Witness to the Resurrection
I don’t know if there is any better description of what we are gathered here to do today than “Witness to the Resurrection.” It is, of course, what our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship calls a service upon the death of a saint. Today especially, we are here to worship God as we celebrate being the witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for a saint who lived his life as a Witness to the Resurrection.
I am sure the many other pastors here would agree with me when I say that it is an immense honor and a holy, treasured duty to serve as a “Witness to the Resurrection” for our beloved congregation members, family members, friends, and even unknown community members. I’m certain that over his over 60 years as an ordained clergy, Bob officiated lovingly at countless such services. Indeed, Donna shared this letter that Bob wrote upon his anniversary in 2012, which speaks to this holy task:
Whenever I was asked to officiate at a funeral or memorial service, I would ask if the person to be remembered had a favorite poem or verse, perhaps fastened to the refrigerator or tucked away in their Bible. such a saved verse or quote often revealed something of the one who kept it, and gave me an insight into what was important in that person’s life and which was worth sharing in that service in which he or she was remembered by friends and family.
I have two such special momentos in my home.
One is a plaque with just a single word carved on it which was made and given to us one Christmas by a very good friend of ours many years ago. It says simply “Faithful.” I don’t know what our friend had in mind when he made the plaque and presented it to us, but “Faithful” is a word that has very special meaning to me, and for many years that plaque has had a prominent place in the very center of the mantel over our fireplace.
It is not as important that we be successful in life but that we be faithful. In my life I have felt it important to be faithful to God, faithful to his plan or purpose for my life, faithful to my family, and faithful to those whom I have been called upon to serve.
Thanks to a friend, that word, that thought, has had a prominent place in our home and in my life.
The other momento is a small glass plaque that hangs in our kitchen window directly over the kitchen sink, and we see it each time we wash the dishes or get a drink of water, or look out over our beautiful view of the mountains. And on that small plaque is engraved the words, “God has allowed us to share something beautiful together.”
I’m writing this on our 63rd Anniversary. When Donna and I think of our lives together, truly God has allowed us to share something beautiful together. And for this, we are both most grateful.
Even in his retirement — which I should write, “retirement,” as no true servant of Christ ever retires until the completion of their baptism at the moment of death — Bob lived out his faith in such a peaceful, joyful way, that he was still teaching and guiding as his heart stopped beating and he took his last breath. It was the first day of this new year, and I am certain I heard the earth and heavens tremble with the echo of “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
I was surprised and touched to find out that Donna and Bob had left the scripture selection to me. I thought that certainly, after so many years in the pulpit and after serving so many families at the death of loved ones , certainly Bob had chosen the scriptures to comfort his family and beloved community.
And I wrestled with this. I felt a little incompetent to choose the scriptures, and I struggled with what would best comfort all of you in your grief even as we proclaim celebration. But as I walked the ruins of Corinth a couple of weeks ago (remembering all the travels Bob and Donna ventured on) and I sat in a cave on the island of Patmos, I relinquished the struggle and began to listen.
And do you know what I heard? Bob’s marvelous, soothing voice, telling me the stories of a life in ministry, carefully recounting the difficult years when our nation struggled with the growth pains of the Civil Rights movement, and detailing the struggle even in our own Presbyterian Church for the Ordination of Women. He always spoke of love for his people through these struggles, understanding that when the Holy Spirit is shaking things up, it can be difficult to do things in a new way.
I heard his eloquent words explaining the gift of understanding God in light of science, and remembered countless times when he was able to lift out encouraging scriptures, phrases from great theologians, and quotes from our beautiful Book of Confessions to help explain why we do things, and how we, as a people of God, have come to read and understand scripture.
And through all of it, of course his words echoed with love.
Of course! He’s still teaching!
Of course this encouraging old saint, with that glint in his eyes (that got Bud in trouble when it was time for the church to be built) and that warm and welcoming smile, was beaming as it all became clear: through all the years of his teaching and leading and counseling and encouraging, the one thing that was consistent through every age and struggle was LOVE. Even when we look at scripture critically; even when we study and doubt and challenge the word of God, it is difficult to distill this message down to anything more than how Jesus summed it all up:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (selections from John 15, NRSV).
The Rev. Dr. Bob Bielenberg was most certainly a friend of God. He lived out Jesus’ commandment through his immense love for Donna and his family, for his love and devotion to congregations across the globe, through bridging relationships with strangers in every place he traveled.
I received a gift from Donna when I returned from my recent travels to Greece. I found a stack of Bob’s sermons, with his notes scribbled in the margins and the dates on the tops of the scripts for when he had preached them. And I recognized that now, even in his death, Bob is still teaching us. So we will bear witness to the Resurrection today by sharing Bob’s words on this very subject – the resurrection, and why, despite all the little things we can quibble over about scripture and our religion, the one things we count as necessary for faith is to proclaim and live into the resurrection of Jesus. So I leave you this morning with his own words, culled from several sermons stretching from as early as 1960 to 2016:
God has broken into human life and interrupted it in an unexpected but a glorious way. The Resurrection was the proof of it. . . That which makes life meaningful and exciting is that God constantly breaks in upon human life in his own way, which is not our way.
The important fact of the Resurrection is not that we will live forever but that God lives, and that he has not forsaken us, nor will he ever forsake us. It is of this certainty that Paul spoke in his letter to the romans:
“I am convinced,” Paul said, “That neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is our certainty; and it is greater than the sum total of all our doubts.
Friends, Bob’s conclusion here is why we can be so assured of our task for today, which is – amidst our doubts and fears and sense of grief and loss – we are here to bear witness to the Resurrection. May it be true in our every word, thought, and deed, and may we bear this to the world in love.
Peace in Christ,