One of the things we all probably recognise about funerals is that they are often a time for telling stories. We get together and we talk about our loved ones who have died and we remember events and things that they said or did which seem to encapsulate something of their character… And this is good. These stories are one of the ways we try to come to terms with their continuing influence on our lives now that their story (and perhaps ours) seems to have come to a perhaps abrupt end. But perhaps like me you`ll recognise just how much time and effort (perhaps too much, if truth be told) is put into compiling some of these stories, anecdotes and remembrances in preparation for the funeral.
Now, we do all of this for the best of reasons… because we want the funeral to be what we like to call a `celebration` of their life. And there`s something good and therapeutic about this but (don`t misunderstand me) it does tend, I would suggest, to mask how complex some of our stories and some of our remembering actually is. So for example, none of us as we say like to want `speak ill of the dead`….. but there are almost always other `untold` stories which we don`t include in the `celebration` aren`t there?
These are the stories that remind us that some of the people we recall were not always easy to live with… any more than we are. We could tell other stories illustrating that they were fallible flesh and blood… just as we are…. And these illustrate that difficult truth that maybe the next Chapter in our story is how we learn to forgive or receive forgiveness?
But perhaps most significant of all; in paying so much attention to these stories and memories we do find ourselves rather locked in the past. I mean, our celebration, if we`re honest can easily resemble `thanks for the memory`. I mean, there is sometimes little sense that we have any handle on the much bigger story… the bigger questions about whether death is really `the end` of the story….. or whether there might be another Chapter still to be written?
This of course is the logical outcome of living in a sceptical and materialistic age. When you think about it, it`s only reasonable and logical that our funerals will become reflections of what we feel we CAN get hold of. This is why the focus is often purely and simply on the individual, their experiences, character and story… again `thanks for the memory`… After all, anything else is in the realm of speculation isn`t it? But this is where we get things wrong.
Now I know that many folk tend to assume that the chief preoccupation of religion and the Christian faith, in particular is in trying to reassure the grieving that there IS actually something more…. Some hope, some sense of a `happy ever after` to our story and that those whom we love are not lost for ever. But that`s a caricature……. There`s far more to it than that.
You see the Christian faith does not focus on our individual story…. The principle concern is not our individual merits or otherwise. It`s not as someone called it `Fire insurance` any more than it`s a free pass through the `pearly gates`. No, the Christian faith focusses on a much bigger story… the story of the God who created a world which turned away from him… the God who didn`t abandon us to our own devices but embarked on the literally crucifying process of drawing us back to himself and `re-creating` the world. This is the story Christians tell…. and this is backdrop to our lives.
So, when we assume that a funeral is almost exclusively about the stories we can tell of our loved ones we`re missing the point and neglecting this bigger story which alone makes sense of our lives ……and our death. You see a funeral takes our lives and the stories we tell and holds them up against the much more extensive script written by the God whom we see in Jesus Christ.
So, for example, we like to think of ourselves as the prime movers, the principal characters in our story …. We easily take to ourselves the words of the pompous and arrogant song: “I did it MY way”……but the truth is that we have come in half-way through the real story…. We did not make ourselves. Our God was active on the scene long before we showed up ….. and he has much more in store for his world. In other words, it`s much more accurate to say that the main task of our lives is actually to get with `the plot`.
This is what we learn from that story about Mary Magdalene which we heard a few moments ago. On the first Easter Day she was wrestling with these things and like many of us she found herself standing by a graveside weeping. Discovering an empty grave only increased her sense of bewilderment but a couple of things happen which begin to change her perspective.
Firstly, with almost delicious humour St. John tells us that she mistakes the risen Jesus for a Gardener. Now, what John is doing is pointing us to the Book of Genesis… to the story of Garden of Eden. John wants us to remember that tragic place; that part of our story where our relationship with God became soured …. And here`s the big plot line….. He`s saying that here by this garden tomb- the Gardener (God with us in Jesus) restores that friendship once and for all. This is God`s new beginning for his world.
And then secondly as Mary reaches out to grab hold of Jesus he says, ” Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father”. Now, this might sound a brutal thing to say to the grieving… “Don`t hold on to your loved ones”. But that`s what some of us need to hear. But the reason Jesus gives is that the story isn`t yet over.
Mary couldn`t have Jesus back as he was and Jesus points to what he calls his `Ascension`…. The next step before the disciples and we are commissioned to bring a blessing to the world in God`s name… to continue the work of drawing all people back to the Lord. So, in other words, Jesus lifts Mary`s eyes to that bigger story… He turns her away from her memories of Jesus as he was…… to the continuing work of God in restoring his world. And this, as I say, is what a Christian Funeral is for.
You see, a funeral is not complete if all we focus on are the stories of our loved ones no matter how significant, heart-warming or dear to us they might be. A funeral is not done if all we can offer are a few anodyne words about the possibility of something to follow….. Of `pie in the sky when you die` as long as you`ve kept your nose clean.
You see our hope rests not on how many nice stories we can tell about our loved ones….. It`s not `thanks for the memory` neither is it about guesswork or wishful thinking of a `happy ever after`. It rests on the continuing story of God`s purposes for his world revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…… and it`s not done yet.
Of course our loved ones are safe in the mercy of God. The bigger story is that they have now gone to their rest and the next Chapter is the return of Christ; when all our stories will be gathered up in the mercy of God. They have gone to their rest. But there is only hope of comfort or of strength to go on when we realise that we are all caught up in a much bigger story and when we daily seek to `get with the plot` of what our God is doing in his world.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 21)