A Memorial Homily for Angela Faulkner
Romans 8.18-27, 31-35, 37-39
It is our given human condition that we are born into the world independent of any decision of our own, and we live in a space and time that we did not create and that defines and delimits our life. As creatures of time, we not only have a beginning in time, but we have an ending in time. All creatures great and small will die and cease to exist in space and time.
It is also true that many of us may spend a lifetime trying to escape from or hide from ourselves this unyielding fact of our finitude and vulnerability to death. Nevertheless, the signals of death are ever present in the many ways in which each of us is vulnerable to harm and the fear of being harmed. We are frail creatures whose very lives are continuously vulnerable to the affliction of harm from other creatures, from disease and the decay of our bodies, and from that multitude of self-inflicted harms and injuries about which each of us is all too familiar. If we were our own creator, we might be prone to render ourselves invulnerable to pain, suffering, loss, and death.
Yet this same all too human vulnerability is also the wondrous power of our being open to and affected by others; it places joy, friendship, parenting, love, and self-giving among the amazing possibilities of life. To be utterly invulnerable would mean being closed off to the richness of a genuinely human life with others.
This inescapable vulnerability of life is, however, haunted by the fact of death. Death, thus, stalks us in its many forms and faces, and we know not whence it comes and whither it goes. But the inevitability of death scares us, fills us with fear, and often casts a shadow over our living.
Today we are confronted with the stark realization that Angie has been abruptly and without warning—without preparation and proper goodbyes—taken from us by an untimely and bewildering death. A chill and numbing wind blew through our hearts in the late hours of April 5th and in the dawning of April 6th.
Her life in time with us is over and has reached its limit. We find it unbearable that she is no longer present to interact with us, to plan a future with us, to realize all those spoken and unspoken possibilities and hopes we had for her. Our urgent memories may struggle to capture and cherish the past we had with her, but a memory is not a living, interacting presence with a vital future before it.
Dear family and friends of Angie, our loss is great, our suffering, confusion, and our excruciating pain are without relief. In Angie’s death an irretrievable loss has been inflicted upon us as well. But, for our own sakes and for the sake of our relationships with Angie, we all need to acknowledge our loss honestly and to learn how to look to a future that has been shaped both by Angie’s death and by her life.
This means that this question is before us all: are there possibilities of hope and understanding available to us as we reckon now with her death and our own vulnerabilities? Is there hope either for her or for us?
It should be obvious—but it requires clear acknowledgment now—that this is not a memorial service rooted in some vague and sentimental sense of human immortality and the indestructibility of human love. Today we have read Christian Scriptures and uttered Christian prayers. We do indeed bring to this service a formative understanding of the Christian narrative about God and human life and death. It is in that formative understanding that I hope we will find support, clarity, and strength to face our loss and the future that lies ahead of us.
May we first remember that the Christian trusts in a God who is Creator of all things in heaven and on earth. No creature comes to be without the sovereign action of God’s love in bestowing life and being on that creature. However troubling may be some of the conditions under which humans live out their lives, it is central to Christian convictions that we stand before a Creator who loves us and who suffers greatly when we suffer or when we fritter away our lives in self-indulgent neglect of God’s love. We are created for fellowship with God and for flourishing. All creatures great and small are loved by God.
But the Christian God who creates all things is not also a god who stands on the sidelines of life, aloof and untouched by the creature’s life. While the Creator does not give us life that is invulnerable to harm and the contingencies of living in the midst of other creatures, the Creator does go in search of human life to be a covenant partner in the grand adventure of living.
In search of God’s beloved creatures, the Creator liberates and elects Israel to be a special people, to bear a special covenant and to be a light to the nations. It is in this Israel that God does a new thing for humans so vulnerable to the sheer uncertainties of life and their strange and surprising entanglements with death.
In a mighty act of humility and loving resolve, God comes among us humans in the form and life of Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth. This Jesus is God going out to gather the lost sheep, to heal the wounds of life and unfaithful living, to give hope to the hopeless and despairing, to encourage our vulnerability and openness to the lives of others, and to confront the terrible brutalities of the many faces of death that seem so invincible and dominating. Jesus is God’s love taking the place of us vulnerable humans who stagger uncertainly under the burdens of accidents, afflictions, despair, and the fear of death.
