Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I can almost hear Mary’s voice when I recall the days I would be sitting in my office. The phone would ring, and Mary would say, “Pastor, I got something over here for you, and it’s still warm.”
It didn’t matter what I was doing at the time. I quit, and I headed to Mary’s. Counseling someone, the appointment ended. Working on a funeral sermon, it would wait. Preparing to go for a visit, tomorrow would be good enough. Sitting by the bedside of someone very ill or dying, sorry, there was something I had to do. Well, maybe it wasn’t that extreme, but if you ever ate any of Mary’s homemade bread, and she told you she had it waiting on you fresh from the oven, well, maybe there isn’t too much exaggeration there.
If I was lucky, I’d pick up the loaf of bread and get home in enough time to smack some butter on it and watch it melt in. The aroma filled one’s nose as the piece of bread was lifted to the mouth. The taste buds hit a state of nirvana as the warm bread fulfilled its purpose in satisfying the hunger of the stomach. If I was lucky, this would transpire rather quickly, but oftentimes, I wasn’t that lucky. Oftentimes, I had top practice delayed gratification. I had to patiently wait to eat as Mary and I took a half an hour or an hour to sit and talk about things.
Oh, and there were many things we talked about. We’d talk about the weather. And we’d usually talk about that because we’d be sitting in her house with no air condition, and it would be 125 degrees out, and she’d say, “I just sit right there by the window, a little breeze comes through, and it don’t bother me at all. With sweat pouring off my forehead, I would agree with her all the while thinking to myself, “Thank God you don’t make them like this anymore. Thank you Lord, for softening them up a bit.”
Mary would move on to talking about going to town. She’d say, “I don’t know why folks want to drive all the way to Bellville on Gamma Grass road. I always take Mill Creek. That’s a good drive, and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t just drive that all the time?” I never answered her out loud. I wanted that bread too bad. I mean, you just don’t tell someone, “They don’t drive that road because they are afraid you’d be flying down it.” Well, not really. They are fixing Mill Creek Road now, but for as long as I’ve been here, Mill Creek Road and a washboard have had a lot, and I mean a lot in common. That’s why folks never drove it. I don’t think Mary ever felt that though. I don’t think her tires ever felt the bottom of a pot hole on Mill Creek. They just went from the top of one bump to the next. Now, I’m not really saying that she drove too fast, but the words bat and hell could be used in the same sentence to describe how Mary drove.
But I wasn’t about to tell her that or criticize her driving. I wanted the bread, and I didn’t want to endure her wrath. You see, early on when I came to Cat Spring, I went to visit, and Mary was out in her yard working. She’d be out there quite a bit, and on this occasion, she was trying to get rid of a weed. The weed wasn’t cooperating and coming out of the ground quickly, so she stood there with a hoe and beat the hell out of that weed. After seeing that, self-preservation was on my mind as well as the bread.
Mary would talk fondly of the community. She loved Cat Spring. She loved writing about what was going on. She loved the church and what was going on here. She loved her family, and she’d talk about all the stuff David and Ginger were doing. She’d talk about the grandkids. Mary’s life was full.
After our conversations, I would head home and break into the bread. It satisfied deeply. Those of you who also were fortunate to eat of it know what I am talking about. But there is one thing about eating such delicacies; they do not satisfy for long. They leave you wanting more.
And there was something about Mary that was wanting more as well. There was something in life that Mary had never fully been satisfied with: the untimely death of her daughter Jo Ann. In the ten years I knew Mary, I know she wrestled with this. I know she wrestled with it a lot. She was never satisfied with any answer given to her. She would think about things; she would hear what others said; and she would say, “I guess we’ll never really know.” Even a couple short months ago as I brought her Holy Communion, she said the same words.
The mystery of death can do that to each and every one of us. Oh, we all know that death is going to be the final destination for each and every one of us here. Unless we are completely and utterly in denial, we know this will be all of our lots. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have death, and if the world were slightly imperfect, we would all live long, full lives like Mary and go quickly without having to suffer. But life isn’t always like that. Things happen, and we wrestle with them. We want answers. We want to solve the mystery of death and understand why things happen in the manner they happen. We want satisfaction.
