Nothing Can Separate Us

Psalm 23
Isaiah 40:28-31
Romans 8:31-39
John 14:1-6, 25-27
(c) Stacey Steck

Preached on the Occasion of the Memorial Service for Tristen Hobbs

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. Questions are good. We just have to ask the right ones. Our Scripture passages this afternoon contain some good questions. Isaiah asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Thomas asks “Lord, how can we know the way?” Jesus asks, “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” The Apostle Paul asks, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” They had questions. We have questions.

There is no point hiding the truth that Tristen Hobbs took his own life. And the natural and inevitable question that forms in our minds upon hearing news like this is “Why?” Our well-intentioned minds seek reasons and information and answers, trying to make sense of the unimaginable, so that our hearts do not overwhelm us with emotion. And yet there are no answers. We don’t know why now and we’ll likely never know why. And at the end of the day, “why” doesn’t really matter. It is the question we must ask now but it cannot be the question we ask forever. No, the questions that matter the most are the one that begin with “who?”:
Who comforts us when we grieve?
Who leads us by the hand when we don’t know which way to go?
Who wipes away our unending tears?
Who will remember Tristen once we leave here today?

In God’s gracious way, in each of our Scripture passages, the questions asked are ultimately “who?” questions, and Thomas’s question in the reading from John’s Gospel, “How can we know the way?” is one we might be asking of ourselves as we think about the future without our son, our brother, our cousin, our friend, our companion in Christ. Our lives are different now, like fabric torn that can never truly be mended. Our routines will change. Our conversations will change. Our relationships will change. Each of us has known Tristen in a certain way, and that way is no longer open to us. We are now being asked to go somewhere we never really considered going, and a place we’ve certainly never been. We feel lost before we even begin the journey. And so we ask, “God, how can we know the way?”

In the story, Thomas thinks Jesus is talking about a location, a place to which he and the other disciples might travel and stay the night, taking shelter from the desert sun in a cool, multi-roomed suite. And so he asks the Lord for directions, that they might not become lost. But Jesus is speaking a different language completely and answers in a manner which must have utterly mystified the disciples. “I am the way,” he says. Jesus responds to Thomas’s geography question with a relational “who” answer, and provides us with a clue that the answer to how we will find our way without Tristen Hobbs is related to his relationship, and to our relationships, with Jesus Christ, for he is the way. We will carry on without him because we trust in the promises that we all have one Father, in whose spiritual house we each have a dwelling place. We will go on knowing that Tristen is in but another room in that mansion, perhaps behind a door now closed, but not very far away, at least not in God’s way of keeping house. And though we might picture it as a house with rooms and doors and maybe even curtained windows, he has gone where we cannot quite imagine, no matter how the painters paint it, or the poets describe it, and which is nowhere we can easily go. But it is the same place that Jesus told his disciples that he was going, and that they too would be going, and that we too one day will go, following the way Jesus has laid before us.

The Apostle Paul may have written nothing more amazing than what we heard from his letter to the Romans. With wonderful language and images, he reminds us of the amazing scope of God’s love in Christ and that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from that love. But what is very curious about his list of those things which are powerless to stop God’s love, is that Paul lists “life.” Life is powerless to separate us from God’s love. Death can’t do it; life can’t do it. It’s a strange thing to include but I think by saying such a thing Paul means to tell us that God is concerned with our lives in the here and now as well as with our souls when we die. God knew each of us before we were born and God is with us right now. Friends, death has not separated Tristen from God’s love in Christ Jesus, and neither has life separated us from God’s love in Christ Jesus because we remain behind. We are comforted in the knowledge that Tristen remains loved by God despite death and we are able to go forward because we remain loved despite life which feels so much emptier without him. This is the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a nutshell, for in Christ’s rising from the grave, life, just like death, life too is transformed. Abundant life in the here and now for we who remain, and life beyond life for Tristen — these are the wondrous promises made in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. This good news makes it possible for us, even in the midst of our grief, to see hope and to gather in celebration of the love and life God has given us in Christ.

Even with that said, some of you may be wondering about Tristen’s relationship with God in light of his decision, but let me urge you in the strongest possible way to keep your wonder from turning to judgment, because in addition to all the things which Paul cites that are powerless to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, you can add suicide to the list. Tristen was not the first, nor will he be the last, person to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and then make an irrevocable decision. He was not the first Christian, nor will he be the last, to be in a frame of mind we simply cannot understand and that we pray never to experience ourselves. But most importantly, he was neither the first nor will he be the last Christian to take his life and be received by a God so gracious as to never destine to eternal suffering someone who suffered enough in this life to end that life. Yes, we may wonder, but the only one in a position to judge is God, and what did Paul tell us about that except to say that, “indeed Christ intercedes for us,” an assurance immediately followed by Paul’s list of all those things that are powerless to stop God’s love.

For all those reasons and more, God is indeed the “who” in whom we can trust, but the “who” is also you. Because even though God is the answer to the questions worth asking, the ones like:
Who comforts us when we grieve?
Who leads us by the hand when we don’t know which way to go?
Who wipes away our unending tears?
Who will remember Tristen once we leave here today?
each one of us is the answer as well, as we do what we can to be faithful to the call to love one another as God loves us.

Michael, Crystal, Raeyven, and all your extended family, the other “who” besides God is the body of Christ gathered in this room, and all those who wished they could be here but couldn’t be. And these people are here for you, and they will do their best to support you and care for you. And they will leave here today clutching these cards, and vowing to put them in a place they won’t forget them, and to send them to you in the coming days, weeks, and months when you will need a reminder of who is in this with you. You are not in this alone. We will be there when you grieve, when you don’t know which way to go, and when your tears flow.

And we will remember Tristen not because he died or because of the way died, but because he was God’s beloved child, and Michael and Crystal’s beloved son, and Raeyven’s beloved brother, and your beloved friend or classmate or brother in Christ. Remember who he was to his family, and to you, and to God. Remember him for his sweet smile, his great gentleness, his love of God’s creation, and in every other way in which he was God’s gift to you.

Let me close with some words a friend with cancer recently shared with me from an old Bruce Cockburn song about the “who” rather than the “why,” about who awaits us in Heaven. It’s from the song called "Festival of Friends”:

Some of us live and some of us die
Someday God's going to tell us why
Open your heart and grow with what life sends
That’s your ticket to the festival of friends.
Amen.