March 17, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
My grandmother, who lived to be 93 years old, was one of five children — the only sister to four brothers — and at the end of her life if you had asked her how many siblings she had, she would have replied, “I have four brothers.” Notice the present tense: have. My grandmother outlived all of her siblings, starting with her twin brother who died in infancy leaving his sister to grow up without him, and yet no matter how old she was or how far in the past her brothers’ lives had been, she answered the question the same: “I have four brothers.” You might be excused for thinking that her memory was failing and muddled, but that wasn’t the reason for her response. My grandmother had started out life with four brothers and no matter how long or short their lives were, the simple fact of their all being born into the same family left an indelible imprint on her identity. She was one of five and would always be one of five, if not in body then in spirit.
Nor was my grandmother unusual in the way she thought of herself. I have had countless conversations with men and women who, when asked about their siblings or the number of children they had of their own, responded not with the current number of living relatives but with the number who entered the world into their family. They often go on to clarify which of that number are living still, or they explain their count by telling me the story of a sibling or a child who died a premature death, but inevitably, when a person is asked the number of people in their family, they will report not with a current count but with a tally of both the living and the dead. If that person began life as one of five, they will remain forever as one of five, and if he or she had a child who died at a young age, that child hasn’t drifted away like a momentary wisp of wind, but continues to be a part of that person’s family: named, loved, and counted. Those of you who have lost loved ones know yourselves how indelibly they remain a part of your identity. You might be 93 years old yourself and over your extensive life time perhaps you have earned numerous degrees, established a thriving career, and have a mantelpiece full of trophies and awards for your accomplishments; yet when you think of your mother or father, you become a child again. It isn’t simply that you remember them like you remember a good steak you once ate; they are present with you still. The bonds that formed you through birth, through family, and through the formational relationships you shared with others never leave you even when death takes one of those people away because those bonds molded your identity and carved out the space in which you dwell in the world.
Human beings are social creatures: our identities cannot become fully realized without significant interactions with others. Even the shyest or most independent among you is the person you are because of the formative relationships of your life. We as human beings are not just loose pebbles rolling about in an uncaring universe but are fixed into a web of relationships that defines our place in the world and shapes who we are, relationships that continue to define us even when the reality of mortality causes some of those people to depart from us.
Who are the people who remain at the center of your identity even though they are no longer with you today? Who are those people who have left footprints in your life, defining how you think about yourself even if their presence with you may have been too brief?
There is not a self-made man or a self-made woman sitting among us today because for better or for ill, each of us has been made by the parents that brought us into the world, the siblings that shared a home with us, the children who were born to us, and the spouses and friends to whom we committed our love and our time. The philosopher Aristotle said that he was uncertain about whether there is a heaven but he could be absolutely sure about an afterlife because, he said, the people who had loved him would continue to live on after their deaths in the person he had come to be. 1
Unlike Aristotle, as a Christian I happen to believe that there is a new life awaiting us beyond death’s door but I have also come to believe that we are already crafting our immortality right here and now, because if it is true that we are the product of our relationships, then isn’t the inverse also true?Aren’t you also leaving footprints in the lives of others and shaping the space in which they are living? Just as my grandmother thought of herself as one of five siblings even after they were gone, so too, I continue to think of myself as the granddaughter of Alice Irene DeMott nearly a quarter of a century after her death. She was shaped by her loved ones, but she in turn shaped the friends and family she left behind, and we in turn are shaping those who come after us. By the things we do and the words we say and the love we share or choose to withhold, we are leaving indelible footprints in the self-identities of all of those with whom we are bound in this world. We are shaping their understanding of themselves and the way they see the world. Your eternity begins today, or actually your eternity began the moment you were born when you started leaving your imprint on the hearts of those around you, which is both a beautifully reassuring thought and at the same time a nerve wracking thought because whether you were aware of it or not you have spent your lifetime clomping through a lot of people’s living space: what kind of footprints have you left behind you? We’d like to think that the footprints of our lives are like those pictures we see of a sunset drenched beach, water sparkling, and a perfect line of footprints stretching into the distance — so serene, so beautiful — but maybe the footprints we are leaving are more like bruises left from being stomped on by combat boots.
Eternity is not just about what happens to us after we die, then; it is also about the imprint we are leaving behind when we go. When death comes to you, you may go on to a new way of living in whatever comes next but for those you leave behind, your death causes you to be frozen in time. When you die, you stop evolving or changing for the people you leave behind which means that at the moment of your death, the summation of everything you are for them is set forever. You will have no more chances to change how people think of you; no more opportunities to reshape their memories of you or the influence you have on who they become.
