*Note: This sermon was preached on September 8, 2014, at the Service of Death and Resurrection for Bertha (Bert) Rohrback. Bert was a longtime member of Centre UMC, and she left an important legacy of love for her church. The texts for the service were Psalm 139:1-18, Psalm 23, and John 11:17-44.
“I come to the end, I am still with you.” These are the words that conclude this morning’s reading from Psalm 139. “I come to the end, I am still with you,” says the Psalmist, after a beautiful meditation on God’s presence. Where could I go to flee from your presence, O God? No matter where I go nor where I could go, you will always be there, O God.
Now, in this day of internet hacking scandals and government spying, in this time when it seems like someone might be watching us at every moment, words that speak of God’s inescapable presence might be heard the wrong way. Is God looking constantly looking over our shoulders? Should we want to escape God’s presence, if we could? No, of course not. The psalmist is not saying that God is the ultimate Big Brother. The psalmist celebrates God’s presence, the presence of the living God. O how marvelous is God’s presence and knowledge. He knows us even before we are born. He does not look down from a distance upon us; he is involved in our lives before we could be aware of it. He knitted us in our mother’s wombs. He knows our every step, our every breath. When the psalmist celebrates God’s inescapable presence, he is really celebrating God’s infinite love. If I ascend to heaven, I will still find your love. If I sail to the end of the sea, your love will meet me on the distant shore. If I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, your love will be with me. When I reach the last of my days and breathe my final breath, your love will sustain me even in death. “I come to the end, I am still with you.” Or, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Dear friends, the love of God stretches beyond all human boundaries. There are oceans too vast for our love to cross over them. There are places of brokenness too shattered for our love to stitch them together. There are paths too steeped in darkness for our love to show the way. This is not true for the love of God. God’s love is so great that in his love God created the cosmos out of nothing and called forth all that exists. God’s love reaches so far that God breathed life into human beings, forming us in his image. God’s love is so inescapable that his response to our sin was to seek us out, again and again, even as we spurned him over and over. God’s love is so real that God took on human flesh in his Son Jesus Christ. God’s love is so great that in love God even crossed from life to death for our sake. God’s love is so powerful that in Jesus Christ God’s love shattered the chains of sin and death and led the way to our future hope. No ocean is too vast for God’s love. Every place of brokenness can be healed by God’s love. No path is so dark that God’s love cannot illumine it. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.”
Dear friends, we have gathered here this morning to celebrate the life of our sister, our mother, our grandmother, our friend, Bertha, and to mourn her death. Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. We also weep for this loving woman who was so full of life that her energy and love spilled over into her family, her church, her community, and her world. A woman orphaned in the first year of her life, her mother dying shortly after childbirth and her father a few months later. A woman not expected to live to her first birthday. A woman determined to live, determined to overcome obstacles and difficulties, determined to help others as much as she could. Bert’s life was good; her life was a gift from God that enriched the lives of more people than anyone here will ever know, at least in this life. We do well by her and by God to set aside time to celebrate the gift of her life and to mourn our loss.
But friends, we are also gathered here this morning because of the love of God that knows no boundaries. Bert knew this love as much as any of us. Members of Centre church have spoken to me of her Christlike life. She shared God’s love through acts of service to her neighbors and her church. She cherished God’s love by spreading it to all she met with a warm hug and a patient, listening heart. I heard in the last few days that she joined the Discipleship Bible Study here at Centre and through that study discovered that her love of helping and serving other people was also God’s gift to her, his special way of working through her to love other people. What a magnificent thing to discover in a Bible study—that what you love to do is what God loves to do in you.
While we mourn her life today, we also celebrate God’s love. Bert, who knew God’s love so well in this life, now knows God’s love better than any of us can imagine. God’s love reaches where our love cannot, crosses over the fissure of the grave, and brings her safely into his bosom. If nothing can separate us from the love of God, then even death cannot truly separate us from our beloved mother, sister, and friend. Because God loves her so much, and because God loves us so much, we have this bond that even death cannot break. Dear friends, if you do not now know the love of God, seek it out and share this bond of love with us today.
This is what we have now; it is not something we just hope to have one day. God’s love is God’s gift to us at this very moment. God spans the gap between us and Bert at this very moment. But there is more to come, something greater and still more wonderful than the love of God we now know: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That is God’s great promise of love to us in Jesus Christ. Our souls do not just slip away from our bodies into an ethereal nothingness for an eternity of floating in heaven. In Jesus Christ we will be raised from the dead, even as Lazarus was raised from his tomb, even as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Dear friends, even in death we hold onto this hope. This morning’s funeral is a service of death and resurrection. We are united with Bert by God’s love; one day, by God’s love, we will be reunited with her. Let us celebrate God’s inescapable love. Let us hold fast to the hope we have in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.