Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Memorial Sermon

A sermon I did at the first year memorial service for my grandmother (Ammachi):

Today we are commemorating the first year since the passing and home-going of my Ammachi to the Lord Jesus. I have not been to many funerals or memorials, but from what I know – at a funeral, we weep for those that have left us, we are often too filled with sadness and perhaps other conflicting emotions for us to be able to think or reflect, as we commit the person into the loving hands of our Lord.
Though here, at this memorial, we have had time. We have had time to think, to reflect, and to process what has happened – and so now is the time we can remember. This is the time to hear stories of Ammachi’s life, to hear testimonies of her service, to see pictures of her legacy in her family that she has left behind – and perhaps to even learn lessons that we can use in our own lives.
There is a question I had to think about – how should I remember my Ammachi? To be honest, I actually did not know her that well as a person. I knew she was kind, and gentle, meek, hardworking, always hospitable – but I did not really know her personally. When I came back from the UK, I thought maybe - that would be a good time to start, and even perhaps to dare to try to learn Malayalam for once – but I’m afraid I was too late. She already had the stroke and was not in any condition to be able to share her life with me and my new family. All I know from her personally is what she had written in her testimony – and what stands out is that though her life was very tough, she trusted in – as I read her own words “the God who provided for Elijah in the desert, had provided for us too and kept us alive all during the war”, “the God who guided Moses and the people of Israel by pillars of clouds and pillars of fire came to the protection of us” – as she managed to get back to Singapore, “the wonderful Lord who protected me” – from illness during surgery, “The one who promised me that He will never leave me or forsake me was faithful”. Indeed the theme verse for her testimony – indeed for my Ammachi’s life – was Psalm 37:5  - “Commit your way to the Lord! Trust in Him, and He will act”.
But how should I feel? Should I then be filled with regret and guilt that I did not make the extra effort to know her before she went home? Should I simply move on with my life as though nothing actually happened?
How should we, any of us, remember anyone who has physically left us? Well let us turn to the Words of Jesus for some help.
Matthew 22:31-32   31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God:  32 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living."
            Jesus was talking about death, He was in the middle of a debate with this group of Jewish religious leaders called the Sadducees. As they read the the Law of Moses, they had come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as an afterlife, or anything beyond the physical – there was nothing spiritual. As some of the Rabbis wrote – they believed that the souls died with the bodies – and that was it, the end of life. And so it was not surprising that many of the Sadducees were very rich and powerful – since this life was all they had, they had to make the most of it. Because of this they asked Jesus an insulting question that they had thought would make an obvious mockery of any idea of some sort of ‘life after death’.
            Yet Jesus, in response, rebuked them twice – saying that they did not understand both the power of God, and the way they read their Bibles was terrible. They did not see from that this life was only temporary, and that it would lead to something eternal and permanent in the life with the Living God Himself. He quoted a verse from the book of Exodus chapter 3, where the visible Lord came down to meet with Moses himself and told him, that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – He is not the God of the dead, but the Living.
            Jesus strongly told off these religious leaders that the Father in heaven does not have any dead followers – for Jesus Himself declared that He is the resurrection and the life, and all who know Jesus, already have life eternal in Him. You see in the Bible, as I’m sure you all well know, to be dead is not strictly speaking to be in the grave. To be dead – means to be cut off from a relationship with the God who is life and who gives life. Anyone who does not know the Father of life, whose life is given in the Son, through life-giving Spirit – is already dead, as far as the Living God is concerned. It is like a flower, which has been cut-off from a branch – it may look alive, but actually it is dead, and slowly that death will become a reality in its appearance, the flower will wither and fade away.
            Yet to anyone who trusts in the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, will be re-joined to the tree of life, that is Christ, and life of God will flow into them. Any of us who by faith is joined with the Living God, is now alive in Him, and we have His life giving Spirit. And this is such a strong and profound reality – that Jesus said ”Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" To the Christian united with Christ, death is merely falling into a deep sleep, crossing a deep river, only to wake up in the presence of the loving arms of Jesus Christ.
            Therefore, Jesus can also say right now, “I am the God of Ammachi”. She is alive right now, in Him. Yes her body may have decayed, but her spirit is right now in paradise with the Living God, enjoying His very presence. And that is God’s promise, and indeed her own great hope fulfilled – as she knew in this life the Lord who protected, guided, and was present with her. She now knows this in its fullest reality. She is with Jesus. Do you believe this – she is alive with Him.
