One of the prayers of the people in the Book of Common Prayer states:
We bless your holy Name for all your servants who departed this life in your faith and fear, praying you would grant us grace to follow their good examples, that with them we might partake in your heavenly kingdom.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to preach briefly at the funeral of my beloved grandmother Suzanne. As for finding ways to “follow their good examples”, this was not difficult at all and I was glad that I got to share them with those who were there to listen. I figured I might as well post the text of what I said for anyone else to read.
Sermon for Suzanne Jepsen’s Funeral Sunday, December 13, 2002
Good afternoon. My name is Matthew and I’m one of Suzanne’s grandson’s, Bill and Nancy’s son.
I want to begin by reading to you a passage of scripture you may have heard read or sung this season, as we are in the season of Advent, the time of waiting for Christ’s return, and waiting to celebrate his birth on Christmas day. These verses appear in the “Comfort Ye” portion of Handles Messiah oratorio.
“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!”
Says your God.
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned;
For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.”
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth;
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
These words from the prophet Isaiah speak of the coming of Jesus Christ to save humanity, and at this time we look for his coming again. Suzanne looked for this too, every day, and it was the source of her hope and of her character. Many of you who knew Suzanne are well aware that her life was widely characterized by love and kindness. She of course had many flaws, as all people, do but the dominant qualities of her speech and actions were gentleness, patience, understanding, and goodwill. These are the fruits of the holy spirit and they were experienced by us around her as God worked in her heart and life.
I’ll share just a few examples. We’ve had a lot of people who couldn’t attend today send letters in describing some of their own memories of Suzanne.
Anne and Dennis Doherty, who lived in Heppner for many years, wrote to say: Something I can share with you is that 44 years ago when we learned that our infant daughter was deaf, your mother was there with the doctor and me. I didn’t yet know her well, but she sensed that we were private people, trying to determine how best to deal with this. Your mother kept our secret. She started a prayer chain for us, but kept our identities a secret.
For two weeks we struggled with how to deal with this. Finally we were able to meet with experts at OHSU. The day we drove to Portland, I realized that our little girl suddenly responded to sound. The doctors there discovered her hearing to be perfect. It still is.
We didn’t know the source of this miracle until years later when I was visiting with your mother and the rest of our bridge gals one evening. After I told the women of our miracle, your mother finally revealed that she and her prayer community had been asking God for this miracle. I couldn’t stop my tears. I had doubted God for so many years after the death of our first baby, but I realized that He had heard the prayers and hadn’t given up on us. I will always thank your mother for her faith in God, in prayer, and in me.
Kelly Christman wrote in to say:
I have only fond memories of her, and one that goes way back to childhood I will never forget… When she was a nurse for Doctor Wolfe I was mesmerized by her gentle and kind personality as well as her physical beauty. I thought she was so pretty and nice but couldn’t believe she worked in such a scary place. Dr. Wolfe gave me stitches in my scalp, for the first time in my life, and it was not pleasant experience, except for Suzanne. Thereafter, when I had to return for other ailments, her calming presence helped me deal better with my fear
I remember so many of Suzanne’s kind actions toward my family, to my brothers and sisters, my cousin, and to many of the community here in Heppner. She often led the way for many of the charitable things that she and Bob did together when he was still here. I remember all her work to make the community a better place too, whether it be in getting the Willow Creek Terrace assisted living facility built, or by beautifying the neighborhood, or even cheering on the football team. She was always there in a full spectrum of positive upbuilding actions because she primarily thought of others before herself. She also had a healthy sense of humor and didn’t take herself too seriously. This kind of humility is also a fruit of the spirit.
Personally, I remember her always listening to me, even when I was an angsty teenager. She always had her cupboards stocked with my favorite cookies when I visited. She would even listen along to my silly techno music in the car. She’s also the one who taught me to say the Lord’s Prayer when I didn’t know what else to pray. She didn’t put pressure on me to perform or be a better person, but that acceptance gave me the freedom to BE better, knowing I was loved regardless. Suzanne most often exhibited love in the way that God does – in an unconditional, unilateral way – love that doesn’t have a list of prerequisites.
And so, honestly, I know God better because of Suzanne’s loving actions. We live in a world dominated by performance measurements – whether you deserve this or that, deserve that paycheck, deserve to be helped, where trust takes years to earn and just minutes to throw in the trash. But God’s love for us is one-way. He isn’t waiting for us to reach some particular threshold in being a nice person before he’ll love us back. Almost everything else on earth works that way, be He doesn’t. But that’s hard to know, even if you go to church all the time and hear is spelled out in the bible or wherever else. But Suzanne’s love showed me, and showed many of us, a bit of what it’s like to be loved by God in an unconditional, unilateral way.
