By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
“Pray then this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This morning marks the beginning of our two part Sermon Series on Questions. After polling the gathered body about the types of questions you all have about God, Faith, and the Church this series was created. We begin by looking at two of the most prevalent questions: What does it mean to forgive? Should the dead be cremated or buried?
Strange things are done for funerals. There are people who insist on placing the favorite objects or tokens from the deceased into the casket in order to bring comfort to the dead, after they’re dead. Others take the ashes of their loved ones to have them placed under high pressure and temperature and have them formed into diamonds to be worn on a finger or necklace. In some communities the location of the burial spot has less to do with geology and availability as it does regarding the direction of the grave.
In Western North Carolina almost every cemetery is organized so that the gravestone, and therefore the bodies, are facing east. While I helped a church in Bryson City, North Carolina it was not uncommon to hear stories about families standing at the graveside, deeply grieving in their loss, when a distant cousin or uncle would pull out a trusty compass and declare that they had the body facing the wrong direction. Whether built in a valley or up on a hill, EVERY grave had to face east. Part of this comes from biblical reasons, but I always heard that it was done so that when Jesus comes back with the sunrise, he wants to see smiling faces, and not rear-ends.
Because I work for the church, I have the privilege to be with people at the paramount of their suffering and help guide them through their grief and pain. Whereas most of the world refuses to talk about death and what comes with it, I relish in the opportunity to declare that even though death is real, it has been defeated. We tend to treat death as an unspeakable subject, when it is at the very heart of what it means to be human.
Even with the sorrow that death brings, I must also admit that comedy often comes along with it.
I could tell you about all the truly scandalous things I have learned about the departed when I meet with a family to plan the funeral. We share stories about the person’s life, what they were passionate about, what set them a part from others. But at some point, and it almost always happens, the friends and families begin to share stories that should not be repeated. I sit there with my pen and paper in hand, fighting the urge to write down every perfect bit of gossip I hear, until someone usually realizes who they are talking to and they politely request that I neglect to mention those parts during the sermon.
I could tell you about how nobody knew what to do with the ashes of my grandfather’s brother after he passed so they just kept him around for awhile. And when my great-grandmother died, my grandfather asked the funeral home if he could spend a few moments alone with her after the viewing. Feigning some sort of important spiritual and prayerful goodbye, he quickly walked up once the room was empty, took a gallon size zip-lox bag containing uncle Preston, and carefully hid him in the casket with my great-grandmother.
I could tell you about how the first time I met Dick Dickerson, he shared with me all sorts of stories regarding his wife Mildred and he kept motioning over toward the kitchen. I thought that this was a sweet and precious habit that was born out of their relationship, and that Dick was habituated into remembering her being in the kitchen, but when I asked him about it, he laughed out loud and told me that he was keeping her ashes in a bag above the sink.
It is important to remember that it okay to laugh after death. That first laugh or smile often comes with a feeling of guilt, but, if I can be so bold as to speak for the people I have buried, they would be happy to know that we are happy.
Strange things are done for funerals. Sometimes they bring the best out in people; a prodigal son returns home to bury his father; a wayward daughter reconnects with her family. But other times, they bring out the worst.
There were two brothers who fiercely loved their mother. Raised by her alone after losing their father at a young age, they worshipped her and were so very thankful for all that she had given them. The time came for them to start their own families, but they never neglected to remember their wonderful mother. It came as a shock to the local community when she passed away rather abruptly, but the wake of her death was truly felt between her sons.
They met with the pastor to go over funeral arrangements when the fight began…
The older son wanted his mother to be cremated. He claimed it was what she desired and had shared the detail with him on a number of occasions.
The younger son wanted his mother to be buried. He respected her wishes, but he was utterly convinced that the bible said you have to be buried in the ground.
By the time I arrived in the community, no one could even remember what they wound up doing with the mother, but ever since that fight, the brothers had refused to speak to one another.
Both of them had good points when it came to taking care of their mother’s body- we should respect the wishes of the person, while at the same time remain faithful to scripture.
