Sunday, June 06, 2010

Facing Death

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 6, 2010

Text: Luke 7:11-17

Somebody asked me one time why the Church had nothing much to say about death. “I thought we did,” I answered.

“Only around Easter and at funerals. Did you ever hear a sermon about death any other time? And even then,” he went on, “all I hear is about resurrection taking the sting out of death. It surely hasn’t done that for me.” He, like most of us, had struggled through untimely deaths, difficult deaths.

“Well, I have preached about death at other times,” I said a tad defensively. And today is one of those other times.

But, I have to admit, preaching about death is itself a strange concept. What is the point? Certainly not to talk people out of death. We might assume that people are scared of dying, and to be sure some are. But many people of faith and some of no faith at all have long since determined that death is nothing to be afraid of, at least not our own death. We are afraid of other things surrounding death: long, difficult illnesses that drain our resources and leave us limp; not having enough money to afford a decent funeral; or going through the death of those we love the most. Ah! That is what scares us to death! Pondering the possibility—and sometimes staring in the face the reality—that there is nothing we can do to stop somebody we love and care about from dying. No matter how we deal with our own mortality, the truth is that saying goodbye, turning loose, letting go of someone else to die is the universal human dilemma.

The widow of Nain undoubtedly felt that, too. She had already gone through the death of a husband. When we meet her in Luke’s gospel, she is surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, weeping as she carries to the grave her only son and therefore her only means of support. Luke is silent on what kind of death he died—accident? illness? murder?—and leaves us to wonder what his mother might have gone through prior to his death. This incident in the life of Jesus closely parallels the one you heard earlier this morning from the life of Elijah (I Kings 17:10, 17-24). That widow, too, had a son who died. We do get more of a glimpse of her. Grief-stricken, she lashes out at Elijah, accusing the prophet of being out to get her, to bring to mind her sin, and to punish her by causing her son’s death. In one sentence we pick up the unmistakable scent of guilt, fear, and a God-blaming anger that death not infrequently kicks up. “What have I done wrong? What might I have done that I didn’t do which would have prevented this death? If God were any god worth salt, things like this wouldn’t happen. Maybe the widow of Nain felt some or all of those things. Surely she would not have been the only one. They are all a part of grief.

But neither the focus of the Elijah story nor that of the Jesus story is grief, or even the circumstances surrounding death. Both are stories told to proclaim the greatness of God. The first makes the point that the prophet Elijah is, in the woman’s words, “a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” The second story not only makes the point that, as the people say, “A great prophet has arisen among us,” but that Jesus has the power not only to heal but also to resuscitate. Ultimately, of course, Luke’s proclamation will be that he has the power over death itself.

So certainly on one level, the point of preaching about death is to say something about how God is greater than death, and how in fact God holds death, like life, in God’s own hand. But before we get there, we need to deal with a couple of other things.

First, death, whether we like it or not, is simply built into the fabric of creation. We could not have life without it, literally. Stars die, plants die, animals die. And we are animals. We sometimes behave as if death is somehow wrong. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that most of the practice of modern medicine is about keeping death from happening, or at least keeping it at bay as long as possible. Nor is it hard to see that the motivating factor behind the vast industry having to do with diet and exercise is about lengthening life and keeping old age and death as far away as possible. I am not arguing that either effort is necessarily misplaced, but rather that our own built-in aversion to death can sweep us into an unconscious denial of its reality and certainly an ignorance of its goodness. What fuels our struggle to work out our neuroses is a failure fully to embrace our bodies, and thus to affirm our mortality, which means seeing death as a friend. Much of our art, a great deal of our literature, and an overwhelming amount of our religion sees death as nothing of the kind. Death—physical death—is seen to be, as the widow of Zarephath said, a punishment for ours or somebody’s sin, and thus the work of the great Death-dealer, the dark power in the universe who is God’s rival. But death is not God’s rival—not if you see God as the all-embracing Creator who knows best how to make a world and who has made it with a polarity of life and death running right through the middle of it.

