I don’t know how she died, or why her family wasn’t there. I will never know what made her smile, laugh, and cry. The world will never hear stories of summertime as a child, the security of daddy’s arms with a skinned knee or Christmas at grandma’s house. I don’t know what in her life made her proud or what frightened her most. Last week she lived. Today she rests in peace, buried beneath Alabama’s red clay.
Every now and then, area cemeteries ask me to conduct funerals for those who have no family or friends to claim the body and make arrangements. There is usually very little information about the person’s life, beyond the basics of name or religious affiliation. And even though the person is unknown to me and most, the time I spend with this individual is always sacred. Other than the men who fill the grave with dirt, there is usually no one there to say goodbye. As I stand in a section of a cemetery forgotten by much of the world, I am reminded that this is one of the highest honors I have as a child of God. I join with the communion of saints, living and dead, and give witness to a life. It’s a witness that acknowledges another person made in the image of the Almighty and says that every life matters.
We all want a witness to our lives. From the time we can barely walk, we scream, cry and shout to get the attention of those we love. It continues into adolescence and adulthood. We don’t want to be chosen last for basketball or asked to the dance in the final hours. We want to be included in the right clubs and receive the best accolades at work. If people notice us, we think it means we matter. And yet so many of us, even when it appears to everyone around that we have everything the world says matters, go through life feeling forgotten. We have this sinking feeling that what we do and who we are doesn’t matter. Even in the midst of such feelings, we look at the world and ignore others and through our action and inaction make them feel less than worthy. Whether we are the ones being ignored or the ones ignoring, Jesus makes it clear that every life matters and every soul should be made to feel important, because it is.
The ministry of Jesus is filled with stories of his witness to those the world has forgotten. He reaches out and brings the lost into community. Everyone on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Gerasenes sought to avoid a man they thought was possessed by a demon. He was so violent they actually tried to chain him. They forced him to live in caves outside of town--out of sight and out of mind--forgotten. It would have been easy for Jesus to pass by this man when he approached. The people around him were probably telling him about the man’s history, how he was a “crazy” and a “nobody.” They could have told him that stopping might put Jesus in harm’s way. But Jesus didn’t ignore the man. He stopped, acknowledged him and this action began a process of healing. (Mark 5:1-20).
I believe the good news in this story is that we matter to Jesus. He meets us, as he met the tormented man, in the midst of whatever we see as our bondage and pain. He frees us from our own chains that bind us and from those others place in our lives. He looks at us and tells us that he loves us. His action of giving his life for us says that the world may have ignored us or forgotten, but he never will.
But there is more than that. At the end of the story, Jesus says to the man, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you." (Mark 5:19). We are called to seek out those forgotten by the world and share the mercy and grace we have been given. Once we experience it, we cannot begrudge anyone anything. They may be around the world, in the next town, next door or down the hall.
So let’s take notice of God’s children. Look into their eyes. Remember their faces. Talk. Listen. And remember the woman at the grave who others forgot.
I don’t know how she died. I don’t know how she lived. I wish I did. This day, God will give me another chance to do just that with someone the world has forgotten…a chance to remind them that he never will.