May 16, 2010, 7th Sunday of Easter

Sermon preached on Easter 7 (16 May, 2010) by Ted Berktold
At the Church of the Resurrection, Eugene

The whole of the Easter season is God’s answer to our unavoidable concerns about death. Jesus was killed, dead as could be, then rose from the grave. Perhaps that’s the focus for the whole Church Year, and the reason we don’t need to build pyramids to house a corpse. We hold onto the promise that our essence will continue when our bodies die. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we say when we bury someone. Much of our faith is about the body; the physical human body. It is, after all, the death of the body of Jesus, and the death of our own bodies, that initiates eternal life in its fullness. We believe that death is our entrance into the presence of God in a way that we can only sense here on earth. We get a foretaste of heaven in the Eucharist. We feel a union with God here in the midst of the Body of Christ, the Church. But we follow and celebrate a Savior who brings eternal life out of death.

My thirteen year old granddaughter prepared a list of books for me to read now that I am retired. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings top that list. Then comes: “Katurah and Lord Death” by Martine Leavitt. I read it first since it was a single modest volume. It’s a blend of folktale, myth and romance. Katurah is a young woman, lost in a forest, who is able to charm Lord Death with a story and gain an extra day of life, in which she must find true love. At one point, when she asks him if it hurts to die, Lord Death replies, “It is life that hurts you, not death.” “Tell me what it is like to die,” she says. “Is it like every night when I fall asleep?” “No. It is like every morning when you wake up,” he answers.

Some say that we are preoccupied with our bodily existence. Medical advances and our civilized way of living have prolonged life. We live, on average, twice as long as people lived a century and half ago. For most of us here today, physical existence is just about as good as it can possibly be, ever, anywhere, for anyone. Death brings that existence to an end. I think it is not so much that we are afraid of death as it is that we begrudge it. It interrupts and interferes with an existence that most of us enjoy, in spite of a certain amount of pain and anxiety. So we tend to think of death as the worst thing that could happen to anybody and we do everything we can to act as though it did not exist. We cloak it with flowers, we screen it behind sentimental music, and we almost never speak about it. It is the elephant in the room for us, isn’t it? Even as we rejoice with Natasha+ and Blaine at the birth of Thomas, we, like them, pray that he will survive multiple operations on his heart; that he will grow up and live a good life.

I want to speak about death today, not in the full splendor of New Testament faith, concerned not so much with what comes after death, as with the coming of death itself. Obviously my perspective is that of an older man who has already lived out most of his years. And I want to begin with this fact; death is not like a disease that comes to some but not to all; death comes to everybody. When you hear people talk about death it often sounds as if they were talking about a terrible accident, as though it struck some poor person who might ordinarily have been expected to avoid it. Death isn’t like that. Death isn’t a tragedy that hits one family and leaves another free and happy. It is more like birth; it happens to everyone. It has no favorites. The person who wrote the 90th psalm, one of the psalms used at burials, took a grim view of life, but at least he was realistic about death. “We are like grass,” he said. “In the morning, with the dew on it, we are fresh and green and alive, but then the reaper comes during the day and mows it, and when you see it in the evening, it is faded and withered.” We are like that, all of us. Here today and gone tomorrow.

The life of every single one of us comes to an end like a story that is told; that is finished. We don’t have all the time in the world. Some people have more time than others, but when you think about the age of the oldest person you know, it’s not very many years. So the psalmist prays, “Teach us so to count our days that we may take it to heart.” Recognizing the shortness of life, we can also appreciate the seriousness of it. I remember my favorite aunt’s final days when I was in my teens. She was a young Franciscan nun, a dynamic high school teacher, full of life and fun, and she was dying of cancer. She said that something happened to her in the few minutes after she left the clinic the day she was diagnosed to be terminal. Everything from that moment on made a deeper impression on her. She went back and read some of her favorite books, and enjoyed them even more than the first time she read them. She came to our farm to spend time with my Mom and our family, and then visited her other siblings. She eventually had only a few weeks, and then a few days. Every day was something precious; every moment was something to be treasured. The love we hoard up in ourselves and never spend on others, we will never give and never spend. The things we don’t appreciate now in life, the beauty in the world and all the things that make life so good, we will never enjoy. We have only one chance to live each day.

It helps me to remember that death is a normal part of a person’s existence. In itself, it is not evil. There may be evil circumstances, like the death that comes from terrorism or disease, or the painful death of starvation which thousands suffer every day. But death in itself is not evil, any more than birth is evil. Nor is death sad when you think about it as a universal experience. Many of us know all too well that with death comes sadness too deep for words when we are separated from someone we have loved. Separation saddens us.

Let me tell you something else about death. There are things that do not die. Beethoven died in 1827, but the concerto he wrote when he was a young man will outlast him for how many years to come? God’s creation, the mountains and the oceans, the sun and earth and stars, outlast and outlive us. Last week I was on the way to school with my grandson who is in the first grade. He informed me that the sun would burn up in five million years and suck the earth and the planets into itself. Not knowing if this worried him, I said, “We won’t have to worry about something that going to happen so many years from now, will we?” “Well, Grampy, you sure won’t!” he replied. Our birth, our life, our death, rest in God in whom we can put our trust. The majesty and timelessness of God is our final defense against the fear of death. The beauty all around us and the glory that can only be from God gives us hope. In spite of the fact that death comes to all of us, that life is short and therefore so serious, nevertheless, life is safe because God is so great. God is our dwelling place from generation to generation. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

The God of each sun rising
With new life so surprising
Come to us

The Bread of Life, our Savior
Live in us forever,
And give us the grace to come to you. Amen.