But, somebody will argue, Christian religion explicitly calls death an enemy. St. Paul said it himself: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether in this instance Paul did a favor to us, to God, and to the gospel of Jesus by putting it that way. Let’s instead see what sense we can make of that. The “death” that is an enemy is not just the physical act of dying, but the possibility—the real possibility—of being closed to the renewing, life-giving power of God’s spirit. In other words, the death that is the enemy is more than—one might even say different from—physical death. It is critical to understand this. What seems like death is very often not death, and what seems like life is not truly life. Letting go, saying goodbye, turning loose of some old habit or soul-deforming behavior feels like death, or a surefire way to die. Instead, we discover (often after the fact) that it was what led to a new kind and quality, and sometime quantity, of life. Things that frequently feel good, such as winning, taking, achieving, acquiring, amassing, controlling, might as well wear the death mask, for death can be what lies behind them each and all.

Still, we have inherited an elaborate mythology that physical death exists in human experience only because something is radically wrong in creation—something that we call sin. In all honesty I have to say that such a notion is tragically wrong. We all must die, and, as Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to die. And it has nothing necessarily to do with how much or what we believe, or how good we are, or how faithful we are. We are simply mortal, and there is no getting around that. It is the other death, the metaphorical death, the death of the spirit that saps us of life and promise and vibrancy.

There is something else about death that we must get. All physical deaths are not equal. They are unequal in tragedy, unequal in effect, unequal in proportion. This week’s Washington Post carried photos of a young body killed in a shoot-out, mourned by scores of young people: a senseless death with little redeeming value. How different from the death of an aged person who, having finished a long course of this life, quietly passes from this world. Contrast the death of little Oscar from violence, whose funeral drew hundreds to this church last fall, with the death of civil rights activist Dorothy Height at the age of 98, whose funeral drew hundreds to Washington National Cathedral in April. We do not respond to these deaths with the same thoughts and the same emotional intensity.

There emerges from the story of the raising of the man in Nain a portrait of Jesus that informs the way we deal with death. We see him taking notice of the death that had occurred. We observe him moved with compassion for the widow-mother. We see him violating custom and ritual law by actually touching the coffin. We hear his utterance, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” We see the power of this simple command. The reason Luke gives us this picture is clear. It is to let his readers and hearers understand the unexcelled power of the Spirit at work in Jesus, to inspire faith in him as the risen and ascended Lord. But Luke’s purpose also is to move us to fashion our lives, our values, our behavior after the model of our Lord. Luke believed in the power of the Church to heal as Jesus healed. He also believed in the power of the Church to approach death with the same calm majesty that Jesus exhibited. In his second volume, the Book of Acts, Luke tells us a story in which Peter raises Tabitha (Acts 9:36-43), carrying on the work of Jesus. It is no secret that the Church has been slow to accept its healing ministry during most of its two millennia of life. And, though there have been exceptions here and there, the Church has shown little sign of a vocation to raise the dead. (Most of us have no thought of trying that.) But we can follow Jesus’ example of discerning the import of death, as he obviously did in Nain. And we can take our cue from him in stopping what we are doing and extending compassion to those who are grief-sick and sorrow-worn. And we can utter words of life, comfort, power in situations where death has been particularly cruel or gratuitous or tragic. We can, in our struggle for human dignity and freedom for all persons, bring the full weight of our witness to a culture that often condones official killing, that colludes with the forces of death often masquerading as forces of life but which in fact corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

Ironically, we and our efforts are not of much use in dealing with death if we are busy denying it. Forty years ago, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught many of us that dying was nothing of which to be ashamed and that it was possible to do it with dignity and peace. If our faith teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) That is a faith which, far from sugaring over the complexity of death, places it squarely in the hands of God, whom not only do we have to thank for creating our bodies that die, but whom we have to praise for redeeming death so that, even at its worst and most threatening, it only tosses us closer to the Love that will not let us go.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010