Here is the full manuscript for today’s sermon, which is the first in this series. The audio will be online, probably by Wednesday. Next Sunday, May 8, we will hear perspectives from our Associate Pastor (and former Congregational Care Minister), the Rev. Stephen Coleman.
Last Sunday night, I was answering questions posed to me by members of our Youth Group when I was asked this question: “Why are we having a sermon series on death anyway?” As it turns out, this series represents our return to the Revised Common Lectionary readings for a while, and these readings just happen to include passages from the Farewell Discourse of Jesus, found in the Gospel of John, chapters 14 through 17, wherein Jesus prepares his disciples for his impending death and resurrection.
I got the idea for this series from the book The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade by the poet and novelist Thomas Lynch. In it, he writes about death from the perspective of his other vocation, that of a small-town undertaker.
He brings a unique perspective to his reflections upon death and dying, mainly because he has done something so few people do anymore: prepare people and bodies for death.
We know from John 20 that this was not always the case. The first Easter begins with Mary on her way to the tomb to finish burial preparations for the body of Jesus, and it is there that she encounters the risen Lord.
All of this made me think about the preachers here at Reveille, because again, so few people have the experience of ministering to the dying and then retelling the story of the dead at their services of death and resurrection. Therefore it is my prayer that this sermon series will enable us to think about death within the context of the eternal life that we as Christians profess, and that we will benefit from the perspectives of those who have seen death while preaching life and hope as your clergy have for so long.
With this in mind, let us hear the familiar words of this funeral text from John 14: 23-29:
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
I remember that it was a about fifteen years ago, that it was a Sunday, and we were in that short period of time between Sunday School and the 11:00 service when she told us. Her name was Edith Woods, a woman in her seventies, and on that particular Sunday, she was characteristically poised and elegant.
Larry, the Senior Pastor and I were standing just inside the church office, by the mailboxes. She was wearing a silver broach and a yellow sweater when she told us that her cancer had returned, she said “I want you to know that I am doing just fine and I do not need anything, but I wanted you to know.”
Edith was already a walking miracle. She was nine years in from her original diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and her physician had told her that she was one of two people he had ever heard of to live that long with that diagnosis. But now it was back, and now, Edith had decided, it was time to start talking about it to the two clergymen who would bury her.
In this morning’s text, Jesus has a similar conversation with his disciples. He tells them, in no uncertain terms, that he is about to die. Indeed, the disciples likely did not understand what Jesus meant by the coming of the Holy Spirit and they probably could not fully process him saying “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.”
Yet in this Farewell Discourse, this talk Jesus has with his disciples that represents nearly a sixth of the entire gospel of John, Jesus’s tone changes in a way that is beautiful and intimate and unique.
You see, the Jesus presented in the Fourth Gospel is quite different than the way he is presented in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John, Jesus is so sure of himself. John is the gospel of the famous “I am” sayings of Jesus: I am the way, the truth, and the life, I am the vine and you are the branches, I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” In John’s gospel, Jesus does not perform miracles. He performs signs, signs which demonstrate his unique relationship with God the Father, signs which confirm that he is the Christ.
Throughout the gospel, he is so confident in himself, and now, at the very end in his Farewell discourse, he is so confident in his disciples who he now calls friends and not disciples, and their ability to be able to withstand his death, which at first glance seems to undermine every teaching, every sign, every word he ever said to them and to those around him.
Edith and I sat together one afternoon, in the front room of her old home, near the banks of the Warwick River, the late afternoon sun streaming through the large picture window, her brown, long-haired cat pawing at the storm door, trying to get out. Edith was taking oxygen now, the disease had progressed even further. Yet other than the oxygen tank, she was the same poised and elegant woman I had always known her to be.
I asked her how she was and she told me this: “Doug, every morning when I wake up, I open my eyes and I just thank God for seeing me through one more night. I am just so very thankful. Then at night, I lay in bed and before I go to sleep, I thank God for one more day because it was such a blessing. I give thanks to God, and I go to sleep. I am just so grateful for everything that I have.”
