Honesty can be a challenge at a funeral. Truth be told, for some people, it’s hard to come up with a whole lot of good things to say when they’ve died. Funerals have a way of making saints out of sinners. That’s why the best preacher for a funeral may not always be the most honest one. But if honesty is important, then go for distance. Garrison Keillor once said of a notorious scoundrel in his fictional Lake Wobegon, “When that man dies, they’re going to have to get a preacher from a long way off to preach his funeral.” I guess sin, like politics, is always local.
Thankfully today we don’t have to struggle with the truth. Our mother was a good woman by any measure. Although she might rightly be nervous about having one of her sons speak on behalf of all three of us about her life. I can appreciate that. You can be sure I’m glad it’s not the reverse. But just remember parents, your children are likely to get the last word and it will be too late to change the will.
Our mother was good, but she wasn’t perfect. Her friends, particularly here at the Methodist church, would often say, “Your mother is a remarkable little lady. But she can be stubborn.” And that was true, especially if “stubborn” includes “determined.” Once she had her mind made up about something, it wasn’t likely to change – especially if it was one of her sons trying to change it. It seems like this was true her whole life.
For example, as a teenager in the early 1930s she wanted to go from Hurst to the fair in either Herrin or Marion. Her mother gave her a dime for the trolley. She decided to save the dime for spending at the fair – something Grandma Holsapple would never have condoned – and hitched a ride on the running board of some stranger’s car. To keep the dime safe, she hid it in her mouth. But along the way she managed to swallow it. She didn’t care to share many details, but I seem to recall she was able to go back to the fair another day and spend that dime. That’s determination.
She was that way until the very end. She gave up her driver’s license two years ago at ninety-five. My brothers and I want to publicly thank everyone for staying out of her way. She wouldn’t hit anything she could see, but sometimes she just didn’t have enough pillows to sit on top of.
A little over two years ago, she took a hot meal uptown to brother John. It was bitter cold and snowy. On the way home at the intersection of Taffee and Elizabeth, a block from home, her ‘94 Buick threw a belt and she couldn’t steer. She knew she could call Kenny Bozeman in the morning to come and get it, so she left the car at the stop sign and struck out for home in the pitch dark, walking down the alley through the snow. She could easily have fallen and frozen to death in the dark. Why did she do it? Two reasons: 1) she had it in her mind to do so and 2) she didn’t want to bother anybody.
This was a great concern to her – not to trouble anyone. On one occasion she was determined to wait three hours for Tom to get home rather than to call out the ambulance. The ambulance would have both “bothered the neighbors” and drawn attention to her, two things she avoided at all costs.
She was never as good at receiving as she was at giving, at least until her later years brought frailty as her teacher. She had trouble receiving partly because she gave so much, but partly due to the difficulty that we all share, the difficult of receiving grace. The feeling of not being good enough, that makes us reticent to simply open our hands and receive. Ironically, God’s unmerited favor can be hard to swallow for many, in fact impossible for some.
This reticence toward grace was somewhat natural to her, but abetted by harsh circumstances and harsh people who made up her early life. It seems that strictness and cruelty were ever present during her childhood. But it had the opposite effect in her that it often does in others – it made her more generous, less quick to judge. There were times I believe her favorite Bible verse was “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Often treated as the runt of the litter when she was a child, she felt the most for the runt, the weak, the prodigals among us. The softest places in her heart were reserved for the ones to whom the world seemed the hardest.
When death came to her, it was no stranger. Before her second year ended her father whom she barely knew was laid in the ground next to the infant brother she never knew. At the age of twenty-seven her older sister and best friend Babe succumbed to chronic illness. After seventeen years of marriage to Henry, she gave birth to a son Henry, Jr., whose first day of life would be his last. In the second year of a hard-earned retirement, her husband of forty-three years Henry passed from this life.
