In Memoriam + Ruthann Virginia Johns +
St. John 20:1-10
Burial February 17, 2015 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ruthann didn’t like sad stories of any sort but sad stories about animals were completely verbotten. She wasn’t a fan of Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, or even Marley and Me. The real world is sad enough. She’d buried enough dogs. She didn’t need to read about it or watch a movie about it. She happened, by the way, as you must all know, to prefer dogs to cats, even as I think she preferred children to adults. Cats and adults have a tendency to be stuck up. She didn’t much go for that. Still, she fed some cats along the way, and she fed a lot of adults as well, even if they were more trouble than they were worth.
While I can certainly sympathize, I think Ruthann was wrong about Old Yeller. The joy that dog gave that boy and the sacrifice he made for him made the sadness worth it. It wouldn’t have been sad, if it hadn’t been happy. No one is sad when a mosquito dies because no one loves mosquitos. We are sad at the death of Old Yeller because he was good. He lived a good life. His death means that we had something worth losing.
In the similar way, you need not be ashamed of your sadness today. You wouldn’t mourn unless you loved. You are hurting because you lost someone good, someone who loved you and cared for you and made the world a better place. The only way you could be free of this sadness would be if you did not enjoy the happiness, the laughter, and the memories that preceded it. And you don’t need me to tell you that those are more precious than anything else in this mortal plane. They are worth the sadness. This is what the poet meant when he said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. We are sad that Ruthann died. Terribly sad, broken hearted, it almost seems as though we can’t endure it, but we are also glad, thankful, and humbled that she lived, and that we were a part of her life.
One might argue that there has never been a sadder story in the history of the world than the mockery of a trial, the torture, and the unjust execution of Jesus Christ. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart must pierce ours as well. He was more innocent and more good than any puppy or child we’ve ever known, yet when He prayed in the garden that the Cup be removed, He was denied. He was sent to the cross to be forsaken by His Father and pay for sins He did not commit.
It was that sadness, that unbelievable injustice, that caused Mary Magdalene to go to the tomb that Sunday morning only to find it empty. Filled with fear she ran back to Peter and John. She told them what she thought was terrible news on top of terrible news. After murdering the only truly good man to ever live, they desecrated His body. They had taken Him away and she did not know where they had laid Him. Peter and John then ran to the tomb to see for themselves. But they were not afraid in the way of Mary. They did not yet understand that He had to rise, that death could not hold Him, but they had been told that He would. Jesus Himself makes something like fourteen distinct prophecies of His coming death and resurrection in the Gospels and the whole of the Old Testament had prophesied and foreshowed it. So Peter and John ran not in fear and not yet in joy: they ran in hope. That is why John says that he saw the empty tomb and believed.
What did he believe? He did not understand what was happening, but he believed. By grace, he believed that God was working something good, that death would not be the final word, that mercy would overcome. He couldn’t understand it, but He knew it. He trusted that God had a plan, that he would not be forsaken, that mercy would endure forever.
Now, we can see more clearly than they could on that early morning. We have the advantage of watching from a distance and of having been instructed by them. We understand that sad as it was, it was necessary for the Son of the Man to be betrayed, tormented, killed, and then to rise. That was the cost of our salvation, the way that God won us back. There is a sense in which that is sad. It may pierce our heart more thoroughly than Old Yeller. But it is not a sad story. We stubbornly call the day He died, Good Friday.
It is good not simply because it was a noble and selfless act, not completely dissimilar than a good dog giving himself to a rabies-infected wolf to spare a boy, but because Jesus is not dead. He lives. He did die, but in His death He put death to death. He ended Hell’s claim upon us. He satisfied the demands of justice. He silenced the accuser. He declared us righteous, washed us clean, finished what He had started when He made us. He changed places with us. He took our punishment and died our death to open up heaven. And then He rose. He conquered even death. He paved the way into heaven.
That is why we confess in the creed that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that He lives and that we will live. That is why we stand in the cemetery and though we look like fools to all the world we are bold to say, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where thy victory?” Jesus isn’t dead. He died, but He lives. He rose for our justification, to forgive sins, to reconcile sinners to His father and to bring us home.
And that means that Ruthann isn’t dead. She belongs to Jesus. She was baptized into Him. His Name was placed upon her. The devil is defeated. He lost all claim. He cannot have her. She belongs to Jesus and Jesus lives and no one who believes in Him dies. Thank God not only that Ruthann lived, but also that she still lives, and she will never die. That is not sad. That is a good story, a happy story, the happiest of stories.
The sad part, of course, is that we’re not there yet. It is not sad for her. It is sad for us. We are still hurting. We have to go on, for a time, without her. We have to keep burying dogs and people we love. But we’re not Mary Magdalene running away in fear. We are Peter and John. We are running toward an empty tomb in expectation, in hope. We are sad and we do not know exactly what the future holds in the coming days. Our joy is not yet full. But we know the end of the story. It is a good story, not a sad story. Jesus lives. Ruthann lives. I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven, but I know there are dogs in heaven because the Bible describes a new heaven and a new earth and the peace to come for all creatures, when the lion lies down the lamb and the habitation of jackals, where are a sort of dog, becomes a garden, and I know that the dogs in heaven don’t die. Someday, neither will we.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.