The text for what I would like to say today is taken from the letter of Paul to the Church in Corinth, Chapter 15 verse 55:
"Oh, death where is your sting? Oh grave where is your victory?"
There are days when we feel that death is winning. When the waves of sorrow swamp us. When the unrelenting pounding of hardship beats us down. When good people die young. When life is snuffed out needlessly. Then it is that we cry out to heaven. We shake our fist at the sky and complain that the darkness is taking over. Indeed one of the key reasons that we gather at funerals and memorial services like this one is to make that common complaint.
There are times when death seems to win. And that's unjust and unseemly.
We regard Thom Washburn's life, his growing competence in his vocation, as Sue and Carsten have told us, his increasing influence on friends and companions and we say it is totally unfair and unbelievably tragic that he should be killed by terrorists. It is not that he was a direct menace to those who murdered him. On the contrary he was to bring employment and prosperity to that land. And a few of the very perpetrators of this senseless act were indeed employees of this project.
And how ironic that Thom should die in someone else's war particularly since as a Canadian he embodied the openness to other cultures and traditions that was remarkable and appreciated by many. It is doubly tragic then that this ambassador of good will should be removed so brutally from a life that would have brought more harmony and understanding to a tense and often chaotic situation.
So let us not fall prey to the trick of making death into something that it is not: a blessing in disguise or a portal to some better place. Thom should not have died and his death was a brutal and unfair act and we hold heaven and earth responsible for our loss. Full stop.
But. But we also gather at the graveside, so to speak, in order to claim again the promise of God that death will not defeat us. For dying is not the final word to living. The Apostle Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Church in Corinth when he says; "Oh death where is your sting? Oh grave where is your victory?" We shall not lose hope. We will not buckle under. We will not be defeated. And in Thom's case we can claim that for three reasons.
First. While Thom eventually died in Houston of his wounds, the miracles of modern medicine made it possible for his contribution to living to continue on in others long after his own death. Sheila told me last week that through the gift of Thom's body to science, research and transplant programs he has made a great and in some instances a life-saving difference in the lives of over 50 people. There are some folk now who were blind that can now see, because of Thom. Others who were dying that will now live. What a great gift. Life triumphs. "Oh death where is your sting? Oh grave where is your victory?"
© 2005 Sheila Washburn
The second reason we claim that death has not won: I have been impressed, as I am sure many of you have too, with the good will, compassion and thoughtfulness of Owen and Sheila and their family and circle of friends. During this horrific time, a nightmare in the face of which all parents cringe, you have remained constant, steadfast, loving and real. A testimony to your faith and your trust.
I can only imagine how hard it is not to resort to bitterness and revenge. Not to call down God's wrath upon all who do this. Strangers and foreigners who participate in insane attacks. And as such sentiments are to be expected and while it is natural to feel tremendous resentment death does not defeat us because we refuse to fall prey to the same insanity by which terrorism operates.
We will not be defeated as long as we seek compassion and justice for all. As long as we ask for the rule of law to deal with criminal acts. We only lose when we resort to personal vengeance and retaliation. And it is when witness a dedication to a just order embodied by many, Owen and Sheila and their family, made real in the lives of people like Thom Washburn and others, then we can join with Paul and say "Oh death where is your sting? Oh grave where is your victory?"
Finally we can join for a moment of repose and relaxation before our daily lives take over again to remind ourselves that we walk through the days of our lives with One who promises never to dessert us. Through the love we share, the love between a mother and a son, between a husband and a wife, between brothers and sisters, between friends and companions, through that love we know that we cannot be separated from each other.
Death has no power to divide us or drown us because we are created by a God of love who stands next to us in our personal distress and in the world's darkness. There is no place to hide. Not in heaven above. Not in the grave below. Not in the shadows of our mourning. Not in the brightness of our rejoicing. Nothing, the scriptures say, nothing can separate us from the love of our Maker. And by the extension, nothing can separate us from the ones we love and who love us.
How does it go in the creed? We say: "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone." So it is in our deep grief that we are touched so closely by the loss of a loved one and yet we can stand firm and say "Oh death where is your sting? Oh grave where is your victory?" For we are never alone. And for this then we say "Thanks be to God".
Rev. Chris Levan
Wilmot United Church
473 King Street
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada