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When did death first invade your life?
When I was ten and in the fifth grade at Pinchbeck Elementary, our teacher Miss Gill used to read to us after the chaos that was lunch to calm us down and re-center our attention for afternoon lessons. One of the books she chose to read to us was the Katherine Paterson novel Bridge to Terabithia.
The novel is set in rural Virginia and tells the story of Jess Aarons, a fifth-grade boy with four sisters who trains all summer with the goal of becoming the class’ fastest runner, only to be surpassed by Leslie Burke, the new girl who has just moved to town. Jess and Leslie soon become dear friends, spending their free time swinging on a rope across a local creek to an imaginary kingdom where they reign as king and queen called Terabithia. One morning, Jess leaves town on a trip to the Smithsonian with the school’s art teacher, Miss Edmunds without first telling Leslie and only telling his mother while she was half-asleep and unaware of what he was saying.
We had just returned from the cafeteria to the classroom like every other day. We took our seats and Miss Gill sat atop a stool center-left of the dark green chalkboard at the front of the class and opened the book to read chapter ten of Terabithia to us, a chapter titled “The Perfect Day.” In it, Jess returns from a joyous day studying art at the Smithsonian, and he is dropped off at the end of the road by Miss Edmunds.
Miss Gill continued reading:
“[Jess] was all the way into the kitchen before he realized that something was wrong. His dad’s pickup had been outside the door, but he hadn’t taken it in until he came into the room and found them all sitting there: his parents and the little girls at the kitchen table and Ellie and Brenda on the couch. Not eating. There was no food on the table. Not watching TV. It wasn’t even turned on. He stood unmoving for a second while they stared at him.
“Suddenly his mother let out a great shuddering sob. ‘O my God. O my God.’ She said it over and over, her head down on her arms. His father moved to put his arm around her awkwardly, but he didn’t take his eyes off Jess.
“’I tolja he just gone off somewhere,’ May Belle said quietly and stubbornly as though she had repeated it often and no one had believed her.
“He squinted his eyes as though trying to peer down a dark drain pipe. He didn’t even know what question to ask them. ‘What—?’ he tried to begin.
“Brenda’s pouting voice broke in, ‘Your girlfriend’s dead, and Momma thought you was dead, too.’”
Leslie, we would learn, had attempted to visit Terabithia alone. As she swung across the gully, the rope had broken, she had hit her head and drowned.
It was nearly four full decades ago. Nearly four full decades and I could still drive to the corner of Gaskins and Gayton to Pinchbeck Elementary School and show you the classroom where I first heard those words. I can clearly remember that it was the room at the end of the building, that my desk was third from the front, against the wall to the right, the same side of the room as the door to that open campus. I can remember that the weather that day featured heavy clouds, but no rain, that it was surprisingly dark, but not cool.
And I can remember how incredulous I was. A time that began with lunch and me counting the minutes to recess and ended with death invading our hearts and our minds. I could not understand how this could happen, how it could be allowed to happen. And to happen to a child! Sure, my parents had with some regularity warned me to stop doing this thing or that thing before I “got hurt and died,” but this was too much. This seemed to me to be against every law of the universe. What was going on here?
When did death first invade your life?
That is the thing about death, the way it invades our lives, our hearts, our consciousness, our situations, our families, and our friends. At times it may be possible for us to regard death as some vague future problem, or even some defect in the created order. In my time in ordained ministry, I have witnessed death arrive as welcome help, as sweet relief for the suffering passing from life to life everlasting.
However, most often, the rope breaks at the most surprising, most inopportune time. Death could care less if your affairs are in order. Death is inconsiderate, it never bothers to check your calendar (I once knew a man, a pastor, who honestly thought, at the end of his life, that he could not die before Wednesday because he had made an appointment with his physician for that day). Yet your busyness is immaterial. Your unfulfilled plans and aspirations? Death could care less. Death comes to our loved ones as the sharp, stabbing pain of sorrow and hangs around as the persistent ache of grief.
Death is indifferent. If you have wondered what the polar opposite of deep concern is, its name is death.
We hope for ourselves and for those who we love that death is a long, slow, fraying, an unraveling of the rope. We fear its sudden breaking, but as though it were life’s great flaw in design, it comes for us all, and no one gets out alive.
