One day a few years ago, long before anyone could have imagined the specific circumstances that would bring us to this day, Jackie sat down to plan her own funeral. She laid out the hymns she wanted us to sing, and she chose the passages she wanted us to hear from the Old and New Testaments.
Whenever someone takes the trouble to do this—whenever someone has enough courage and faith to face and accept the limits of their own life on earth—it’s an incredible gift to the loved ones they leave behind.
Because it means there will be one less thing they need to worry about in this time when the loss is fresh, and when there are so many other details that have to be arranged and attended to. It’s an act of faith, and a true act of kindness.
And what I realized when I sat down myself to the task of writing a sermon for Jackie’s funeral is that it’s also a gift to the one who will preach. When I started to look over the hymns and readings Jackie had selected, I saw that she basically had outlined this funeral sermon herself.
She knew what message she wanted proclaimed on this day. She knew where she wanted the people who love her to find comfort and reassurance to ease their crushing grief.
It’s all right there in the service leaflet you hold in your hands. To sum up in just a few words, I think what Jackie wanted us to know was that she would be fine. Released from all the hard things in this life, and now at peace.
I do not think that means Jackie took lightly the leaving of those she loved. Those who so dearly loved her.
But planning a funeral like this means you’ve already accepted that this earthly life we cling to so fiercely is just the beginning. That death may be part of life, but it’s not the end. Not the end of life, but rather a passage into new life, life forever in God.
This is the faith that comes through so very emphatically in Jackie’s plans for this day. The firm belief that she’s gone to be with her Maker. And she bids us rejoice with her at her arrival.
The gospel reading she chose is that tender story about Jesus’ encounter with his friend Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus.
Martha is grieving but also a little angry. How could Jesus let this happen? Why didn’t he come sooner—why didn’t he do something to prevent this death?
And she isn’t easily comforted by the promise that Lazarus will rise again.
But Jesus tells her again: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
And in affirming his true identity, she seems to come to a kind of peace.
Of course if you know your Bible, you know that isn’t the end of this story. You know that Jesus goes to the grave where Lazarus has been buried. And he weeps.
Jesus knows the sadness we feel today, because he experienced it himself.
Like Martha wondering why Lazarus had to die, even as we try to be glad that our sister’s struggles have ended, we still find it hard to understand. Why do terrible things happen to good people, changing their whole lives in an instant?
I don’t think there’s any easy answer to that, but I do believe that by grace we are given the ability to turn our response to disaster into something beautiful.
The love and devotion that Bill and Rick have demonstrated is a beautiful thing. And finally the time came to let go—to let her go home—and that also is a powerful and beautiful testimony to love.
Jackie wanted us to know that she is fine. She wanted us to believe that God has been with her this whole time, and that through the mercy of Jesus Christ she is going now “into the land of light and joy.”
That is the message that comes through so clearly in this sermon according to Jackie.
Life can be hard, and Jackie certainly knew that. But it can also be full of grace, and love, and kindness. And that’s the way Jackie chose. She chose a faith and a church and a funeral service that begins with the proclamation, “I am Resurrection and I am Life.” Exactly what Jesus said to console Martha.
She chose readings and hymns full of reassurance.
She wanted us to sing “all my hope on God is founded” and put our feelings about losing her in God’s hands.
In our grief, she wanted us to lean into the God who “wipes away every tear.”
She wanted us to sing “I want to see the brightness of God … I want to be with Jesus”
… and, finally, to believe that she is.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA