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Based on the Scripture reading:
Psalm 23
Ecclesiastes 3:1-10
John 10:7-15

2006 March 26
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

With God in Death; with Each Other in Dying

Twenty years ago I was at a weekend bachelor's party in New York City with three friends. We stayed in a hotel and enjoyed great food and music. On the first afternoon, the four of us took a taxi cab towards Chinatown for dinner. It was a warm day, and all of the windows were rolled down, and somewhere around the Bowery we stopped at a light and a street dweller with ragged clothes and long flowing hair styled by static electricity stuck his head in the window and looked at us with fiery eyes and yelled in our faces, "You're all going to die in there! You're all going to die!" And he pulled his head out of the cab and walked away just as though nothing had happened.

I thought, well, that's a nice omen. I wonder if it concerns Chinese food or marriage? Or should we be riding the subway, not a cab?

When I recall the story it sounds bizarre, but it strikes me that we have uncountable voices giving us the same message constantly in our culture. Bracket for a moment the news waves which speak of SARS, millennial terrorists, avian flu, and the threat of the week, and just consider the regular stuff you hear on TV or in magazines. We're constantly being told how we are decaying and losing our grip from the makers of hair loss products, anti-wrinkle creams, tooth whiteners, and male and female prowess enhancers that come just one step before Depends and florists. You can barely listen to a news show or market report without hearing how we'll all be destitute in retirement, which could be true if Social Security is privatized, but the point is that all around us our culture is telling us that entropy, decay, and death are omnipresent, unless, of course we procure their products. Almost like an indulgence in the sixteenth century, there is the assertion that we can buy our way out of death with the Back to topright spending, but otherwise it's over.

It's amazing how much of our culture is invested in holding up the threat of death as well as claiming that there is a way to avoid it with the right material stuff.

The point is that we encounter death all of the time in our contemporary culture, but I wonder if we talk about it enough in church. I wonder if we share our Christian perspective with children before they pick up a consumer perspective, and I wonder what this means to us now, shortly before Holy Week which addresses the topic head-on yet is one of the least well-attended periods in the Christian year. It is our topic for preaching and teaching today, and ideally stimulates conversation for us all.

My street corner prophet was right. Everyone dies. The poet and pastor John Donne said death "comes equally to us all and makes us all equal when it comes." It does, however, come more easily to some, more abruptly to some, more fairly (if you will) to some than others. It's not unreasonable to say that there are good deaths and bad deaths. When I buried 105 year old, twice married, still gardening Ida P., an era ended but a smile lingered on all the worshippers faces. When I buried ten year old Sharel S., confused and immobilized in her burning home, it was hard to explain to four hundred school children in the sanctuary how our God is a loving God who sides with the needy. Right from the start I assume, and Christianity asserts, that there are good deaths and bad deaths and that the latter often make us wonder about all the rest of the faith. Jesus, of course, mixed a bit of each in his unjust martyrdom, and we tell that story soon.

Since our beginning, Christianity has had unique offerings for a culture of death that tries to control life. That was the Roman culture, noted for its strength in war and its effectiveness at taxation. Sometimes it's our consumer culture, too. But Christianity engaged an argument back at its origins, which took place between two scholarly groups, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were strict constructionists regarding the law and sought to apply the original intent of Biblical authors, and they held without question that there was no resurrection and that all you got was right here and right now. Sadducees were closely aligned with the wealthy and powerful in Jesus' time and didn't want anything to upset the governmental oxcart, even if it was run by Rome. The Pharisees were pretty keen thinkers as well. But they were more aligned with the peasants and the people and came to support the evolving church after Jesus' resurrection. But even before His life, they believed in resurrection and gave the message that we weren't stuck to just what's here. A scholar named N. T. Wright points out that this drove the wealthy to distraction in Jesus' time, because if the powerful could convince the poor there was no resurrection, they could control them better here and now. But the promise of resurrection allowed the underclass to resist, to hope and even to follow visionaries and prophets like Jesus. It is amazing to me to see that since our origins death and resurrection have had an economic and Back to toppolitical component, just like today.

In every time, there is no more central claim in Christian faith than that death is not the end and that there is something called resurrection. Doctrine, ethics, mission, worship, and everything else in Christianity are directly associated with the proclamation of resurrection.

But in our scientific and medical mindset, in our realistic and responsible approach to life and faith, we may not talk about resurrection very much. And if we do it can be symbolic, like seeds that grow again each spring or memories of a beloved that never die. It can have as much to do with the cycle of a corn god dying and rising as it does with a creator God who strikes at death once and for all. But that's what Christianity claims, incredible as it is. Death is not the end. Life is not everlasting but eternal. God has a reality, a creation, a mansion, that we can't exactly study or see just now, but our inability to study it doesn't make it nonexistent. If you go to church and hear something less, then they're preaching too little.

That still doesn't mean it's easy to apprehend, which is why doubt and disbelief have been at the heart of discipleship since the year one, literally, but that's another sermon.

