SCRIPTURES: Ruth 1:1-15 Mark 12:28-44
I thought I had finished my sermons on loss and grief - at least for the moment - but this week we had All Souls day. and I started thinking not only about my loss, but the deaths that have profoundly affected and touched many of us over the past several years.
Many of you know that when someone you love dies, your soul goes through more than one season. There is the season of shock; there is the season of sadness. There is also a season of anger, when all you want to do is beat your fists against the doors of heaven, or wail for days at its gates. There is, too, a season of calm and peace, one of hope; and suddenly, another of loss and despair.
And they do not come in orderly fashion, one right after another. They come in a jumble. One day you are sure you are going to make it; the next day, you are sure you aren't. One hour your heart is light with grace; the next it weighs you down, and there is no getting up to deal with the rest of the world.
But if you can make it through all these seasons (and most do), you gradually come to realise, in Bonhoeffer's eloquent words, that…
Nothing can make up for the absence of one we love. . . . it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn't fill it, but to the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.
When someone you love dies, the pain that is felt is the pain of losing someone you want and love. It is not because the world has suddenly become harsh and selfish toward you. And when the world is harsh and unlovely in the face of death, it is because we make it that way, not because God is mean-spirited or unloving.
Death opens us up in a way that not even new life can. Why did Ruth followed Naomi into a new land? Maybe because she was simply too tired not to. Here she was, completely bereft - of husband, family, land. All she had left was Naomi, her husband's mother. When she speaks her powerful words to Naomi, could they be coming from dull pain rather than committed joy, from despair rather than hope? Could it be she is simply too tired to turn back? The story goes, "Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her.
Don't ask me to leave you! Let me go with you. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried.
Powerful words of loyalty and love, born out of sorrow, loss, and grief. Ruth was able to lose herself in steadfast love. Perhaps it is when we realise that nothing can heal the pain of death but a willingness to love again that we become willing to live as the Shema suggests, for God and each other.
There is a little Sufi story about a stream of water working itself across the country, experiencing little difficulty. It ran around the rocks and through the mountains. Then it arrived at the desert. Just as it had crossed every other barrier, the stream tried to cross this one, but found that as fast as it ran into the sand, its waters disappeared. After many attempts, it became very discouraged.
Then a voice came. "If you stay the way you are you cannot cross the sands; you cannot become more than a quagmire. To go further, you will have to lose yourself."
"But if I lose myself, I will never know what I'm supposed to be."
"On the contrary," said the voice. "If you lose yourself you will become more than you ever dreamed you could be."
So the stream surrendered to the dying sun. And the clouds into which it was formed were carried by the raging wind for many miles. Once it crossed the desert, the stream poured down from the skies, fresh and clean and full of the energy that comes from storms.
If you lose yourself, you will become more than you ever dreamed you could be. Ruth was willing to lose herself through steadfast love. Through that love, she became more than she ever thought she would be. She loved again, made a home for her mother-in-law, and gave birth to Obed, who was of the lineage and line of Jesus.
It is good in the face of death not to let ourselves be overcome by bitterness, pain, or even sorrow, but to turn toward hope and the newness of life, when we are ready and able to do so. It will not come to you in the same package as your former life, but it will be new life just the same. For some of us, who have lived whole lifetimes with loved ones, it is hard to turn toward a whole new life. For those of us who have lost loved ones in midlife, the adjustment is difficult, but possible. And for those who have loved and lost children or a spouse far too early, picking up the strands of life and beginning again is very, very difficult.
But not impossible to do. Nick Wolterstorff's wrote of the death of his son Eric at age 25, in his book Lament to My Son…
At the funeral... the community's actions and symbols spoke as much as the words. The cloth placed over the coffin, the candle burning near it, symbolizing resurrection. The opening words recalling Eric's baptism, the glorious music. Together people celebrated the Eucharist, that sacrament of God's participation in our brokenness. They came forward in groups and stood around the coffin in intimate circles, passing pieces of Christ's brokenness to each other.
Later he reflects that the funeral did not console him for Eric's absence. But it did do something else. "It sank deep into me the realization that my son's death is not all there is."
As faithful people, we know that death is not all there is. We know, as Ruth discovered, that in life and in death, we are God's. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. For the Christian, death is never the last word.
Jesus himself gives us powerful words for the living of life and the facing of death. Be not afraid, I go before you always. Come follow me and I will give you rest.
For those of you who have lost a loved one recently - a member of your family, a dear friend - may God give you strength to mourn and courage to go forward into a new land. Remember, you do not go alone; rather you go with the love and blessing of the one you have loved.
For those of you who have lost an intimate partner who has been with you for a lifetime, may you find comfort in that lifetime of love.
For those among us who have lost dear friends and members of this congregation, may we take strength in the love that never dies but lives on in the lives and the hearts of people. We are community of all the saints - those who go before and those present today and those who are yet to arrive.
As we celebrate communion, let us refuse any bitterness and bring our empty cups to be filled again. Let us bring our broken-open spirits to be healed again. Let us vow to live with kindness and serve with love. Let us pray that when the time comes to face our own death, we will be able to so with serenity, peace, and freedom.
Let us pray God to fill the hollow of the heart with new joy that can absorb sorrow, hope that will transcend despair, and a love which joins mortal and immortal life. Amen.
Acknowledgements: Patricia de Jong; D. Bonhoeffer; Nick Wolterstorff