This, a repost of sorts from eight years and two blogs ago, is the sermon that I preached at my grandmother’s funeral (July 11, 2007). I used a lot of the same images in a discernment paper recently, so it’s been on my mind. And since I haven’t had time to write any new posts of late…
In the Bible, there is a character named Job. Job’s story is told in the book that bears his name. He asked God some tough questions, and the point of the book is basically that his questions were good. But instead of answers, he gets a vision of God in a whirlwind that brings him at last to wonder and awe. The Lord spoke to Job out of a whirlwind and said this in the 38th chapter of the book: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
The song of the morning stars that has been sung since the foundation of the world is one of my favorite images in the Bible, because even though it’s a metaphor, I know exactly what it’s referring to. I’ve experienced it many times, though usually in the evening rather than the morning. I’ll tell you about the first time I heard it. It was at the farm, on the gravel driveway. From the time I could walk, and perhaps before I could walk, I remember spending the night at the farm. And whenever I would go out there, grandma and I would always walk down the driveway at about the time of sunset and we would pick up rocks and examine them, and then watch the eastern horizon as the streetlamps at the farms came on and stars came out. For years after that, she would ask me if I remembered doing this, and I always have. I didn’t know my Bible yet, so I didn’t know about the song. And I didn’t know the Orphic myth from the ancient Greeks of Sicily that held that after death, the soul is asked to identify itself, to which the proper reply is “A child of earth I am, and of starry heaven.” So I didn’t see any poetic or theological significance to rocks and stars. But now I look back on those evenings with the biblical image in mind, of the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy, and I recognize the song, and I know what the song is about.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,” says the New Testament. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” This love exists eternally in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It bursts forth in creation. It fashions every star and rock, and is itself fashioned into the beating heart within every human breast. The morning stars sang for joy when God could not contain Godself. And as they sing their song in praise of love, hydrogen and helium atoms are fused together to create all of the other elements, and as these dance about in almost infinite combinations, they form, among other things, this good earth, from which our bodies are fashioned and to which they will return. The song of the stars is about the same thing almost all songs are about: love. Love of a person or a country, the love of life, the love of nature, and ultimately, the love of God, which I first remember experiencing when Grandma showed it to me without naming it in the starry sky and the gravel under my feet.
She expressed this love in less passive ways too. Fried chicken comes to mind. Oh, how I pity the vast majority of human beings on this earth who never got to taste Grandma’s fried chicken! Their arteries might be better off for it, but how much poorer their lives are! Besides, it didn’t stop both Grandma and Grandpa from living to 91! I don’t know if they ate fried chicken everyday or just when I was out there, but thankfully, they had it enough that it is clearly etched in my memory, and that stuff was a labor of love. The cakes were another one. And the blackberry cobbler, though mom would always add more sugar to mine when Grandma wasn’t looking. It’s okay though, Grandma would always give me more soda than mom thought I should have whenever mom wasn’t around, so they’re even.
Now I am not unaware of the fact that I saw Grandma’s love from a privileged perspective. Her favoritism was sometimes pretty blatant. When Grandma made this beautiful cake for one of my earlier birthdays that was basically a cake-sculpture of a lamb, Katie had to pitch a fit to get her to make one for her. She could also be impatient and petty. We shouldn’t dwell on such things, but we do her no favor by simply pretending that they never existed. Human love is imperfect. “For now we behold in a mirror, dimly,” as another apostle says. But a dim mirror is still a mirror, and without the reflections we see in this life, we would never know the light of God at all. But in the people who love us, and in the people we love, we have seen and do testify to it, and declare the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us, and what is the life of God but the love of God? If God is love, then when we love one another, and love the love with which we love each other, then we are already loving God, and God is already better known to us than the light and sound impressing itself upon our senses.
I learned how to say this in seminary. I wrote a 40 page masters thesis about it. But the thing itself, the love of God that cannot but be expressed in the love of oneself and one’s neighbor as oneself, this I learned on a gravel driveway in Boone Country, MO with my grandmother, Bessie Rader