As we sit here, sobered by Valerie's death, and by the thought of our own frailty, it is my job to preach you the Good News. In the face of death I am supposed to say, "But here's the good news!"
Well, here it is, straight up:
You are not going to hell. God leaves no one behind. Not you. Not me. Not the worst of us. God's unconditional love covers you and me.
I know that even parts of the church can't get their heads around this amazing love, and that they will tell you that if you don't believe their slant on things then somehow God can't love you enough to save you. Not true. The best we have learned from the life of Jesus is that God loves all people, forgives all things, and leaves no one behind.
So why do we do all this religion stuff, then? If I'm not going to hell unless I knuckle under, why would I bother with church?
The answer is: Valerie.
Valerie had every reason to miserable and bitter, and to whinge about things at every opportunity. Her life in the time I have known her has constantly been hampered by pain and ill health. And it was a hard life before then, in some ways. She was diagnosed with cancer some time ago, but it appears the medical system somehow forgot to tell her. She only found out by accident last year.
She grieved. She was angry at times. She struggled with the pain. But the last thing you would say was that she was bitter, or miserable, or trapped, or defeated. We knew her for her good humour, for her cheek, for her joy; we knew her for her confidence in life now and in the future, and for her hope. She was an inspiration for many of us during a time when you'd have understood if she simply gave up.
Something allowed Valerie, even after she had been handed a death sentence, to simply be the same Valerie she had always been...
…she was free…
…free to enjoy the life she had left, and free to help and love, and inspire others in the time she had left.
She was free because she followed the way of Jesus. In his life we are shown a way to live… a pattern.
It's a pattern which radically changes who we are, if we follow it:
Love one another.
Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
Don't do to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you.
Look after the orphans, the widows and the strangers… what it all means is that we are called to live as though everyone, every person, is our neighbour.
That changes us.
Valerie was not perfect at it: if I suggested she was, that little crystal bell would start ringing and she would come back and clobber me with her famous walking stick.* There was no pretence about her. She knew, and she regretted, her failings. Yet her life was guided into freedom because she undertook the discipline of following the way of Jesus.
That's the good news. There is a way of living that frees us from living under a death sentence. It lets us be us…
…it cleans off the traumas of our past
…it lets us get on top of our fears
…it begins to free us from our compulsions
…it lets us live life rather than be pushed around by it…
… it happens slowly, in fits and starts, and sometimes in sudden strides forward into freedom.
I'm not Valerie− and I can hear her saying, "You can say that again!!"− but I have found the same experience. Life now is being healed. The stuff that used to pull me down has lost much of its power− not all of it− but enough that I know a freedom I never through was possible.
And, oddly, the whole death thing has lost a lot of its power too.
So be at peace: You will not go to hell. But be even more at peace by living the way of Jesus. That begins to set us free now.
* From Valerie's Committal
Friends, we are gathered here ... for the burial of our sister and friend, Valerie...
We remember her instructions:
if the bell rings you are letting me down too fast;
if it keeps ringing, I'm still here—get me out!
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