WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH DEATH?
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 1
By Nathan L. Bostian
A Sermon for Year C, Easter 1
By Nathan L. Bostian
Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly: So others may see your light shining through us, and they too may share in the abundant life of our God. Amen+
What do you do with death? Seriously… WHAT do YOU do with death? Have you ever mourned the passing of someone close to you? A Grandparent? A Parent? A Sibling? A Friend? Have you ever had to face your OWN death? How did you deal with it?
I know a little about several people here tonight. I know nearly nothing about some. I do not know if you have common hopes and dreams. I do not know if any of you have the same fears and anxieties. I have no idea if you have similar experiences growing up… or growing old. But I do know one thing we all have in common:
We will all die. [PAUSE]
And just to make the point (and illustrate how easily statistics can be manipulated to make any point you want), think about this: The world's number one cause of death is being born. That's right. They should put a surgeon general's warning on delivery rooms! And here is another statistic they try to hide from you: 100% of the people who breathe the Earth's atmosphere will die…
So, what do YOU do with death?
CS Lewis says that there are only three things we can do about death: Desire it, Fear it, or Ignore it. Of the three, ignoring is definitely the preferred method in our society. We ignore death by idolizing youth and excluding the aged. After all, when is the last time you saw an elderly person on a commercial that was not advertising life insurance, diabetes supplies, or a retirement village? And those commercials only run from 1am to 5am in the morning.
And what about our commercials, magazines, billboards, movies, music videos, and TV shows. What do we do see? The typical woman is trying desperately to look like she is 18-25 years old, unless she is a lingerie model, in which case she is made to look 13-18 years old.
But it is OK for a man to be older, with salt-and-pepper hair… just as long as he has some fine young thing on his arm. On TV, serious illnesses are cured in an hour, and homicides are solved in 30 minutes. We almost never talk about the years of slow recovery that a long illness or a lingering death really takes.
So, in a society where we close all the caskets… keep the young people away from funerals "for their own protection"… and put our elderly in "retirement centers" so their infirmity doesn't put a hitch in our active lifestyle… what do we do with the reality that we WILL face death? What do we do when we can't IGNORE it anymore?
When we can't ignore it… When we can't medicate it away with drugs legal or illegal… When the all the botox in the world, and all the surgery we can buy, can't stop the awareness of our encroaching mortality… How do we deal with the fear of death?
I suppose you could try the ever-popular materialist philosophy of those who are FAR too intelligent to believe in "religion" of any kind. You could rise up and throw off the "crutch" of religion, and boldly face death as the end of personal existence! I mean, it is FAR easier to imagine yourself ceasing to exist after death, than to imagine personal existence after death, isn't it?
Or is it? Can you close your eyes and imagine yourself NOT existing? Really?
And, if death is so "natural", how come it FEELS so unnatural? As the most evolved and adapted species on Earth, we should be free of all the hang-ups that hinder lesser life-forms, right? Then how come we are the only life-forms that think about death, and worry about it?
Ants and fish and dogs and cats do not fear death. They do not buy life insurance. They look blandly at it. Only we spend time and money and heartache worrying about death. If death was "natural" wouldn't we stare blandly at it too?
Maybe the fact that death does not FEEL natural points to the fact that we were made for something MORE than death…
Even physics has a law of the conservation of matter and energy. Nothing ever ceases to exist. Nothing… Ever… It is just transformed into something else. Matter becomes energy which becomes matter again. Animal becomes soil which becomes plant which becomes animal.
And all of this is governed by physical laws, that are not even physical at all. Laws like gravity, general relativity, logic, and mathematics do not physically exist. You can't see them, touch them, or put them in a test tube.
And yet, they endure forever, and govern everything we see, and touch, and put in test tubes. Without enduring, non-changing, non-physical laws to govern physical matter and energy, we could have no science at all. You can't test physical matter if there are no constants that guarantee matter is testable.
So, it seems like the most probable explanation for what happens to us after death, is that this soul- this self- which has governed our physical body for our entire life, somehow lives on. Just as the immaterial laws of physics or mathematics continue even when matter changes, so also the law of ourselves continues.
Our self may be transformed. We may become something very different from what we are right now- as different as matter is from energy, or plant is from animal- but we will live on. But how? How does the self continue?
So, perhaps the Eastern Religions are right when they say that the self is but a drop from the Sea of cosmic energy that is God. And after death, our drop returns to this sea, to be lost and dissolved forever into this impersonal force we call "God".
Maybe a bit of my drop, and a bit of your drop, and a bit of her drop, and a bit of his drop, are then re-combined and "spit out" back into the world, for an endless series of re-incarnations.