If you were to die right now, with your character — your impact — frozen in time in your loved ones’ memories, what is the imprint you would be leaving behind on the lives of those you love?
The title of my sermon is “What Matters Most?” but the subtitle is, “What I Have Learned from Funerals,” and what I have learned from funerals is this: whenever a well loved member of the church dies — a Wally Higgins, Loretta Smith, Ellie Riber — people inevitably say to me, “This must be such a hard funeral for you to do.” They are thinking, of course, of the grief all of us feel at the loss of a grace-filled person who was such a central figure in our lives, but as sad as I might feel at that person’s death, their funeral is for me not hard to do because I see it as an act of gratitude for the imprint of that person’s life on all of our hearts. It is not hard to express love and thanksgiving for a person who bestowed love and thanksgiving during their time with us. The hard funerals to do are the rare services I have been asked to perform for people who were mean, selfish, and ill-tempered; whose legacy was one of regret, unresolved conflict, emotional distance, and whose family felt as much relief at their death as grief. Those are the hard funerals, and those are the truly sad funerals. As I listen to people try to find things to say about that person in a eulogy, citing work successes or listing their hobbies as if their life could be summed up by their golf score, I am profoundly saddened by the departed’s failure to have carved out a significant immortality. That person was given a life to live but spent it on all of the wrong things and the legacy he or she leaves will be a short one.
There is a bumper sticker which says, “Live so the preacher doesn’t have to lie at your funeral;” but I would change that to say, “Live so that people will cry at your funeral.” You could live the most morally uplight life and still have no one miss you when you are gone if your only concern in life had been the state of your soul; it is the quality of our relationships and the degree to which we have carved out a place of peace and love for others that establish our immortality in the lives we leave behind.
In Ephesians 2, the author says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The verse tells us that salvation is given to us through God’s grace not earned by our good works, but then strangely enough, follows that immediately with, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” This seeming contradiction is clarified in the verses that follow as the author describes the kind of work to which God calls us once we have committed our lives to Christ: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has …broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity.” The letter is referring specifically to the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians in the church at Ephesus but could apply equally to all of our relationships. The work we do in Jesus is relational: we are ambassadors, bringing people together, carving out places of peace for others. We are not saved by works of moral purity that are focused on ourselves but are saved by God’s grace in order to do the far greater work of caring about the strength of our relationships and creating places of peace for others.
The Atlantic Monthly recently ran an article called, “The Least Politically Prejudiced Place in America,” declaring that after numerous studies, researchers had decided that the least politically prejudiced place in America is Watertown, NY. My cottage is near Watertown, and I have to admit that I was surprised by this since Watertown is not exactly a hotbed of cosmopolitan diversity but the researchers said that its small town nature may actually be what makes people more apt to listen to one another’s opinions. They interviewed Reverend Fred Garry, the minister of a Presbyterian Church in Watertown, who said that “for the past five years, he has run a men’s breakfast group at the church every Monday morning. [He himself has fairly progressive views but of the dozen men who attend the breakfast, a couple have views] he considers to the right of Rush Limbaugh, as well as one or two men who reside to the left of Garry. The group [reads books about social problems in America and discusses them over breakfast, and Garry says that] the first secret to making these conversations work is to meet face-to-face, ideally over food. He starts cooking around 6 a.m., in the church kitchen, preparing the same spread every time: eggs with cheese and vegetables, bacon, potatoes, yogurt, and coffee.
“Once you’re fed, and you’re with friends, you’re a better person,” he says. [And] the second secret is to talk for a long time.
“We talk about it long enough until we realize how much we don’t know,” he explains. “Once you realize how much you don’t know, the honest conversation comes out.” 2
The work Christ has given us to do, the work for which we as human beings were created, is relational. We are not called to shape ourselves into statues of moral purity, or gather accolades, awards, and accomplishments to elevate our name; we are called to strengthen the web of relationships into which we were born, in which we live, and which we will leave behind, stamped with the imprint of our hearts.
This is what matters most because it is for this that God has created us.
1. This is my summary of Edith Hall’s summary of one facet of Aristotle’s philosophy in her book Aristotle’s Way. Given that indirect source, it may be really far afield from what Aristotle actually said but I hope not.