“You have reached the refrigerator for (number redacted). I’m sorry, but nobody is available to take your call. But if you leave a message, I’ll write it on one of those Post-it notes and stick it on myself.”
That was the announcement on Pete’s answering machine when I first got to know him. He kind of took me under his wing when we first arrived here. He showed me around Muncie and introduced me to several of our Elderly folks who can’t make it to church regularly. Because he was a volunteer at the hospital, he showed me the ropes of the facility, and even bought me an occasional lunch in the cafeteria. Yes, Pete was a very special man. And a good friend.
Last week, we buried that good friend.
He died approximately two hours before Sunday School began. I knew we had to acknowledge the gorilla in the room during worship service. So I scrapped what I was going to say and borrowed words from Chuck Warnock, who experienced a similar situation about a month ago. I had held on to this sermon because I figured I’d need to use it someday. I didn’t expect it to have been so soon.
Here’s Sunday’s sermon from March 14, 2010…
When Pope John XXIII lay dying, the Pope’s physician is reported to have said, “Holy Father, you have asked me many times to tell you when the end was near so you could prepare.” The Pope replied, “Yes. Don’t feel badly, Doctor. I understand. I am ready.”
With that the Pope’s secretary collapsed at the Pope’s bedside weeping.
“Courage, my son. I am a (leader in the church), and I must die as a (leader in the church), with simplicity but with majesty, and you must help me. Go get the people together.”
This morning, one of our own left us. As you all know now, Pete Milbourn passed away at around 7:00 this morning. I had planned to preach today on Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and how the events echo another moment in history in the Garden of Eden. And while that might be a subject of great interest to us at another time, I believe that this morning isn’t the time to do that. I believe that this morning, I must to speak to you as your pastor about death, and what happens when death comes to our community.
This is not Pete’s funeral or eulogy, but because his death came so close upon our gathering here today, and although we knew this day wasn’t too far off, the news still came as such a shock to each of us this morning, I want to take a few minutes today to talk about death and how we as followers of Christ deal with the grief and loss that accompanies death.
Dying Is Part of Our Life’s Journey
We all know we are going to die someday, but the will to live that beats in our chest does all it can to push death away. We have sought to remove death from our lives, our homes, even our churches so much that when death does come in unexpected and surprising ways, we are struck with its finality and force.
There was a time when death was seen as the shadow companion of life. Walk through any old cemetery where the grave stones display dates that reach back a hundred or more years. One of the striking things about visiting an old cemetery is the number of small grave stones that mark the graves of infants and children.
Other markers will note the passing too early of a wife or husband, a mother or father. And, in reality, every death is too early – isn’t it?
My earliest memory of an encounter with death was when I was 8 or 9 years old. I answered the phone and it was my grandmother on the other line. I could tell by the crack in her voice that something was horribly wrong. She asked to speak to Mom. A few minutes later, I was informed that my great-grandma, Grandma Purdue, had just died. That’s the first time I remember being touched personally by the death of someone close to me.
Only a few generations ago, Death came into the home where a family lived, and for some families was a regular visitor.
We have become accustomed now to death in the hospital or nursing home, removed from our everyday lives, and coming in spite of all the heroic efforts of medical personnel and medical techniques. Many public places even have defibrillator available for the public. This is a good thing to do because it might save a life.
But we are reminded in spite of all our attempts to separate ourselves from it, that death still comes, and often unexpectedly.
And death was no stranger to Jesus, either. In John 11, we hear these words.
Jesus Encountered Death and Grief
The shortest verse in this story, which is also the shortest verse in the Bible, is also the moist poignant — “Jesus wept.” We have that verse which pictures Jesus in grief because his good friend, Lazarus, had just died. Jesus stands before his tomb, after Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha share their grief with Jesus. They also share their disappointment that Jesus had not come earlier, for both Martha and Mary say, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21)
There in those short words, we see the face of grief in all its uncertainty and second-guessing. How many of us have stood beside the casket of a loved one and said to ourselves, “If only I had been there.” Or some similar remark.
We think we have the power to forestall death by our presence, our good intentions, our desire for life. But still death comes. Of course, in the story of the death of Lazarus, that story does have a happy ending. Death is robbed of Lazarus, as Jesus raises him back to life. But only for a short time, because Lazarus will die, again, just as we all will.
But Jesus brought Lazarus back from death as demonstration of the Kingdom of God, and of his power over death. Death, the Bible says, is the last enemy to be defeated.
What Do We Do When Death Comes?
So, what do we do when death visits our community as it did the community of Jesus’ friends? There are several things I want to suggest to us today.
First, we recognize that death is coming to us all. Now that may sound incredibly morbid, but our acknowledgement that death is real, and cannot be put off is a part of living life.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes shares these words:
1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Eccl. 3:1-8)
Death can come suddenly, quickly, and unexpectedly. Or it can be a long, drawn out journey. But for all of us, there will be a time to die.
While we want to put off death in both our thinking and our conversations, there are times when we must acknowledge death as a coming reality and be prepared for it.
Secondly, when death comes to our community, we surround the grief-stricken with our presence and love.
Many of you called over the years, concerned for Pete, and also for Jane. In the days ahead, we’ll surround her, as we have many in this congregation with our presence and our love. We are there for one another when death comes, because while death can take one of us, it cannot take us all, and it only strengthens the ties of faith and community.
Part of our ministry to those who grieve is to see their sadness, and let them be sad. It is a misunderstanding of faith and the Christian life to think that Christians are not sad, do not grieve, and are not hurt by the loss of someone who is loved.
God has made us to love, and part of the risk of love is the possibility of loss. Grief is about loss — losing a husband, a wife, a companion, a child, a father, a mother, a friend, a neighbor.
Loss, especially the loss of a loved one to death, sweeps through our lives and takes from us many things. Death not only takes the person, but it also takes our daily routine, the small moments of living that are shared between a husband and wife, a parent and child, a friend and a neighbor.
Death creates a vacuum in our lives, leaving holes in our existence that cry out to be filled. Love and time fill those holes, reshape our lives, and enable us to continue to live.
Often we think we need to explain death, or find a reason for death’s intrusion. But while wisely chosen words can comfort, poorly chosen words can increase the pain of those who are already reeling from death’s blow. We can be most helpful by being present with those who grieve, loving them through the steps from grief back to life.
Finally, we can have hope. Hope that we know where our loved one, our friend, our neighbor, our fellow church member has gone, and hope that we will see them again one day.
Paul encouraged us to “Grieve not as those who have no hope.” He was not saying for us not to grieve, but not to grieve in the same way that those without hope grieve. And that is the key to understanding and dealing with grief.
We can be sad, we can cry, we can stand with those who do, and that is part of our Christian journey and support, just as it was for Jesus who cried with Mary and Martha.
As Christians, we do not live alone, and we do not die alone. We are surrounded by those who love us, because together we love God. God knows what it is to grieve the death of a son. He is moved by our tears, for He shed tears on this earth himself.
But our hope is in the presence of God and the provision of God’s grace and mercy. Jesus promised that he has prepared a place for us, and assured us that he would come again and receive us unto himself, that where he is, we might be also. That is our hope, that is our peace, that is our assurance.
And so the words of John XXIII also apply to us. We must die with simplicity, but also with majesty. Gather the people. For it is from the community of faith that we draw strength, love, and support.