If you grabbed a bulletin for today’s service, one of the things you’ll notice is that, at the back, there is this wonderful, long collection of family stories about Marlene. Believe it or not, this is actually the significantly edited down version. When I met with Deb and Sue to go over plans for this service, Deb handed me this amazing, three page, single-spaced collection of stories – in a tiny font – that she had compiled about her mom.
There are so many stories, so many memories. And what absolutely radiates from all of them is the profound love and admiration and pride that Marlene’s kids and grandkids and great-grandkids – and everyone whose life Marlene touched – all feel for her. She was truly well-loved.
And so it’s no surprise that one of the scriptures that Marlene’s kids chose for this day to remember her is this passage from Proverbs 31. Many biblical scholars think that King Solomon actually wrote this passage about his mother! This passage portrays a woman of strength and dignity, of wisdom and kindness, a woman who is honorable and hard-working and full of faith.
Yet as I was reading this passage and thinking about Marlene, the one line that most jumped out at me was in verse 28: “Her children rise up and call her happy.” What a fitting verse! I certainly remember Marlene as someone who was so full of joy, so full of the zest for living.
And you can hear in all of these stories just how much joy Marlene took in life, how much she enjoyed the good things that life has to offer. She avidly cheered on the Huskers and – of course – her own grandkids and great grandkids in sports. She traveled all over visiting friends and family. She had a passion for dancing I didn’t even know about (and I’ve gotta say that anyone who’s a Glenn Miller fan is definitely a good egg in my book!). She formed relationships with many of the high school kids she met while working as a checker, acting as a mentor toward them and taking great joy in seeing them grow and thrive.
Marlene was notorious for her sweet tooth: she loved ice cream and was also apparently known for hogging all the sugar cookies. And Marlene loved shopping – especially on Black Friday, she shopped until everyone else dropped! Incidentally, it does not surprise me one bit to read a story about Marlene staying up until 7am. Marlene’s house is just south of the parsonage and you can see when the lights are on. She and I had in common that we are both night owls, and we used to tease each other about whose lights were still on latest.
Marlene truly enjoyed the good things and the good people that life has to offer – and her joyfulness was infectious. It was a gift from God. Marlene’s joy was a witness to the God we see at work in Psalm 23, the God who leads us to good places, with goodness and mercy, who leads us to lush pastures and to clear, sparkling waters, a God who richly anoints us with oil and makes our cups overflow. Marlene’s joy and love of life were a reflection of the God who loves and takes joy in her and in each and every one of us.
Of course, Marlene’s life wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. For most of her life, she dealt with health issues that caused her a lot of pain. Her battle with cancer, even though she won, was long and and difficult and draining. But Marlene’s joy shone through even in the midst of adversity. Sue and Deb were sharing with me that after Marlene’s husband Adrian died, Marlene chose to move forward by getting more involved here at church. She especially enjoyed getting to help set up communion for worship. And she was one of our most faithful volunteers at the monthly mobile food pantry when we hosted it here. Every month, almost without fail, you could find Marlene back in the kitchen handing out goodies to our neighbors with a smile.
Marlene overcame the challenges she faced with faithfulness and joy. And I imagine that if Marlene were here, she might encourage us to do the same: to lean into our faith and to treasure the moments of joy that life sends our way, especially on a tough day like this one.
It is so hard to say goodbye to the ones we love. It’s hard to take in the weight of such a great loss all at once. The grief tends to come in waves, as I’m sure it will do over the coming days and weeks and months and probably years. Yet even as we grieve today, we are reminded that this is not the end of any of our stories. This is not the end of Marlene’s story. In Christ we have hope that life will have the last word, not death. Today, we hear this hope in the words of the apostle Paul, who writes: “We have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In Christ, we have every reason for hope.
And so, in our reading from John, Jesus himself tells us not to let our hearts be troubled. Even when we feel overwhelmed or lost or without hope, Christ is with us. He is our way, our truth, and our life. The grief and troubles of this world – even sickness and death – are simply no match for the life and joy and love that is ours forever in Christ.
Today our hearts are heavy as we say goodbye to our dear sister in Christ, Marlene. But I encourage all of us to honor Marlene’s legacy by embracing the same sense of joy and faithfulness that she once had: eat some ice cream, hoard some sugar cookies, and let your heart find hope and peace in the love of Christ.