Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Martha: A Special Character

[This was shared during the funeral for Martha, a member of our parish, recently.]

Zephaniah 3:17
Psalm 46
Romans 8:31-39
John 11:21-26

Two years ago, instead of a mission trip, our youth did a local mission week. Most of our work was done here in Logan. But on Wednesday, we scheduled a day in Columbus: a tour of a whistle manufacturer’s facility, lunch at Tommy’s Pizza near OSU, and an afternoon spent helping out at the Lutheran Social Services food bank on the south end. Several adults went with us, including Martha.

She was the eldest of our group, explaining why the manager of the agency turned to me after we had been there for a while, in the middle of helping a large number of clients shop for their week's worth of groceries, and said, “Pastor Mark, give Martha a break.”

I tried. But Martha was busy telling a young man how to best cook food he had never seen before--Portobello mushrooms--with scrambled eggs.

Evidently thinking I had been negligent in my duties, the manager approached Martha himself and told her to take a break.

Martha was taken aback. She stood erect, looked around, and asked, “Why am I a special character?”

Even at the end, Martha saw no reason why a little thing like being ninety years old should prevent her from doing a day’s work. (Or, for that matter, a day’s shopping!)

About a week before her passing, a hospital bed was brought into her bedroom for her, her own bed pushed against a wall to make room. This arrangement didn’t suit her too well because the unused bed blocked access to an ironing board. “How am I supposed to iron my clothes?” she asked. She couldn't imagine not working or keeping busy.

Despite her protest at the food bank, Martha was absolutely wrong about one thing. The fact is that Martha was a special character, a unique and truly extraordinary person. And I'm sure that her passing will leave a hole in the lives of everyone gathered here today: from the family members she loved so much that she insisted two Sundays before her passing that she was going to worship to pray for them, to the dear neighbors who helped her in her final years; from the colleagues who worked with her in her pioneering work as a leader in special education, to the children in this congregation on whom she doted.

I want you, Diana and Mike, and your families, to know that many of us are praying for you in your grief and that our hearts go out to you now. The hole will loom largest in your lives. It’s a hole that cannot be filled. But I pray that God will comfort you and encourage you, that you will feel His presence with you and His love for you as we move on from today.

Anyone who knew Martha knows that she was a committed Lutheran Christian. She wasn’t the kind of Christian to beat you over the head with her faith. But she believed that Jesus was God in the flesh, God’s Son, and that salvation, eternal hope, and life with God comes through Him alone.

Her faith, I think, informed so much about her. That included her love for life and her avid interest in other cultures and countries, many of which she visited. It included her sense of humor and her toughness. It included her love as a teacher for kids who no other teacher or administrator wanted to deal with and her avid and thoughtful gift-giving. It included her desire to see her neighbor and friend and helper Brenda baptized. She loved Jesus Christ and she seemed to always find her own special Martha-Way of sharing Him with others.

And this faith, Martha’s faith, the faith in Christ that she commended to others, I hope and pray, will be your comfort in the days ahead.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, from John, Jesus tells another Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who had died four days previously: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

I believe that because Jesus Christ died on the cross, taking the death punishment for sin we deserve, and because, after dying, Jesus rose again from the dead, and because of her faith in Christ, Martha is standing and living and laughing and rejoicing in the presence of God right now! The frailties that dogged her final years are gone. She has been made completely new by the grace and power of God. Jesus says that all who believe in Him, though the death that comes to all who walk this planet comes to them, will live because Jesus Christ lives.

But Jesus gives us more than an eternal hope. Because He has conquered sin and death, Jesus can also make us another promise: That He will stand by us in this world, in the good and the bad, in the joyful and in the sad.

The Bible, God’s Word, is filled with God’s promise to be with His people always. Several of them are among our lessons for today.

Zephaniah 3:17 tells us: “The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”

And Psalm 46 says: “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.” and encourages us, when the storms or griefs of life rage to, “be still and know that I am God.”

And Romans 8 assures the believer in Christ that nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On the afternoon of Martha’s passing, I couldn’t help telling others about her on Twitter. “A great lady of our congregation passed from this life to be with Christ today,” I wrote. “She led a life of faith, achievement, service, & good humor.” If anybody I’ve known could be said to have wrung every last bit of life from her years, it was Martha!

She was a child of God, who reveled in the sheer joy of being alive and in the joy of belonging to God forever through Jesus Christ.

She loved doing for others more than she did doing things for herself, a certain sign of someone who lives in fellowship with Christ.

Martha leaned on the God we know in Christ and so was set free from the self-involved inhibitions that prevent most of us from being our true selves. That is a remarkable testament to her joyous faith! She never shied from being her own special person--laughing, loving, speaking bluntly but kindly, sometimes just speaking bluntly, wearing bright colors that seemed somehow never to clash with each other.

She brightened our lives with the joy of her Father in heaven!

May we learn from her example and so, one day, through our Lord Jesus, be united with her again. Amen