Homily for the Memorial Service for Frances Burnham
December 29, 2012
The Rev. Adam Thomas
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asks the Apostle Paul in the words that Wilson read a few minutes ago. “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
“Nay,” says Paul, emphatically answering his own question. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”
More than conquerors – what a wonderful phrase. On Wednesday, mere hours after Fran moved into her new life in the fullness of God, we gathered around her and spoke about how we would remember her during this service. We decided that these words from Paul were perfect, and then as we continued to plan and to talk about this wonderful woman, these three words – “more than conquerors” – kept surfacing in my mind. These are three words that seem to me as if the Apostle Paul wrote them about Frances Margarita Parry Burnham.
Fran was unconquerable in this life. On Wednesday, Amery – “Muffin” to most of you – told me that her mother was as elegant and graceful as could be, but that she was also made of steel. You’d think this an odd combination. How can steel be elegant? How can something so solid be graceful? But Fran was both steel and grace in equal measures.
Fran was unconquerable in this life, and this nature was no more evident than in her relations with us who are blessed to have known her. When I conversed with her, she made me feel like the only person in the world, such was her unwavering attention. I bet many of us have experienced that. Fran was the kind of person whose mere presence told you that you were loved, that there was someone always around to make sure things were okay, that there was someone always around to point out God’s movement in our midst. And we love her for all of this and more.
Fran was unconquerable in this life, even after her diagnosis, or perhaps, especially after her diagnosis. She was diagnosed with cancer back in the last century, if you can believe that. And from day one, she was never a person dying from disease. She was a person living with disease. She was a person of hope. Of faith. Of deep, unconquerable conviction. And she made manifest the joy of one who is fully and utterly dependent on the God who suffered with her during her worst days and danced with her during her best.
Yet we might be tempted to think that, in the end, death finally conquered her. Yes, Fran has died. Yes, she has passed on from this earthly life. But even through death, she remains more than a conqueror because of Christ who loved and continues to love her.
You see, this love for Fran, which resides deep in the heart of each person in this room, signals to us that we are still connected to her and that she is still connected to us. This love for Fran is enfolded and embedded in the love God has for each one of us. And the love that God has for each one of us, whether we live or die, never fails.
The Apostle Paul says what I am trying to say much better than I can. Right after the verses I mentioned earlier, Paul says, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing, not even death, will be able to separate us from the love of God. Death may be an end. But death is not the end.
We know that death is an end. We’ve all sensed that reality this week. This ending causes sorrow and grief and feelings of loss. This ending causes tears and numbness and feelings of isolation. This ending causes pain and pit-of-the-stomach-aching-due-to-the-fact-that-Fran-is-gone-and-life-will-never-be-the-same. Love causes such feelings, so they are not bad or wrong. In fact, not loving someone makes death much easier to handle. But, again, death is an end…
…not the end. In the midst of our grief, God whispers to us the good news of this greater reality: “Nothing can separate Fran or you from my love.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ shows to us the utter lengths to which God goes to keep this promise. Resurrection is not some impersonal thing that may or may not impact our lives and deaths. Resurrection is not something to bring up just to make a grieving person feel better. The resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaims that God’s business is always to remain in life-giving relationships, whether that life is earthbound or found in the fullness of new life in God’s glory. Yes, death will occur; after all, resurrection does not take place without death. But life, in some superlative form, emerges when resurrection denies the finality of death.
Remember: Fran and you and I are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. Death does happen, but eternal life happens with exponentially vaster scope than death ever could hope for. We grieve because we love Fran who has died. This is expected and natural and cathartic. But against all odds, grief mixes with joy when we remember that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s possession.” We rejoice because death is not the end. The end is God, as was the beginning.
Fran is safely enfolded and embedded in God’s eternal and life-giving love, scrubbed clean of the cancer which was eroding her body, but which couldn’t come close to eroding her spirit or her soul. God promises to us that one day we, too, will be enfolded and embedded with her in that same love because nothing, not even death, can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”