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March 26, 2006 (Lent IV)

Intern Pastor Joshua Graber

Numbers 21:4–9; Ephesians 2:1–10; John 3:14–21

The contextual leadership initiative—the people who organize internships—encourage interns to preach a funeral sermon while on internship. But even if it means disappointing the contextual leadership initiative, I do not encourage any of you to give me an opportunity to do that this year.

However, the thought of death and understanding how we meet death in our Christian identity have been on my mind this Lenten Season. And, unfortunately, this is my opportunity to preach a funeral sermon, not for anyone in this congregation, but for someone you never met, for someone that you only know through your shared relationship with Jesus Christ.

Those of you who were here at LCH on Ash Wednesday may remember that I mentioned that my mother had recently begun sending me e-mails from a friend of hers that has been battling cancer, to which she finally succumbed this week.

I have to admit Meredith was a friend of my parents and I don’t remember having met her, but through these e-mails and through talks with my parents I have learned quite a bit about her.

Most interesting to me is that she was a missionary in Tanzania for several years and that her time there was spent working on a project that I find absolutely fascinating.

This work began when Meredith lived at Holden Village in 1978, the last year my family lived at this retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State.

While at Holden, Meredith had a crazy idea. She wanted to study the possibility of raising fish to provide protein and sustenance for people in Africa, especially children who needed protein in their diets as their bodies developed. Meredith turned the wading pool outside the sauna at Holden into her testing ground. She started a fish farm, raising fish and studying their growth. It probably seemed like a crazy thing to be doing—raising trout in the middle of the Cascades in the hopes of feeding children halfway around the world. But through this experiment, Meredith proved that the idea could work.

Later in life she began farming fish in Tanzania to feed the people there. It was a precursor of the work we do now through our Heifer Project, and actually, her project was recently adopted by Heifer International, and in the next few years it will be expanded to 2000 fish farms in 180 villages, producing 50,000 kilograms of fish annually. Her last days were spent working on a book about the project.

It started as a crazy idea, fueled by joy in her relationship with Jesus and desire to share the love for the world he came to save. From everything I’ve heard from Meredith, in her days on this earth, she lived out that joy and love, but more powerfully for me, Meredith understood and knew that joy and love would be with her in her death as well.

Last Monday Meredith tried to write a final message to her friends and family around the world, and I’d like to share her words with you so you can hear her voice with us today:

Date: Monday, March 20
Subject:   Moving to the Light
My dear family and friends,
I am trying to write an impossible letter that I’ve been working on for over a week! I will never get all the things said that I want to say. I’ve let it go too long now, and the pain medications are limiting my thought process, making the task more difficult. Please bear with me.
Transitions have always been difficult times for me. It’s been hard for me to leave on trips because of loose ends: thinking of things that need to be taken care of at home, anticipating things I’ll need when I arrive at my destination. Imagine now the magnitude of arrangements for this journey I’m about to take! As I think about all this I feel that God has richly blessed me with a peace that passes all human understanding. [I want to pack the snorkels since my heaven will be in the waters above the earth (Gen. 1:3), instead of in the clouds!]
As I look toward that place of peace, some favorite lines comfort me: “In life and death, we belong to the Lord.” “When we live in the Lord, we never have to say farewell for the last time.” And the Holden Village prayer: “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Being reunited with the saints who have gone before is something for me to look forward to. Yet the pain of departure is still intense because of all those I leave behind who have supported me with their many gifts. To ease the transition from earth to heaven, I have been surrounded by a multitude of angels, some seen, some heard, many sharing cherished memories of times we have shared. I’m being passed on by these angels to other angels.
The following words of Henry Nouwen were shared with me by Joanne Booy: “Joy and sorrow are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.
From Dennis now:
These were the words of Meredith’s last of many letter. She didn’t finish the letter. The pain, the drugs, and the cancer finally became too much for even her to continue. She became delirious and then slipped into a coma. She was amazing working on the Heifer book, writing letters, talking on the phone, receiving visitors, and giving directions up until the end.
She passed away on 3/24, Friday morning, about 3:00 am. She was ready to let go and was at peace. She will leave a void in our lives. The funeral service will be at Zion Lutheran Church in Buffalo on Monday at 11:00.
Thank you for your prayers and love. Remember us in your prayers.

How can someone facing death—facing the pain of a thousand serpents’ bites all at once—have such hope, and such confidence, and such joy for what is to come?

Our gospel text today tells us that Christ will be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. The way Moses’ serpent saved the wandering Israelites in their wilderness experience from the biting snakes that surrounded them, so Jesus will save all of you who believe in him from your wilderness and the snakes of sin and death that surround you.

I think it’s pretty easy for us to grumble with the Israelites in the wilderness, to focus on what we don’t have and to doubt God. And it’s pretty easy for us to see sin and death as snakes that surround us. We’ve all felt the bite of those snakes when we get sick, when we face death, when we recognize we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

We need a savior. We need a savior to be lifted up before us. And I don’t think that happens on its own.

I think we need to lift up that savior for each other. We need to lift up Christ to one another.

How do we do that?

By sharing the promises of God’s grace. By repeating these famous words of Scripture. These texts today get into more Lutheran sermons than any others I think.

From John “For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). And the good news continues into the next verse, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17).

And then this one famous among Lutherans. It was the verse that changed Luther’s theology and his life and started him on the way to a reformation of the church. The words from Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

This gospel is the gift of God for the whole world. That is what the cross of Christ means to us. It is meant to be shared. These texts help us to see that, and they raise up the savior before us.

When we share these promises with each other, we hold up the gospel message which saves us, which provides the antidote for the snakes that are devouring us.

But there’s something even more powerful about how Meredith was able to hold up these promises for me, hopefully for you as well. From her death bed she preaches to us of this grace. From the last moments before entering deaths door, she opens up the window of grace for all of to hear and see Christ’s saving love once more. And for me, and I hope you as well, her words help me remember this love, this trust in God’s promises, is true for us as well.

Our day will come. But through our baptism we know we have been united with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection just as Meredith is through her baptism. We have been saved. That salvation is already true for us now. We have been saved through Christ, and we are alive in Christ as Meredith is alive in Christ, now.

I do not celebrate death. None of us celebrate death. This week our church honors the life of the poet John Donne who reminded us that we should never ask “for whom the bell tolls” because “it tolls for thee.” That is a Christian message as well. We are not islands entire of ourselves; we are a part of the body of Christ, and that is an eternal connection that unites all our deaths to his and all our resurrections to his! So that even at times of death, we can hold up Christ and remember the promises of our resurrected savior!

But the fact that Meredith was able to hold up Christ to her friends and family, and to you, even in her last moments of consciousness is worth celebrating, worth being inspired by. Meredith reminds me of many promises, but another one that comes from our texts this week is from Ephesians 2:10 “We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

As we live our lives in Christ Jesus on this earth, even though death may be around the corner, we can hold up our truths, our promises of God’s love and abundant life, in everything we do. God is leading us on our way of life in Christ Jesus. We can hold up signs of Christ’s love for each other to keep us on that path and from becoming lost in the wilderness of hopelessness and despair.

Meredith holds up a sign of the cross for us today: even though death is the end of the story according to this world, we are promised that even the sting of death has been overcome by Christ’s cross and through grace death will bring us to a place where, as Meredith believed, “our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.”

It’s a beautiful promise. Thank you Meredith, for holding it up for us today. Amen.

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