She had no family. She lived alone. For the purposes of this sermon I will call her Sophia. Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom. I became her pastor because she knew somebody who used to be a member here and when the doctors told her that she was dying she thought she ought to have a pastor. I was summoned to her bedside. I was afraid. I had been told that she only had a few weeks before “the cancer would take her,” not that she would die, but that “the cancer would take her.” No one used the word death or said that she was going to die. To be present to a stranger when they are so close to death is a daunting task. No time for gentle hello’s, or warming up to one another, just a long, painful and sometimes awkward good-bye.
I went to Sophia’s bedside every day. Some days, when she was able, the questions just tumbled out of her. She wanted to know what I believed. No pat answers or trite platitudes if you please, just the facts. I liked her no-nonsense approach even though I knew that the meager facts that I possessed might not sustain us on our journey. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she’d spent a great deal of time in the church. Her parents saw to it that she was raised in the church, but a lifetime of tragedy and heartache had led her far away from the faith she’d grown up with. But as death drew near, she longed for the certainty of her youth. She’d like to believe. It would be nice to think that there would be a place for her, not exactly heaven per se but someplace heavenly, perhaps like Paris in the springtime. She so loved Paris in the springtime. If only heaven were full of cafés, or patisseries where she could while away the hours talking with others who appreciate the finer things of life. Life, would there be life beyond death? She’d like to believe so.
One morning, I stopped by the bakery that Eduard had on Main Street and picked out the most Parisian looking pastries I could find, then I swung by a coffee shop and had them grind some fresh beans. As I brewed the coffee in Sophia’s kitchen, the aroma wafted up the stairs and she shouted down and asked me to heat up some milk so that we could have lattes. It was as heavenly a breakfast as we could muster. Our conversation took us back to Paris and a springtime before I was born when Sophia was young and beautiful, and the men all fell at her feet. Some of her stories actually made me blush. We laughed and laughed and laughed until we cried.
After Paris, we travelled to London by way of some excellent fish n’ chips and a few glasses of cider. It was cold and wet in London. Sophia managed to complete her nursing studies even though a certain young man begged her to give up work and come and be his love. Over sausages and beer, we travelled to Hamburg, where Sophia fell in love with an orphanage full of refugee children. By the time our conversations took us to India, Sophia was too ill for a curry, so we sipped tea as we wept over her stories of poverty and disease. One afternoon, I arrived to find Sophia’s care-worker crushing ice for mint juleps. It took me a while to figure out that we were going deep into the southern states, where Sophia had worked long and hard to help establish a medical center among the poorest Americans. By the time our travels led us back to Newmarket, Sophia was growing weak and I had gone from being a suspected bible-thumper to a trusted travelling companion. The most difficult part of our journey lay before us.
“What will become of me?” Sophia pleaded. I told her that the doctors would see to it that there was no pain. That wasn’t what she meant. “What will become of me? Will there just be darkness? Or Will I see a bright light?”
“I don’t know?” was all I could honestly say.
Sophia was patient with me. She asked me if I thought there was more to life or if death was the end. “No religious platitudes please. Just the facts.”
“I don’t know Sophia. I believe that we live and die in God and that God is LOVE and in LOVE we have nothing to fear. All will be well? I trust that in death we fall into the LOVE that IS God.”
Sophia took my hand firmly and confessed, “I’m afraid.”
I did not know how to comfort her, so I asked, “What are you afraid of Sophia?”
“Not of dying! Good God no! I’m not afraid of dying.” Sophia insisted, “I’m afraid of being forgotten. Who will remember me?”
Yesterday, I was struggling with this sermon. I’d been reading about our gospel text for hours and hours trying to figure exactly what to say to you about the line in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which kept jumping out at me. “Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.” Some translations say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Mourning has fallen out of fashion these days. People don’t like to talk about mourning. They’d rather celebrate life than mourn a death. “Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.”
