Pastor Keith does it again

Nearly 6 years ago I wrote a post about how Pastor Keith helped us through our father’s death and I shared the amazing sermon he gave at my father’s funeral. I’m here now to let you know that he did it again, this time at my mother’s memorial service. We were not entirely sure this would be possible because Pastor Keith moved from my mother’s church to a different church, but since Mom was so fond of Pastor Keith and she’d never met the interim pastor at her church until she was on hospice care, Kevin and I (mostly Kevin) made sure Pastor Keith was able to be involved.

A few days before the memorial service Pastor Keith called to get some ideas for the sermon. We talked about mom’s qualities, about her illness, about her friends, about Kevin’s upcoming wedding. I also shared with Pastor Keith the dream I had the night my mother died.

Without further comment, here’s his sermon:

Funeral Sermon for Patricia Ann Patrick (February 16, 1936–August 26, 2016)
Texts: John 14:1–4 and Romans 8:18–21
Preached: September 9, 2016 at Moss-Norris Funeral Home, St. Charles, Illinois

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, in whose house are many, many rooms, and from Christ Jesus, who has gone to prepare a place for us. AMEN

I’m grateful to Pat Patrick’s family, and to Pr. Michael Rothaar, for inviting me to participate in this service for Pat Patrick this evening. I was Pat’s pastor for five years, and she holds a special place in my heart. Pat was the only parishioner I’ve had, and I suspect will be the only parishioner I ever will have, who invariably as she was leaving worship on a Sunday morning would bow her head in front of me as she was leaving the service and… would kiss my ring. I don’t know for sure how that started, but she did it week in and week out. Someone a couple of years ago noticed her doing this, and privately afterwards said, “Pastor, do you think that’s a sign of the Alzheimer’s?” And I had to laugh and say, “No, no, not at all, she was doing that long before that became an issue! That’s just Pat.” And even after her mind became clouded, she never failed to kiss my ring, and then would smile sweetly and somewhat slyly at me. There was a delightful, childlike quality about her, an almost pixie-like quality, that enabled her to look at the world with wonder, and to laugh that infectious laugh, and to get away with some slightly goofy behaviors that only she could get away with. You can see that delight in the photos of her as a young woman—still a girl, really—as she looks up adoringly at Elvin as he embraces her. Even when she went through trying times across the years, through difficulties and challenges and losses, she still kept that air of eagerness, that spirit of amazed wonderment.

Earlier this week, Pat’s daughter Dona shared with me an experience she had the night of Pat’s death that I think in some way captures that quality. Dona had finally gone to bed that night, sleeping near Pat’s bed, knowing that the end of this life was not far off. As she slept, Dona began to dream. And in her dream, she saw Pat get up out of bed, all dressed in white. There were windows all around. It wasn’t Kevin’s house, but some other place. And in the dream, Pat kept heading toward the windows, drawn like a moth to a flame. She would get up close to a window, and would stand with her hands behind her back like a child who has been told not to touch something very precious, standing up on her tiptoes, straining delightedly, expectantly to see what there was on the other side of the glass, as though there were something of great beauty and fascination to be seen that she couldn’t quite make out. She went from window to window, trying to get a clearer view. Others in the dream kept coming and trying to tug Pat back to her bed, but she couldn’t be held back…she kept going back to the window to stand on tiptoes. Finally, someone took hold of her and pushed her into Dona’s arms, but not even that could keep her from the irresistible attraction of the sight she was straining to see. And suddenly, she broke free from Dona’s grasp, and instantly was transformed into sparkles of light. And at that moment, Dona awoke, and Kevin told her that their mom was gone.

When I heard that account, I was immediately reminded of some verses of scripture, actually verses that come just before the very same passage that Pr. Rothaar read a few moments ago from the Letter to the Romans. This letter was written by the Apostle Paul to people who were going through profoundly difficult struggles in their lives, people who were being persecuted and even killed, people who needed to hear a word of hope and encouragement, people who were unsure about what might lie in store for them. And in the verses that we heard, there is that stirring affirmation that not even death itself, not even life itself, can hold us back from the love that God shows to us in Christ Jesus. Those are amazing words to hear. We can have confidence in them. But now I want you to hear what Paul had to say just before those words. These verses come from another translation that I think captures something very important, and it’s why what Dona had to say caught my attention. Listen to them:

18-21 In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the children of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God! (Romans 8:18–21, J.B. Phillips Version)

“The whole creation is on tiptoe…” Most translations give a very dry, “The creation waits with eager longing,” but the original Greek word there is actually very picturesque, describing the whole head being stretched forward, trying to see something wonderful that is about to come. And that is what I pictured when I heard Dona describe her mother in that dream, darting from window to window, standing on tiptoe, hands behind her back, craning to peek into those rooms Christ has prepared to see the wonderful sight of the future God has planned for her and for us. As the children of God, we need have no fear of death, because we have the incredible assurance that death is not the end, that there is resurrection life that will be even more wonderful than anything we’ve experienced so far, when “the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!” We can approach even our own mortality with expectancy and hope.

Now I can’t tell you exactly what lies just the other side of the glass. Scripture says that right now we see only in a darkened, obscure way, only catching a pale reflection of the glory that will be. But Jesus often gives us word pictures of what God’s fully realized reign will look like, as did the prophets before him, and one of my favorite images is of a wedding banquet, a great feast where there is joy and laughter, where there is plenty for all, where the wine flows freely and the food is abundant, where all those who have struggled, all those who have experienced sorrow and crying, all those who have suffered in body or mind, will be brought in as welcome guests to enjoy the fullness that God has intended for each of us from the very beginning of creation, brought to sit at the banqueting table in their rightful places as beloved children and heirs of God.

I couldn’t help thinking of that picture on this evening, knowing that tomorrow Kevin and Connie, along with some of the same folks gathered in this room tonight to mourn, will be feasting and dancing as they celebrate their marriage to one another at their own wedding banquet. Yes, it’s a contrast, but I think it’s a beautiful expression of a very deep truth: Even in our profoundest sorrow, we can stand on tiptoe, eagerly awaiting joy. And as I picture Pat standing at the window, up on her tiptoes, I think maybe what she was glimpsing was that great marriage feast that will have no end, where she will join with all those claimed by God as God’s own beloved children, completely restored in body, completely restored in mind, sorrows forgotten, tears dried, and infectious laughter ringing out in wondering delight at the magnificent gift of life and freedom that is hers as a daughter of God claimed by Christ Jesus in baptism. And I picture her bowing her head and kissing in gratitude the hand of the one who has invited her to the feast, then looking up and smiling that sweet smile. And that, sisters and brothers, is very, very Good News. Thanks be to God. AMEN

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