Death: The final frontier? A sermon

Over here at Trinity Aurora, we have been preaching through a series called, “Shedding Some Light”, looking at some ongoing questions in the Christian faith. When the series is complete next week, I will put all the links up here. In the meantime, you can go to our website to hear some more great preaching from my colleagues.

This weekend I am working on my second sermon in the series, Family Values: What are they? I thought that maybe, first, I should share the sermon I preached last month, Death: The Final Frontier?. 

If you like to listen, then enjoy this webcast from our parish website.

Here is the text.

Not to brag, but just to plug, I have received more positive feedback on this sermon, including great ego pumping hyperbole, than I have on any other in 10 years of preaching. What do you think?

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Focus Texts: Revelation 21:1-7; John 14:1-5

I met Muriel when I received an emergency call to come to St. Martha’s Regional Hospital. She was living with her daughter, and this was the first of many “episodes” she would have. She was over 90 years old. She had collapsed and was fading in and out of consciousness. Her daughter called and asked for prayers.

Muriel recovered from that particular episode. During her stay at St. Martha’s, I got to know her as a hard and stubborn woman. However, if you are hard and stubborn with a strong Newfoundland accent, you get away with more, somehow. Muriel had moved from her beloved rock to Cape Breton Island, like many Newfoundlanders, so her husband could work in fish plants.

As the months wore on, Muriel was in and out of hospital, each episode lasting a little longer, getting a little bit worse, until finally she was recommended to full-time nursing care. Due to a bed shortage crisis in Nova Scotia’s nursing homes, the hospital improvised a new unit, Assisted Living Care, to care for those who needed full time assistance and were waiting for a nursing home bed. It was a very quick set up and very bare. And that’s where I found Muriel on Christmas Eve, all alone in a six bed ward, grey walls, nothing to see, no hustle and bustle. It was clear that she was not going to make it to the nursing home.

As I approached her bed, she recognized me and said hello. “Do you hear that?” she asked urgently.

All I heard was silence.

“I don’t hear anything Muriel. What is it?”

“Singing. Don’t you hear that singing?”

I listened as hard as I could. Was someone playing Christmas carols on a radio? Nothing.

“Sorry, Muriel, I don’t hear anything. What do you hear?”

“Singing and dancing, like at home.”

Now I was sure there was no ceilidh or kitchen party going on. I asked her to tell me more. She could hear feet stomping on wooden floor boards, a fiddle, laughter and singing. “And they are calling to me. Calling me to come home.” ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘This is Muriel’s send-off.’

“I’m sorry Muriel,” I said, “I don’t hear the music. I think it is just for you. But I wish I could. It sounds wonderful.”

“Well, it’s not. It’s driving me crazy!”

“I’m sorry.”

“They are too loud! They won’t let me sleep! I just want to go to sleep!”

++++++++

As a chaplain at St. Martha’s and the priest to an aging area, I have seen a fair bit of dying and death. I know the other priests here have seen a lot more, but I think I have seen a good share.

From the little I have seen, but I have confirmed it with those who have seen more, I have a hunch. It’s just a hunch, because I’ve never been there, never seen whatever comes after death. My hunch is, unless it is an instant death, when we are dying, that we choose when we die.

I have sat with people for weeks that should have died within hours. I have gone home expecting a long wait just to be told to come right back because she has died. I know people who have waited for kids to come from across the country, or have died before those who were too vulnerable to deal with the death could witness it. I remember one woman whose children kept vigil with her for 2 weeks. She died during the only 20 minutes she was left alone. I believe she couldn’t die in front of her children. Many of those who have to make amends wait as long as they can to make them and fight for every breath. Many of those who have said their goodbyes simply fall asleep.

Like I say, it’s a hunch. But it is a hunch that brings me great comfort. I like to think that the very last thing I do in my life is mine to control. I can surrender peacefully or I can go down fighting.

I share this with you because, when I ask those who are dying, “Are you afraid?” the answer I get most often is, “I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of dying.” Dying without dignity. Dying in pain. Not knowing what is happening to me, or not knowing my loved ones.

Thankfully, we live in a society that works to make dying as painless and comfortable as possible. We encourage loved ones to be close, to tell stories, to laugh and to weep openly. We monitor and administer medication to relieve pain. Most of us want to just die in our sleep. And, in Canada, most of us will.

+++++

Now, I know that my hunch is based on nothing more scientific or theological than interpreting my observations of those who are dying. But that is also the case with our biblical writers who have shared their visions and messages about life after death.

Many of us, myself included, have been taught that what happens after death is directly linked to judgement. Either we will be judged by our deeds or by our creeds. Either we have lived a good life, or that we have proclaimed a belief in Jesus Christ. If you were taught like me, you learned that you say yes to God, you go “up” or you say no to God in various way and you go “down”. That option sounds like a pretty human and small view of God’s grace to me.

