Death forces us to ask difficult questions. Like the distorted reflection of an itinerant alchemist, death calls us to combine the most precious elements of life to make something we do not want to believe can or will ever exist; the finality of our mortal lives. Unlike the alchemist, vainly hoping to turn base metals into gold, year after year, we are never surprised or overjoyed at our eventual success. The inevitability of this moment, while so real in theory, is so foreign in practice. Death wasn’t supposed to come to us, today, or ever. Most of us, rightly or wrong, live as if death is something that happens to other people. Tonight, this delusion, rooted so firmly in visions of our own temporary immortality, is gone forever.
Why? Why did Jolene die? I cannot answer that question. No one can. Doctors can offer immediate causes. Despite our best intentions, our plans, our money, our efforts, or anything else we can’t know why now. Why now, at this place, and at this time, these are questions no one can possibly answer. However, I can say this: there is not a book, a plan, a decision making process where the creator of the universe simply decides “it’s time to call us home”. You and I don’t have countdown timers on our lives and when the time is up, God dials a number, and we get called to “a better place”. God doesn’t have a human resources department who calls him up multiple times a day, when people die in accidents in North Carolina or war in Syria and says, “Lord, we have need of new people (or angels) in heaven.” People don’t die because God “needs” people in heaven. You may think it makes people feel better to say things like that but it doesn’t. I don’t know much about death but I do know that.
In the world God created, a world of sunsets, home runs, apple pie, and snow flakes we also we received childhood cancers, tragedies, and senseless killings. Life came with death. Eventually, God was forced to come to terms with the reality of death in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you believe as Christians do, God allowed himself to die on a cross. The only way to conquer death was by facing death itself. This wasn’t the appearance of death, this was what you have come to know all too well. So begins the essence of the Christian message.
At the end of Mark’s gospel, two women go to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. Mark, ever the storyteller, leaves the reader with the one of the great cliffhangers of western civilization. The reader is only told the body is gone. “He’s not here,” says a young man. There is no resurrected Jesus who appears to the disciples. There is only the absence of a body and an empty tomb. Mark’s gospel is the oldest of the four stories of Jesus’ life and work and probably the most accurate. It has always amazed me that in this gospel, the first sign of the resurrection is not a body, or a resurrected Jesus, but the absence of a body, the absence of life. Jesus’ absence is the first indication that resurrection is a reality. Absence is the beginning of resurrection. Absence is a sign that death, as we have defined it, isn’t as powerful as we once believed.
This evening, acknowledging Jolene’s absence, we stand in the presence of the resurrection and the life. There is something unfinished about the word absence. The lingering second syllable leaves open the possibility of fulfillment and return. Absence is underscored, however faintly, by the idea of hope. The dangling strands of absence, dancing about our days, are waiting to be brought together. What will you do with yours? Will you weave them together in the hope of life beyond life, living each day to its fullest, in strands of love and compassion which honor Jolene?