Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thankful that Bob and MaryLea were in our cloud of witnesses . . .

     As I began seriously reflecting upon a sermon or homily for today’s death, I must confess I had a terrible struggle.  I wanted to stand up and say “duh.”  Bob & MaryLea’s life was, from my perspective, a solid witness to the love and mercy of God.  Your showing up here this day, more than a year after they had left the QCA, is an acknowledgement of their witness.  There simply is not much of any value for me to add.  And I say this, with some of their family present, cognizant of the fact that they were neither perfect people nor people without their edges and their nadirs.  Terri and Kristy could probably share some stories in which wrath more described their behavior, but what family with children who grew into teenagers among us could not?  Some of us gathered have probably experienced the result of misplaying a hand with MaryLea.  Nearly all of us, myself included a lot, have been on the receiving end of her zingers.  Possibly some of us gathered from outside the family experienced Bob’s struggles, anger, and “why me?” with respect to his health issues.  A few of us probably experienced one of their fights.  One of my favorite “my your own business” I ever received from them was a call about a fight.  Some of their friends in the church and out were concerned they were fighting.  When I called to see if everything was ok, she replied it was.  “Don’t you think after this many years together, we know how to push each others buttons?”

     I share these stories to remind each of us that Bob & MaryLea were human.  They were humans who had chosen to follow the Lord, but they were humans in our experience who had not yet been completely recreated as Christ promises.  Like Sarah & Abraham or Jacob & Rachel and the other heroic couples in Scripture, Bob & MaryLea evidenced a wonderful life of faith, even while struggling with the very issues for which they needed a Savior.  We are gathered here today as a community of believers to remind ourselves of our Lord’s calls and promises, even as we remember His gentle way of dealing with our sins.

    And before we go any further, let us remind ourselves and the family that this ending is NOT a happy ending.  The world might look on Bob & MaryLea’s life together and the dates of their respective deaths and think “that is a fairy tale ending.  He could not live without her.”  Terri and Kristy, as you both know all too well, this is a tragic ending.  Our Lord never intended for us to die.  He knew the pain and mourning and separation that we feel at death, and He was moved to tears at the grave of His friend Lazarus.  You and the grandkids have had an opportunity to mourn, but there will be moments in the future when you feel their loss poignantly.  As I am sure you understand, people will say things about the deceased because they are at a loss for words.  We seem to abhor silence today, and so people find it necessary to fill in the void.  Comments made may be true, may even be meant well, and may even be made by brothers and sisters in Christ, but they do not reflect your sense of loss, your hurts, and your pains, all of which our Lord shares with you.  I pray the Holy Spirit will insulate from such hurts and the grace to respond in ways which cause such comforters to think seriously about what they have said.

     That all being said, I have to admit after I had prayed and reflected, I was pretty excited that the family chose Psalm 139 as the Old Testament reading on this day when we celebrate the life and witness of Bob & MaryLea.  Those who attend church regularly around here know that I take seriously Jesus’ claim that everything in Scripture is about Him, the torah, the prophets, the histories, and, yes, the Psalms.  The Psalms are the poetry of the Old Testament; they are very much like modern songs.  And while there is a lot of imagery, that imagery draws upon the stories and teachings found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

     The Psalm chosen for today comes from the fifth book of the Psalms.  This section of the psaltery concentrates on the restoration of Israel through the deliverance by God.  Mimicking the rest of the Old Testament, the Psalms have reminded us of God’s love for us, our rejection of His love, our struggles and exiles, and then His effort to deliver His people.  The fifth book reminds the reader that God only wants faithfulness and obedience in thanksgiving for His deliverance.

