"DEATH" - I Corinthians 15:12f

 A few of you know that I have become a big fan of “THE DAILY.” “The Daily” comes out each weekday - a free podcast - and once you download the app, it shows up every weekday for your listening pleasure. Hosted by Michael Barbaro, 20 minutes each day, you get some really important and fresh insights on pertinent news. Michael Barbaro writes for the New York Times and, on “The Daily,” he simply calls up his colleagues all around the world, who also work at the New York Times, but who are working on the hottest stories. You get a great conversation and keen insights into the latest news. It is fascinating, fun, and so informative.

            Today’s “Word of the Week” emerged from a recent podcast on “The Daily.” Even with all the news of terror attacks, and Senate hearings and “who said what to whom,” and continuing worries about Russia, and more, Michael Barbaro presented a piece on . . . “DEATH.” He called up his NY Times colleague, Catherine Porter, who had written a story about a man named John Shields. John Shields lived in Victoria, BC, Canada, and the story was about Canada’s new law that allowed “medical assistance in dying.” Here is the opening of the story:

            Two days before he was scheduled to die, John Shields roused in his hospice bed with an unusual idea. He wanted to organize an Irish wake for himself. It would be old-fashioned with music and booze, except for one notable detail — HE would be present. The party should take up a big section of Swiss Chalet, a family-style chain restaurant on the road out of town. Mr. Shields wanted his last supper to be one he so often enjoyed on Friday nights when he was a young Catholic priest — rotisserie chicken legs with gravy.

            Then, his family would take him home and he would die there in the morning, preferably in the garden. It was his favorite spot, . . . Before he got sick, Mr. Shields liked to sit in his old Adirondack chair and watch the bald eagles train their juveniles to soar overhead. He meditated there twice a day, among the towering Douglas firs. (See NYT, May 25, 2017) So that is where he wanted to die – in his garden.

            Tormented by an incurable disease, John Shields knew that dying openly and without fear could be his legacy, . . . if his doctor, friends and family helped him.

            Mary Oliver, the poet, has that pressing question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

            John Shields wanted to die as well as he lived – with dignity and grace, surrounded by love and striving to love others, and leaving the world a better place. “What could be more meaningful than planning for the end of your life?” he said.

            So that was the plan. He decided that the time had come with his increasing pain and decreasing cognizance.

As it turned out, it was too problematic to take him from the hospice center where he had been staying, to his home and garden. (We can’t always get everything, right?). So he got his friends and loved ones to come to the hospice center, and they arranged a party around him.

It was a bit awkward, at first – this so-called “party.” Everyone was sad and uncertain; but they shared John’s favorite meal, and then they began sharing from their hearts. One after another, proclamations of love, admiration, and gratitude poured forth. They thanked their host for opening his door when they were brokenhearted. They thanked him for his friendship. They thanked him for his courage. And time and again, Mr. Shields acknowledged and thanked each speaker and doled out some tailor-made insight or joke to lighten the mood. When a former colleague planted a goodbye kiss on his lips, he unleashed more laughter with the quip: “I was just thinking, ‘I’d like to see more of that.’ Then I thought, . . . ‘That’s not a good idea.’”

            Clearly, this was sacred time, full of honor and ritual, full of love, with a worshipful litany of affirmations about friendship, courage, and the purpose of living. He thanked his friends one more time. When they came to their death, he said he hoped they were as happy as he was. “I’m welcoming you all to sing it with joy,” he said.

            The next morning, as planned, the doctor came with the appropriate drugs. With just his closest loved ones next to him in a circle, they set up a small altar of items important to his journey. They lit candles, covered him with a blanket, and the doctor invited John Shields “to go to the light.” He gave her a thumbs up and they shared in various words and readings, including the prayer of St Francis – Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon. The doctor gave him the drugs and he went into a deep sleep. His death took just 13 seemingly painless minutes.

            John Shields’ final days, and his desire to die well, including the words spoken during his final supper, and the descriptions of his final moments, seem so filled with a certain, wonderful sacredness.