As I drove home that afternoon, and a hundred times since, I have reflected upon that conversation. A career in ordained ministry and so many conversations with the dying and the grieving later, and I have realized how that afternoon, that conversation, that life and witness was like a second seminary for me. It made me understand at last what John Wesley meant when he said of the Methodists, “Our people die well.”
That conversation, and others since, have embedded in my heart and mind what Jesus, the dying, said to his friends who would outlive him, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe” as he told them again and again, to not be afraid.
Edith’s dying and death taught me early in my ministry the instructive nature of death and the reality of life, death, and the sure and certain hope of resurrection of the dead can teach us how to live. Leaving her home that afternoon, I began to think completely differently about my own life, about how I want to have that same kind of joy and gratitude for each and every day that she had, and friends, one need not be staring death in the face as she was to have that kind of clarity about living. For Edith, what Paul calls the “last enemy to be conquered by Christ” had given her the immeasurable benefit of removing each and every distraction that made her forget that she was alive, and for that, she was grateful.
I think about all of the people who I have ministered to who were dying, who were grieving, who were trying to make sense of it all. The murder victim and his family. The suicide that none of us ever spoke of, blaming his death instead on a recent diagnosis, the girl in my Confirmation class whose father died of cancer, who was sitting alone in the funeral home during the viewing, waiting, waiting for someone to come and sit down with her, and being that person and praying for God to give me something to say to her that was at once both helpful and true. The teenager I did not know who drowned at the beach, at whose funeral I presided because the funeral home thought to call me because they know that United Methodists tend to be gracious.
There was the newborn, a boy who lived but an hour yet who I held in my arms as I administered water upon his tiny head in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as we do for all of the baptized, as parents and grandparents and nurses surrounded the tiny room and promised “to surround him with a steadfast community of love and forgiveness, for as long as he shall live,” than giving him back to his mother with the sure and certain hope that we had just given him to God.
The ways in which we die are as varied as the ways in which we live. Yet a lifetime spent with the dying and grieving, including my own childhood when it seemed like every other weekend was spent at a service of death and resurrection for a great-great uncle or third cousin because so much of my family still resides in the same rural county in the Northern Neck, all of it, has convinced me that dying and grief bring out either the very best, or sometimes, the very worst in people, and sometimes both.
Still, it took me until I was in my forties to begin to appreciate how formed I have been by a lifetime of standing in the valley of the shadow of death, with grief and loss so palpable, so present, so real, only to hear in the midst of it the community of faith around me proclaim the truth about life, death, and life everlasting as Saint Paul understood it in his discourse on our resurrection: “Behold! I will tell you a mystery!”
It is, perhaps, the greatest gift that the Christian community can give to this broken and hurting world, that gift of radical hope, the hope that surrounds us, fills us, imprisons us, and that will not let us go, that hope that is rooted and grounded in everything we believe about God in Jesus Christ, and everything we believe about ourselves, that death gives way to victory and that everlasting life is not only possible but real, something which begins in this life and which extends into eternity.
In our text for today, Jesus tells his disciples “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” I find myself wondering if he is speaking about not only his own death, but ours as well, that by his grace, he is preparing us, preparing you, preparing me, preparing his church for our own deaths, so that we may die well, so that we may believe where we have not seen, so that we may live into the words of that graveside prayer “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die, so that living our dying, our lives may be in you.”
That afternoon, as the shadows lengthened, and the evening came, I asked her how she was and she told me this: “Doug, every morning when I wake up, I open my eyes and I just thank God for seeing me through one more night. I am just so very thankful. Then at night, I lay in bed and before I go to sleep, I thank God for one more day because it was such a blessing. I give thanks to God, and I go to sleep. I am just so grateful for everything that I have.”
Thanks be to God for this life and everything in it. Thanks be to God, even for our deaths, and help us to live lives that are so filled with joy and grace and hope that we may in this life bear witness to the light of eternity, a light to the nations, a city on the hill, the ambassadors of life everlasting, from those who have seen the other side.
This is why we worship. This is why we sing, even with tears in our eyes and a lump in our throat, even in the mist of death, there is life, life that in God’s love will never end.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.