St. Paul says it this way in his letter to Titus.
When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Suzanne put her faith in Jesus Christ, and it largely defined her life.
She knew the source of life, of real life, of eternal life.
But now she’s gone.
We are gathering here today to celebrate her and to celebrate the Lord who made her and celebrate the Lord who redeemed her.
You are going to grieve if you knew her, you are going to grieve, you’re going to feel things. You’re going to feel angry, you’re going to feel hurt, you’re going to feel sad, you’re going to feel relieved, you’re going to feel joyful, you’re going to feel nothing. And that’s OK. Grieving is part of the process. Grieving is important. It’s part of what we have to do as human beings.
But we don’t grieve as people who have no hope. There ARE people that grieve as those who have no hope, who are certain that what you see is all there is. That’s it. The end of the line is right here. Chop! But this is not the end of the line. Suzanne’s body failing on her is not the end of the line for her. And it will not be the end of the line when our bodies fail either, if we are in Christ.
Suzanne is not going to heaven because she was a nice person (most of the time). Suzanne is going to heaven because of the man who died on the cross for her, and Suzanne clung to that hope. Her soul rests not in the ground, but in Jesus Christ. If you aren’t sure if you are ever going to see Suzanne again, if you think all this talk about resurrection sounds sketchy, I would encourage you to pray to God, your maker, and ask his Holy Spirit to change your heart. If you are even listening to this right now, there is a good chance that Suzanne herself got on her knees and asked God the same thing, for YOU, just as she regularly did for herself.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through one man (Adam), the resurrection of the dead comes also through one man (Jesus).
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
As Suzanne’s short-term memory failed this past year, her anxiety also faded and she began to worry less about the problems of the world and about dying. For a time now, all we have left of Suzanne are our memories of her. And that’s sad. It really is. But it’s also temporary. We will see Suzanne again because only her body is gone from us, for a little while.
But will you see Suzanne again? We can talk about the Love of God all day, but Jesus himself also gives us serious warnings and it would be disingenuous of me to not mention them. Sin and death are still at work in the world and in our own hearts, corrupting everything it touches and continuously working to make us into nasty, petty, and even violent people – filling our hearts with filth. 2020 has been a heck of a year to see that in action in our communities! Suzanne knew this too and clung to Jesus Christ as her savior to cleanse her from these things regularly, and now, finally.
Somehow, though God’s love for us in infinite and one-way, he still gives us the dignity of choosing to follow him or not. Theologians and philosophers have been debating the mechanics of that for literally thousands of years, but they are no closer to explaining exactly how it works or why. It’s a mystery. But what we are supposed to do about it, as far as we can understand, is NOT a mystery.
In Luke chapter 13, several folks came to Jesus and asked him about some current events. Listen to his reply.
Luke 13:1-5 NLT
About this time Jesus was informed that the government had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple.
“Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?” Jesus asked. “Is that why they suffered?
Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God. And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?
No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”
Did you hear about those three people that died of COVID in the hospital in Hermiston last week? Were they some of the most terrible sinners in eastern Oregon? Of course not! But unless you repent from your sins and turn to God, you will perish too.
Today, if you do not follow Jesus Christ, then my word to you is simple. Turn from your sins and trust in him!
Today, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, my word to you is exactly the same. Turn from yours sins, throw them in the trash, and trust in him!
Jesus himself said,
I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Whosever believes in me,
though he die, yet shall he live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
“What has sin wrought in the world? Death! But, Alleluia, and thanks be to God, what happened to our Lord Jesus in His Rising from the dead will happen also to Suzanne!”
Now Suzanne was a member of the Episcopal church her whole life. Because of the virus restrictions, it didn’t work out to have this service there like we did for Bob a few years ago. But nearly every Sunday of her life, Suzanne recited this prayer before receiving communion, as is the tradition there:
“We praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:”
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
She said that regularly to remind herself of who her Lord and savior and hope was. Now, on this Sunday, she is saying it again, only a bit closer to those angels and archangels than we are standing here.
For those of you that remember the ways in which Suzanne loved you without caring a bit about whether you loved her back or what you could do for her, remember, that is what God is like. Lay down your burdens and come to him, and he will give you rest.
Rest in peace Grandma.