Sunday, November 19, 2006

Funeral homily for Joan Clark

Ever since I have known Joan – about 5 years now – she has been aged.  Not just ‘getting on a bit’ – not just ‘elderly’ – but impressively and mysteriously ancient.  A fact brought home to me powerfully and wonderfully just the other day when I sat down with three generations of Joan’s female descendants – not that the great-granddaughters did much talking – I was reminded of Joan, some years ago, laughing in church as she read the part of the aged – in fact, 90 year old - Sarah being informed by the angel that she was about to conceive, and that she would be the mother of generations more numerous that the stars.  Joan saw the funny side, as she usually did, but more than that, I guess Joan was probably thinking that she herself had already been the recipient of promises just as wonderful as that, promises already fulfilled in daughters and sons, grand-daughters and grandsons.

Optimists are sometimes described as ‘glass half-full’ people, aren’t they – in contrast to pessimists who are ‘glass half-empty’ people – in my experience, however, Joan never fit into either of these categories, she was always a ‘glass full to the top and overflowing’ kind of lady.  Not that she didn’t have her bad days, not that she was unrealistic or anything – but you could always rely on Joan to see God’s blessings in her life and not only that, but to focus the minds of those around her on the abundance of God’s good gifts to us as well.

When I met with Anne and Tracy, and Toni and Kelly, the other day, what I was most struck by was the sense of how proud you were of your mum and your grandma, how deeply she was and is loved by you.  I guess that right now it’s not easy to imagine what life without Joan is going to be like, that you’re realising what a gap Joan’s passing has left in your own lives, and in the life of your family.  Joan’s parish family, I know, is realising that as well.  But as time passes I believe you’re going to discover how great a legacy of love she has left you -  even years from now, I guess, you’ll still be finding new treasures along the way, new blessings that your mum and your grandma has given you.

The other day, after you told me what readings Joan wanted for her funeral, I sat down and read them through, and I realised that these readings give us a very special view of what God’s blessings are like.  You see, sometimes it’s easiest for us to think of God’s blessings as just the things in our own lives that go well, when we get the good job, when we’ve got our health, when we see the birth of a new child.  It’s easy to think of blessings as a series of presents that God gives us along the way, a one-way trade - but both of the readings today have got a different perspective, both of these readings ask us to think of blessings as the gifts of God that we are asked to pass around in a kind of a circle – God’s self-emptying gift to us, which we pass on to others and ultimately back to God.  And that the blessings of God aren’t just the delights of things that go right, but the strength and the consolation that helps us to stay in touch with what really matters when things go wrong.  God’s blessings, in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, are meant to be given away just as fast as we receive them, because it is in the giving of blessings that we understand how much we ourselves have been blessed.  Does that remind anyone here of what Joan was like?  It certainly sounds like her, to me.

Next week, in church, we begin the short season of Advent, when we look forward to the wonderful blessing God has given us in his son, Jesus Christ.  Like all blessings, this one involves not just the giving away of something God has, but the pouring out of God’s very self.  In the gift of Jesus Christ, I think God is trying to tell us something about self-giving, about the self-emptying love that multiplies so much that it fills us more than we can ever imagine.  About self-emptying that’s so absolute it ends up on the cross, but that turns out to be the source of life and fullness and love.  You see, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is not just trying to rescue us from ourselves, not just trying to impress us, but trying to communicate with us that this is how we’re also supposed to live, that this is the shape that God intends for human life – that we should live for others, loving extravagantly and giving of ourselves without measure.  And in the resurrection of his Son, God whispers to us the paradoxical truth that what gets the last word in human life is not despair but hope, not sorrow but delight.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we hear God’s promise that in the giving of ourselves we are filled to the brim, that the endpoint of our own lives is not death but resurrection – and this is the promise with which we now commit our sister Joan to God’s loving care.