Funeral Sermon for Joyce Caldwell

Psalm 23, James 1:12-18, Romans 8:31-39, and Matthew 22:34-40
© Stacey Steck

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered not only because someone dear to us has died, but also because someone dear to God has died. We are gathered not only because God gives us the gifts of faith and community to help us cope with loss of someone dear to us but more importantly to remember and celebrate that the person we have lost in life is not lost to God in death, but simply received in a way we can’t quite imagine, but which makes all the sense in the world to God. And so we are gathered to give thanks for God’s gift to us of Joyce Caldwell and God’s gift to the world of Jesus Christ whose own life, death, and resurrection make her reception possible. Thanks be to God.

“In life and in death we belong to God.” So begins the Presbyterian creed called “A Brief Statement of Faith.” Though not meant specifically for a funeral, these words are profoundly important at times such as these, given that they express certainty during shaky moments, and that they keep in mind the big picture while we are focused in on our own grief. The creed expresses our hope, yea even our confidence, that God cares all the time for all the saints, whether we are giving thanks to God for the life of Joyce Caldwell in our mortal frames, or resting from our labors in that place where there is neither sorrow nor grief. And in our belonging to God, we can give thanks even as we grieve.

Two of the Scripture passages we heard this morning are ones that meant something to Joyce, and I hope that as we gather to remember her they may become meaningful for all of us. In the very practical book of James, its wise author is not speaking specifically to those who grieve, but rather to those who want to learn how to follow Jesus fully and completely. But in some ways, it does speak to we who grieve, those of us who might be tempted to blame God for taking away someone we love so much, or who might be tempted to think we just can’t go on without our wife, mother, grandmother, friend, sister in Christ. “Do not be deceived, my beloved,” James writes, do not give in, he means, to the temptation of thinking that God is not right there in it with you, that God’s is not the first heart to break when someone dies, that God will simply leave us to our own devices to get over it and move on. No, that’s not who God is, not now, not ever. Our God is the generous God who gives us both faith and grief to help us cope with what we cannot understand. Grief is God’s response to our loss. It may not be easy to resist these temptations to blame or give up, but there’s a crown of life waiting for us when we do, a crown which Joyce is now pleased to be wearing.

You see, Joyce neither blamed God nor gave up hope. Her body may have given out, but her will to live for her family, her friends, her pastor, her community, was second to none. Most of you know what she has endured these last three years, and yet she persisted in caring for us, as we each had need. She was frustrated, yes, but never thought that God was punishing her, or giving up on her. There are no easy explanations for suffering, but there is assurance that God doesn’t like it any better than we do, a fact Joyce seemed to understand. And in the midst of it all, Joyce remained generous, a spiritual gift she received from the “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” a gift she shared with the rest of us in her own special way, and a gift she will continue to share through each one of you as you cherish her memory and live out her legacy.

The other Scripture Joyce treasured was our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus reminds the Sadducees of the power of love to shape our lives. “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Well, not only are these words good advice for how to live our lives from beginning to end, they are also good advice for how to manage in a time of grief. There are many ways grieve the loss of someone we love, but not all of them are good for us. One way is to walk away and never look back, doing one’s best to deny grief, to avoid showing any emotion. Another way is to cling so tightly to the person who has died so that you too go to the grave. Still another way is to laugh your way through it, being there but not really being there, using humor to make the best of a painful situation. Each one of these ways of coping with death is completely understandable, from a human point of view. But I would like to suggest to you that as the brothers and sisters in Christ that we are, we are blessed to be able to spend some time coping with death God’s way, and God’s way is that we walk toward God and neighbor, that we cling tightly to God and neighbor, that we make the best of a painful situation by loving and really being there for one another, the way that Joyce was there for each of us. You see, none of us can make sense of death, or grieve in a meaningful way without love, without God, without family, friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ. Which is the greatest commandment in the law of grieving? Love God, love neighbor. Let God take care of you in your sorrow, and let others help you in your grief. We were never made to go this alone.

The truth is that we are never alone. God is always with us, even if we don’t always feel God’s presence quite as keenly as we might like. But the Apostle Paul’s declaration that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ is no less true simply because we don’t feel it. God’s love will be there when we need it. It will be there come hell or high water. It will be there when our tears begin. It will be there when our laughter returns. It will be there every time we remember that it was God who gave us Joyce, and gave us each other. And it was most surely there when Joyce met face to face the God who loved her so deeply that he did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, that we may have life.

Let us pray: Grant rest eternal, unto Joyce, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon her. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, rest in peace. Amen.