One Last Act of Grace – Part 4 of 4 in our sermon series The End

Caspar the Friendly Ghost
Caspar the Friendly Ghost

“I will come back and haunt you!”

That’s what one of my parent’s friends told her kids would happen if they had a memorial service for her. She told them she absolutely didn’t want a memorial service of any kind and if they had one she would come back to haunt them. For some reason, this idea of having a service sparked this very violent response in her, that she would actually threaten her kids from beyond the grave for doing it. But she’s not the only one like this. Maybe others don’t respond so forcefully, but more often than I would have imagined people who died have told their loved ones they didn’t want a service of any kind. Maybe they have self-esteem issues. The thought that people might feel obligated to come to honor them somehow gives them unease. Maybe it’s an issue of control. One last act of defiance, of telling people what they want and how they want it. Or maybe they actually think they are doing something thoughtful. Trying to make sure that their loved ones don’t have to go through the process of putting a service together while they are grieving. But what happens instead is that some people turn this potential “thee” moment into a “me” moment. Some people turn this potential “thee” moment into a “me” moment. What I mean by this is that even in your passing you have the chance to do something thoughtful for the ones you leave behind, for one last act of grace. But instead some people turn this moment from an opportunity to think about others to thinking about themselves.

Les Miserables original Broadway poster
Les Miserables original Broadway poster

The truth is funerals aren’t for the dead. They are for the living.

The truth is funerals aren’t for the dead. They are for the living. We don’t have funerals to appease our own spirit, but for the spirits of the people we leave behind. We do it to soothe the pain they feel in their hearts at our passing. It helps in the healing and grieving process, to offer comfort in a very real time of trouble which is exactly what Paul speaks about in our reading this morning. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, please go to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. Sometimes for whatever reason we underestimate the impact we have on the lives of others. We get so wrapped up in ourselves we fail to see how our actions have ramifications. That happened to me when I was planning a group trip to go see the musical Les Miserables. I organized a group of about 30 of us to go see the play at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. It’s one of my favorites, but earlier that week something happened between me and one of my friends who was going so I decided to skip the show. I’d given everyone their tickets so I figured no one would miss me and I wallowed in my own self-pity at home. The next day at work, my friend Jen came up to me and in an unusually stern tone asked me why I didn’t show up. I told her my lame excuse and said I figured no one would miss me anyway (can you hear the world’s smallest violin playing?). She said, “Look, Craig. I go to these things because YOU organize them. And it really disappointed me you didn’t think about that when you decided not to show up. Who cares about that other person? I came because of you.” It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever told me. But for me it was an example of how I let my own selfishness override the impact I might have on those around me that I care about. And this is what Paul speak to in these two short lines.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

Paul uses two key words here to describe God: compassion and comfort.

These are two key character traits of God. Compassion and comfort. We see the compassion of God throughout the stories of the Bible. Over and over, the Israelites would wander away. They would start worshipping false gods. They would forget about how God directed them to live. And life got bad for them. And no matter how many times they did this, God showed compassion to them and would embrace them over and over. This happened not just once or twice but many, many times and each time it happened God took them back. How often are we like that? How many people do you know who have drifted away from the church or know people in the church who live life as if they weren’t? Yet God always has compassion for us, knows the bent of our hearts, and welcomes us back. The same is true for the comfort we receive from Christ. Jesus offered comfort to the disciples when he told them he was about to leave. They wanted to follow, but Jesus told them they couldn’t. He laid their fears at ease by offering them the assurance he would come back for them. He built up their confidence by telling them that because they knew him, they knew God. And he promised them that they would feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives once he left. These words he shared with the disciples continue to comfort us today. They help to calm us when those close to us die. They ease our anxiety and we cling to these words like we would a soft blanket or a stuffed animal. They offer us hope in a situation that would otherwise be hopeless.

Comfort and compassion are parts of the character of God.

And because God offers them to us, Paul writes in this passage that we need to offer comfort to others in need. And when are people more in need of comfort and compassion than at the death of a loved one? But how can we do that in our own death? By planning ahead. Even in death we can help put at ease the minds of the ones we love. Even in death we can offer one last act of grace and comfort. Maybe you’ve never thought about it in that way, but by planning ahead you can offer comfort to those you leave behind. I know it sounds like a commercial. “We hear at the Dinuba Funeral Home can help you plan ahead and put to ease the minds of your loved ones.” But there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s a lot of truth in the statement that a well-planned death can bring comfort. A well-planned death can be a source of comfort. I’ve watched many people struggle with putting together a memorial service for someone they love. You can see the stress on their face and in their body language. They are trying hard to do the best they can, but it’s like being a wedding planner for a friend who never told you what they wanted in a wedding. Where do you start? What do you choose? Are you doing what they would want? It just adds to an already stressful situation. But when you plan ahead, when you leave behind written plans about what you would like to have done, it makes it so much easier for the ones who remain. Something as simple as a favorite verse, a favorite hymn, a favorite picture, can make all the difference. It takes the burden off of your loved ones from trying to guess how best to honor you. One of the easiest funerals I ever planned was one where the person who passed away left behind a written autobiography of their life. It wasn’t long – only five or six pages – but it was enough for me to better understand what was important to her and what she valued in life. It made it easier on the family also because they didn’t have to guess at any information, it was already written down. Dates, important moments, the love she had for her family. The hardest information is almost always valuable experiences from a person’s early years. Most kids only get to know a tiny amount of what their parents were like when they were little and sometimes the stories can be eye-opening. When my Auntie Setsuko died, my cousin’s boyfriend gave me the text of an interview he did with her about her life in the internment camps. I learned things about my Auntie, and about my own dad, that I had never known. I found out that my dad was an adventurous little kid, often sneaking out with my aunt outside of the gates to hunt down little critters and bring them back to camp. It’s the little stories we don’t often hear that paint a bigger picture of who our loved ones are.

Some people still feel that no memorial service would be easier.

They think it will be a relief not to have one, but the truth is it’s often more stressful. Grieving is part of healing and often a service helps us to grieve in a way that is constructive and life-affirming. It really can be a celebration of the person’s life and sometimes we need that in the healing process to remind ourselves of the blessings as we work through the grief. I’ve known people who have had memorial services even if the person didn’t want one, just so they could gather together and offer each other comfort at this most stressful moment of their lives. If they could do it with your blessing, wouldn’t that be better?

For many of you, I’m just talking to the choir.

You’ve already thought about this and you’re fine with having a service. Some of you have even planned it out already. Some of you have written down your wishes for a service. But, if you’ve never thought about it this way before, please consider this one last act of grace. If you’ve thought about a funeral only from a “me” perspective, instead think of it as a gift you can give to those you leave behind. Paul’s admonition to offer comfort to others is a reflection of the comfort we ourselves have from knowing Christ and to do so is just one more way we can honor God, in this case both in life and in death. If we can watch our own funeral, if there is some way we can look down and see everything that’s going on, I think we would ourselves be comforted from seeing our loved ones begin the healing process and have a chance to remember us in a way that honors our life. And I don’t think God would want us to haunt the ones we love, do you? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

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