and through all the days of your lives. Amen

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