With Thanksgiving for the Life of Judith Ann O’Leary
25 July 1942 + 14 November 2015
Psalm 23 & 139:1-18; Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 2Corinthians5:1-10; Romans8:31-35,37-39; John15:9-17
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, this may have been a long time coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier for you, does it Tom, and Judy’s family, and you of the Sisterhood, and all the rest of you who found her so dear? On the one hand, we celebrate the amazing 24 years of life since her transplant. But we still can say that that’s not enough. We mark all the time in hospitals over the last years, and how cheerful she remained and with what strength she continued to fight (and live!), but that doesn’t prepare us for this moment, for when the struggle is ended and she is in peace, but when from our lives a bright and beautiful light has gone out.
So what do we say at this moment? How do we deal with the loss? What does God have to do with it? These are our questions, the words we try to supply for each other along with hugs and cards and all the compassion and support we muster in shared tears. The question is directly asked by one of our Bible readings: “What, then, are we to say about these things?”
Pat and Christine chose for us a very fitting Psalm to try to get answers from God’s perspective. It fits this moment, and also fits Judy herself. That 139th Psalm gives a perspective that God has been attending to us and caring for us and planning for us from before we were born, and when we first enter the world, and who made us to be what we are. Those are words for Judy, for God’s care and blessing for her that held her throughout life, from the start to the end. Those words also apply specially to Judy, who continued to see herself as the Neonatal Intensive Care nurse where she has so kind-heartedly served her vocation. The Psalm’s words go with her concern for all of those tiny, tiny babies on the NICU whom she helped to live, and—we’d have to expect—it is also for those who didn’t, when her best medical attention and wisdom and devotion was still not enough to make life last. Judy had perspective—probably better than most of us—of the intricate and precious value of life, the miracle of how are bodies are built, the frail blessing of our existence.
Yet that raises more questions for us of where God is when babies don’t survive, or have birth defects, or amid the pains of the NICU, and beyond. We believe God is present in the healing and the compassion, and holding us even through the tears. Nor even at the far end of life can we say that it was just Judy’s time and so God took her. The Psalm said that God knows all of our days, but we shouldn’t take that to mean God plans our loss or sorrow or random problems. Sometimes life continues against all odds, but we can’t predict when or how. We know that bad things happen, even to good people.
So our human perspective can only be that we face a whole lot of different things in life, good times and bad, sorrows and joys. As we have seen our first snow, we know we’re transitioning into a new season. Some of these things seem like cycles that come and go, while others seem like a trajectory, as we go from young to older, from health to infirmity, from birth to death. The same Judy who was worn out in a hospital bed was the one who used to get dressed up for dates and steal her parents’ car. Her glowing smile said it’s the same Judy, but with it we’d note how much life changes us through it all. “There’s a time for everything,” was the observation from Ecclesiastes.
Which may have some honesty, but it still isn’t all that satisfying as an answer, is it? It remains unpredictable on when changes will come, how long they’ll last, what we can expect. In these last months, we had to wonder with Judy on when she’d finally improve and get back to life, when she’d be able to overcome the falling and clots and infections. Or if the tiring process of dialysis was really worth it.
Amid that is where we turn to a larger hope. This is not just sad mortality. Even as the 2nd Corinthians reading reiterated that our bodies are fragile and groan and wear out—like clay jars, it says in another place—still we expect and trust that there is something more, beyond this earthly tent we wear now. We presume that it is not only for this temporary, broken life that God has made us and destined us. We trust that our Shepherd does prepare a place for us in his home, an eternal dwelling place that will not wear out. We cling to that promise today for Judy, the assurance of things hoped for and as yet unseen. We eagerly believe the heavenly promise in which she rests, the promise that awaits us, again with her. This is the best of good news.
But even looking forward to that, we may still wonder about the present moment. Why did Judy linger in suffering so long, even with her positive attitude? What do we do now without her? For this, at last we turn to our Gospel reading, a word of love. This is what remains, what abides, what sustains us for now and forever. As Kathy reminded us, it’s a good word for Judy, in whom we knew so much love, as a partner, as a mother and grandmother, as a coworker and dear friend, as one you cherished each in your own ways, and who treasured you in return, holding onto you with that sparkle in her eyes.
This is also what we’re doing here today, continuing to practice love, trying to help each other. This is what Jesus has given us. He says that we may know his love holds onto us through life, will bring us through death, and will mean even more. And because you are held in his love, he has chosen you, appointed you, even commanded you, to share that blessing for each other, to love as he loved you, as you and Judy loved each other. In spite of tired, worn out, hurting bodies and uncertain lives, this love cannot be undone even by death.