It is this Jesus that takes death—with its assaulting sting of finality—takes it with him upon the cross and there he undergoes death’s most violent exercise of dominion and forsakenness. Jesus dies on the cross and is rendered vulnerable to the powers that appear to the world to confer life and death.
The sting of death has always been its pretense to be what is most real and final about us all. We will all indeed die. Jesus died. No make-believe death here. No immortal soul quickly escaping the body. Body and soul, dead.
But death does not have the last word. This divinely human Jesus is raised bodily from the dead and declares to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that the last word is God’s reconciling love and grace that confers life eternal.
We have just passed through the Easter season, but let us emphatically note what might have become glib and insignificant to us: God in Christ Jesus has taken the sins and vulnerabilities of the world upon Godself and into God’s own life and deprived them of being the last and final judgment on any of us. God’s love resurrects life in the face and aftermath of death. In Jesus, death is defeated in its power to provoke consuming fear and despair. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is possible to say: O death where is thy victory? Where is thy sting?
So, dear family and friends, what do we make of this? This Gospel, which Jesus Christ is and proclaims, does not tell us that we will not die; it does not tell us that we are not frail and vulnerable creatures subject to harm and death; it does not tell us that we will never suffer irretrievable loss and broken hearts. It does not tell us to trust in our own resources and strength and to render ourselves invulnerable to life and death.
But it does tell us that we are sustained by the only God there is and that this triune God loves us with a lavishness and excess of grace that is truly redemptive of our living and our dying. In this God we have hope: hope that Angie as she encountered the mystery of her own dying also encountered the almighty love of God and was resurrected by that love to a life bathed in sheer grace and forgiveness. We can let Angie go to that unimaginable glory; we do not have to clutch after her by refusing to admit that she has died.
By admitting our own real loss in not having her near at hand, we too can live courageously and trustingly into the future as that time over which the sting of death has been plucked. We can understand and live as though nothing can separate Angie or us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This means as well that we can be grateful for the gift that Angie was to us all. Her life had a beauty and vitality that blessed us all, even when we found her perplexing and singularly herself. Be grateful and celebrate what she has given to us all. It can truly be said that we were marvelously vulnerable to her life with us. We weep so deeply for her passing because our gratitude and delight in her life were such rich blessings.
It is part of the profound grandeur and dignity of human life that we can grieve over our irretrievable losses without being defeated and destroyed by them.
To Angie’s parents, may you know the peace of realizing that you do not have to keep Angie alive; she lives eternally in the grace of God. In the midst of your aching grief and loss may you also know the embrace of God’s gracious love for yourselves. With your own wounds, misgivings, and the anguish of unfulfilled plans for Angie, may you find strength and solace in your hope and trust in God’s triumphant power and grace.
To Angie’s brother and to her grandparents and other relatives, hear the pathos and faithfulness of a God who will not let you go, who will not forsake you in your despair and regrets and loss. Trust that, whether you live or whether you die, you are the Lord’s.
And to all of us friends, touched by the dancing and unpredictable liveliness of Angie in her scurrying about among us, take delight in the gift of her life. And be comforted by the whispers of the Holy Spirit that build up life and gives us courage and thankfulness. This Spirit will give us a joy that will not be overcome by the fragility and vulnerability of life and will not be bullied into fear by death or the threat of death and loss. This is joy in the Lord of Life. This joy casts out fear and bestows hope.
So, with apostle Paul, we can say: “[We are] convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor thing present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, not depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
All this, dear family and friends, I have dared to speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all. Amen.
[This homily was preached on April 10, 2002 in Enid, Oklahoma. Angela was twenty-three years old when she died in a one-car accident on the dark night of April 5th. Over the years I have urged students and ministers to separate the homily from the eulogy/biography phases of the funeral or memorial service. The narrative character of the eulogy is the place where the deceased’s life is properly celebrated and, when appropriate, showered with encomia. The homily, on the other hand, is directed to the gathered community and properly aims at the proclamation of the Gospel as it throws light on the sobering reality of death, grief, bewilderment, and hope. In Angela’s service, my wife, Sarah Jones, Angie’s school counselor in high school, had previously delivered the eulogy.]