We don't know who we are, or where we come from, or where we're going- but we are bound by cosmic Karma to do it over and over forever.
Is this what will give us strength and comfort in the face of death? Is the best we can hope for a loss of everything we consider our "self", as we slip into eternal unconsciousness in the Sea of an impersonal force? Is this, in the end, any different from the materialist who says that when we die we simply cease to exist?
Well, perhaps my "process theology" professors at Seminary are right. For them, God is not merely a force, but a person who is a force. And for this God, the universe is his/her/its body, just like our physical bodies are the vehicle to carry our souls. God needs us, as God's body, to be God. Without us, God does not exist. And this God is the "world-soul" that learns and grows as the creatures in its universe learn and grow.
And, when we die, our personality is absorbed back into this world-soul. We exist in the memory of God. God holds us vividly, passionately, and privately within Godself as something like a DVD. God can pull down your DVD off the rack anytime, and watch you while eating popcorn. Who knows? Some of your outtakes might even make God's favorite blooper reel!
But, it is enough for you to just exist as a memory? As a DVD recording? Is that any better than ceasing to exist or merging with the ALL? I have this gut instinct that the transformation of our soul- whatever it will look like- will be something MORE than our personal existence right now, NOT something LESS. We will be MORE aware of who we really are, not less aware.
So, what do YOU do with DEATH?
The ancients- who were much closer to death on a daily basis than our disinfected society- spoke in myth and poem of a new kind of existence that overcame death. They spoke of whole worlds of existence after death- worlds that were both scary and magnificent, inviting and repelling, hopeful and hopeless. They spoke of gods who became men, who died, and who rose again. They spoke of love that was stronger than death, and they spoke of heroes who descended to the realm of the dead to rescue those they loved.
Then there was this "Hebrew" tribe- the word was originally slang term for outsiders and barbarians, but God chose them as His own people- and their prophets foretold of a time when their God would reign supreme over everyone and judge all people at the end of time. And, as time went on, they began to speak of a resurrection of the actual bodies of the dead, after which people would be judged and live forever.
Now, comes the big question: Does all of this myth and poetry and prophecy point to something, or point to nothing? The belief systems I have outlined say they point to nothing. At least they point to something far less than PERSONAL existence.
And, if God did not intervene in real history to do something, I guess the best answer to the question would be a shrug.
But, it is EASTER… And we believe that God HAS intervened to answer the question. He fulfilled the myths and poems and prophets by becoming the Myth made Fact. He entered into history as a specific person, at a specific time, and he faced death, and drank it down to its depths: and then He SPIT IT OUT by rising again from the dead.
And it wasn't some ghostly appearance of a disembodied spirit. In our Creed, and our Scriptures, we say that Jesus "rose from the dead". But the Greek word here is much more vivid… It is "nekros", the word for corpse… Jesus literally rose from the corpses because His physical body emerged from His tomb, and was transformed into something so glorious it is hard for us to imagine.
He IS the hero who descended to the dead and defeated death itself, and freed all those who were held in death. And he frees us too from the fear of death. Because in him, we learn that death is not the end. Rather, it is something like a final birth: Where we become fully, what we are trying to become, right now.
Think about our physical birth. The conception of a human fetus is the result of the death and transformation of the sperm and egg which create it. The birth of the fetus as an infant, and its growth into a mature adult is as different from life in the womb as you could possibly imagine. But it is the transformation and fulfillment of what life in the womb is meant for.
And at our death we will be born into eternity, and fulfill what we are becoming in this life. We will fully grow into that heavenly self- or that hellish self- that we have been practicing to become for years… What you practice, you will become.
What kind of self will you give birth to after this life? What will your soul become? What will YOU do with death?
We don't have to wonder, or worry, or fear death. Christ has defeated death for us, and shown us the way home. And that way, is HIMSELF. And if we join ourselves to Him, and practice His life, we will be transformed in His likeness and share in His resurrection.
We join ourselves to Jesus by faith, by clinging to Him, like a drowning woman clings to her rescuer, like a dehydrated man clings to water.
We join ourselves to Him by Baptism, by being buried together with Him in death, so that we may share in His New Life.
We join ourselves to Him by walking with Him, following Him, and living the kind of Love that He shows us to live.
And we join ourselves to Him by Communion, as he shares his very presence with us in bread and wine, so that His resurrected life infects our bodies and becomes part of all we are.
BENEDICTION: Now may you be joined to Christ's death, that you may share in His resurrection. May you be baptized in His Love, may you cling to His Life, may you follow His footsteps, and may you partake of His resurrected life in this bread and this wine. Amen+