The sermon for week September 18, 2011
September 18, 2011 WHAT GOES ON OVER, OVER THERE? Phi. 1:20-26
When I was a child, my bedroom for a few years was in the attic of our home. The attic was in the shape of an ‘L’ and my room was at the short end of the ‘L’. The room had no walls or ceiling except the frame of the house. During the daytime my imagination made the room a sheriff’s office in a western town, or a hideaway cabin in the woods or a clubhouse where friends, real and imagined, would meet.
At night, however, my room became a den of fear. The bedrooms on the first floor were located at the back of the house. The steps leading to the attic were at the front of the house next to the front door. Every night, I laid in bed, my eyes wide open, my body fighting sleep, my soul terrified, listening for the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
The room was filled with sounds and I would listen to each one, discerning if it came from the darkened steps and if it was drawing closer and closer. A friend of mine told me once she was going to write a book entitled, “Why Do Squeaks Only Come Out at Night?” and I understood her title from those terrified sounds at night. The attic was filled with them, and the only one which brought comfort was the sound of rain upon the roof, because that sound drowned out all the other sounds. But other than the nights it rained it was my duty as a child to fight off sleep and to stand guard against the darkness.
It is the memory of those nights that prompted my childhood thoughts of death, because in childhood it was not just the fear of the stranger heard on those creeping steps it was the fear of death they evoked. If someone was to ask me how I as a child viewed death, I would have told them death is like the fear of the darkness and terror of those attic nights. And, the only response you can make is to lay there, frozen, immoveable and hope you will not be seen. I don’t know how sleep ever came because I fought it with everything that was in me.
The fear of death, and what goes on over, over there were the same. I could not distinguish the fear of death from the thought of what death might be. I have been a Woody Allen film fan most of my adult life, and I think it began with his classic, somewhat autobiographical movie, Annie Hall. I believe it is at the beginning of the movie where it shows little Woody Allen at about the age of eleven, sitting in a psychiatrist's office, his mother next to him. Little Woody Allen is depressed. The doctor asks him why. Woody says, “The earth is winding down. It is going to go out of existence.” The doctor says, “But that is not for a couple of billion years.” Little Woody Allen says, “See what I mean. What’s the use?” My experience was less existential, I wasn’t as smart as Woody, but I felt he must have also fought sleep in an attic room.
Even more ancient are the words of the psalmist. He feels himself in despair, sick, dying, or perhaps just an image of the uselessness of it all and out of that hollowness he cries out to God. It might be the cry of any man or woman, or a child, or the cry of our age, sophisticated in our beliefs, but frightened by our prospects.
“Turn, O Lord, save my life,” the psalmist cries. “Deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of You, in Sheol, who can give you praise?”
The word Sheol in the Old Testament was the nebulous, shadowy, faceless abode you went when you died. It was a dark place, a place to be feared, a place where rejoicing ceased. Life was what you could see and touch, death was its cessation. When you died, there was maybe a lingering, but it was only a shadow of your former existence. It was a taking away, a vapor of your former self.
When the psalmist prayed, “Save my life,” it was a desperate plea. Only the deep, dark abyss waited him when he died. “Save my life,” he pleaded to God, “For in death there is no remembrance of You, in Sheol who can give you praise?”
This is one understanding of death. Death holds such fear you are afraid to move. You lie frozen between the sheets of your bed. Inside yourself you think of all the things you would like to do, the places you would like to go, the type of friends you would like to meet, the type of person you would like to be, the causes in which you believe, but the fear of the unknown immobilizes you, and that is what the fear of death is, the fear of the unknown, and where it is unknown fear rules your imagination.
There is an alternative. It is the one of which the Apostle Paul is a chief advocate, and we heard it read this morning. Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ and to die gain.” How different these words are from the psalmist. It is perhaps overly simplified, the difference between the Old and New Testament. At that division, when you cross over from the book of Malachi to the Gospel according to Matthew, it is as if for the first time you are crossing the abyss and you are being allowed that view of death that has never before been seen. You are in a new frontier and you are there and you are not afraid of being there because Christ has preceded you to that place. The difference is Christ.
