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.” Continue reading