Memorial Service for Esther Ruth Freeman
Scripture Text: John 11:17-27
June 8, 2015
The first time I recall meeting Esther Ruth Freeman was at Jill’s and my wedding some 23 years ago now. And though I would see Esther on occasion after that, the most consistent reminder for me on a daily basis of the woman whose life we remember and give thanks for today was having on my desk one of the rock crafts Esther had made. It was a thin cut green stone with a polished smooth top and rough, almost jagged sides so you knew it was made from a genuine rock, not from wood or plastic. You knew it by the weight as well. It had heft. You knew it wasn’t an object of plastic or wood. And after cutting and polishing this stone, Esther had attached to it a large gold paperclip to make the stone into a desk accessory that could then be used to hold letters or the like, which is what I used it for.
I kept this on the desk of the first church I served as a pastor in Greenwich, Connecticut, and it travelled with us when we moved to Pasadena. I found it an intriguing mix of earth and nature on one hand, and human crafting and utility on the other.
It was a form of art I understand Esther got into late in her life, in her 60’s and 70’s. She took trips with her husband Jack to find just the right rocks for her crafts, searching for geodes and other stones. After collecting pounds of these rocks she would load them in her camper, and bring them home to have them cut and polished just so.
Her supplier said Esther had quite a talent with stone crafts. Intriguing, I thought looking at that desk accessory daily, how the stuff of earth and stone and dust can be taken, and re-crafted and reshaped in an artist’s hand.
Today’s gospel passage speaks of man named Lazarus whose breath of life had departed from him. And so he had been placed in a stone tomb, his body to become one with earth and dust and stone. From dust we come, it is said, to dust we return. And yet, according to Genesis, into the stuff of dust and earth God breathed the first breath of life, making humanity.
And in today’s gospel reading we are reminded God can still take the perishable stuff of earth and dust and breath new life into it. God can take bodies that have returned to the earth, and refashion those bodies into something beautiful and new. For today’s gospel text lifts up the promise of resurrection.
Resurrection—the notion that one laid to rest in a tomb of stone could know new life in a day to come—this was not unheard of in Jesus’s day. In fact, we read in the New Testament that the Pharisaic branch of Judaism taught precisely such a doctrine. The pharisees taught it, over against the Sadducees, another Jewish school of thought in Jesus’ time that did not believe in a resurrection.
And so we suspect that as John’s gospel tells the story, when Jesus first tells Martha “your brother, Lazarus, will rise again,” Martha thought he was simply offering standard words of comfort popular in their day. It was like saying today “well, at least you can rest assured your loved one is in heaven” or “your loved one has gone to be with the Lord.” Yes, Martha replies, I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
But the kind of transformation God was up to in Jesus, the kind of resurrection power that fills bodies long returned to the earth with new life, that power was present in Jesus, we read. Life, life in God, life eternal was not just a future promise but a present reality once the divine logos entered the world.
Resurrection was not just a future promise. It broke in with Jesus, most vividly and unforgettably that day Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
And so Jesus responds to Martha’s words not by simply reaffirming the promise of a future resurrection. He asserts instead that life had infiltrated the world already. Jesus tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” The eternal life Jesus gives is available now to the living, a foretaste and promise of a resurrection yet to come. And to prove Jesus’s point, he says to Lazarus, lying in a tomb of stone, “come out.”
And the stuff of stone and earth and dust is given the breath of life. For that is what Jesus gives, John’s gospel proclaims, life.
Esther was one touched by this life one can know in God, life in the present, life, in the day of resurrection. Esther was one who sought in her own life to know this life in God more deeply, to hear and follow the one who says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Esther was a part of churches throughout her days, from a community church in Olmsted to St. Charles Disciples of Christ church, ever seeking the God made known in Christ. This spiritual journey led her to finally joining Tina here at Saint Gregory’s church in Athens.
And along the way, she gave ear and attention to various perspectives on the Jesus of resurrection, both orthodox and less orthodox. But throughout her spiritual journey, Esther held the deep unshakable conviction God was leading her step by step. God directed, Esther believed, and she was called to follow.
In her later years especially, Esther endeavored to place her fears and anxieties more fully in God’s hands, to let go and let God, and trust in life and in death she belonged to God.
And so it is a woman of faith we remember today, one to whom our savior would say today, like he did to Martha in John’s gospel, “Esther, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
And so we trust that sure as Esther could take a stone in her hands and transform it into something beautiful and new, so she will one day know transformation and resurrection herself at the hand of the master craftsman, the one who made the heavens and the earth.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.