Sermon for Darlene Dempsey's Funeral Service
My mother-in-law, Darlene Dempsey, died on September 29 after a wonderfully-lived life that sadly included a journey through the progressive stages of Alzheimer's Disease. She loved us and we sure loved her. I had the privilege to officiate her funeral service at First United Methodist Church in Carlyle, Illinois. A sermon at a funeral isn't a eulogy (eulogies are a beautiful part of end-of-life observances). The sermon is meant to speak into obvious loss with a message of hope, rooted in a relationship with Jesus. Here's what I was honored to share:
Sermon for the Funeral of Darlene Ruth Dempsey
October 2, 2016
First United Methodist Church of Carlyle, Illinois
Reverend Bruce Cole
Gospel Reading - Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[f] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.[g] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[h] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[i] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[j] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[k] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Perhaps you’re wondering who I am. Let me introduce myself. I’m Maureen’s husband. Darlene and Warren’s son-in-law. My name is Pastor Bruce Cole. Or, as Darlene sometimes called me as she entered into later stages of Alzheimer’s, with a wry smile and a shake of her head, “Oh, you.” (We liked to tease each other. At least, I think she was teasing).
In fact, I know Darlene was teasing. If you look at Derek’s and Maureen’s and Blake’s Facebook pages so many of the notes of condolence and love that friends have sent on hearing of Darlene’s death this week say, “I’m so sorry for the loss of your sweet mother.” “Sweet” and “wonderful.” Those are the words.
We’ve been through bins of photos and mementos this week and came across more than a few thank you notes written to Darlene from family members and friends thanking Darlene for some act of quiet, selfless service rendered to them in their own time of need. Sweet, selfless, servanthood from a wonderful person. That’s why we’re here today. Because in some way, God has touched you through the life of Darlene Dempsey.
The night before last Warren confessed to not having slept much. He had, instead, spent the night contemplating his life together with his Darlene. When he heard me out in the kitchen yesterday morning, he came right out and started writing some of what he had been remembering…
All the way back to Darlene going to work right after high school for attorney M.B. Johnson for whom apparently one of her duties was to handicap horses so he could place his wagers. Seems that Mr. Johnson was nearly blind and couldn’t read the racing forms, so he left it to Darlene to figure out. I’m pretty sure that betting on horses wasn’t high on Darlene’s personal list of approved activities or use of money but her boss couldn’t see and it’s what a sweet, selfless, servant does. And it appears he kept assigning her that duty, so she must have been pretty good at it. Too bad it wasn’t on her personal list of approved activities...who knows where it might have taken her and Warren.
Warren remembered her seven years as treasurer of the Sewer District. There were a few jokes in the family about that role. Treasurer of the Sewer District. It takes a sweet, selfless servant to do that.
She taught that selfless servant approach to life to her children. One of them remembered this week coming home from school feeling irritated with a classmate who they felt had been mean to them. Darlene knew that this particular child’s parents were struggling and things were not good at home. She explained that and further explained that this particular child would need not anger but instead was especially deserving of extra love and grace. Extra love and grace. Where’d all this extra love and grace in Darlene come from?
A confession: I’m not from here. City boy. When we all sat with Andy Zieren this past Thursday afternoon to make arrangements for this day, Andy asked what newspapers we’d like the obituary to appear in. Rather than be quiet – since I’m not from here – I piped in: “Does Ferrin have a newspaper?” So, I provided a moment for laughter. For those who don’t know, Ferrin is the small farm community east of here where Darlene was born and raised. They don’t need a newspaper, just a town cryer.
Maureen decided I needed a bit of an education so she took me to Ferrin yesterday morning. The tour doesn’t take long. We took our time, though -- especially as we stood in the sanctuary of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in front of the baptismal font - the same baptismal font at which Darlene Ruth Eikhoff Dempsey was baptized shortly after her birth in January of 1938.
Baptized. More than just a ritual for Frederick and Pauline Eikhoff, her parents. Baptized, when, in the Lutheran baptismal liturgy the pastor said to her parents:
“In Holy Baptism our gracious heavenly Father liberates us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; in the waters of baptism we are reborn children of God and inheritors of eternal life. By water and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the Church which is the body of Christ. As we live with him and with his people, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.”
And then the pastor said:
“In Christian love you have presented this child for Holy Baptism. You should therefore, bring her to the liturgies of God’s house, and teach here the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and the Ten Commandments. As she grows in years, you should place in her hands the Holy Scriptures and provide for her instruction in the Christian faith, that, living in the covenant of her baptism and in communion with the the Church, she may lead a godly life until the day of Jesus Christ. Do you promise to fulfill these obligations? If so, say, 'I do'." Her parents and sponsors responded: “We do.” And they did. And I have proof.
(Hold up Darlene's mother’s hymnal and Darlene’s “Small Catechism”)
This is Darlene's mother’s hymnal from Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Ferrin. And this is Darlene’s “Luther’s Small Catechism” from her confirmation at Bethlehem. At age 12, she was confirmed at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and she would have been literally quizzed about the contents of this catechism which she was required to commit to memory. This book has one theme: That God revealed in Jesus Christ is all grace. All grace. Grace? God’s love...and God’s forgiveness... unconditional…guaranteed...no strings attached. The kind of love – grace – Darlene exhibited for her parents, her cherished sister, Carol, for Warren, for Derek and Maureen and Blake, for her grandchildren, her daughters- and sons-in-law, her extended family, her many, many friends. All grace.
