The following is a sermon I shared at the funeral home's "memory tree" service, where they invite family members of those whose funerals they've hosted in the last year to come and place an ornament on their tree in memory of their loved one, at the end of the worship service.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
John 1:1-5, Raymond Brown version
In the beginning was the Word: the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. He was present with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, and apart from him not a thing came to be. That which had come to be in him was life, and this life was the light of men. The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it.
I may never forget the view from a hike in Matobo Hills State Park in the middle of Zimbabwe, in May of 2001, the end of my fourth year of college. There were 13 of us—students from a small college in Iowa, led by our college chaplain. On that day, just like the others on our trip, we had met for breakfast then headed out for sightseeing. Our local tour guide was a bit too familiar with the rocky, steep climb, and he took off up the hill at a pace that would have pressed even the most athletic among us. Gordon, the chaplain, brought up the rear, not too far behind me. I remember him saying, “Feel the burn!” as we neared the first level place, where we all stopped to rest. As we gazed at the beauty before us—we students were all unfamiliar with the landscape of southern Africa, and we found it quite impressive—Gordon plopped down on the smooth rocks a short distance away. At first, we assumed he was enjoying the view and resting after that precipitous climb. By the time we realized that he was in distress, it was likely too late for anything to have saved him. Some of our group took turns administering CPR. A hospice nurse from Chicago showed up, hiking with family who currently lived in South Africa, and she helped out, though she undoubtedly knew the heart attack had already claimed its victim. (Months later, she would track down Gordon’s wife and check in with her, an act of kindness unexpected from a stranger who happened upon the most dire of situations in a remote park in sub-Sahara Africa.) I stood by in disbelief. This was all a trick. It wasn’t really happening. It couldn’t be real. But it was.
Needless to say, our educational trip to Zimbabwe was cut short by Gordon’s death. Our bus driver took pity on us and agreed to take us back to the capital city, Harare. By chance or by providence, we had all registered our passports at the U.S. embassy on the first day of our trip, and the staff there got us tickets on the first flight back to London, then to the U.S. The college sent a staff person to meet us in London, to accompany the 12 of us students the rest of the way. As we boarded the plane in London, airline employees approached us with confusion about a large green duffel bag that appeared to have no owner. How do you explain to a flight attendant that the man who had brought that bag was dead?
Back in Iowa, we met a few times as a group, trying to process what had happened, with the help of some college staff. The memorial service in the college chapel was beyond standing room only; it was broadcast to different locations on campus, where the overflow crowd was seated. I can’t remember ever attending another funeral where the presiding pastor wept uncontrollably as he attempted to led the service.
The college hired a new chaplain late that summer, and we student leaders and the chapel staff carried on the best we could. When December came, a huge pine tree was brought in from the usual vendor. The usual decorations were all in place. The festivities were all the same…but nothing was really the same.
Gordon had been a mentor to me, a father to me while I was away from home. He had been the first person to suggest I was called to ministry…and the most patient with me when I assured him I was not. How did everything just continue as it always had, now that he was gone? I don’t think his huge Bernese Mountain dog, Segen, ever stopped looking for his return. His mother developed stomach cancer and faded fast, that winter. I finished my fifth year of college and graduated, planning what I would do next, but wondering where God was really leading me and grieving for the loss of direction from one whose care and counsel had helped guide me through my first four years of college.
Now, after almost 15 years, I miss him still. I wonder, what would he say to me today, standing before so many people with hearts so broken? Perhaps he would grin and chuckle, suggesting that I already know what to say, telling me that whatever I share, it should be simple and come from the heart. And he would tell me to offer you grace—God’s grace—because that is what brings us through the darkness of life, to find the light of hope.
