Memorial Service Homily

Death, Be Not Proud

A sermon for a chaplain reunion memorial service

Death, Be Not Proud

Isaiah 25:6-9 & 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, 42-44a, 53-56

By Richard Niell Donovan

Four centuries ago, John Donne, a priest in the Church of England, wrote words that still resonate with us today.  He said:

“No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the Continent,
a part of the main….”

He talked about the entire continent being diminished when even a clod fell into the sea.  He went on to say:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankind.”

And then he gave us those words that have burned into our consciousness.  He said:

“Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

You have heard those words before.  You might even have memorized them—or used them in a funeral homily.  They speak to us of life and death—but their central theme is our brotherhood and sisterhood—our connectedness—our interdependence—the strength that we gain from each other—and the loss that we sustain when one of us dies.  And so Donne says:

“Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

When he talks about the tolling of the bells, he is referring to a custom of that day.  When there was a funeral in a village church, they would ring the church bell—once for each year of the person’s life.  People would stop and listen.  If the bells rang many times, they would say, “He had good innings.”  There was something satisfying about that—something right about a life that had run its course.

But if the bells rang only a few times, then a hush would fall over the workers, and they would resume their work a bit more slowly—saddened by the story told by the bells—the story of a life ended too early.

Whenever I hear John Donne’s poem, the image that comes to mind is a painting that hung on the front wall of my sixth grade classroom—the wall that we faced as we sat in our seats.  I found myself drawn to the simple image of a peasant man and wife standing with bowed heads in the middle of a field.  In the distant background, there was a church, its spire pointing to a patch of blue in the sky above.

I later learned that the painting is called “The Angelus,” and the artist was Millet.  I don’t know what Millet had in mind when he painted that painting, but that’s the image that comes to my mind when I hear John Donne talking about the tolling of the bells.  I see that peasant couple, standing in their field, heads bowed, paying their respects.

Today, we have come to pay our respects and to offer our prayers for those who died during the past two years—chaplains—chaplain assistants—family members—loved ones.

I’ve been to all these reunions, and I’ve looked at the bulletins to see who I knew.  Because there were many chaplains and assistants, I usually knew only a few of those who had died.  Those few were people whose lives had been intertwined with mine—and who had enriched me by their friendship and their work.

I also came to realize that some of those whose names I did not recognize had also blessed me.  Their faithful service had prepared the way for me.  Their ministries had built relationships and trust that people transferred to me when I came into the unit

One of the loveliest things about the Army chaplaincy was being welcomed so readily—trusted so profoundly—embraced.  That kind of reception was possible, because the chaplains and assistants who had gone before had prepared the way.

So I’m thankful for all of the people listed in the bulletin—whether I knew them or not.  Their lives blessed me, and their deaths diminish me.

But their deaths won’t diminish me permanently, because God has made provision for us to live beyond the veil.  There is now a gulf fixed between us and those who have died, but it’s not permanent.  One day, we too will pass through the veil, and will be reunited with friends and loved ones who have gone ahead.

So we come today to remember those who died during the past two years.  We come to pay tribute to their memory—and to grieve—because they were our friends.

But we also come in faith that their death has not been the end of their story.  We come in faith that we will see them again.  We come in faith that death is a transition very much like birth, where we leave one world only to be received into loving hands in a much larger world.

In the book of Revelation, John tells us something of what that larger world will look like.  He called that larger world the New Jerusalem.  I equate it with heaven.

John said that the New Jerusalem has gates of pearl and streets of gold and walls encrusted with jewels.  Frankly, I’m not into “bling,” so gold and jewels don’t impress me.  I’ll be more interested in seeing what kind of computers they have up there.

But an old professor told us that we shouldn’t take John too literally.  He said that John had seen things so wonderful that he had no words to describe them—so he just used the best words he could find—pearls and gold and jewels.  Once we get to heaven, we’ll see what John was trying to describe.  Then we’ll say, “Wow!  This is GREAT!”  And it will be!  It will be great!

The greatest thing about heaven will be living in the presence of God—being bathed in God’s love.

But the next greatest joy will be seeing our friends—enjoying their company—getting caught up in their stories—letting them show us around.

How will that happen?  It will happen by the grace of God.

I started my remarks by quoting a poem by John Donne.  Let me close with another of his poems.  He said:

“Death, be not proud,
though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful,
for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not.

…One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more:
Death, thou shalt die.”

We have come today to remember dear departed friends—but above all, we have come to celebrate the grace of God.  Thanks be to God for the promise that we will live with him forever!  Thanks be to God for his great mercy!

Let us pray:

Gracious Father, we give you thanks for this opportunity to gather together to honor our friends—gone now from our presence but not from yours.  We thank you that their deaths have not been the end of their stories—and that we will see them again.

But above all, we thank you for your promise that we too will continue in your presence through all eternity—and bask in your love.

Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan