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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Family and friends of Dorothy: grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. With St. Paul, even today, in these circumstances, we rejoice and give thanks. With the psalmist, we rejoice in the Lord today: “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers who do his will! Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:20-22). Why? Because God has kept His word. He formed and created Dorothy and then claimed her as His own on May 17, 1931. There, in that water and by that word, He made a promise to her that He kept all the way up to September 26, 2019. He finished what He started, and called her to Himself, where she waits for the resurrection with the angels, the hosts of heaven, Elmer, and all the holy ones of God.
I thank God, personally, for the time in which I got to know her. Most of that time, it was in their house and then at Avamere, when I brought the Lord’s Supper to them, and then to her. She assured me of her prayers, not only for me, but for you who are gathered here. She read the Scriptures and studied them. She was always asking for more understanding, more insight, answers to whatever questions were raised for her by the Scriptures. More than once, actually, her questions adjusted the direction of that week’s sermon.
Very pragmatically, she had much of the content of this service planned out already—though not as much as for Elmer’s service! She noted a number of her favorite passages and hymns, which we’re hearing and singing today. I don’t know what struck her about this Gospel reading, but it does have a main theme in common with some of the other readings: the hope of the resurrection, from Job’s full-throated confession in spite of his suffering, to Paul’s preaching of Christ’s resurrection as the living hope and center of our entire faith, to Jesus speaking to Martha about Lazarus and death and resurrection.
And that, in the end, is why we’re here in this place. We can and should remember and celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved and who have died. But you don’t need a church or a pastor for that. We’re here in this place because Dorothy’s hope and life was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which means her resurrection from the dead. With everything she suffered and her struggles with various ailments and afflictions, the resurrection is the promise that binds us to the Life in the midst of this life.
Because, honestly, it’s a little hard to pray Psalm 103 in the face of death: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (103:2-5). How does that seemingly unconditional promise get reconciled with the fact that not all diseases are healed here, that youth is not always renewed here, that people still die?
Martha had her own trouble reconciling them. She says of her brother, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” But she also says to Jesus, “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died.” Promises for the last day are fine, but what about here and now? What connected Martha’s hope for the last day with the reality of Lazarus’ death then and there?
And isn’t that what we sometimes do? We talk about the resurrection on the last day. Or, more commonly, we talk about dying and going to heaven. But between now and then, between now and the promise, what do we have? That seems to be Martha’s question. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise,” and Martha says, yes, Jesus, I know all that stuff about the last day. But what does that have to do with the unmovable fact of this dead body and this grave?
So Jesus tells her what connects that day with this day. Jesus said to her, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Yes, you will see resurrection happening to dead bodies on the last day, but resurrection is not a thing, it’s a Person. Dying and going to heaven would be just as much a hell as hell, if it is not the presence of Jesus Himself. Jesus doesn’t just raise people from the dead; He is the Resurrection. Jesus doesn’t just give life; He is the Life.
What bound Dorothy, in her illnesses and struggles and grief, with that promise of what was to come, and the hope of being restored to perfect health in the resurrection? Jesus did. In our grief for ourselves and our rejoicing for Dorothy, what binds us, here and now, with her and Elmer and all the promises they believed? Jesus does. As St. Paul reminds us, when we were baptized, we died—then and there—with Christ in His death. You have already died, Paul says. Everything else after that is simply grace and gift in Christ. When you’ve got death over with already, then you can live.
Dorothy’s true death wasn’t really last Thursday, but on the Lord’s Day roughly 88 years ago. And that means her true life was lived entirely in Christ. Her life was hidden and safe with Christ in God. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). He knows our frailties and weaknesses. He took on Himself our sin and death. Because Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (103:10-12). Even farther: as far as His death is from His resurrection Life.
Dorothy lived in Christ, and she died in Christ. He was and is her life. Blessed are those who die in the Lord. And because she believed Him, even though she died, she will live. Yes, Lord, we have believed that You are the Son of God who has come into the world. Yes, Lord, we live now and always in You. Not only will you raise us up so that our bodies will share in that resurrection life on the last day, You are Life here and now. Our true life is safe with you, no matter what happens to us here. Yes, Lord, in You all diseases and all infirmities and all weaknesses will be healed. Yes, Lord, in You our strength and youth are renewed day after day, until we need no more renewing, because all things will be renewed forever. Yes, Lord, we believe and hope with Dorothy, who doesn’t need faith or hope any more.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/3/19