Some believe that we should only bury bodies. Their arguments are based on the concept that out bodies were made in the image of God and will be resurrected when Christ returns. Most of the key people people in both the Old and New Testaments were buried, including the one who was crucified on a cross. It allows us to properly mourn their loss, and even create a place, such as cemeteries, for us to visit and pay our respects to those who helped to shape and mold us. Moreover they claim that burning a body, cremating it, prevents it from being newly constituted in the resurrection.
Some believe that we should only cremate bodies. Their arguments are based on the concept that nothing is impossible with God, that God can most certainly recreate a body for the resurrection. All flesh eventually decays and returns to the earth becoming just like the dust from which we were created. If God can only resurrect those whose bodies are buried, then anyone who has perished under less than ideal circumstances would be withheld from the resurrection. They also argue that cremation can be less expensive than burial and therefore helps families to thrive and serve God and neighbor. They choose to keep the ashes in an urn or scatter them in such a way that it is done in a fruitful and honorable manner.
Bottom line: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. When we die, whether we are cremated or buried in the ground, we are gone. Our bodies remain and eventually return to the dust from which God brought us into being. Nothing is impossible for God. When the time comes for the bodily resurrection, nothing, and I mean nothing, can stop God from forming us into our new bodies, bodies that will not look like the ones we had here on earth, bodies that are brilliant and beyond our imagination. What becomes important for us is the need to be present with the friends and families for those who have died, and be loving in the way that we see to their needs, whatever they are, in order to help them grieve and mourn.
I never had a chance to talk with the brothers about their argument before the funeral. This happened long in the past. I never had a moment for a surprise intervention or reconciliation. I wish I had the opportunity because this is what I would share with them:
“One of the bravest and strangest things we do as Christians is pray the Lord’s Prayer. Asked by his disciples about the way to pray, Jesus taught his friends to say the words that each of us say every Sunday in church. We collectively pray to OUR father, not MY father, or Jesus’ Father, but OUR father. We request that our limited daily means be met, we yearn for the bread that gives us life. And then we pray for God to forgive us just as we forgive those around us. We pray this to God because we are not strong enough to do it on our own and we need the Spirit to move in us and strengthen us for the terrifically difficult work of forgiveness.
You two lost your mother, you lost the rock that so much of your lives were founded upon. The one who was always there for you, cared for you, and nurtured you was gone and you wanted to do everything you could for her funeral to be perfect. Yet, you let your own opinions get the better of you, and you let your selfishness blind you from the kind of love your mother made manifest here among us. Your mother is gone, I know you might not be ready to hear it, the grief might still be too difficult to bear, but she is gone. She is now with OUR heavenly father.
What are you two going to do with the lives she gave you, what are you going to do with the lives that God gave you? Will you continue to bear grudges against each other, refuse to speak and commune, ignore the needs of your respective brother? Will you let an argument about funeral practices divide you from the only family you have left?
Forgiveness is the hardest thing in the world; to see the other and look past everything that have done to hurt you and belittle you, and act on love rather than hate. We don’t forgive because God told us to, and we don’t forgive because its what your mother would have wanted, we forgive because its the last thing worth working for. Without forgiveness we are nothing.
God’s love knows no bounds. Neither should ours. Look at each other and stop seeing the old arguments and disagreements, look at each other forgive.”
Strange things are done for funerals and they can bring out the best, or the worst, in us. It is my prayer that funerals might bring out the best in us. Instead of limiting them to a simple worship service to praise God, think about how we could truly recognize the gift of the one who has gone, and strive to live better and braver lives. Let us see those tense and vulnerable moments, like funerals, as opportunities to forgive and start anew with the people in our lives.
Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It is irrational, draining, and frightening. It requires bravery rarely seen, faith rarely developed, and hope rarely witnessed. Yet, if Christ was willing to forgive those who hung him on the cross, if God is willing to forgive us all our trespasses, just imagine how many things we can forgive in our lives, even the dust.