I don’t tell you all of this so that you’ll be sad for me. I tell you this because as I’ve prepared for this service, I’ve not known how to begin to speak to the deep darkness that threatens to envelop each one of us today. In the 18 months I’ve served a church here in Richlands, I’ve been involved in more than a dozen funerals. And let me tell you, when I did finally admit God was calling me to be a pastor (long after Gordon died), it wasn’t funerals I thought of! But in just 5 ½ years of ministry, I’ve been part of almost 3 dozen funerals. And I’ve thought sometimes, as someone wrote hundreds of years ago, “In the midst of life, we are in death; from whom can we seek help?”
So, what do we do now? We come to this, “the most wonderful time of the year,” as people who know too well the deep darkness, the depth of sadness, loss, and brokenness that disrupts the joy of the season, that sometimes seems it will never let us go. Indeed, we may ask, “from whom can we seek help?” This is, after all, literally, the darkest time of the year. And oh, our souls know what darkness is. How do we deal with the pain? How do we explain what hurts too much to explain? Some of us cry. Some of us get angry. Some of us look for someone or something to blame, some way to fix things, some answer to it all. Sometimes it appears that darkness is winning.
I had a church member who was going through something horrible in her personal life. She said to me, “I feel like I’m in a deep, dark hole, Betz. And I can’t see any way out.” We’ve been there. At some point, we’ve found ourselves in deep, dark holes, or we’ve seen other people there, and we have felt helpless to ease their suffering, to lighten their darkness or our own. Sometimes, we feel like we can’t admit the helplessness, the hopelessness, the darkness that threatens us. We’re not supposed to be unhappy, especially at this time of year. We’re supposed to put on a brave face and say things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and dismiss the pain that we feel.
But I don’t believe that’s what God wants us to do. I don’t believe that God expects us to ignore our brokenness, our hurts, the deep sadness that grips us sometimes. Life isn’t what we expected. Too often we can’t even find words to describe how we feel, let alone to make the pain go away. It may feel like darkness is closing in on us. And it might feel like it’s time to let go, to give up, to leave the Christmas lights turned off because of the darkness that sets in on our souls.
And yet, long ago, someone said to the people of Israel, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Long ago, somebody knew that even in the midst of some horrible, awful times, God’s light was coming. And then, when John writes his version of the gospel, he says that it’s true: The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it. We know that the darkness hasn’t overcome the light…and it never, ever, ever will, even though we may feel like it’s not true. We have hope because we know that God’s been shining light into darkness for a long, long time, and God’s not done yet. Though we grieve, no darkness is too great for the Light of the world! No matter what we’re going through, the Light is coming. The Light has always been coming. Christ’s light leads us on, into healing, through grieving, through whatever our deepest darkness may come from, and it leads us into the arms of the One who created us, who will rejoice with us again, in light.
As we remember our loved ones today, as we miss them, as we call their names and conjure memories of their faces, their voices, their embraces, we know that we are promised more than just memories. The promise is that no matter how much darkness we may feel like we’re sitting in, it cannot overcome the light that is Christ, shining into all darkness. When we think we are in the midst of the pit, the light shall still be shining. When we think we are lost along the way, the light does not leave us to grope blindly in the dark. No, despite all our cares and the darkness that sets in, the light has, in fact dawned. We don't always recognize it. We don't always hear or see it. But God remains: God-with-us. Emmanuel. The Light of the world. Though we may hurt, though we may not know how to make sense of what is happening and what has been, though we may wonder how we will move forward through this time and through whatever is to come, the Light is coming into this world. And no darkness, no matter how deep it is, no matter how terrible it seems, is able to overcome that Light.
So let us find some hope and joy in this season, not because we have no sorrow, not because we feel no heartache, and not because we experience no pain. Let us be joyful with the wise men, the shepherds, the angels, because the one who came as just a baby is, indeed, the light we have been looking for. There is light in the darkness. New day will dawn again. Let us remember not only the loved ones we miss, but also the One who gives us hope for their future and ours. And the light we have been looking for will be light to all people, that no darkness will ever extinguish. Thanks be to God. Amen.