In Celebration of the Life of JoAnn (“Jo”) Ford

The Liturgy of the Resurrection in Celebration of the Life of Jo Ford||  Friday, March 20, 2012 || St. Stephen’s Church, Cohasset||

The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

What a study in contrasts:  Such a beautiful song and such an amazing performance of it by Sheila, but such incredibly sad and poignant lyrics:

    “And if you wait for someone else’s hand, then you will surely fall down;  And if you wait for someone else’s hand,  you’ll fall, you’ll fall…”

You know, one of the greatest blessings of living in a small town and being part of a faith community like this, is that you never have to wait for someone else’s hand– there are always at least two or three caring hands already reaching out to catch you—even if you’re too hesitant or too proud to ask for them. We just don’t let each other fall around here—it’s part of who we are as a community and it’s part of who Jo was, too.  This is no small thing, because not everyone has this kind of love and support in their life.   But Jo did, and so do we.  So despite our grief, we have much to be thankful for:  the love, compassion, and generosity of spirit around us right now—or in the words of the song, we just heard, the “hearts too big to fit our beds.”

But “hearts too big to fit our beds” are also hearts so big they can hold a terrible amount of pain and sadness when someone we love dies, regardless of how old they are and whether we happen to believe in an afterlife or not.

In Charlie’s tribute to his mom, he alluded to one of several conversations we’ve had about the afterlife, and how I shared with him that it wasn’t until my own father died that I really knew with all of my heart, that what I’d always said I believed with my mind, was really true.  And quite honestly, this discovery shocked me.  I hadn’t expected to have such absolute certainty that my father was not only alive, but more alive than he’d ever been before—totally healed and healthy and whole, in a way that just wasn’t possible for him and isn’t possible for any of us in this broken world of ours—but which is, in fact, God’s deepest desire for every one of us.

In another conversation, Charlie told me the story he just shared with all of you of experiencing his brother Scott last week as a single white gull, soaring high in the sky on a beautiful warm day.  Charlie wondered if I thought that was too weird, and actually asked me if it was “okay” to talk about.  I assured him it was more than okay with me -– neglecting to mention that every time I see a red cardinal I think it’s my dad making a special guest appearance from above!

All this by way of saying that I don’t know anymore than any of you do about what happens when our earthly bodies die, but I do know that WE don’t die with them. Our bodies may well “turn to stone,” as the song said, but my faith, my study of scripture, and my experience all tell me that our essential selves not only live—they soar to new heights, somehow becoming more themselves, rather than less. Whether or not we can make occasional visits to this life again as sea gulls or cardinals or angels, I have no idea.  As a Christian, I believe things that some of you may think are far weirder than that! After all, I believe that an all-powerful and all-loving God chose to be born as a helpless, impoverished child. I believe that later on in life he chose to die a horrible, humiliating death, just so he could wipe-out death altogether for the rest of us–once and for all –in his resurrection.  And yes, I even believe he was really resurrected– with some sort of inexplicable, but decidedly real physical body.  So you see, who am I to say resurrected bodies can’t make special guest appearances as sea gulls?

In my sermon last Sunday, I told a story about the late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge reflecting on his own impending death.  Wondering about the afterlife, Muggeridge asked:

“Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection– how in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air with exquisitely painted wings?  If told, do they believe?  Is it conceivable to them that so constricted an existence as theirs should burgeon into so gay and lightsome a one as a butterfly’s?  I imagine,” Muggeridge wrote, “the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads—no, it can’t be; it’s fantasy, self-deception, a dream.”

But I don’t believe for one minute it’s a dream.  I believe that our dear, beautiful Jo with the impossibly blue eyes is more alive than ever, finally free to be the perfect creature God created her to be, happy and joyous and feasting on a fabulous French meal with Scott, and Charlie, and the whole company of heaven!

How?  Well, as my father was fond of saying, quoting Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than ever dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Jo’s body has died, but Jo has not died.  Thanks be to God, she never will.  Someday, we’ll know the fact of that.  In the meantime, “we walk by faith not by sight,” with “hearts too big for our beds” that ache and hurt and cry out in pain.

And you, Charlie, have known far too much of this pain, and for far too much of your life, than any of us can even begin to understand.   My prayer is that someday you have the same kind of certainty about the afterlife that I do.  My prayer is that you keep looking up, scanning the skies, for another tip of the wings.  And my prayer is that in the meantime, you keep embracing the many caring hands reaching out to you in love—because we will not let you fall.  You’re family. Amen.

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