Where all this leads is to say that our faith claims that death is not necessarily the thing that worries us all so much. God is with us in death. Being dead is not bad. But perhaps dying is. Dying young, dying hard, dying, as I said earlier, badly. Dying may be more upsetting than death. So while God is with us in death -- and here comes the core of the sermon -- we are called to be with each other in dying.

Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw says that with healthy Christian practices the journey of dying has four parts. Lament, thanksgiving and hope, judgment, and mercy. We'll talk more about these after worship, but they need introduction here.

No matter how or when folks die, we lament their loss. That's because another core Christian value is God's gift of life here on earth. There is a loss in death. And hope in resurrection does not undercut gratitude or concern for this life. So perhaps the most famous lament in our faith was spoken by Jesus: "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Or consider Psalm 88: "I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken, like the slain, like those you remember no more." Or as Job said, "Never again do we return home; our dwelling place knows us no more." Lament is honest to God Back to topby being honest about death.

But it not the only ingredient in our journey. We encounter death also thankful for what has been. When a friend buried her stillborn daughter, she was broken by grief but honestly thankful for the inspiration and hope that new life had brought her. It was amazing to see. How much more thankful are we for a full life like Barbara K.'s or Paul P.'s? At the heart of our creed is that death removes the temporal obstacles that separate us from the love of God. And that thanksgiving for life and hope and eternity also mark our journey. Lament and thanksgiving are paired in our faith.

Now, UCC churches are loathe to mention the word "judgment" around the event of death. But you know as well as I do that something about judgment at the time of death is literally in our bones. We've all seen this: when someone is dying they want to be forgiven for troubles in their relationships, for mistakes in their use of time, or their mistaken words. I have seen people who never spoke the words I love you in their lives ask for family to gather so that they can tell them before they let go. Judgment is in our bones: the sense that something needs to be repaired before we go. The Christian story says that, too. That there is something broken about life on earth and whether or not we like the word sin, that's what it refers to: that broken thing. So we encounter the review, the question, the honest truth that there is judgment at death. We've all seen that.

But another expression is more prevalent in our scripture: that while some groups may get fixated on sin and judgment, God is effusive with mercy. Mercy trumps sin, quite simply. It may not eliminate it, but it isolates it. The last word is not death but resurrection, and the last encounter is not condemnation but compassion. Mercy is something that God displays, literally meaning that God is womblike, which is an amazing symbol. Mercy is also something that people can display in the way that we treat the dying or console the bereaved.

I am just scratching the surface of an enormous topic here. But I am so interested in the topic of resurrection and how to talk about it more. I am dedicated to teaching our kids, citizens in a culture of death, to develop their faith not through subconscious suggestions but spiritual assertions. And I wonder, always, what all of this means to all of us.

Among many other things, there are two lessons that I have learned during my years in the church, and they both have something to do with our core beliefs as well as this quartet of lament, thanksgiving, judgment, and mercy. The two are, visit people who are dying. Visit them. And then go to their funeral. First, just because someone is ill or apart doesn't mean that they are not a beloved member of the body of Christ. Dying folks generally know that they are dying and are often open to talking about it, but isolation or exile are among the most anti-Christian acts that can be contemplated, so whoever you are, when you know someone who is struggling with life visit them, even briefly. Call it a discipline if you wish or a practice, but it is radical in its renunciation of culture's messages, so just go. In the mid 1980's when everyone was so scared about AIDS and how it spread, I was privileged to have a small ministry to this community in Maine. Just visiting folks and moreover touching, shaking hands, laying on hands, and all the expressions that were denied the diagnosed said "You are still in community, Back to topstill in God's grasp, and still precious." Just go is my first lesson.

The second fits less well with today's culture and even work schedules. When I first became active in the church my second lesson was just to go to memorials and funerals when it's someone from the church. It's rather old fashioned these days to take half a day from work or go to a service on a weekend when it's someone we barely know. But our sisters and brothers seasoned just a few years ago know something that we are starting to forget. Funerals are not just about being good friends in life but being friends in Christ. They're not about turnout, but each time we attend a memorial as worshippers we assert our core faith that each person's life is worthy of thanks and that no one dies alone: we all die with God. Our gathered congregation is the reflection of our faith; it's the community assertion that the commercials are wrong and that we believe in something more than decay that can be materially supplanted. Just go to funerals, too.

If we come out of Lent this year with two ideas for practice I hope you'll ponder these: visit and worship as a way to grow in your own faith and sustain the community's.

I don't know that anyone will find it at the right time, but I've left instructions for my own memorial service. I want people to sing A Mighty Fortress and if possible Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I have scriptures and a few quotes, one of which is from Martin King. He writes, "Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness but an open door which leads (us) to life eternal. Let this daring faith, this invincible surmise, be your sustaining power…"

Christianity claims that we are with God in death. It also asks us to be with each other in dying. And it assures us that all of this is part of abundant life.


Copyright © 2006 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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