Transcribed from the sermon preached May 17, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
When I was a teenager, a good friend was sick and in the hospital. I should have gone and seen her, but I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t admit it, but I was afraid of sickness and death. I had lived a pretty sheltered life and I was really lucky that nobody in my family had suffered from serious illness or death yet. Or, if they had, my parents left me out of it. While Entertainment media seem obsessed with death and the dead, and global media feeds us a minute by minute picture of disaster and terror, real, personal dying and death has been removed and is almost invisible in society. The sanitary separation from sickness and death is a fairly recent cultural phenomenon.
Aries, in the Hour of Our Death, notes that the removal of death from society, from home to hospital and mortuary happened rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, with a growing understanding of hygiene, the rise of non-mobile medical technology, and increased popularity of embalming and funeral homes following the civil war. Up until the 20th century doctors came to patients; by the 1920s patients had begun going to doctors. An 1873 survey counted 178 hospitals in the United States, about 50 of which were for the mentally ill. By a 1923 survey, there were 6,830 hospitals. Death moved from home to hospital, where doctors assumed the power to define it, record pathological details, and control access to the patient. The assumption became that life must be sustained at all costs, and death became a failure, a business lost. (Aries, the Hour of Our Death)
Descartes’ objectification and identification of the body as machine to be fixed with reason, and the great success of medical science, has meant that the lead role in the drama of death is no longer the dying person, but the doctor hero who seeks to master nature and battle death in the patient. The focus of the battle between doctor and object with disease has become a distraction from the existential, spiritual, relational crisis within the dying human being and his or her family.
Recently several end-of-life cases have become big news. Now as a pastor of someone whose loved one is near death, my first job is to love you no matter what position you are able to take at any given moment. My first concern is not medicine or business or reason but love. I am not saying that those other things should not be considered, but they are not the primary concern of a Christian minister. If a surgery goes horribly wrong for a young girl, the mother is entitled to resist the horrible truth. God is gracious. And if I am the mother’s pastor, I have no choice but to stand by her side in love. When I saw Jahi McMath’s mother on TV with her minister by her side as she pleaded for continued life support, I identified with the minister. He had to be there, and he had to pray, and he had to believe that anything is possible.
But in her case, as with Terri Schiavo, I wondered what a minister might be doing behind the scenes. Is it the Christian position to sustain life at all costs? Is death a failure for Christian faith? If our prayer seems not to be answered in the way we want or hope, is it because we have failed to have enough faith? Are we cheating God and faith when we unplug machines?
Now each case is particular, so we dare not pass judgment on people in distant cases where medical and family details are not ours to know. Judge not that you not be judged. But let us as a Church proclaim the sovereignty of God over life and death.
As Christians we do not want death, but we need not run from or deny it when it arrives, for it surely will arrive for us all. We do not know the nature of heaven, of resurrection, of eternity, of life after death. We talk about mystery, the things we hope and intuit the things we get glimpses of but which are beyond our grasp; we talk about these mysterious things we do not fully grasp using language and symbols we do understand. Jesus uses language we can understand. We do not have to take it literally to receive hope and faith from it.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Heaven, whatever it is, wherever and whenever, is not going to run out of room. There is a place for you. “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
Now John’s Jesus starts talking about eternity and the disciples don’t quite get it. They want more information. Jesus then takes them into the present, to his own body. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know and have seen him…I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
As Christians we value the body and we value life, each body and each life, because the Spirit of God is alive within it. The Father is in Christ and Christ is within us. So it is natural that we value medical science, that as Christians we dedicate ourselves to vocations that promote health and well-being here and now. We live with purpose. We join and build communities that live with purpose. In this sense our living, our vocation becomes a prayer. Jesus says you will do “works even greater than these”; God uses us, the Spirit of God leads us to answer prayers. So we build houses, and sew clothes, and cook food, and pick up trash and practice law, we teach girls, and build hospitals and study medicine to answer prayers. And isn’t it amazing what God has done! So we value life and cooperation, we value technology and all the ways it helps us live and stay alive. And we hope and pray that it will work for us today and tomorrow. As Dylan Thomas wrote, “We do not go gentle into that good night.” We pray and hope that something will be found, that justice will be established well enough for individuals, communities and nations to flourish, that we will find a way to produce power in a way that won’t destroy the ecosystems upon which so much life depends, that something can be done to cure our disease, to cure the cancer of the one we love. We do not presume that we know all things, how answered prayer comes to pass, so we hold out hope that prayer works even if we don’t understand how, when or why.
Yet even the poet who cried, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” took hope from Paul’s letter to the Romans and sang: “Though lovers be lost, love shall not; and death shall have no dominion.” I think what Thomas means by not going gently into that good night, is not only do we fight to stay alive, but we also live life and go to death with tenacious faith that no matter how broken our bodies, our life is of value, of value to God, and the Spirit which gives us life and the power to live is greater than our physical ailments and death. So after we have fought the good fight, and our day comes, rather than go like a cat being dragged into a bath, we go with our spiritual heads up, standing tall, whether we can hold our physical head up or stand tall or not.
There is a moment of terror before death I believe we will all have. It is the fear of annihilation. It is the final realization that we have done all that we can do, and we are now utterly dependent on the fleeting light of hope in a gracious God. A stone that makes us stumble, a rock that makes us fall. All the things that we shouldn’t have done but did cannot be undone, and all the things that we should have done and did not do will not get done. Whether it is we who are dying or someone we love, death brings us face to face with our finality and finitude. We who are not dying would rather not face those realizations and so we will be tempted to attend to all sorts of tasks, to focus on doctors and procedures, on determining who did what wrong or right, on the legality of things, on the properness of things. Our culture is set up for death to be masked by these distractions, so it is work to stop, call upon the Holy Spirit, and be conscious and present.
As Christians, knowing we are saved by grace, we are confident God is still with us and loves us. God is our rock, and so we go with the power of the Holy Spirit to be present with one another. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. Since we have faith that death will not have dominion, we can acknowledge death, face death, and allow space for grief. We let them go; we let ourselves go into the loving hands of God. Terror subsides and grace abides.
God is gracious. If we contemplate this subject this morning, and do not have memories of regret, of things we wished we had done differently around those who were sick or dying, or after death in grief, then we probably haven’t had the experience at all. As followers of Christ living with fallible humans, we may have known sickness or been close to death, and people were not as helpful as they should have been. As Christ in strength has forgiven us, we ask for your forgiveness. And together we proclaim God is not done with us. Today is a new day. Life is beautiful. You are alive, and the Eternal Spirit of the loving God is within you.
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”