Blessed, “bless-ed,” what does it mean to say “blessed.” The Greek word “makarios” that is often translated as “blessed” is also often translated as “happy”. But “happy are those who are mourning” is not a translation that makes much sense. There is another meaning to “makarios” which does make sense: honoured. “Honoured are those who mourn, for they shall be consoled.”
“Honoured are those who mourn.” To mourn is to grieve, to lament, to show sorrow for the death of someone, or the loss of something. There is much in this life to mourn, losses of all sorts. For life is change and in change there are losses. But these days we don’t really honour those who mourn their losses.
These where the thoughts that I was struggling with yesterday, when I decided to go out for a walk to clear my head. As I walked, I noticed a phenomenon that has intrigued me ever since I moved to Ontario. Have you ever noticed that some leaves in winter hang on to the trees until new leaves begin to grow in the springtime? Despite all the ravages of winter, there are still withered up leaves dangling on tree limbs. Most leaves have long since fallen and have been transformed into mulch, and when spring does come, they will feed new growth. But not these stubborn leaves. As dry and withered as they appear, they are quite beautiful. As I marveled at their tenacity, I remembered Sophia hanging on for dear life and I remembered how I wept each time I left her bedside. I also remembered other griefs. Losses that I have been privileged to mourn. For love is the prerequisite to mourning. We do not mourn unless we have loved or been loved.
Honoured are those who mourn. For we shall be comforted, because every tear is pregnant with new life. All that we are is not lost at our death. What we are forever impacts the WHOLE in whom we live and move and have our being. Death is a transformation point into the MYSTERY who is, was, and ever more shall be the source of our being. For those of us who mourn, grief is a narrow passage through which we pass from death to new life. Without tears and dreams there is no healing. Without laughter and singing there is no savoring of what is, was, and is to come. LOVE is the tender lifeforce that transcends even death. Honoured are those who mourn for it is LOVE who consoles; the LOVE that Is the Source of All Being.
Over and over again, Sophia’s desperate plea, “Who will remember me?” punctuated our conversations with fear that went beyond belief. No theological words or phrases about believing would suffice. Only the promise to remember her could bring any comfort. But who was I to make such a promise? So, I hesitated. I tried to calm her fears with words. I tried to explain her fear away. And then one afternoon, Sophia took my hand and asked me about my travels, my loves, my hopes, my dreams, and my fears. She said she wanted to be able to remember me. I was reluctant. This wasn’t supposed to be about me. I was the pastor, the caregiver, there were lines that the books say should not be crossed. Sophia didn’t care to be cautious; time was of the essence. She wanted to remember me, and to do that she needed to know me. So, I came out from under the protection of my clerical office and together we travelled back to the places that had shaped and molded me. Sophia and I became friends, if only for a brief moment in time, we were kin, each embodying LOVE for the other.
A few days before she died, a panic came over her as she feared what might become of her. Once more, holding tightly to my hand, she begged me, “Who will remember me?” With all my heart I promised, “I will remember you Sophia. Those men in Paris who fell at your feet all those years ago, the young man who fell in love with you in London, the children in Hamburg and the people in Kentucky, they will remember you. Your friends will remember you.” And then I took a long deep breath and I said, “I will remember you.”
Her breathing calmed and her grip loosened, and she began to smile. And then I asked her. “Sophia remember me!”
“I will remember you.” Sophia promised.
Over the course of next few days as her death drew ever near,
Sophia and I were kin for one another. Embodying the DIVINE for one another. Loving one another. Remembering one another. I remember you my dear. I remember you. Yesterday, as snow began to fall, I saw the leaves in winter hanging on and I remembered you. It is an honour to remember you. You are part of me and now you are part of these fine people here, who are blessed to have people of their own to remember.
Spring will come. The sap will rise. New leaves from buds will transform all our grief into hope. Blessed are we. All that we are is not lost at our death. What we are forever impacts the WHOLE, the ONE who IS LOVE, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. Blessed are we. Thanks be to the ONE, who makes us WHOLE, ONE with our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Now and always. Amen.