Saturday, December 4, 2010

Love, Death and Resurrection


Today, on a wintry Saturday, we buried Helen Snow, who died just before her 94th birthday. By all accounts she was the kindest and most loving woman you could ever hope to meet. I've been reading Tom Long's book Accompany Them With Singing, and thinking a lot about the Christian funeral. It seems to me that at a funeral, we need to try to accomplish an awful lot in a very short time: we want to remember, to mourn, to give thanks. And as pastors, we want to somehow capture a handful of hope and pass it gently into the laps of those weeping people on the front row. We try to do that with our words as well as our deeds.

1st Corinthians 13: 4-8a, 13

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

These verses come from a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote, to help the people of a new church learn how to live in harmony together. It was crucial that the church at Corinth understand how to live lives of love, because a couple of chapters later, he is going to teach them about death, and the Apostle Paul is pretty certain that folks can’t die well unless they have learned to live well. So he spells it out – what love looks like!

I did not have the privilege of knowing Helen. But as I listened to her family talk about her, about who she was, her warmth, her character, her hospitality, it was clear to me that Helen demonstrated all the traits of a loving person. You knew her – you’d agree, I bet, with some of the things they told me: She was always so warm, so welcoming. When you went to see her, she made you feel like it was the best thing ever that you came, and that you – you among all others in the entire universe – you were the most important person in her life at that moment. She made you feel special. She always let you know she loved you. When she died, an angel went to heaven.

You could just about read 1st Corinthians 13 as if it were written about Helen Snow: “Helen was patient; Helen was kind; Helen was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Helen did not insist on her own way; she was not irritable or resentful; she did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoiced in the truth.”

Nonis told me that she had known Helen since she, Nonis, was four years old. Even as a young newlywed, still barely more than a girl herself, Helen was a kind, gentle, and loving woman. As I talked with Nonis and listened to the memories and stories she shared, I thought of another woman, a woman described in the book of Proverbs. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband too, and he praises her: "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." (Prov. 31: 25-29) That was Helen, I think.

It’s always tough to lose someone so special to us; maybe even tougher on us in this Christmas season, when the world all seems so jolly. But in some ways, this season is an important reminder to us of the overwhelming significance of love. In this time of year when we remember Christ’s birth, we recall his self-giving love, a love which knows no end. As the old Christmas song says, “Love came down at Christmas.” That kind of love is at the center of Christmas, and it is the kind of quiet generosity that Helen lived out every day.

A poet once said, “A Christmas candle is a lovely thing; it makes no noise at all, but softly gives itself away.” (Eva Logue) In the gentle light of a Christmas candle, quietly, softly giving itself away, we see an expression of the embodiment of love. In the love of God, we learn how to love, and to be loved. That was a lesson that Helen understood and lived, her whole life long.

She wasn’t ever famous. She didn’t invent anything, or pilot a hot-air balloon, or swim the English Channel. She spent her time and energy on more important things. She finished high school in a time when few people did. She listened to her husband’s little sister when that little girl needed to talk. She loved her husband. She loved her children and grandchildren, and encouraged them, and taught them to be good people.

Helen was a homemaker in the genuine and lovely sense of that word: she made a home. Her family was always in her heart, and she was the heart of the family. She grew flowers, and she raised her family, and she held her arms open to all the people in her world. Through her hospitality and caring, she welcomed everyone she encountered in a way that made them feel unforgettable – in a way that made Helen unforgettable. She made the world a more beautiful place, because she knew what love was.

I think that I missed out on knowing a great woman. And I think if the Apostle Paul had ever met Helen Snow, he’d have been impressed. He might’ve said, “Hello, Helen, it is nice to meet you. I see you’ve read my book.” So as we remember Helen, and we grieve our loss of a dear mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, sister-in-law, and friend, even as we remember and cherish all that she was to everyone here, it is important that we remember the rest of the story, the story that the Apostle Paul comes to just two chapters on in 1st Corinthians.

In the 15th chapter, Paul describes the promise of resurrection. You see, the love that was born at Christmas was just the start. That baby in the manger didn’t stay a baby – they never do. He grew up to be a man, a man who was fully human and fully God, and he loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. And it looked like the end.

But it wasn’t the end; it was just the beginning. Even though Jesus died, the love story continued in his resurrection. Because Jesus died, as we all must die, we will be raised, as he was raised! Death does not have the last word.

Our sister Helen, beloved of the Lord, a blessed woman who lived out Christ’s call to love God and love neighbors -- Helen will be raised in new life, no longer mortal but immortal, no longer perishable but imperishable, in the splendor and glory of the resurrection. There will come a day when we will see her again, and be reunited with her. Even though our vision today is clouded today by tears of grief, then we will have every tear wiped away from our eyes.

Even though we see only dimly now, then we will see clearly.

Even though now we only know in part, then we will know fully, and be fully known.

Helen is gone from us, into the presence of her Lord and Savior. But she will live within us, in every memory, in every gesture of hospitality, in every moment that we nurture our families, and listen to the stories of children, and care for those who need care, and extend an open hand of kindness to those around us, we will remember the life and witness of Helen Snow, a beloved and loving child of God.

“…now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Love never ends. Thanks be to God for the life and the resurrection of Helen Snow.

Amen.

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