Daniel 12:1-3 & John 20:11-18
No Empty Places
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
In his book The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction, the American novelist Frederick Buechner has this to say to us: “Whatever you do with your life– whatever you end up achieving or not achieving– the great gift you have in you to give to the world is the gift of who you alone are; your way of seeing things, and saying things, and feeling about things, that is like nobody else’s. If so much as a single one of you were missing, there would be an empty place at the great feast of life that nobody else in all creation could fill.”( Quoted in Marv and Nancy Hills, An Almanac for the Soul: Anthology of Hope(Iona Center, 2008), 200.)
What Frederick Buechner tells us here is true about every single human being. But what brings us to this house of worship today is that we experienced the truth of this in Shirley Jane Rogers. The great gift she gave to the world was her singularity, her uniqueness. There was no one quite like her. And so we give God thanks for the years she spent among us.
We also mourn and grieve over our loss. She has left an empty place, if not at the great banquet of life, then for certain at the smaller tables where we gather from time to time.
What Buechner tells us is also told to us in a splendid fashion through the Holy Scriptures.
The Book of Genesis tells us of the night when the Lord brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.( Genesis 15:5-6. In this account, Abraham is called Abram )
So the people of God are like stars, each one precious, each one unique.
Our reading from the Book of Daniel tells of a time to come. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.( Daniel 12:3.)
So the people of God will be like stars, each one precious, each one unique.
That we are like stars, that we will be like stars, is a vivid way to declare how each one of us has some great gift inside. This is the gift of who alone you are. For without you– whatever you have achieved or not achieved– without you there would be an empty place at the great feast of life that nobody else could fill.
This was true of Shirley. All of you have gathered here this day because you know deep in your hearts the way it was true of her. Nobody needs to tell you, but you do well to remind each other, as you grieve and as you give thanks and as you recall the memories.
But will that place at the great feast of life that only Shirley could fill– will that place go forever empty now that death has had its way? The apostle Paul, patron saint of this parish, does not think so.
We heard something he wrote about to the Christians at Corinth, something that has given hope to each new Christian generation.( 1 Corinthians 15:51-54)
He calls it a mystery: in his language, something both hidden and exposed. The dead will be raised imperishable; we will be transformed. Our body subject to decay will put on immortality. Death will be no more. Life will reign.
It turns out that we were mistaken. What we took to be life’s banquet, namely the wonderful moments we have known here, were only appetizers before the main event. To enter the grand ball room where the real feasting happens, we must pass through the doorway, and that doorway is death, death that leads to life past our ability to comprehend.
We gather today because Shirley has made that passage, and some day each of us will also. We assemble today, not only in love, but in faith and hope as well.
I have spoken of a sky full of stars and a great ballroom full of joyous guests. Life here and life to come both have these spacious panoramas. But let us not lose track of the single star, the single guest, whether it is Shirley now, or each one of us some time in the future.
We come to the Easter story we heard today from John’s Gospel. And have you noticed? It is presented visually here in this church, not once but twice. A small picture appears over the doors. A large window over the altar. At each location we see in the garden blessed Mary Magdalene surprised by Christ back from the dead. She is the first witness to his resurrection.
Mary Magdalene does not expect to meet him. She grieves his death. She weeps. Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him as Jesus.
Christ comes back from the far side of death not only for all of us, but also for each of us. He addresses this woman in her uniqueness, by her name, her own name, recognizing her as someone he knew well before his death and her bereavement.
In speaking the name of Mary Magdalene, Jesus recognizes the great gift she has to give to the world, the gift of who she alone is, her own way of seeing things, and saying things, and feeling things, that is like nobody else’s.
Jesus does not want her missing from the great banquet of life that he has prepared.
That is the reason he went to the cross and came back from the dead: so that Mary Magdalene would not be missing from the great banquet of life that he has prepared at so great a cost to himself.
But not Mary Magdalene alone, of course. The Lord Jesus comes back from the dead so that no one’s place will be empty at the heavenly festival.
He comes back for Peter and James and John, for Mary and Martha, and those others whose names we know from the New Testament.
Christ comes back as well for Shirley Jane Rogers, for you and for me. He honors the unique gift that each one of us is. He would not have places empty at the great feast of life, both here and hereafter, because no one in all creation could ever take the place of any one of us.
So this is what it means when a service for the dead such as we offer today is recognized for what it is: an Easter liturgy. Christ dies and rises so that there will be no empty places.
Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.