     Psalm 139 fits into that narrative by praising our Lord and by reminding us that He is the One to whom we should turn when we are accosted by enemies.  Sitting here, we might wonder who our enemies are; we might even argue that Bob & MaryLea had no enemies.  The truth is, of course, that all of God’s enemies are our enemies.  If Scripture is true that there are powers and principalities working as enemies of God, then you and I already have enemies, whether we are cognizant of them or not.  And while enemies in this psalm refer to soldiers, we can also think of other “enemies” which try to seduce us from our faith.  Bob’s pain is a great example.  Both MaryLean and Bob struggled with his vascular disease.  For the entire time I knew them, he hurt.  I think he had about two dozen stents inserted in him.  It might shock you to learn, but that constant pain he felt at times weighed on them.  It might even surprise a few of us here that they struggled with the fact that God did not answer their prayers the way they wanted.  To be sure they always came to themselves, but there were times when they became convinced that God had turned His attention away from them and their pleas.  Their worry was understandable.  More than sixty times in the time I knew them, I laid hands on and anointed Bob praying for God to heal him.  Others around had prayers answered, but not Bob.  And, although we began asking God for strength to bear that cross or eyes and ears to hear how God was glorified in his suffering, there was always that longing for health.

     One of our great discussions about this very psalm, though, was how God knows where we are and what we really need.  Better still, the “You know where I live” us a great comfort, rather than a horrible threat.  Think of that verse for a second.  For the one who rebels against God, it ought to be frightening.  But to the one who clings to Him in faith, it ought to be a wonderful comfort.  Though the three of us and this community interceded wrongly on their behalf, at least based on the healing results, Bob and MaryLea would find themselves comforted by the fact that they did not need to seek our Lord out.  He would always find them.  Whether they were struggling spiritually because of health concerns, enjoying time around here with friends, or even convinced to “up and move” to Colorado, God would find them.  God would provide them whatever they needed.  And HE would never, ever abandon them.  Even in the face of death, both knew that somehow, someway He would be glorified in their suffering and redemption.

     Perhaps sitting here today you are surprised by a bit of what you have learned about them.  Maybe at the meal afterwards you will hear stories about how this saintly couple were transformed over the years.  Perhaps you worry that you did not know them as well as you thought.  Bob and MaryLea, as long as I knew them, were never “look at us” people.  As our psalmist today reminds us, living a life of faith is a balance between personal relationship with our Lord and living in community of disciples.  Our Lord knows our words before we speak them, saw us unformed, and created our inmost beings.  But He teaches us all this in a community.  Though He loves us wonderfully, He loves all wonderfully, if only they will claim Him as their God.  And He is always about the work of saving all whom come to Him in faith.  Whether we are enslaved in Egypt, exiled because of disobedience, persecuted because His enemies have ascended to worldly power, or struggling with natural disasters, God is always working to redeem His people, both as a group and as individuals.  If asked by others, particularly after worship and at Bible Study, both were honest about their struggles when they had them.  But neither was quick to impose what they felt was an individual lesson on those around them.  Like true elders in the faith, they were honest enough to share their experiences when needed, but modest and humble enough to avoid calling attention to their journey for concern it might distract others, an attitude, I think, captured well by Terri’s daughter a few moments ago.

     One last reason stands out for this psalm to be our focus today.  Elsewhere in the psalms, indeed, throughout the Old Testament, there is a worry that if one dies before the Lord comes, that is the end.  As our psalmist notes today, darkness is not the end.  The fear was that if we died, there was nothing left in us with which God could relate.  How could He save nothing?  How could He redeem something that no longer existed?  Our psalmist today, however, confesses that even the darkness is light.  That same God who comes to us whether we are in Iowa or Colorado will come to us in death as well as life.  Though the psalmist does not yet know the promise of Christ’s Resurrection, the psalmist understands that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  It is a comforting thought to those who put their faith in Him.  And that is why this day, while we acknowledge the hurt and pain of their death, we stand confidently singing our alleluias confidant that we will, one day, see them again.  One day, we who claim Christ as Lord will pass from glory into glory, and join them at the Feast where all our tears will have been wiped away, all our bridge hands will have been played properly, and all our puttering in our workshops will produce wonderful works in praise of Him.

     Brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances of Bob & MaryLea, we gather today one more time in their memory, thankful for their journey with us, but mindful of the fact that they have been redeemed by our Lord.  Those of us who claim Him as God also know that one day we will see them after we have seen our Redeemer face to face, as a friend and not a stranger.  This day, we stand at their grave, as we commit their ashes, reminding ourselves of His promises to them and to us.  And so, in the assurance of that promised eternal life given at Baptism, let us proclaim our faith and say the words of the Apostles’ Creed. . . . 

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