Listen to the sermon from Sunday, November 1, 2015 titled “Death and Life” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
The church is full today. Not an empty pew. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Those of you who are new don’t know some of the beloved in our midst. The pastors: Maddry. Smith. Mann. Purvis. The Deacons: Lattimore. Burns. Eskew. Anderson. The Benefactors: Lavender. Mueller. Miles. Barrow. The workers: Wingard. MacDonald. Wheless. So many more…
You don’t know them, but you owe them. They aren’t beatified by the Vatican, we don’t celebrate their birthdays, they aren’t listed in any encyclopedia of the saints. But they built this sanctuary. They integrated this congregation. They decided “world” in “For God so loved the world” meant all people, so they welcomed all people, even people of other races, of other nations, even gay and lesbian, even refugees and strangers, even the sick and poor.
They built this church for you. They may not be known in Constantinople or Rome, but they are the saints of UBC and they are with us as we worship here today. As they are with God and we are with God, we are all together with God. The church is full today.
And so it is whenever we gather here, but on All Saints Sunday we remember them and add to their number those who have crossed the thin line between here and there, between now and then, especially during the year past.
The Bible, the faith, and the church promise a future beyond this life held in God’s hands. Isaiah promised “God will swallow up death forever” (Isa 25:8). Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). And “John the Revelator” gives us the vision of a “new heaven and a new earth:
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
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.’
The descriptions the Bible gives us of life beyond death are neither literal nor scientific. Look up “heaven” in Google images and you will find some cheesy paintings that belong with Elvis on velvet. No, the scripture appeals to our imagination with beautiful word pictures, but the precise details remain a mystery. Perhaps we live forever in the memory of the eternal God. Perhaps we abide on in the impact our lives have made on others like ripples on a pond. Perhaps there is a place, another dimension God has prepared.
It’s a mystery that calls for faith, and the recurring near-death stories of “bright lights beyond” and “heaven is for a real” are nervous attempts at reassuring modern minds who have trouble trusting God with what we cannot comprehend. I don’t question the reality of those near death experiences, but they are just that: near death.
No, the Bible calls us to trust God with what comes next, in spite of our mortal insecurity and limited vision. As Emily Dickenson asserts:
I never saw the moor,
I never saw the sea.
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.
I never spoke with God
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
And actually the Bible is much more concerned with life before death. It sees life and death less as moments on a timeline than processes continually at work among us. We are always dying and rising, starting anew, dying, yes, but being born again, and again. In Christ, by the power of the resurrection, death is yet another birth.
Life and death are also choices we make along the way. Heaven and hell are already here, and though we seldom frame our decisions this way, each step we take, each word we say moves us towards the wholeness of life God wants for us or robs life from us and those around us. As Moses tells the Israelites in Deuteronomy: “I call on heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” (Deut 30:19).
Brian Blount notes in The Invasion of the Dead:
Dead is a relative term. So is life. We cannot comprehend the truth of the one without counterposing it against the other…
Death is not merely nonexistence. It is inauthentic existence. It is isolation. It is the absence of relationship. So the Bible speaks less of personal salvation but more in terms of the resurrection of the community, of the people of God in connection with God and each other, for there is no life without relationship. As Blount puts it: “The dead simply do not notice the other dead.”
He notes the recent cultural fascination with zombies, which expresses our deep fear of becoming the living dead ourselves, who no longer live before death, but who devour one another and the environment. And he suggests our Christian affirmation of the resurrection is not only a recognition that this life will seem zombie-like in comparison with the life to come, but that we begin a resurrected life now in the love of Christ and the beloved community.
He declares, as our text from Revelation suggests today, “Life is existence in direct proximity to God.” And our witness to resurrection in word and action is God’s primary weapon against the forces of death in our culture. In a culture of death, the church rises to confront the soul-killing injustice of the Powers. By the power of the Resurrection we declare that God has the final word, and that word is life!
Over against the cultural forces that turn us into isolated zombie consumers substituting smart phones for relationships, who fail to rise as an organized community of resistance, the church lives into the ultimate design of God by joining the martyrs and saints in the resurrection of the Prince of Peace, who loves and includes. In other words, in a world of death, we choose life – together in Christ.
The saints who have gone before us live among us in blessed memory, in their example of courageous witness to life that overcomes death. They live before God and as they are with God and we are with God we are all together with God. All of the saints, like the saints of UBC, were real people with chronic weaknesses and character flaws. They struggled as all of us do. But in their time, in their challenges, they chose life. Beloved, let us do the same!
As Emily Webb says in Thorton Wilder’s Our Town:
It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another… Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”
No, instead we live in busy fear and come to death with deep regrets like these: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” To which I would add one more: “I wish I had done more to help somebody else that will last beyond my lifetime.”
The church is full today. Not an empty pew. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. We remember the saints who have gone before us and pause to consider the impact of our own lives before we are done here. Listen. Do you hear them? They are asking, “What better choices might you make today?” They are encouraging: “Trust God, and choose life.”
Amen. May it be so. May we pray?
For all the saints who have embodied their love for you and paved our path with faith and hope and love, we thank you, God. For all the saints who have embodied your love for us to give us a rich heritage of grace, we praise your name. By their example and encouragement enable us to be saints for the generations to come that your light might shine in this place for saints yet to be born, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.