I don’t really know what to say about this morning’s sermon. Just before the service, I was sure it needed another day or two spent marinating in my homiletical sauces; I suspect I was nervous because preaching about death can risk touching on some people’s very strong, very raw feelings. Moreover, I really wanted my theological affirmations to be as sound as possible, and I wasn’t confident that I hit the mark.
The preaching itself went okay — I tried to keep my voice at more of a subdued, steady volume — and I was intensely relieved when the sermon was over. The feedback after the service was positive, and several people seemed to have locked in on the general direction I had been trying to strike.
After church, I was exhausted and ravenous, which would have been more fun if I weren’t trying to cut down on salty snacks. Munching has a different valence when your midday indulgence is red grapes and carrots (sequentially, not mixed). When my hunger was sated, I put on a long episode of Taggart, watched lazily, drifted to sleep, woke up in time to figure out much of what I missed (and in time to hear Jim Taggart diss Edinburgh). I’m glad the sermon worked out satisfactorily, especially for the folks who pulled me aside to talk after the service, and am thankful also for the opportunity now to curl up on the couch, read a detective novel, and continue unwinding.
Acts 11:1-18/Revelation 21:1-6/John 13:31-35
5 Easter Year C, 1 May 2010
Death will be no more.
In the name of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — Amen.
The Bible begins with nothing: utter, blank, nothing, a nothingness so perfect that we can’t try to imagine it without sneaking something like a something into it. And that, after all, spoils the nothingness.
The Bible begins with utter nothing, and in our lesson from the Book of Revelation this morning, the Bible ends with the perfection of everything. Between that beginning and that end, all that we know of flowers and fades; all people grow, flourish, and die; everything in creation blossoms and bears the marks of time. For now, the whole creation groans in travail, but one day — one day all, all will bear only glory. One day — not now.
For the time being, we abide among the things that are passing away. Passing things can be lovely. They are lovely, let no one deny it. Time’s creatures show forth beauty, they offer sweetness; we children of time love one another, and our neighbours in turn love us. Show us a warm, sunny spring day, a merry heart, and dear friends, and we see hints of what lies behind the mask of scars and stings with which sin shrouds us, to hide from us the clues that point beyond decay and death, the clues that point toward God’s grandeur.
What a blessing that is, to discern Easter beyond Good Friday! What a blessing, to perceive more than human waste and cruelty, to recognise brilliance behind the grey clouds, to be able to trust in love and mercy in the midst of spite and decay. Yet — and I must make this clear — yet we cannot afford to purchase the blessing of consolation, the treasure of trust, if it costs us denying the dire force of such unwelcome changes as govern this age. Denial cannot bring us to the full strength of trust in God; we trust God fully only when we face decay on their own terms, on their home pitch — as Jesus did.
We encounter the brutal force of decay and death in the way of the world itself: from cold-heated torture, from random affliction, from pollution, extinction, poverty. But if these lessons do not sufficiently impress us, we can recall Jesus himself. He did not teach us simply to smile and have a nice day; he did not write a heart-warming best-seller about puppy-dogs and romance, then retire to a villa in Provence. Jesus came meet to the powers of this world, he came bringing peace and healing and justice, the full beauty of life in grace — and our world rejected, despised, betrayed, beat, mangled, and murdered him. The humanity of Jesus is revealed perhaps in nothing more vividly than in the way other humans treated him.
Please bear with me; I don’t want to burden you, especially not in these hallowed weeks of Eastertime. Bear with me, though, for another minute. Though we go through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil. Fear not, because all the horrible things I’ve been talking about, real as they be, do not speak the last word. Death, cruelty, calamity lay claim to our hearts by terrifying us, by using the horror of the unknown, using fear to control us, to make us avert our eyes. So we try to inoculate ourselves against the fear of death by avoiding talking about it, by hiding death as far away as we can push it. Our movies depict oceans of simulated cinematic bloodshed to trivialise death; our melodramas swaddle death in bands of sentimental denial; our public figures hide our entanglement with death by soft-pedalling the evils done by people like us, and flog the misdemeanours of other people.
With all that busy denial, trivialisation, finger-pointing distraction, it’s harder to keep our eye on the real thing. This world’s hand-waving deflects our attention from discomfiting facts, and offers us instead idols built from from the very same stuff as the evils we deplore. Real people’s real deaths obtrude awkwardly in the domain of polite, healthy-minded positive thinkers, so that many people avoid thinking about death at all. Why take death seriously, when it’s easier to pretend that this dance will never end?
I’ll tell you why: so that we do not fall prey to these idols, these miniaturised, controllable false images of what we dread. For when we focus our fears in falsehoods, we set ourselves up to misunderstand the good things for which we hope. Instead of relying on God to heal us of infirmities mortal and spiritual, to raise us, we may just imagine that death isn’t so bad after all. Instead of trusting that our new life with God will bring all things to a new perfection, we may imagine heaven with puffy clouds, harps, and cherubs. And in so doing, we end up with so specific an erroneous notion of what to expect that if our dreamed-up idols of heaven ever seem improbable or undesirable — and admit it, it’s easy to see why one might hesitate before enlisting to spend eternity with pudgy flying infants playing harps — if our notion of heaven is foolish or wrong-headed or off-key, we aspire to something other than, something less than what God promises us.
So let’s put away childish things, the mirage of an eternity trimmed down to our terms. Let’s open our hearts to the outlandish extravagance of abundance that God has prepared for us. Look for the clues, and show the world how God shatters nithingness with plenitude: by bringing unexpected strangers into our fellowship, as in this morning’s lesson from Acts; by loving each other with the kind of endless, self-giving love that Jesus shows in our gospel reading. Meet fear with love, meet nothingness with the glory of unbounded grace.
There is goodness, pure goodness just over the horizon. We have a long walk to get there, and the walking will probably hurt. We have to be honest about the blisters and achey knees. We have a long walk, but we we have friends to give a hand, to keep us company, to carry us when our strength fails, to bring to completion the work we leave unfinished. We can be honest about the hurt, because we share it. We can be honest about the grief, because we share it.
So let us love one another bravely, sisters and brothers; hold hands tight; hold onto my hand, and I will hold yours. Hang on, don’t let go, and supporting one another we can look honestly into nothingness — we can look at Death without fear, without the illusion that we can evade or control it, but strengthened by our love for one another, strengthened by love for everyone with whom we have been united in baptism, strengthened by Jesus’ love abiding in us, we need not fear to look Nothingness in its haunted, hollow eyes. We can look into Death, and can see beyond the fear, beyond the gauzy sentimental distractions. Today we see as in a glass darkly — but what we see is deep and true, and clothed in our love for one another, crowned with Christ’s love for us, we will outlast all the afflictions, the lies, the losses, the fears that Nothingness can impose on us. Knowing the truth about Death, knowing that we can’t beat Death, and trusting in the God whose love will never leave us, never betray us, never disappoint us, never hurt us, will never cease drawing us on — in the power of God, who is trustworthy and true, we can look through Death, and release our fear. And we will live.
What we will be, we do not know. But God has promised us, and all creation, life. God has promised grandeur, and God has promised joy, and life and grandeur and joy more than we can imagine. And among the world’s afflictions, our lives shine brilliantly with God}s promise of something more.
So against Evil’s cruelty, we abound in compassion. Against Sin’s malignity, we abide in forgiveness. Against Nothingness’s scarcity, we flourish in sharing. Against Hatred’s lies, we speak the truth. Against Death — we live.
And Death will be no more, neither mourning nor grief nor sorrow nor pain. For God who promises all these things is trustworthy, and true.