Her acquaintance with hardship and familiarity with death are reminders to all of us today that death is not simply a passing through the veil, walking through a curtain to gently pass away. Her grand old age was won by 10,000 nights a widow. Her many years made the obituary page the reason to subscribe to paper; often the daily news came with new grief at the passing of a friend. Imagine the absence we feel tonight and multiply that by her many years.
Death is not normal no matter how much we normalize it. We need to look no further than John’s Gospel where we see the Lord of Glory, Jesus Christ, standing at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus. He tastes the bitter prayer of Lazarus’ sister Martha – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) Mary called Jesus “Lord” because she knew he was the answer. She appealed to him because she knew he had the power. And so she brought her teary complaint to the one who could erase her tears.
Jesus’ response was not that of a distant God who leaves us alone to make sense of life and death. Neither was it the response of a merely human Jesus, empathetic but helpless as many modern theologies believe. In response he did two things: First he wept and then he raised the dead.
He wept – the shortest verse in the English Bible. (v. 35) It was an intense grief, a bitter weeping. The Lord of Glory who would raise the dead shared in the bitter gall of death. He knew that on the cross ahead of Him he would taste it fully when He said “it is finished.” (John 19:30) Sin and death had ravaged a race, but God in the flesh in Jesus Christ had come to bear our sins and grief.
He raised the dead – he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11.25) And then, as the one who had authority over life and death he cried out with a loud voice “Lazarus, come forth.” And even the dead cannot ignore the life-giving voice of Jesus. And so, as I said at the graveside three weeks ago, the gravedigger fills the graves of the saints in vain.
Our mother was a faithful woman – determined at times – a loving mother and grandmother, a blessing to everyone but especially children, the lonely and the aged. Yet our greater purpose here today is not to honor the virtues of a faithful woman, but to honor the faithful God in whom her faith was well-placed. Through her savior Jesus Christ she trusted in God and she proved true the statement “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10.11)
When, as we do today, we honor a faithful life, we more so honor a faithful God. This is why the apostle Paul was able to say “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) While we take comfort from Paul’s confidence that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” (2 Corinthians 5:8) we cannot ignore the first part – “to live is Christ.”
“To live is Christ” means to live for Him because of the life that comes from living in Him. Elsewhere Paul said it more fully:
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2.19-20)
Perhaps nowhere else in the Bible is it summed up so succinctly what it means to be a Christian. Here we find the answer of what it means to live for Christ.
First, it means a new record. To live by faith means to believe that Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Through faith in Christ, our record is clear, our sins forgiven. We are counted right before God. It is to believe that “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) We are freed from the judgmentalism of others. Perhaps even more important, we are freed from the self-loathing of self-condemnation for wrongs done to and griefs inflicted upon others. The prodigal son saw on the face of his father, arms wide open to receive him, the new record given by divine love.
“To live is Christ” means having a new record, but it also means gaining a new life. Paul said “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The old nature itself which earned its debt of sin is crucified – died with – Christ. The new nature which comes by faith in Christ means Christ is alive within us, giving us new desires, changing us from the inside out, renewing us and preparing us for the life to come. Even with a new record, without a new life we are the same old person. God’s grace doesn’t just give us a new start, it gives us a new self through which to live a new life. With a new life we can live by faith – putting others first, loving neighbor, serving the weak, visiting the lonely. The kinds of things for which we remember Imogene Glodo. “To live is Christ” begins with a new record and provides a new life.
Finally, we are given a new future. Because Jesus Christ was raised, all who live for Him will share in his resurrection life. “To live is Christ” because of the hope of eternal life and the resurrection. As Paul wrote to the church at Philippi
8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)
“To live is Christ” with its new hope relativizes every pain and sorrow, every hardship and loneliness in this life. It relativizes every pleasure that leads us away from God, every desire which enslaves us and holds us chained to our appetites.
A new record, a new life, a new hope – these are the gifts of living for Christ. Our greatest purpose here today is not to honor the virtues of a faithful woman, but to honor the faithful God in whom her faith was well-placed. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”
* Delivered June 30, 2015 by son Mike Glodo at Pinckneyville (IL) United Methodist Church.