Sermon, April 2

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Our Sunday readings are walking us towards the cross. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus from the dead stirs up the people of Bethany and nearby Jerusalem – more and more begin to believe in and follow Jesus, and the religious leaders, who think Jesus is at best a fraud and at worst a tool of the Devil,  and who are legitimately afraid that unrest among the people will bring a violent crackdown from the occupying Roman forces – the religious leaders decide that it would be a good idea if something were to happen to Jesus. The Palm Sunday Gospel, Jesus’ triumphal and confrontational march into the city, follows this story almost immediately.

Our Sunday readings are walking us towards the cross, and beyond that, towards Easter, and resurrection – the Church’s 50-cent word for rising again from the dead. Two weeks from today, we’ll be shouting, Christ is Risen! We’ll be singing about how Jesus trampled down death by death, and bestowed life upon those in the tomb. Death no longer has dominion over us! God wipes away all tears! Love wins!

Except… people still die.

So… what are we talking about?

Part of this Gospel is often chosen for funerals. And last week I realized that I often preach at funerals about what the Church teaches – and trusts – about death. I almost never do so on Sunday morning. But everybody here has someone you love on the other side of that river. We all have somebody we miss. We all have somebody we dread losing. We all wonder.

And yet the Church and her representatives, have the audacity to stand up here in our funny clothes and say it doesn’t matter. That it’s not real. That they’re in a better place now. As if that made it OK.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus talked a lot about eternal life – a new life in God beyond our earthly existence.  So it became Christian conviction and teaching, from the very beginning, that physical death is not an absolute end, but leads into another kind of life. The resurrection of Jesus at Easter opens the door to the resurrection of everybody.

But what does Jesus mean, when he talks about eternal life? When he tells his friends and followers that even though they die, they will live? When he promises that his beloved ones will not perish, but have life everlasting?

I think part of the struggle here is that we come to Jesus with a simple, human question: What happens after we die? And frankly Jesus is not very interested in that question. He’s human enough to weep at the death of a friend, in today’s Gospel, but he’s also God enough to know that death is smaller than we think it is. What he really wants us to think about is life, and what it means to be alive – now, and always. But still: we carry the question in our hearts. Where is my grandpa now? Your father? Your sister? Your child? Can they see us? Are they okay? Are they… at all?

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear or consistent view of what happens to the dead. Jesus tells the thief crucified beside him that they’ll be together in paradise that very day, but other texts assume – as Martha does in today’s Gospel – that the dead will sleep until the Last Day, when they will be awakened to new life forever with God. The images of life beyond the grave are varied, too -from the city thronged with holy crowds in Revelation, to the intimate image of Jesus preparing rooms for his friends in his Father’s house, from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. (There is very little to support the popular image of Heaven as a place up in the clouds, where people are issued wings and harps.)

The plain fact is, the early Christians didn’t know what happens after death, and neither do we. There’s a mystery here which only time will resolve. The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, while he was dying, was visited by a friend, who said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” And Thoreau replied simply, “One world at a time.”

But – if we Christians don’t offer freedom from the inevitability and grief of death – if we can’t offer proof that there’s something more, something better, on the other side – then what can the Church offer in the face of death, besides beautiful words?

Well: even though there’s no proof, there is that promise and hope of something more. Jesus seems very sure that death is not the end – though we have no clear picture of what comes after. But we have to be careful with that assurance of eternity – the Church and its people have sometimes used it to shame or shut out people’s real and profound grief. Even if your loved one IS in a better place now, free from pain and struggle, it hurts that they’re gone. If Jesus wept for Lazarus, there is no shame in weeping for our beloved dead.

Another thing the Church offers in the face of death is the consolation of community. I’ve heard from many of you, in conversations over the years, that one of the most substantive gifts of belonging to a church, to this church, has been companionship in the hardest times. Of opening up about something painful –  a broken relationship, a sick child, the death of a parent – and finding that there are three or four people in the room who have walked that road, and are willing to walk it again with you, offering solace, kindness, and help.

Yet another thing the Church offers is the sense of a bigger picture, a longer perspective. In a recent essay on this topic, Peter Wehmer wrote, “There is…, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. …I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is,

but I believe… that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters, and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.” His words remind me of the voice of today’s Psalm, Psalm 130, a voice of resignation, patience, hope: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God – hear my voice!… I wait for you, O God, my soul waits for you.”

Please understand: I am not claiming, here, that everything happens for a reason, that even tragedy is God’s will for you. I do not believe that, and you’ll never hear me preach it. But I do believe in grace, in God’s patient, persistent work to weave good from evil, to heal, restore, renew. It’s not easy, or fast, or certain; but it’s possible.

What can the Church offer in the face of death, besides beautiful words? Well… actually, beautiful words can be a real gift and comfort. I don’t know if I love beautiful, holy language, prose and poetry, because I’m a lifelong Episcopalian, or if I’m a lifelong Episcopalian because I love beautiful language. But at my grandfather’s funeral two weeks ago, I found myself reflecting on how we address death, as Christians in the Episcopal tradition.

We have sister churches both Catholic and Protestant who handle the mystery of death and what comes after by developing detailed doctrines and theories. We Episcopalians tend instead to let it rest in mystery – but not a mystery we pass over in silence; rather one we dwell with, or perhaps dance with, in poetry and prose, art and song.

And two weeks ago, I found that it was the strength and grace and felt truth of those songs and Scriptures that both freed my tears, and – eventually – dried them. It was the beautiful words we say and sing that opened my heart to trust in the eternal life Jesus promises,  and reaffirmed my hope in a better beyond.

Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

All we go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song… 

There’s a gathering of spirits, there’s a festival of friends, and we’ll take up where we left off, when we all meet again. 

And even you, most gentle Death, waiting to hush our final breath – you lead back home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way hath trod. 

Changed from glory into glory,  till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.