A sermon offered at the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (12/14/1967-12/09/2015) on Monday, December 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons selected by the family were Isaiah 25:6-9 ; Psalm 121; Revelation 21:2-7; and John 14:23-30.)
A Native American proverb instructs us, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live your life in a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Today, on what would have been Sheryl Ann King’s 48th birthday, the world (you and me and everyone who knew and loved Sherry) is crying, but Sherry is rejoicing. “If you loved me,” Jesus told his followers, “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:28); we who love Sherry, let us rejoice (even through our tears) that she, too, has gone to the Father.
In the Jewish religion going back at least as far as the Babylonian exile it is a tradition that those mourning the death of a loved one recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer begins with these words:
Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen. (ReformJudaism.org>
As the prayer continues to its conclusion, there is not a single mention of the loved one, no mention of the loved one’s passing, no mention of the mourner’s grief. The prayer is, in its entirety, a sanctification of God and a petition for peace. The rabbis tell us that this tradition arose to remind us, even in the midst of great sorrow, to rejoice and to give thanks.
Nonetheless, there is a very human need to acknowledge the loss of the one we love and in a prayer book of the Reform Jewish movement entitled New Prayers for the High Holy Days there is this lovely meditation:
At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live,
for they are now a part of us.
As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
(Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer, We Remember Them, New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Media Judaica, New York:1970, p. 36)
What memories do you have of Sherry? I will always remember three things about her. The first is her competence and her drive. When Sherry was doing volunteer work here at St. Paul’s Church, I knew that if she said she would do something it would get done and it would get done well. (Parish priests really appreciate that and remember with special blessings those members on whom they can rely as one could rely on Sherry.) The second is that she loved to have a good time: she was a great hostess and she enjoyed a good party. I’m sure that she is just as pleased as she can be to be joining the saints in light at God’s great party, the one Isaiah described, that “feast of rich food, . . . of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Is 25:6).
The third thing I will remember is the way she always looked when she came back from her annual trip to Cancun. Sherry was someone who clearly enjoyed the sun! I have to admit to being somewhat amused when I realized that the family had selected a psalm with the verse, “The sun shall not strike you by day” (Ps 121:6)! I’m not sure Sherry would have gone for that, but I am sure she is now enjoying what Malachi prophesied, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Sherry, we believe, is now in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, p 499)
And this is where our Christian faith takes us beyond the meditation in the Reform Jewish prayer book. We are assured that more than our memories sustains the lives of our departed loved ones; it is not “as long as we live” that they shall live, but forever. We are assured, because of the birth of Christ which we will celebrate in just a few days, because of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that the way to eternal life has been opened to Sherry, to all of our loved ones gone before, and to all of us.
Sometimes when we bury the dead, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church as part of that service, in the introductory preface to the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest presiding at the altar says these words:
Jesus Christ our Lord . . . rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. (BCP 1979, p 382)
This is our Christian hope and our assurance, that in Christ Jesus God has (as Isaiah prophesied) “swallow[ed] up death forever” (Is 25:8), and as John of Patmos heard the voice in heaven saying, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)
So, our memories are precious and we cherish them, but it is more than our memories which sustain Sherry or any of our departed loved ones: through the love of God and the salvation of Christ, rest eternal has been granted to them, and light perpetual shines upon them. And we honor them with more than our memories; we honor Sherry not by living in the past, not only by remembering her, but by living into the future. When Queen Mother Elizabeth passed away in 2002, this meditation entitled Remember Me by David Harkins was included in the order of service. It seems to me appropriate today as we remember and celebrate Sherry’s life:
Do not shed tears when I have gone
but smile instead because I have lived.
Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back,
but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind.
I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me,
but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow
and live only for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow
because of what happened between us yesterday.
You can remember me and grieve that I have gone
or you can cherish my memory and let it live on.
You can cry and lose yourself,
become distraught and turn your back on the world,
or you can do what I want –
smile, wipe away the tears,
learn to love again and go on.
(See Poetic Expressions.)
The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Pleasures and Days, Hesperus Classics, London:2004, p 116) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus, “and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27c) Instead, let them blossom, and let us rejoice and be grateful for the life of Sheryl Ann King. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.