And much to our dismay, satisfaction escapes us. We want complete answers. We want fullness so that we can understand. But if we try to wrap our heads around it all, we usually find ourselves wanting more.
Jesus says in John chapter 6, “35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Whoever comes to Jesus will never be hungry. Whoever believes in Jesus will never be thirsty. He is the bread of life. How is such a thing possible? Of course, Jesus is not talking about physical hunger and physical thirst, so what is He talking about? What kind of hunger and thirst is He trying to address?
There are several things to consider, but the one I want to focus on right now, in this moment, is our longing to understand suffering–our longing to understand why people seemingly die before their time–our longing to understand why sometimes parents bury their children–our longing to unlock the mysteries surrounding death.
Some people believe that if one becomes a Christian, then one is immune from suffering. One become immune from disease. One becomes immune from the trials and tribulations of this world. Some believe that when one trusts in Jesus, then one obtains health, wealth, and happiness beyond measure. Life becomes one great adventure with no pitfalls. And, of course, if you happen to have a pitfall, well, you just didn’t trust in Jesus enough. It’s your problem. It always comes back to you.
But that is not the path of Jesus. Not even close. For if there were anyone who trusted God completely; if there were anyone who lived in God’s will completely; it was the Son who took on flesh and lived among us. If belief in God and trust in Jesus led us to health and wealth and happiness, then Jesus surely would have had all those things. But we know He didn’t. From what we know, He surely wasn’t wealthy. He oftentimes became outraged at things going on around Him; and His health ultimately suffered greatly. How so, you might ask? Well, crucifixion isn’t exactly the healthiest experience for one’s body. In fact, the suffering Jesus endured being crucified was beyond what nearly everyone in this room will ever experience. Perfect obedience to God led Jesus to the cross–to suffering, not away from it.
Which could lead us to ask: well, what’s the point. If I believe in God and try to do all the right things and I still suffer; why even believe in God?
Here’s why. The crucifixion was not the end of the story. Jesus hanging on the cross bleeding and dying is part one. Part two, the grand finale was still to come. Of course, I am speaking about the resurrection. I am speaking about Jesus being raised to eternal life. I am speaking about God’s message to suffering and death and despair. The resurrection speaks loudly and clearly that God is working and active in the midst of our suffering and pain and grief to bring about healing and wholeness and goodness. God promises to transform death into life; despair into hope; sadness into joy. That is the unequivocal promise of the resurrection, and it is our trust in Jesus’ action–His death and resurrection that leads to our satisfaction. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.” And this satisfies us, not in the sense of understanding–for we don’t always see the reasons behind our suffering; we don’t always see the reasons for premature death, but understanding that God has not forsaken us, and He never will.
In the great chapter about love in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul pens these words, “12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Mary was never able to understand why Jo Ann died so early. She was never able to wrap her head around it, but I know Mary trusted Jesus. I know Mary had a deep faith in her Lord and Savior, and I believe with all my heart that now Mary understands. I believe now she has complete satisfaction. She now knows fully even as she was and is fully known by Jesus. She is now having conversations with Jo Ann and Erwin and all who have gone before. And she is now basking in the glow of the faith, hope, and love that St. Paul promised.
And of course, we who are left now are left to contemplate these mysteries. We are now left to seek to understand the whys and why nots. We are now left to wonder what it will be like for us as we face the reality of death. We will grieve for Mary because we will miss her, but if we turn to Jesus–if we see Him as the bread of life, we will not grieve with despair. We will grieve with hope as people who know our loved one has gone on a long journey–a journey we too will take–a journey which might involve some pain and suffering; a journey which may have trials and tribulations; but a journey that has a destination; a destination full of wonder and joy; a destination with peace and fulfillment; a destination where we will hear Jesus say to us, “My child, I have something here for you, and it is wonderful.” Amen.