We had come together then to scatter the remains of a beloved mother and grandmother and great grandmother.
The late October snow that had fallen a few days before had mostly melted and the ground was simply glistening in the sunshine under the willow tree her family had chosen as her final resting place. It was beautiful in all the ways it could be, it seemed to me. Except the grief was heavier than perhaps one might expect for one who had lived more than 96 years.
It was as we turned to go that her grand-daughter leaned down to pick up some of the leaves at her feet. She murmured that she remembered her grandmother gathering leaves on such fall days. I looked at her hand to see that she had picked up a handful of oak leaves, already brown and brittle. I pointed to the bright yellow maple leaf lying at our feet. “But no,” she said. “Grandma isn’t on that one.”
And then I got it. She wanted to take a piece of her grandmother with her. Literally. No matter that the leaves which were dusted in ashes were not as brightly colored as the rest. She wanted those.
And oh, I could not help then but to think of the Sadducees in this week’s Gospel. For while you and I would certainly not put ourselves in the same place on the theological spectrum as them, perhaps we hold more in common with them than not. For no, we would not dream of posing the same sort of question to Jesus that they did. At least not with the same cynical or sinister attitude. And yet, we find ourselves tied to this earth in very much the same way they did. Our imaginations of what is yet to come so very seldom carry us much beyond what we already know, especially what has been best in this life even now. Indeed, we cling to what has been so precious now. We almost cannot help ourselves. For this is so:
- When we cleaned out my cousin’s tiny room after he died too young, I picked up an unmatched key from his cluttered dresser top. I kept it for years, symbolic as it was for all that was ‘unlocked’ to the rest of us in terms of his turbulent life.
- When my grandmother died, I was able to have her feather pillow. I used it long after it outlived its usefulness.
- When my grandfather died and we were going through his things, I had the chance to take a sweater of his. It was too big then and still is now, but even so it hangs in one end of my closet. I can’t quite bear to let it go.
- And hanging in my office is the red and white striped cane used by my other grandfather in his last years when his sight was gone. It is weathered and worn and has hung there since I snagged it for a sermon a while back.
We hang on to these mementos — these tangible reminders of loved ones who have died —- they provide connection and comfort, no doubt, as we remember who they were and who they were and are to us. Much like a granddaughter gathering up those oak leaves from around the gnarled roots of that willow tree.
Indeed, it is hard to see beyond what was and is to what shall surely be. But even in my more concerted attempts to do so? I fall so very short. This is how I know this has been so.
From time to time I get asked to preach a family member’s funeral. Sometimes it is someone I have known well my whole life long. More often, though, time and distance have dimmed my memories and with nothing new to replace them, I have been left with this picture of heaven to share:
The image of a huge table around which are gathered all those we have loved. And then I will name those other beloved ones who arrived earlier. Aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and grandparents and nephews and parents and on and on by name one after another. And of how a joyful shout went up to welcome to the table the one who just arrived.
It is a comforting image and a glad one, to be sure. And yet, carried too far, one can find oneself wondering even as the Saducees do today. What I mean to say is this.
- Would Mabel be at the table with the Andersons or the Olsons?
- Would Tom be sitting next to the Hunts or the Goodwins or the Clarks?
- Which grandmother will Susan have her arm around: Grandma Anderson or Grandma Frank?
- And oh, what of Beulah? Will she sit next to her first husband, Tom, who died too soon or will she be beside her second husband, Jack, who came much later? (And isn’t this precisely the question the Saducees asked so long ago?)
- And on and on…
My point is that as much as I love this image of the family table, it cannot even fully hold what we have actually known, much less what God surely has in store!
And so it is I wonder now how is it that we enable our imaginations to expand? How is it that we are able to leave behind the riddle the Sadducees posed today and allow ourselves to dwell in the wonder of what God has in store? Is it possible for us to leave our earth bound images of the welcome that awaits us or is it not?
I do not know for sure, but I wonder now what it might mean if I could simply stand still in the most wonder filled moments I have known and let myself imagine what it would be to multiply those a thousand thousand times.
- Like the first time I set foot in my alma mater’s library and could not get over the thought of all those books and all the possibilities they contained.
- Or the last time I stared at the expanse of the ocean and imagined what and who lay on the other side. Not to mention all that lay between.
- Or the first time I lifted my eyes to a cloudless night sky and saw the endless expanse of stars shining bright.
- Or the wonder this last spring to realize that all those newly planted hostas had survived a brutal winter after all.
- Or worrying whether one so dear one would ever get well again and then to see life again in their eyes.
If I, if you, if we could stand still in these wonders and a thousand more for even a moment longer might we just get a sense of how much more than even these God has waiting for us? Might we then be able to let go of the Sadducees’ question which dwells within each of us and begin to rest in the certainty that our God ‘of the living’ can and will be and do so much more?
- As much as I wish it were not so, I find the question the Sadducees pose is also often my own. Is this so for you? Why or why not?
- I have offered a handful of wonders we/I might consider standing in to begin to expand our imagination of what God has in store. How might you add to or amend what I have offered here?
- In verse 36, Luke’s Gospel calls those who have died ‘children of God being children of the resurrection.’ Is it possible to get a sense of the meaning of that identity in this life now? If so, how have you known this to be so?