Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Facing Death, Facing Life

Martin Luther, the noted reformer and the patron saint of our own Cynthia Biddlecomb and Valerie Fassbender, once said of the Book of Revelation: “People are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it.” More than that, he actually wanted it removed from the canon of Scripture.  Suffice it to say, his opinion of this book was snake-belly low.  In some sense, I get his point.  It’s a cryptic book, full of extravagant and bizarre imagery.  It’s hard to decipher the meaning and significance underneath the layers of allegory and symbolism.  It was written in a specific context for a specific people, and as we are not first-century Christians living under Roman oppression, much of its significance is lost to us.  To quote one of my seminary professors, summarizing Martin Luther: “A book called Revelation should actually reveal something.”

But, pushing back against Blessed Martin, I do believe it reveals something significant and extraordinary.  It reveals an image that, for me, is a persistent source of hope and comfort: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Here, we catch a glimpse of the consummation of all things…the restoration of all things…the true and final defeat of death, its existence wiped away like chalk off a blackboard.  We are reminded of the goodness of a God who came to live among us, to be beside us, to share in our struggles and victories.  And we have that wonderful image of our tears being wiped away by the graceful touch of a God who loves us far more than we deserve.

It’s a curious passage though, at least in terms of how often we hear it read from Episcopal lecterns.  With a bit of research, I discovered there are only four occasions at which we hear this passage from Revelation.  The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C, which is today.  The Feast of All Saints in Year B, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and, most profoundly, at the Burial of the Dead.  In short, we hear this passage from Revelation whenever we are called to face death, whether in the present at a funeral, or when we remember the death of saints and innocent children in the past.  And quite frankly, I’m glad we are hearing this passage today, because it seems like there has lately been so much death in our community and in our world, and I’m just sick of it.  From more distant tragedies like the death of a pop star, to more intimate tragedies like the deaths of friends and loved ones in Los Alamos or abroad, we have been facing death far too often during this Easter season, a season in which we are called to proclaim new life in Christ and victory over the grave.

Perhaps our context really isn’t that much different from those first Christians who received the Revelation of John and heard it read in their communities, the ink still fresh on the scroll.  Those early Christians had to face death even as they too were preaching the Gospel of Resurrection.  As the early Christian communities were learning how to live as vessels of resurrection power, their lives were being poured out, the light of their lives snuffed out by violence and death.  They too encountered the sometimes senseless, sometimes very intentional deaths of their loved ones as they were keeping the feast and praising the Risen Christ.  It seems, then, that from the beginning, much of living as an Easter people is found right in the midst of the paradox of declaring life even when we feel overcome by death.

And truly, proclaiming the Christian Gospel is to embrace a certain kind of paradox.  We are called to be the people who shout aloud, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” even as we know intimately the piercing sting of someone’s death, or hold in our hands the broken body of a beloved friend.  Even a funeral itself is a living embodiment of this paradox.  We gather in mourning and yet we praise with a loud voice the same Risen Lord whose power we seek this Eastertide.  And dang it if it isn’t hard to maintain ourselves when this paradox confronts us and turns our world upside down.  As I wrote this sermon, I came across an image that so clearly illustrates the crushing weight of grief.  It’s a wire sculpture of a human being, on its knees.  It would be hollow if it weren’t for the hundreds of rocks weighing it down.  That’s the weight of grief…where we might desire to stand and be free but we are held down by its crushing weight.

Yet, as St. Paul said in 1 Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Understandably, and totally appropriately, we may feel crushed by the weight of grief, we will mourn when we face death, we may even be overcome for a time by its pain…yet we can remain a people who are not lost on that black sea of despair.  For we are a people whose hope does not rest in this life, but in the God who has always been in the business of Resurrection.  This is the God who raised Israel from the death-stained clutches of Egypt.  This is the God who raised and restored the broken body of Jesus from the grave.  And this is the God who, at the end of time, will silence the tyrannical voice of death that whispers songs of desperation into our ears…who will wipe the last tear from our eyes and give us reason to never weep again.  This is the God who will make all things new, taking a world that has experienced far too much destruction and death and will make of it a paradise of beauty and life.  This is our God.  And our God is the bedrock of our hope.

The fact that we are reading and receiving John’s vision nearly 2,000 years after it was delivered to the churches is a testament to both the power of its words and the strength of the human spirit to face tragedy with the conviction that death does not have to determine and destroy our lives.  This isn’t to ignore the emotional impact that death and tragedy have on us, or to ignore the fear that comes when we face our own mortality.  Rather, it’s to recognize that whatever hardships come our way, however painful and devastating they may be, can be faced with an endurance that depends less on us and more on the God who has always, and will always, make a way for God’s beloved children.  If Easter Day is a day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, then perhaps the Easter season is a season to celebrate our own resurrection.  We are the people for whom a way has been made…a way to endure, a way to thrive, a way that leads to life everlasting, even if that way is often difficult and painful.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

*A sermon preached on the fifth Sunday of Easter 2016 at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6, and John 13:31-35.

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