Ordinary Life

“He will exult over you” – A funeral sermon

“He will exult over you with loud singing”
           A funeral sermon for my mother, Marjorie Haack by Denis Haack

 A reading from the Old Testament—Isaiah 61:1-3
            The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

A reading from the Old Testament—Zephaniah 3:14-17
            Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.
“The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”

A reading from the New Testament—John 11:21-27
            Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

This ends the reading of God’s Word.

Not long after my father died my mother began saying she wanted to come to this church, Church of the Cross. “I want to go to your church,” she told me, and said this is where she wanted her funeral to be held. My church isn’t like the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies, I told her, but she said with some obvious irritation that she knew that. One time when she brought up Church of the Cross again I said, “Mom: have your changed your theology?” She leaned forward, looked me straight in the eye, and pointed a finger at me menacingly. And then she said something I remember hearing many times growing up as boy. “Now, don’t you get smart with me, young man!” she said and then laughed at herself and us.

These conversations occurred during her lucid time, long before the disease of her dementia robbed her of her memory and the ability to converse. I didn’t take her request as a change in theology but as a desire to be family. Over so many decades Mom had been separated from Ruth and I, with long miles between the United States and the Philippines. She yearned to be in and with family but first geography and then brokenness had kept her from it. So it is in that spirit, of the love of family, that we honor her request by holding her funeral here today.

Over the past two years Margie and I have spent time with Mom each week, at first bringing her to our home and then when her declining health prohibited that, spending time with her at the memory care center where she lived at Valley Ridge. We took her by wheelchair to Cinco de Mayo last year in St Paul, a lively street festival of everything Mexican. There were stalls serving wonderful food—Mom wanted a hotdog, no green chili, thank you—there was a loud parade with Mariachi bands, floats, politicians in convertibles, and traditional costumes. The highlight was when we gathered around a boxing ring—wrestling ring, really—to watch the masked Lucha Libre wrestlers in action. The first two were announced to great fanfare and they strutted around to the delight of the crowd, the good guy cheered and the bad guy booed heartily. They threw each other around the ring and acted like they were being slowly killed, until finally the good guy got the bad guy on the mat for the count of three and was declared the winner. Mom watched attentively, occasionally wincing when one of the wrestlers did something particularly nasty, and as we left she motioned from her wheelchair that she wanted to say something to me. I leaned over and she said in a somewhat offended voice, “Denis—I really think some of that was fake!”

“We are born, we eat, and learn, and die,” says novelist Michael O’Brien in his story, Island of the World. “We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.”

As I spent time with Mom over the past two years I intentionally sought out the “tracery of messages” that she was leaving behind. Even as her memory faded she could remember events and people from her childhood, and a question from me would produce a smile and some stories. Of her father and his love for his garden and for flowers. Of her five sisters and their squabbles, and of how her sisters never, ever did their fair share of the household chores. Of all the times she would pack a picnic lunch and walk to Buttonwood Park in New Bedford when Ruth and I were small, to spend an afternoon playing outside. Of the board games she and I would play and the mysteries we listened to on the radio. So many things that seem so small and insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things, but that in reality shaped me into the person I am today.

There is one other thing I heard from my mother repeatedly over the last decade, and she never spoke of it without crying. She said she never felt appreciated, or made to feel that she had anything of real value to offer, but was made to feel small and insignificant. “Why?” she would ask me. “Why did they always make me feel so unimportant?” Over the past two years, we often told her she was important to us, and we repeated that to her even in her final few days when we were not certain she could hear us.

These tracery of messages were specific to my mother, but they form echoes of what we each must face. If we are a confident person we can believe we have significance and a greater purpose or meaning but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. We are broken people living in a broken world and so the answer is not necessarily immediately obvious. Where does significance come from and how can we be sure?

In our pluralistic world various of our neighbors would propose very different answers to this question. Some have adopted the very reductive view that human significance is an illusion but courage requires us to forge ahead believing it to exist anyway. Others assert that we make our own meaning through our accomplishments, but those of us who have tried so hard over so many years and still come up short find that to be the counsel of despair.

In the midst of these alternatives the Christian faith provides a very different answer. Our texts of Scripture capture the essence of that hope and I’d like to highlight two aspects. In Christ, these texts tell us, we have an exultant significance and a quiet confidence—the Christian hope has lovely extremes—an exultant significance and a quiet confidence.

If these ancient texts are true, Mom has now experienced what it means to have and to enjoy an exultant significance. Look at verse 17 in the Zephaniah text: “The Lord your God is in your midst,” the ancient Hebrew prophet says. “A mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

The God of Scripture has always chosen to dwell among his people, not simply watch them from some Mt Olympus in a far off heaven. He is not aloof, or distant, and does not only know us in theory or just in general terms. He knows us personally and really, and his promise to be our God and we his people is a radical proposition. And then in Christ he entered human history and our humanity itself by becoming man while remaining God.

Mom’s life was important even if most of those around her failed to see it and failed to assure her of it. It was important because she was made in God’s image, and so she could be faithful in the small, ordinary things in her life to his glory. In the final analysis all we need is an audience of one, if that One rejoices over you with loud singing and in so doing causes all of creation to exult. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,” Zephaniah says, and so Mom sees no longer through a glass darkly but clearly, and she knows of her significance because she has heard the Almighty actually sing of it.