The rhythm of God’s grace was the rhythm of Darlene’s life. That rhythm looks like this: God says, “I love you.” You are born. God says, “I love you.” You are baptized. God says, “I love you.” You are confirmed – you affirm your baptism – and you say back to God, “I love you.” And God keeps saying “I love you” and you keep saying, “God, I love you.” And as life goes on, you have occasion to also say to God – and to others – “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.” And that’s right where the grace shows up: God’s love...and God’s forgiveness...unconditional...guaranteed...no strings attached. You receive it. And you give it away to others. As God gives it to you, you give it to others. The Christian life. The baptized life. The Darlene Ruth Eikhoff Dempsey life.
These last years had a very special kind of challenge for Darlene, for Warren, for all whom Darlene loved and who loved her. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease.
Every stage on Darlene’s journey through Alzheimer’s was a difficult one, from the early days when Warren would sometimes search frantically for her as she wandered lost in Memorial Stadium at an Illini game, or the less intense but still frustrating search for where in the refrigerator, freezer or random drawer Darlene had put his cell phone. And there were the most recent stages, when the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's had choked off Mom's memories not only of old stories and friends but of how to walk, how to talk…
And yet, always she would say something or look at one of us and there was this special, wonderful, feeling that still, part of her was hearing and knowing and loving us back. Grace-filled moments...even laughter when we enjoyed the silliest things that caught her attention and elicited a reaction; the sight of Warren tenderly stroking my mother-in-law's hair and face on days when her dependence on him left him especially exhausted; the light we would sometimes still see in her eyes.
The trial of Alzheimer's is one I would not wish on any individual or family. But maybe the surprising truth is that in the midst of it we discovered that the Scripture and faith Darlene cherished is right:. God can bring good out of anything. Even Alzheimer's.
But still...like the disciples we heard about in our Gospel reading from Luke a few minutes ago, who after losing Jesus to that crucifixion and being uncertain of what was next, it says they “stood still, looking sad.” And as they talked with others about all Jesus had meant to them, they said these four words: “BUT WE HAD HOPED…” But we had hoped. In grammar, that’s called the imperfect tense: But we had hoped. What a great word for that tense. Imperfect. Because all the words of hope and comfort we attempt to speak right now don’t erase our broken hearts, don’t erase our hurt, our wishing things had been otherwise.
But we had hoped…
...that Darlene had never had to suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease.
But we had hoped…
...that even with Alzheimer’s Disease and with so many questions and concerns about what life with Alzheimer’s is like, even then, we had hoped that we could have had her with his for more time still; more time to soak in the sparks of recognition, of love, of grace that we shared with her.
We had hoped.
But, instead, at 6:30 this past Thursday morning, Darlene left this earthly life for her eternal life with God. And, like the disciples of Jesus, we are heartbroken.
In those final hours, we got to be with her. Such a gift. Words were spoken. The rhythm of grace lived yet again with baptized, confirmed child of God Darlene Dempsey:
“We love you.” “We love you.” “We love you.” “We love you.”
And even in the terrible fog of Alzheimer’s Disease, Darlene wasn’t going to let us live in only part of the rhythm of God’s grace. Her last words...her words...through the haze of that terrible disease...she opened her eyes and gazed at Warren as he stroked her face and suddenly she said, “I’m sorry.”
Warren recoiled a bit and assured her she had nothing to be sorry for.
But anyone who knew Darlene knew that she did not enjoy being the center of attention. She never wanted to be a burden to anyone. She wanted to be about you. A sweet, wonderful servant. She would not want this service to be all about her. I can just imagine her pained look and rolled eyes, and Darlene saying, “Oh please.” It seemed like she was somehow aware in her final hours that she was in a weakened condition, the center of attention, and it was for that she was saying, “I’m sorry.”
You see, right to the very end of her life on earth, the rhythm of God’s grace was the rhythm of Darlene’s life. The rhythm where God says, “I love you.” You are born. God says, “I love you.” You are baptized. God says, “I love you.” You are confirmed – you affirm your baptism – and you say back to God, “I love you.” And God keeps saying “I love you” and “I love you” and “I love you” and you keep saying, “God, I love you, too.” And as life goes on, you have occasion to also say to God, and to others, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.” And that’s right where the GRACE shows up: God’s love...and God’s forgiveness...unconditional...guaranteed...no strings attached. You receive it. And you give it away to others. As God gives it to you, you give it to others. The Christian life. The baptized life. The Darlene Ruth Eikhoff Dempsey life. She received God’s grace, lived God’s grace and gave God’s grace away right to the very end.
A sweet, wonderful woman, wife, mother, sister, friend. If she could speak to us today I am sure she would tell us how much she loves us and how proud she is of all of us. I am sure she would have something special to say to my father-in-law, because they shared an extraordinary bond for many years. But I think more than anything she would remind US to live OUR lives in the rhythm of God’s grace that she knew so well and lived so well:
Ready to hear God saying to us: “I love you.”
Ready to say back to God, “I love you, too.”
Ready to say to others who are in our lives: I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Ready to say to others who are in our lives: I’m sorry.
Ready to be people of Grace...love unconditional...forgiveness unconditional...no strings attached.
The Christian life. The Baptized life. The way of Jesus. The way of Darlene Ruth Dempsey. Amen.