For a Week Like This: Sermon Based on Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:5-15

For the scripture texts, go here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+10%3A5-15&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
and here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Matthew+14%3A22-33&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
          For decades the best news many heard each week was from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” I bet many would’ve been thrilled this past week if our biggest news was that there were too many tomatoes in people’s gardens. Instead we’ve had a steady diet of bellicose bombast from US and North Korean leaders and updates from Charlottesville about the most recent protest by KKK members, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, and news of subsequent deaths and injuries. If we ever needed to hear different news, especially the odd and radically different good news of the Gospel, this would be it.
          But at such a time, today’s assigned texts seem irrelevant, even ludicrous. Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is part of a larger, three chapter long soul-searching struggle: if Jesus really is God’s main man for setting things right between God and us and showing us how to live truly with one another, why haven’t Christ’s own people and Paul’s faith family bought in? If Jesus really is true, why don’t God’s chosen and favored people, the Jews, see the light?
          This isn’t a little mind game for Paul; it causes him anguish, grief. The Jews are God’s uniquely chosen and adopted; they experience God’s glory and presence in a matchless relationship of worship and commitment; he says, “to them belong the promises, the favored faith ancestors; from them has come the chosen Messiah who is over all, God blessed forever.”
          How did things go wrong? A few verses before our reading Paul affirms that his fellow Jews have real love and devotion for God. The problem is that they don’t truly get who God is or how to be in a right relationship with God. The truth is that often we don’t get it, either.
          Paul says there are two ways to be right with God and each other. One is to keep the rules, cross all the t’s, dot all the i’s. In other words, prove we’re worthy of God’s love and deserve special favor and treatment. Paul writes, “Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the law, that the person who does these things will live by them;’” or as another translation puts it, “a person can become acceptable to God by obeying God’s Law in scripture; if you want to live you must do all that the Law commands.”
          At my age I go to lots of funerals; I often hear about how great and good a person was, so there’s no question: they’ve earned their heavenly reward. On the other hand, many young folks believe in so-called moralistic therapeutic deism: there is a God who created everything and watches over us but isn’t too involved in life, except when we need help with a problem; this God wants us to be good, nice, play fair, be happy and feel good about ourselves; and if we do that we’ll go to heaven when we die. Truth be told, many learned that in Sunday School and in countless children’s sermons. And in between youth and age, it’s tempting to believe we’re God’s favorites because we work hard, or get the best grades or the most Instagram likes, or live in the right area or are the right color or gender or live in the best nation or chose the right religion; we even believe that people are poor because they deserve it, which means I deserve being well off. I’ve earned it, by God. We create a world of winners and losers, them and us, insiders and outsiders, chosen and rejected. But it’s life on a very shaky foundation. If we’re not always and everywhere the absolute best bringing our A Game, then confidence and entitlement evaporate. What if we’re not good enough, smart enough, hard working enough? There’s no rest or real joy; we only have disquiet, stress, fear as we anxiously look over the shoulder at who’s catching up. There’s no real community of care because you’ re a competing threat; we can live glibly together, but in a crunch you can soon become my enemy. It’s a helluva way to live.
          But God intends another truer way, a more blessed way. In Romans Paul describes another righteousness that comes from faith, trust, and confidence in God, not in ourselves. The God met in Christ loves us, is for us, cherishes us simply because we are, is always at work for the good of all of us, and simply will not leave us or forsake us or abandon us to fend for ourselves. Your pastor got it right in his Easter sermon this spring: there’s absolutely nothing you can do to keep God from loving you. This is the faith of Jesus; he lived his life all the way to the cross and beyond, trusting in God and God’s loving care above all else. And God said “Yes!” to that kind of trusting faith and blessed it as the right way to live by raising Christ from the dead. The Risen Christ is alive in our midst and not far off. And the great good news is that I am most alive when I learn by heart to live trusting in that God, too. Best of all, Paul says that blessed better way is for all: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; everyone: Jew and Gentile, American and North Korean; white and person of color; anyone will be saved who trusts and believes that God loves and forgives and accepts and shows mercy toward all and wants abundant life for every last one of us.
          Now that’s not me just saying the right thing or having the right feeling in my heart. To say Jesus is Lord means no one or nothing else has first place in my life: not my race or nation or a political leader or ideology or tax bracket or anything else. And believing that in my heart is not cozy warm fuzzy feeling. If I confess from the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, that means I stake everything on trusting that is the way to live and commit body and soul to doing so. I will not be ashamed to live like that. No matter what, I will give myself to living that way, come what may. That is the Jesus Way. The world’s dying to see us live like that’s true and real. What a blessing to lay down the burden of proving our worth; to experience joy and live lighter. It is God’s gift to us.
          I’ll spend my whole life learning to receive and trust the gift fully. I’m like Peter in today’s gospel story. I want to trust that Christ is near and step out in faith even in the dark; sometimes I actually do so. But when life’s storms threaten or fears batter I quickly can sink in doubt. Thank God, Christ still reaches out today to save me and help me walk in faith and trust again.
          Today while the governments of North Korea and the US play a cosmic size game of chicken, Christians in both North and South Korea are united in praying, as they do every August, for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Those prayers from the hearts of countless Koreans north and south, on both sides of he Demilitarized Zone, are being joined by many other Christians connected globally through the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. Jesus people trust it is more holy to live from mercy and grace than fire and fury; we know the Lord of all is generous to all who call to him.
          This week a friend asked prayers for her nephew Jason Kessler, the young man at the heart of yesterday’s Unite the Right event in Charlottesville. She’s pained that Jason’s alienated from his whole family, angry and hate-filled. They were all worried, disheartened and concerned for his safety. Jason’s aunt reported something remarkable: First United Methodist Church was Ground Zero for people of faith to gather to bear witness against hate, and one of the pastors at the church reached out to Jason to offer sanctuary if he felt threatened in any way. It is that odd way of Jesus, to trust that God wants life for all.
          In yesterday’s chaos and anger there I saw Christ as clergy and other people of faith stood between protesters and counter-protesters. In a photo they were linked arm in arm in an alternating pattern so they faced both sides as if, through them, God was calling all to turn and live and be saved. Tragically someone spurned his invitation; a life was lost and others maimed, by a hate-driven guided missile of a car. All the more reason for us to continue to bear witness to the truth we know in Christ.
          Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace it’s because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” Our wounded woebegone world aches to hear our good news. How beautiful our feet when we bring it, our mouths when we tell it, our lives when we live it. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.
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FOR THE LIFE OF ME: DEALING WITH DEATH IN A CHANGING LANDSCAPE: PART 3 – Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?

Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.”  At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to  think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.

Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner.  Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.

To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-in-the-changing-american-landscape-part-1/

and here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-death-in-a-changing-landscape-part-2-is-it-our-fear-of-death/

What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well.  It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death.  A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.

Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic.  To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.

Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either.  For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place.  Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death.  As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant.  Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning?  One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they  have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality.  But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential?  Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea?  What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant.  So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life.  Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours.  Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.

Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair.  There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest).  There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.”  Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate.  If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty.  Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.

In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.  I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.  I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.  I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.  I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.  Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).

What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own.  Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.”  In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”

But a death has occurred.  Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything.  This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.

My father died in 1987.  On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.”  It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.

Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’  Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’  As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation.  It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English.  At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life.  That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).

As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good.  Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully.  Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.