Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2020
Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
John 10:14-18 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Liz and I shared a time of prayer the day before she died. Our Parish Nurse, Sue Ann, had visited in the days prior. They sang hymns and selected Liz’s favorites for today’s service. Sue Ann knew that Liz’s body didn’t have many days left to live. When I walked in her room and said her name, she woke right up and smiled, saying “hi” in welcome. I reminded her who I was, and she said she remembered me. She said that, yes, she’d like the prayers that we pray in people’s last days. She reached out and gently held my hand as the prayers unfolded during the next several minutes, speaking several words of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with me. Truly, it was one of the sweetest end-of-life moments I’ve encountered over the last 30 years. It was made all the more sweet because I’ve known Liz for the last seven years. Many of us here today knew her to be a tough, straight-talking person without much of a need to soft-shoe anything she had to say.
A few days after she died, Rich and I were able to share the wonder of those last weeks of Liz’s life that seemed to soften her. After months of decline, there was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life. But the conversation also felt like a pause. A pause that allowed some time to reflect on how Liz moved through the world for so many years and how that shifted and softened. In a few hand-written letters that Rich gave Sue Ann, it was touching to read how much one of her students missed her after the student moved away. It’s good to remember all the facets of Liz as she lived her 84 years.
It’s good to remember because there’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God. To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally. But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives. He doesn’t tally. If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us. God’s promises through Jesus. We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask, “Have I done enough to make myself right with God?!” It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us.
Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth. The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems. In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love as Jesus lays his life down. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves. The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures. Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death. We can get at them from this side of the cross.
The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race. Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer. Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, because we have peace and grace we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.
The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when we “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Liz into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Liz. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you. Thanks be to God! And amen.