Two weeks ago, my last living grandparent passed away. Grandma Juanita lived to be 98—a long, full life. Because I am the “religious” one in the family, my father asked me if I would help plan the funeral service and speak at it. Knowing it would have been something my grandmother would have loved—her grandchild taking leadership for this celebration of her life—I told my dad that I would be happy to do it.
The first reading I chose was Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, which reminds us that there is a time for everything: “A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant… A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” I chose this passage because it gives people permission to feel the whole host of emotions that arise when someone we love dies—to shed tears of sadness knowing life will not be the same without our loved one; to mourn that which we never said or did while the person was alive; to smile and perhaps even dance in joy as we recall precious memories of the person that we carry in our hearts. Often we may feel all of these things at once, and we can trust that they are all part of the time God appoints for us as human beings.
As much as I love this passage, it is a tricky one, too, because it can so easily be misinterpreted. To me, the idea that there is a time for birth and a time for death does not mean that God took my grandma Juanita because it was her time. I know people say things like this in the aftermath of a death to try to make those who are grieving feel better, but the idea of a God who sits around deciding when people will die is not all that comforting. To me, the idea that there is a time for birth and a time for death is a reminder to all of us still living that it was from ashes whence we came, it is to ashes we shall return, and what matters most is the living in peace, hope, joy, and love that we do in between.
What is comforting to me is what is proclaimed in Psalm 23 and in Matthew 11:25-30, the other two readings I chose for the funeral. Psalm 23 is clear that the hard times do not go away simply because we believe in God. The Psalm doesn’t say, “I no longer walk through the darkest valley.” It says, “even though I walk through the darkest valley… you are with me. Your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” The God I believe in is a God who is with people in the darkest valleys of their lives, comforting them as they grieve, empathizing with their pain. This God entered the world surrounded by the messiness of a stable, was welcomed by poor laborers and farmers, got angry at money changers in the temple, was moved by the plight of the poor and outcasts he encountered, and suffered crucifixion. This is a God who does not shy away from the hardest moments in life. I believe that this God, the one who cared enough for human beings to take on their form, keeps the promises made in our baptism, the promise that God will be faithful to us, will walk with us even through the darkest valleys. The valley is not any less dark, but we are not alone. It does not hurt any less to lose a loved one, but we do not hurt alone.
Similarly, the passage from Matthew’s Gospel uses a farming image to assure us that we are not alone. In this passage, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…” On a farm, the yoke is something meant to be pulled by two farm animals. In inviting us to take his yoke, Jesus assures us not only that he is with us through the hard labor of life but that he will help us shoulder the burden of the labor. Again, this does not make it any less difficult to face the death of a loved one. But knowing Jesus is yoked to us in our sorrow can bring some modicum of comfort.
The book of Romans says that we have been baptized into Christ’s death. It continues, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? . . . 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.” My faith enables me to trust that just as Christ is with Grandma Juanita now, Christ will be with all of us to the end.