The problem is not with judgement itself, but that we assume judgement will be carried out like we judge, and not how God judges. Our idea of judgement and salvation is like a court room, having to justify ourselves. Or our names being in a book, who is in and who is out.

But if you look in the psalms and throughout the Scriptures, judgement is welcomed, and salvation happens in our lives, not in death. God’s judgement means bringing justice to those who do evil, so the evil can be thwarted. But what if we are the ones doing evil? Then God’s response is forgiveness, not abandonment. Through God’s forgiveness, we are saved to continue to bear God’s light in the world.*

We have read the Scriptures looking to answer the question, “Who is in and who is out?” mostly to make absolutely sure that we are in. Jesus’ answer was, “Everyone is in”. Speaking to a world who believed in a theistic God, he said, “Everyone who believes, not just a select few.” Every time his followers or his questioners tried to exclude someone, or a group, or to define the boundaries, Jesus did the opposite. He did not exclude, or set up boundaries, or identify anyone outside the love of God. NO one is outside the love of God.

Ask Job or anyone in Scripture who asked God about eternal life or what lies beyond our existence. They would tell you it is far beyond our understanding. There is no human logic, philosophy or theology that can articulate the life waiting for us beyond death.

Our biblical writers, like us, had many questions about the great hereafter. There are many, many images in the Scriptures of what happens when we die. Paul wrote about levels of Heaven. The Revelation is about what we call apocalypse. Each are different. Human attempts to explain an existence beyond our own, beyond our desires, beyond our logic. While different, there are common threads.

The first is to bring comfort to those who have lost loved ones.

In the film, Black Robe, the Jesuit missionary is telling an Algonquin about Heaven. “Will my ancestors be there?” the Algonquin asked. The Jesuit said no, because they had not believed in Jesus. “Well, then,” the Algonquin replied, “Why would we want to go there?”

In Paul’s time, the Christians thought the second coming of Jesus would be in their lifetime. One of the questions the Corinthians asked was if those they had lost before they knew Jesus would be there after Jesus came. Paul assured them that they would. Throughout Scripture is the knowledge that we WILL be united with those we love but see no longer.

In our Gospel, Jesus uses the image of an inn. A familiar image to the disciples. They would know of the practice of a group of pilgrims sending one person on ahead to make sure rooms were available to meet their needs. It is comforting to know that where we are going is familiar, prepared especially for us so we will be comfortable. This is the gospel I preached at most funerals in Nova Scotia, because many of those I buried had lived in the same home with the same neighbours, family living close by, for decades.

For Thomas, his fear is being separated from his Saviour for eternity. Jesus assures Thomas that he will know the way, that Jesus will greet him and they will know one another.

The Scriptural images of life after death are written to bring hope. The Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is one man’s vision of the end of the world, from which we have taken many of our ideas of judgement and Heaven. However, for those who are living under oppression and violence, the Revelation is a message of hope. Today’s reading from the Revelation tells us there will be no more pain, no more tears, no more death. We will be united with God, in the constant presence of God’s overwhelming love and peace for eternity, together with all those we love.

Whatever struggle we are facing, whether it be life or death, or another current difficulty, the Christian message of hope is, “Do not be afraid. You are not alone.”

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see that God is greater than life and death, that not even death can separate us from God and God’s love. Whatever comes the moment we take our last breath, we are assured that there is nothing to fear.

While Muriel was hearing the kitchen party in her hospital room, driving her crazy, I sat in wonder. I have sat and listened through a few of these experiences, including my grandmother. When Muriel complained about the noise, I made a crazy suggestion. “Muriel,” I said, “You have lots of time to sleep. Why don’t you follow the voices? Go to the party? Stop in and have a cup of tea?” That was one of the last conversations Muriel had. She died shortly after.

++++++++++

The past few weeks as I have worked on this sermon, you can imagine I have had my difficult moments. Reflecting on life after death brings to mind everyone I have lost, those I have buried, my own fears and uncertainties.

I called someone I know who is dying of cancer. I asked, “What do you think is waiting for you when you die?” There was a pause. “Well, I don’t think much about that. I think more about the present.”

There is great wisdom there.

How would we live if we saw death as a part of life, rather than something to be fought? Could we, like my friend, be grateful for every day we have? If we have no fear of death, can we submit to God’s unfathomable and unconditional love? Would we love more freely?

We live with the assurance that death is not the end and love is eternal. Since we have nothing to fear about death, then let us live as who we are, mortal people with minutes, hours, days, months and years to love one another, to bring justice, to live in awe of our Creator, to weep, to play, to laugh, to work, to contemplate, to dance, to encourage, to love.

Then, when our day comes, when we begin the next big adventure, whatever that may be, let us not be afraid.

*McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. 2004. pp. 102-105

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