Christ came amongst us, born in a manger; Christ lived amongst us, teaching and healing, Christ died amongst us, nailed to a cross, but the difference is, Christ rose amongst us, revealing a Love that has no boundaries, including death. The Apostle Paul in another letter says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people, most to be pitied.” He continues, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
The fear of death is conquered and Paul knows that no longer does death foreshadow that deep, dark abyss called sheol, but it is the place where Christ is. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” In Philippians as Paul’s mind wonders through the implications of this great truth, he writes to the church at Philippi, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
In those terrified nights as a small boy I came across a book owned by my father and stored in the attic. It was a book that purported to tell what it would be like after we died. It went into great detail about what heaven would look like. It described the streets and the gates and the mansions each of us would inherit. It was in essence no more than the fantasies in which we sometimes indulge when we buy a dollar lottery ticket or watch the life styles of the rich and famous on reality TV. It was also that kind of book which has been used to suppress an oppressed people, saying to them, accept your meager life now because here is what awaits you in heaven.
That book didn’t help very much and it didn’t help because it had no soul in it, the same as what I find when I linger for awhile on any of the real housewives series on the Bravo network. What I needed to hear and what each of us needs to hear as an adult is that God is love, and that there is no place we can go where God is not, and at the entrance to death when life on earth as ended, that love revealed in Christ meets us and the love of Christ embraces us. It is not a dark night that enshrouds us but a shining light that leads us. It is not an abyss we fall into but a love that lifts us up.
“For to me to live is Christ,” says Paul, “and to die is gain.” It is in this context we are to understand why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and activist, opposing Hitler during World War II, who as a prisoner of the gestapo, on the morning of the day he was taken naked to be hung, could say to his fellow prisoners, as the guards took him away, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”
It is a radical form of trust that in whatever death is, we need not fear its reality, because God’s Love as revealed to us in Christ, is the greatest reality of all, greater than death, and contrary to what we think of as the mystery of death, is revealed for us in every act of loving on earth, the perfect Love that casts out fear.
So you pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words our living here on earth should match what we believe to be about heaven. In fact, eternity is not something for which you wait, , but something that has invaded the here and now. So, Paul says, “To live is Christ,” and to keep on living he says, “is more fruitful labor for me.” You rise up. You get involved. You work for peace, you seek for justice, you stand for something, you do something, because you know the same Christ you meet in the stranger, and to whom you offer yourself, is the same Christ you will meet in death, or vice versa, the same Christ you look forward to meeting over, over there, is the same Christ who meets you here.
So, we exclaim, as they did in the Bible and we do at every graveside, “Where oh death is your sting? Where oh, death is your victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I had a friend who said to me that if it is true the soul lingers near the earth for a time after death, he wanted to travel in his spirit. He wanted to see in spirit, the things he never saw in life. He said, in his spirit, he would like to travel the world. He wanted to see England, he wanted to see India, the countries of Africa, the deserts of Asia.
This friend of mine had missed the point. He sat in his apartment, depressed that life had been so harsh, and he dreamed of seeing the world when he died, never considering that perhaps those dreams were for earth, that he might know now, the eternity for which he waited. In the thought of Paul death and life intermingle, they are interrelated, they each contribute to the whole. Paul wrote, “For, as I passionately hope...the greatness of Christ will shine out clearly in my life, whether through my life or through my death.”
There is not that great divide with Paul. The joy we find being with Christ here on earth, whether expressed in a sunset or bending down to help another human being, is the joy that comes with the morning when all tears will be wiped away. You can risk completeness in life, because that is your destiny in eternity. How different that is from the words of the psalmist. Don’t let the dark night of an attic room be that which informs you of death. But instead let it be the highest mountain and the clearest day and the most vivid vision of peace on earth that guides you because in whatever is to be, it is this most of all.
It is not because in your doing you make it so, but it is because in your doing you see, it is so.
I confess, however, I do not have a clear vision of what goes on over, over there. My image is not well formed. In many ways it is like the psalmist, foggy, blurred. I simply do not know. But here is the difference. Whatever it is I trust in the radicalness of God’s Love, revealed for me in Jesus Christ, the same love that meets me day by day, and I give myself to it, and I hope in it, and I trust in it for whatever will be, without having to know exactly what that is, except that I am Loved by the same Love I see in Jesus, and out of that Love I believe there is no place I can go where God is not, and by that Love I want to live my life, so others can have the same hope and know the same Jesus who loves them with an everlasting love, a love, in life or death, that will not let them go.
Death, thou are too weak.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.