On Saturday, August 18, 2018, I had the honor of delivering the homily at a Memorial Service for Cheryl Cummins, who died in a car accident in May. Cheryl was an active member of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Cleveland, MS, where I served as pastor for four years. She taught at Delta State University and was a beloved member of the community. I am grateful that her husband, Mark, and her daughters, Hayley and Kellie, asked me to return to Cleveland and deliver this homily. In remembering Cheryl, let us give thanks for the saints among us, and the saints who have gone before us.
all good things to each of you,
Dearly beloved friends and family, it is good to be in the Lord’s house with you today. It is good that we have gathered as children of Almighty God. Of course the circumstances that led to today do not feel good. The absence of Cheryl in this earthly life does not feel good.
Life is hard.
But God is good.
Though the tears of a great loss have brought us to this place of worship, tears of hope will carry us from this place because we have encountered Jesus the risen Christ.
Chances are pretty good that if you are here today you have already encountered the light of the risen Christ in Cheryl Cummins. It’s nearly impossible, given her devotion to children and teachers of children, to think of her without this passage from Mark's gospel coming to mind.
Indeed, we are remembering today the servant-leader that Jesus describes here. One who saw the value in every child of God and in doing so welcomed the smile of her heavenly Father, alongside the smile of her parents and husband. She took children in her arms in a variety of ways: in hugging her precious daughters, in listening to her students who were struggling in school, in teaching children in Sunday school how to run into Jesus’ arms.
In the beauty of these verses, it’s easy for us to overlook something that was also familiar to Cheryl. Jesus is calming down an angry argument. Two of the disciples had gotten in a petty argument over who was “the greatest.” They were embarrassed when their teacher Jesus asked them what was going on. Jesus could have rolled his eyes at them and said, “Good grief,” and thrown his hands up in frustration. Instead he calmly showed them a better way.
That’s what good teachers do. They carry calm into tension.
There is no doubt that when she was teaching elementary school, her first-graders got in some arguments. The college students she advised probably tried to argue about grades and placements now and then.
When she would lead the children’s sermons at St. Luke United Methodist Church, sometimes certain talkative children would dominate the conversation and offer more than just one answer to her questions. Sometimes those talkative children’s voices would get louder and try to take over, and sometimes another voice would start to argue with it. And somehow she managed to wrap it up, get them back to their seats, and finish in enough time that the Methodists could still beat the Baptists to lunch.
We learn just how good God is from his goodness that we see in people like Cheryl. The two best ways we can honor Cheryl’s life is, first of all, what we’re doing today: remembering her life through the sharing of memories. The second is what we can strive to do in the days and years ahead: reflecting the light of Christ in our own lives. Being the calm in someone’s storm. Pointing to the child among us and saying, “this one is of value to God.” Turning an argument into an enlightenment.
Here’s the challenge, friends. We’ve come here today still waiting for Pentecost.
Cheryl died on the eve of Pentecost Sunday, which is supposed to be one of the biggest celebrations of the Church each year. It’s the day we recall the coming of the Holy Spirit. Fifty days have passed since Jesus was raised from the dead. Ten days have passed since he ascended to heaven. And the disciples are waiting. They’re waiting for something. They’re looking for a promise that they don’t fully understand. Jesus had told them, “A comforter is coming. An advocate is coming. A teacher is coming. A peace-giver is coming.” Yet nobody knew what the Holy Spirit would look like or how the Spirit would come. Most likely the disciples were asking what many of us were asking the morning of Pentecost 2018, “Where is God?”
Still, they waited, and they worked, and they prayed, and they kept on living and serving as Jesus had taught them.
Many of us have felt stuck on May 19, the eve of Pentecost, the night of deep grief and loss, the day we lost Cheryl from this earthly life. We wonder if we will ever feel the warmth of the Spirit. But today, friends, Jesus is inviting us to step up and forward into the next step of this journey.
I’ll never forget the morning of May 20, 2018. I was in my office preparing for morning worship when a text came in. When I read that Cheryl was gone, I wanted to crawl under my desk and pray no one would notice the preacher was missing in worship. I don’t remember what I prayed, probably something along the lines of “HELP!” My eyes fell on a children’s Bible. It had been in my office for two years, and I’d never opened it. It smelled of sharpened pencils and fresh pages and the first day of school. And I said to the Lord, “Help me focus on the children today. Help me keep my eyes on the children. If I can focus on the children, like Cheryl focused on children, we can do this.”
And we did that day. God and I. And you can—God and you can take small steps towards Pentecost. Because no one is alone on Pentecost Day. The Spirit came to a group, a family who was gathered. Not all related by blood but all connected by one faith in one Lord who had died for all. This man, Jesus Christ, was Cheryl’s Savior, and he is the one who unites us. Our family here on earth looks a little different without her.
Jesus’ family on earth looked different after he was gone too. From the cross, he looked at his friend, John, standing next to his mother, Mary, and said, “Behold your mother.” His friend had become his brother.
He looked at his mother and said, “Behold your Son.” His mother was embraced by a new son.
So it is in Jesus. God creates a new family in the midst of loss. Take a moment to look at the people seated behind you. Beside you. Mark, Kellie, Hayley, turn around and really look into the faces in this room.
Let’s walk, roll, hobble, and stumble into Pentecost together. Let us be made new through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the coming Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.