We do not usually do very well with this subject - DEATH. How many of you saw the “Word of the Week” and thought – “oh no, not that……”?

            Someone – not a part of our church community - asked me this week what I was preaching about on Sunday. I told them that the “Word of the Week” was DEATH. They said, “Really, . . . is your congregation THAT old?” J But then I chimed in – “well, the word is DEATH, but the subject is really LIFE – living and trusting God, especially in the face of death.” The word is DEATH – it happens to all of us - but the emphasis is living and life beyond death: whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. Faithful people of God live in confidence and courage, even facing death. Faithful people know that death is part of life; so we live, not fearing death, but loving and serving and going to God.

            Let’s look together at the passage for today from I Corinthians:

12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            There is no denying DEATH in this passage. Death is real. Death often separates us from those whom we love. Death can be scary because it is full of unknowns. Death can come quickly and violently, which brings many very difficult challenges. It can come slowly and painfully, which brings another set of challenges. None of us know when or how we will die, and we would rather NOT think about it. Then, while we know we are ALL going to die, we procrastinate about making plans – about our funeral, about our loved ones after we die, about our stuff. We are really good at living as if we are NOT going to die.

            But Paul’s point in writing here, as Jesus does all through the gospels, focuses us not on DEATH, but on God, and living life as God’s people, even in the face of death. God’s love holds us. God’s light shines in our darkness. Death is not the end. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. This is the framework for our living – whether we are young and vigorous, going to work and living and finding joy in summer markets and summer trips, . . .  or whether we are facing surgery and uncertainty, . . .  or whether we are in the final stages of our journey here on this earth. These promises intend to shape our lives: God’s love holds us forever; nothing can separate us from God. Even though death comes to all of us, life is held by God. Death is part of life. Death is the passageway into God’s full presence, when God reigns in fullness.

The great spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, gets right to the heart of it when he says this: If you want to identify me, ask me NOT (what I do), or where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. (From The Daily Dig, and My Argument with the Gestapo)

God wants us to LIVE, even in the face of death, because whether we live or whether we die we belong to God.

As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians, as the passage continues,

50What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” . . .  57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

            Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. When we die we are enfolded into the fullness of God’s love. The perishable puts on imperishability. Life, not death, is what prevails, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

            There is a story about Boston University. They invited their oldest living alumnus of their seminary to return and speak at graduation. Much to the chagrin of the students, who were not so interested in the oldest alum giving the commencement address, the day came and they draped the elderly man over the pulpit in the chapel. He gazed out at the students and said, “I would like to thank my alma mater for setting me free without setting me adrift.” And he sat down. (see Living the Questions, Felton and Procter-Murphy, p 228)

            Isn’t that what it is always about – when mystery is embraced, freedom is embraced. Those who live with the full confidence of God’s love and promises can trust God even in the face of death. Those who remain hopeful of God’s grace, receptive to God’s loving arms, attentive to God’s light, especially in the darkness, will know freedom and peace. This is what God intends. Death is real, but death has no sting. Death is swallowed up in victory. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.

            I am inspired by the life and grace, the courage and calm of John Shields, who had a deep sense that moving on from his pain and suffering would bring peace for himself and even his loved ones. He knew he would be set free, not set adrift. I am inspired by others who hear Paul’s words and know that “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  . . . thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            This news about resurrection and life – and victory over death – intends to absolutely inspire how we live each day. We – and all people – matter to God so much that we will be enfolded forever in God’s love and light. That news intends to make us more loving, more generous, more forgiving, more grateful. We matter to God so much that DEATH is NOT the last word. Life with God is the last word. And that news intends to empower us and embolden us with grace and commitment and calm to face whatever comes our way. That news intends to make us the kind of loving, trusting, serving people of God. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. So let’s live like that, and work always – today, tomorrow, forever – to promote the light and life of Christ our Lord. Nothing in life or death can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, Lord; we do. Help our unbelief. And cover us with your Spirit so we can live with faith, hope, and love, especially in the face of death. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on June 11, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansAlex Evans