Since this pandemic began, more than 1.2 million people around the world have died from COVID-19. In Canada, the death toll exceeds 10,000 people. In Ontario, more than 3,100, and here in York region 267 people have died from COVID-19. Sadly, millions more people have died alone of the regular stuff which causes our bodies to perish. This year as a result of public health restrictions, death has been a lonely endeavour, for both the dying and for the grieving. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. But how do we mourn and how shall we be comforted in the midst of a pandemic?
So much of what I would call popular, cultural, Christianity imagines the DIVINE MYSTERY which is the SOURCE of ALL that IS, the SOURCE of ALL life as a kindly, old, gentleman in the sky from whom we should seek comfort from the pain of death. This image of the DIVINE MYSTERY is readily offered to the dying and to those who mourn as a kind of talisman, who alone can provide the necessary comfort, all we need is just have faith in the various visions offered to us by the faithful of an afterlife. So, it doesn’t surprise me that those of us who have given up worshipping personifications of the MYSTERY which IS the DIVINE LOVE in which we are all ONE, we are left longing for a way to mourn and to comfort which does not require that we worship the idol of the all too small sky-god, which we once worshipped.
Today, as we remember ALL the SAINTS who have gone before us, together with ALL the SAINTS who dwell among us, my heart goes back to the WISDOM imparted to me by a particular saint, who taught me so much about the ways in which the DIVINE MYSTERY works, in, with, through, and beyond us to comfort those who mourn. This particular saint 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 of the congregation which I serve. When the doctors told her that she was dying she thought that she ought to have a pastor. So, via, a friend of a friend, I was summoned to her bedside.
I was afraid. I had been told that she only had a few weeks before the cancer would, and I quote, “take her,” not 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 for weeks. Some days, when she was able, the questions just tumbled out of her. She wanted to know what I believed. Not any pat answers. She didn’t want those. She didn’t want trite platitudes. Just the facts. She would say, “Just give me the facts!” I liked her no-nonsense approach even though I knew that the meager facts which 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 had 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. 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, like her appreciated 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 and picked up some of 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 to me that I should 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. London was wet and cold. Sophia managed to complete her nursing studies even though a certain young man begged her to give up work and come to 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 would be no pain. That wasn’t what she was talking about. “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, if you 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?”
Who will remember the hundreds, the thousands, the millions who have died this year?How shall we be comforted. Like most deaths, those who have died from the coronavirus, have done so out of sight, removed from the public eye, and they have been mourned out of sight. In addition to those who have perished of the virus, there have been those countless deaths of loved ones, we have been unable to mourn in our usual ways. No gatherings at all, or if we could manage it, just tiny, physically distant funerals scarcely able to do justice to our grief. Ever so faintly, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount echo down through the generations: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Some translations say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be consoled. Mourning is scarcely possible during these challenging times. It is as if we have been robbed of mourning’s blessings.
Blessed, “bless-ed,” what does it mean to say “blessed.” The Greek word “makarios” which is often translated as “blessed” is also sometimes translated as “happy”. But “happy are those who are mourning” is not a translation that makes much sense to me. Fortunately, there is another meaning to “makarios” which does make sense, “Makarios” can also mean, “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. And haven’t we all lost so much this year? There is much in this life to mourn, losses of all kinds. For life is change, and in change there are losses. As I look around this beautiful cemetery, there is a chill in the air. Last night, the temperatures dipped below freezing a sure sign that the autumn is almost over, and winter is coming. All the signs, together with the medical experts are telling us that this will be a very dark winter. In the midst of the sadness and grief which this pandemic has spread around the world, my attention is drawn to the leaves which are tenaciously hanging onto these trees.
As I marvel at their tenacity, I can’t help but remember Sophia hanging on for dear life. I remember how I wept each time that I left her bedside. I also remember other griefs. Losses which I have been privileged, honoured to mourn. I say privileged because LOVE is a prerequisite for mourning. We do not mourn unless we have loved or have been loved. Honoured are those who mourn, for we shall be comforted, because every tear is pregnant with new life. Like fallen leaves which will provide the nourishment for 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, and what is to come. LOVE is the tender lifeforce which transcends even death. Honoured are those who mourn for it is LOVE who consoles; the LOVE which IS the SOURCE of ALL BEING.
Over and over again, Sophia’s desperate plea, “Who will remember me?” punctuated our conversations with fear which went beyond belief. No theological words or phrases about believing would suffice or comfort. Only the promise to remember her could bring any comfort at all. 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 she asked me about my travels, about 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 after all the pastor, the caregiver, there were lines which 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 which 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. LOVE-ing one another. Remembering one another. I remember you my dear. It is an honour to remember you. You are part of me.
It is in our remembering that the HOLY ONE consoles us. This may indeed be a dark winter, but the light which is the LOVE which we call “God” shines in, with, through, and beyond us, as LOVE empowers us to comfort those who mourn, by being LOVE to one another. 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 as we remember those we have loved and who have loved us. Blessed are we as we remember the saints who have walked among us and those who continue to dwell among us. Thanks be to the ONE, who makes us WHOLE, ONE with our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself who IS BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also, LOVE. Now and always. Amen.
WATCH the FULL Worship Video below