It is the season of Lent, which invites us to look deeply into our own lives and discern where our paths may stray from God's pathway. The text I'll preach from on Sunday -- 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 -- speaks of a new creation and seeing reality through the eyes of God rather than according to the flesh. As is so often true I'm reading more than one book at this time -- one of which is David Gushee's The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future. I'm just in the early stages of the book, but it's focusing my attention on the idea that because God is the Creator of all life, and because God consecrates humanity for relationship, we should accord human life a sacred quality. That is, we should not take human life for granted.
I titled this posting -- When Death Strikes too Soon -- because our congregation lost one of its members a week ago yesterday. Melissa was only 22 at the time of her death. She was full of life and was a blessing to her family, her church, to all who knew her. We bid farewell in a service of memory this past Saturday.
As I process this deep loss in our church family, I thought I would share my meditation. For me as a pastor and as a father of one who is just a year older, I'm still processing this reality. I'm not willing to say that it was Melissa's time to go. That's not my theology. But, I do trust in the power of the resurrection and thus I entrust this young life, taken from us too soon, into the hands of God.
St. Paul said that the body of Christ has many members, but there’s still only one body. When a member suffers, we all suffer together, and when one is honored, we all experience this honor (1 Cor. 12:25). Therefore, when tragedy strikes a member of the community, we all feel the anguish and the suffering. We may experience it differently, but we all experience it. And when tragedy strikes, we as the community gather together to support each other. We put aside everything and turn our attention to those who most need to be comforted and lifted up. Melissa’s sudden death Monday morning has drawn us together so that we might support her family, her friends, and each other. No matter the nature of our relationship, whether it is close or distant, the Spirit of God is binding us together as one body.
The passage of Scripture that has been speaking to me this week comes from Ecclesiastes 3, which declares that there’s a time and a season for everything -- “a time to be born, and a time to die; . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Eccles. 3:1-4). I believe these words can help us balance the need to grieve with the need to celebrate Melissa’s life.
I think we all agree that Melissa was way too young to die. Her death reminds us how fragile and precious life really is. Melissa expresses this so clearly in her poem, which celebrates friendship, recognizing that today might be your last, so:
Love your friends as they standSee them now and reach out your hand
Each of us grieves differently, depending on our relationship with Melissa and her family. We who are parents identify with John and Dee. We grieve them, because children aren’t supposed to die before their parents.
Those of you who are Melissa’s friends and are simply close in age to her, you may feel as if something vital has been taken away from you. You may be thinking about your own mortality. That’s normal.
And few are experiencing this loss more keenly than Vanessa, Crystal, and Ashley, for they have lost their sister. They’ve lost part of themselves.
We’ve come here today to try to make sense of our loss, to support each other, and to celebrate a life lived fully, but all too briefly.
We gather here, in this sanctuary, because Central Woodward has framed Melissa’s entire life. Dee was pregnant with Melissa when this family came to Central Woodward. It’s here that she grew up, was baptized, shared in children’s ministry, youth group, and then the young adult ministry. As an extension of this congregation she spent parts of summers at Camp Crystal, and on the final full day of her life, joined other young adults in the Metro Coalition of Congregation’s march in support of Regional Transit.
The last time I saw Melissa was Sunday afternoon. She had gathered with other young adults in the sanctuary of St. James Catholic Church. I was asked to thank this group for participating in the march down Woodward – and there in the crowd was Melissa. Yes, Melissa began her life as part of the Central Woodward family, and she closed it out by joining with members of the congregation and the community advocating for the common good of all. Her contribution to this effort was lifted up in a picture in the Free Press. Melissa along with Crystal, were pictured leading the march down Woodward. I’d just been looking at that picture with great pride at the contribution being made by the Young Adults from Central Woodward, when Dee called to tell me that Melissa had died. My joy, like that of many of you, was replaced by heartbreak for the family and for all of us who will miss Melissa’s presence in our lives.
As we share our grief and celebrate Melissa’s life, we do so in the hope of the Resurrection. We’ve heard Jesus say to us in the reading from the Gospel of John, which Crystal shared with us: “I am the bread of life.” Jesus says that he is the source and sustenance of life. We may not know how to make sense of our loss, but we can find strength in Jesus’ promise to sustain us in life and in death. This is because, the one who sent Jesus into the world will not let anything that’s been given to Jesus to be lost. We can, trust in the promise that God will raise up what God has given to Jesus on the Last Day (John 6:35-40).
I believe that Jesus has received Melissa into his care. Although it was far too soon, and though I don’t have any answers as to why this happened, I invite you to put your trust in the love and grace of God. Place your hope in the promise of the resurrection. And pray that God will preserve in our hearts our memory of Melissa. May her life be an inspiration to live joyfully and freely in the presence of God.
In a few minutes – after we hear stories of Melissa’s life from family, a school friend, a church friend, and from the MCC, and after we consecrate Melissa to God’s care and then gather at the Lord’s Table, we’ll sing a hymn. I believe that the words of this hymn speak of Melissa’s own faith and her own sense of purpose in life. As we prepare to hear stories of Melissa’s life, may these words provide links between these stories, and those you will tell in the hours and days to come about Melissa - her life and your friendship with her.
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.