            So back to my question, what does that mean when I try to remember her? Well firstly, it means, I don’t have to bring her back. You know those greeting cards that say ‘those whom we really love never really go away’ – well that’s not true. Ammachi has gone away, and I need to accept that – but I the way I accept that is with great hope. Many people try to re-create the presence of their loved ones because they miss them so much, and while that is understandable – it is also hints that there may be a lack of that future hope. In Jesus, I have a future hope – I will go to meet Ammachi, as sure as I will go to meet Jesus. I don’t have to ascend into heaven to bring her down, I don’t have to conjure her up from the grave, neither do I have to imagine that she is somehow around – because she’s not – she’s with Him – isn’t that glorious! And so as much as some of us miss her – we can rejoice, because of Jesus – we are going to see her – soon, very soon. That is our great hope in Christ. And once we can accept this, once we can believe Him – our faith will be all the stronger because of it – we won’t have to live this very sad-you-see life.
            Having a Living God, who has conquered death and sin also means I don’t have to remember a fake Ammachi. Very often in memorials and eulogies, we think we have to say only what is good about a person – we make them up to be some sort of angel, because we think that’s the best way to remember them. Now I attended another wake a couple of months ago, where I heard the most honest testimony by someone of their father - the good things, and the bad things too – and it was so much more powerful and helpful than simply filtering out the bad bits. If we are Christians, we all acknowledge that we are full of sin, we are not good people – yes our faith should produce good fruit – but we’re not perfect. Having a resurrected God who has conquered sin means I can acknowledge both the faithful things in Ammachi’s life, and even the things that caused me pain, or sorrow, or anger. She was not perfect – and I don’t think she would say that about herself either. I don’t think that’s how she wants to be remembered. If we want to remember a person truly, then we have to remember the real person. If I try to only think about the good things –one day that ‘false memory bubble’ I’ve created will burst – and all I will be left with is feelings of resentment, anger, or even guilt. At all the issues we did not resolve, at all the things we did not say to one another, of all the wrongs she may have done to me and I to her. Jesus has dealt with sin on the cross – and that means, we can be honest about my Ammachi – we can acknowledge both her failings, and her fruit. That is how we will remember her in a way that is both honoring to her, and in away we can learn from her life – it will not be in vain.
So let us then sit down and talk about my Ammachi, indeed any of our fellow saints that have gone before us. But let us learn from her in the light of Jesus. So we can talk about the good things, things that we can imagine – “wow she was so hardworking for her family – I’m sure Jesus works harder for us” – can we copy those? And the failings – “perhaps she was lacking in this area, maybe we should watch ourselves so we don’t do the same”. I think she would love that. Don’t you? Well I’m sure Jesus would love that. And there is one overriding lesson that she definitely would tell us today if we could hear from her – now that she has seen the ascended and reigning Christ. And I know this because that’s what it says in the Bible – she would want us to spend more of our time serving Him and His people – because she can see first-hand now, all the fruit of her labours, and all the things that were lacking. She wants to know that now is the time to turn to Christ, and to keep turning to Him to serve Him in His kingdom – proclaiming God’s love to the nations.
            Finally to conclude, because I have a Living God that has conquered sin and come through death and is now alive forevermore. Despite the fact that I did not get a chance to know my Ammachi that well in this life - I will have all eternity to know her. We will know my Ammachi, and one another in the resurrection – and in fact we will know one another in a way more personally and more intimately than whatever we have here and now – how that will work out is a mystery to me – but it is a promise. And the way we will know one another is: we will be without sin – that is the great hope of the future new creation – there will be no more sin. That means, all those things I may have not liked about Ammachi, will be gone. She will be recognizably my Ammachi – I’ll know her instantly when I see her – but but a perfect sinless, absolutely Christ-like Ammachi – and I will so enjoy spending eternity getting to know her so well – with all the rest of the saints.
            So as we today remember Ammachi, let us remember her through Jesus, our Living God – “I am the God of Ammachi”. May we spend some time talking about her life and faith, acknowledging her mistakes and failings – and learning how we too can be brought closer into a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, so that we can do better in our relationships with one other, here and now. One day, those of us who know Christ, will stand upon the earth, in new bodies, together with my Ammachi and my Jesus, and my Father.
            To God be the glory –great things He has done. 

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