This image described by the Hebrew prophet is part of a larger vision of the future that we call the Christian hope. It provides an utterly transforming perspective on life and death, and on life after death. “The resurrection of Christ,” Timothy Keller says, “means everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”

Marjorie Haack is now with a circle of women whose “tracery of messages” echo with great glory in the pages of Holy Scripture. The circle includes Ruth and Rahab, Sarah, Priscilla and Mary the mother of our Lord, the prophetess Huldah, and Anna who recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah when he was still an infant. Each was memorable in her own way, used of God in ways lost in the fog of history but remembered by the one that called them and whose memory is in the end the only one that counts.

One in that circle whose story is worth remembering is Mary Magdalene. In the first century both the Jews and the Romans agreed that women were untrustworthy witnesses, and neither permitted a woman to testify in court. Jesus treated all such misogyny with contempt, however, and treated women with a respect that caused many to become his disciples. Then Jesus was crucified, and buried, and in the event that changed all of history forever, rose from the dead. His resurrection meant that he, the God-man, had not just entered human existence but had actually gone through death and come out on the other side. Suddenly death was no longer the final enemy but had lost its sting, and no longer needed to be the final word in the story of our lives. And who did God arrange to be the first witness to this greatest of all events? Who was providentially provided to arrive at an empty tomb, speak to angelic messengers sent from the throne of the Almighty and go tell the truth to Jesus’ discouraged and disheartened male followers? Mary Magdalene, a women, the first believer in the resurrection of our Lord and the primary witness to its truth.

I wonder if Mary realized the significance of what happened that day 2000 years ago. She had gone to the garden with spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body, something Jews did after someone had died. It was all very normal, very ordinary, not at all very significant at that moment, just something you did. And then so much unfolded. Peter heard her report and thought it sounded incredible, like “an idle tale,” the Scriptures record (Luke 24:11) and ran off to check the tomb for himself. It was Mary Magdalene that is the first witness to the premier event in all of human history, and the ordinary events of that day were transformed into something far bigger than any of us can possibly imagine.

My mother Marjorie is now in that circle of witnesses, and I suspect they have begun reviewing the “tracery of messages” in Mom’s life so she can see them not as others debased them while she was alive but reveal them to be providential events ordained by her Lord for his glory and the service of others—like me. Our lives are like a tapestry, and often all we get to see is the underside, full of knots and loose ends, indistinct patterns and confusing designs. Mom only saw that side of her life but now has been shown the other side of the tapestry—a new view that is accompanied by glad rejoicing, a singing that emanates from the very throne of God.

And along with an exultant significance the Christian hope also provides God’s people with a quiet confidence. Listen again to some of the comforting words written so many centuries ago by the prophet Isaiah. Hear them with your imagination and let them sink into your soul: Verse 1: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives… Verse 2: to comfort all who mourn… Verse 3: to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

The Jews understood this to be a messianic text, meaning they realized it would be fulfilled, accomplished by the Messiah, the one promised from the very beginning. And then St Luke tells us in his gospel, chapter 4, that Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth, took the scroll of Isaiah, read this text aloud and said an astounding thing. “Today,” he asserted, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).

This is either a silly, narcissistic boast or the most important declaration in human history. We know for a fact that it is not empty words, because when Jesus promises comfort for all who mourn we know he knew what grief was like. When his dear friend Lazarus died Jesus visited his tomb and there we are told, he wept. This was not theater, but real, because even more than the rest of us Jesus knew how death was not meant to be but was an intruder, a perversion of what God had made and said was very good. He could cry even though he then raised Lazarus back to life because death is always a tragedy, and grief at the pain and horror of death is always appropriate.

And so we are comforted today, even in the presence of this coffin because the one who is the very source of life has come to bring us comfort. He is “the resurrection and the life,” our gospel text tells us, and in that we can have the quiet confidence that though death is real, it is not the final word in her story.

And so, just as we await the return of the King and the resurrection, so Mom waits as well. Right now her body and soul are separated, and that is not how human beings were created to be. And right now we live in the shadows in a broken world where grief over loss is our reality, and so we need comfort as we mourn.

The Christian hope, embodied in Christ Jesus provides an exultant significance in life and death and a quiet confidence as we face the future. “Whoever believes in me, though they die,” Christ said to Martha, “yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

And that is precisely the question we are finally left with as we stand together today in the presence of this coffin.

Let us pray:
Father, you created our hearts for unbroken fellowship. Yet the constraints of time and place, and the stuttering rhythms of life and death in a fallen world dictate that all fellowships will at times be broken or incomplete. And so we find ourselves bearing the sorrow of our separation from Marjorie Haack, my mother.
We acknowledge, O Lord that it is a right and a good thing to miss deeply those whom we love but with whom we cannot be physically present. Grant us, therefore, courage to love well even in this time of absence. Grant us courage to shrink neither from the aches nor from the joys that love brings, for each, willingly received, will accomplish the good works you have appointed them to do. Therefore we praise you even for our sadness, knowing that the sorrows we steward in this life will in time be redeemed.
We pray all this in the name of Jesus Christ, who is life itself as we await his return at which point death will be no more, world without end, Amen.

Source: The final prayer was adapted from Every Moment Holy (2017)