1/18/15

do not hold back

A sermon preached on Sunday, January 18, 2015 at a Memorial Service for Verna Marie Huffman Splane (November 23, 1914 - January 10, 2015). A video recording of the service is online here.

Psalm 23, Psalm 121, John 14:1-6,18-19,25-27; Isaiah 54:2

What more can be said than has already been said. We have gathered here to thank God for the one hundred years of Verna Huffman Splane’s life. We remember her fondly, in awe of her accomplishments, grateful for her kindness and grace. What more is there to say? Well, Verna has left us with more to say. She has given us verses from scripture - literally, a script for us to enact, to perform, to live: Psalm 23, Psalm 121 and John 14. These, said Verna, are to be the texts for this day, the script for this company of actors. Which makes me, the preacher, akin to the director of the theatre troop gathered backstage for a read-through noting motivation and character and plot. Before you go onstage, before you head out to play your part, take note.

These texts root those who enact them in the rich soil of deep trust. The lives of those who live these texts will not be anxious or cynical or bitter. Psalm 23 - “The Lord is my shepherd, I do not need anything else … surely goodness and mercy shall seek me all the days of my life.” Psalm 121 - “The Lord will keep you from all evil. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” John 14 - “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me … Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” These are quite extraordinary statements. You can see why those who base their lives on these texts only do so by faith. You certainly cannot live a life entrusted to these promises based on proof. It is the reason that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. From her earliest days Verna was grounded in a life of faith. She had a deep-seated trust that God’s goodness and mercy is constantly seeking us out, searching for those who have become mired in pain and suffering. Verna’s compassion grew from a heart-felt belief in the God who reaches out to the earth with divine compassion. Those who, like her, enact the script of this faith cannot turn inward, ignoring the neighbour, but are inevitably turned to the other, the other whom God also loves.

Deep trust is the first thing to notice about these texts. The second thing to notice is deep pain. These texts are set in the context of a world in which many “walk through the valley of the shadow” alone, a world in which many lift up their eyes to the hills and ask “From where will my help come?” but hear no answer, a world in which many hearts are troubled, many have lost their way, many are left orphaned and abandoned, many are afraid. In such a world the courage to keep the faith in God’s goodness takes, well, courage. Trust in God to heal and to protect and to save does not remove us from the world’s pain. It thrusts us into the pain and suffering of the world. No wonder Verna’s concern for the poor, for the sick, for the marginalized could not be deterred by age or frailty. She knew full well that God’s care for the vulnerable requires willing human partners, human agents who entrust themselves to the God who hears the cries of the sick and the suffering. Human partners, human agents such as us, here, now. Actors offered this script to enact in our time and place.

There is one other text. One that is printed on the back of the order of the service, one that was included in Verna’s obituary and one that she chose to include as a central text in an autobiography she penned: “Enlarge the site of your tent and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (Isaiah 54:2). It is a script offered by Isaiah to a dis-spirited people in exile, a people who can see no future, a people in deep despair. In the midst of their utter hopelessness the disconsolate people of God are invited to make room in the tent for a new generation, to remodel the house in preparation for an unexpected, unimagined future in which the family grows and extends and spreads out. Do you see? There is Verna, along with Dick, enlarging their tent, welcoming in, not holding back hospitality but expanding an extended family that has come to cross generations and borders and cultures. It is Verna’s offer to us, an offer to pick up this script and to enact our part as despairers turned to hopers, not holding back, but enlarging the site of our tent in preparation for the generative future God intends for all people.

Speaking of enlarging the tent - today the heavenly tent on the other side of this earthly plane has surely been enlarged, room made for this beloved child of God, not orphaned but welcomed home. There is no holding back in heaven this day but only rejoicing that Verna has been carried through death into resurrected life, the risen life of Christ in whom she has placed her trust. The One whose promise you, too, can surely trust, for “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8).

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