And when we come to terms with this, we begin to come to terms with what those closest to Jesus certainly felt when they woke up early on the first day of the week on a day that brought into stark relief all that they had just lost. They had given up their livelihoods. They had surrendered so many of their assumptions about themselves and about God. They had invested themselves completely in this man who had taught them so much, who had seemed so powerful, who spoke with such authority, this man who healed the sick, who even raised the dead, the man of whom it was said “Even the wind and the waves obey him.”
As he hung on the cross, the people said of him “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
And by all accounts, he had not “saved himself.” Death invades even the life of Jesus, and death always gets its way.
Or does it?
Perhaps it is the case that the reason that there is no Sunday like Easter is because it is the day that reminds us exactly what kind of God we have. It would have been one thing for Jesus to have been immortal, for his rope to have been an unbreakable iron chain. Yet, this is not the kind of God we have. Jesus Christ does not conquer death by his power or by deftly avoiding it. In Jesus Christ, God conquers death by willingly submitting to it, by allowing death all of the power it can muster, to give death the opportunity to do its absolute worst to him, to our God, and to demonstrate for all the world to see that death, powerful though it may be, is ultimately powerless against the unconditional, persistent, gracious, transformative, loving power of our God.
Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is God who does the invading. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is God who gets the last word. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God kicks open the heavy door of death’s darkened lair and floods it with God’s marvelous light. Through the resurrection of Jesus, death is exposed for what it is, an enemy vanquished by God. Through the resurrection of Jesus, you and I can hold fast to the hope of the words Jesus spoke to his disciples in John’s gospel the night before he died, the words we in the United Methodist Church dare to speak into the very face of death early in our funeral services: “Because I live, you shall live also.”
I have been practicing ministry in one way or another for twenty-three years, almost half my life. As such, much of my life’s work has been spent with the dying and the grieving. I have buried people who were very, very old and people who were very, very young and many, many people in between. I have preached funeral sermons in more worship spaces than I can count. I have spoken at gravesites in the wind, rain, snow, and sun. I have heard “Taps” and gazed upon the silent folding of the flag dozens of times.
I have sat with the recently deceased as the hospital room, at long last, fell silent. As a chaplain for a fire department, I have notified next-of-kin. I have witnessed the dying reaching, reaching for something, another world perhaps, that I could not see. I have heard them speak of angels as real and visible to them as you are to me today.
From a distance, it could seem that I could easily have developed a staid, almost clinical relationship with death. It is normal part of the circle of life, and so on. And yet, all of my time with the dying and the grieving has only served to convince me that our God, the God who spangled the heavens and set the planets in their courses, who raised the mountains and filled the oceans, the God of the sparrow, the God of the whale, the God who is the author of life itself, is also the God who finds death so reprehensible, so offensive, so counter to God’s best hope for our lives, that God in the person of God’s son Jesus Christ, submits to death itself to rob it of its power forever. God invades and conquers the death that invades my life and your life and the life, the lives of those we love, and the life of this world.
This is why Christians are such a peculiar people, who gather at funerals to read in unison psalms of praise, who gather in the midst of death speaking of life, who sing hymns to God’s glory, even with tears in our eyes, who can conceive of gain in the midst of loss, for we have assumed the promise of Easter and inherited the blessings of the empty tomb, for our world, for our loved ones, for ourselves.
Death wins many battles but is the victor in no wars, for our God has stood before the great bully that is death, and our God has not blinked. When death gave us but a broken rope, Christ built for us a bridge, a bridge from life to life everlasting, to a Kingdom that has no end.
On Good Friday, as storms swirled around us, we stood in our darkened sanctuary for the Tenebrae service wherein we retold the story of the betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ. We gather in that worship space in darkness, with most of what little light there is in the room coming through the windows.
Interspersed with music, we read aloud the story of Jesus’ death in fourteen paragraphs of scripture, read by multiple voices, the sanctuary growing ever darker, before we exit in silence as we enter into the night. At the end of the Holy Thursday service the night before, we had stripped the sanctuary, symbolizing the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples by removing or covering all of the ornamentation: we shroud the cross on the altar, we shroud the unused Communion elements. We remove the paraments from the pulpit, lectern, and altar. We remove the Bible, we extinguish the candles, even our clergy stoles are taken away.
Yet on Good Friday, as I stood to preach, through the corner of my eye, through the black shroud, I could see the brass of the altar cross and the crucifer’s cross as they caught a glint of what little light there was left. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the room where we keep the bright white Easter stoles and paraments, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the large altar Bible tucked away, hidden yet waiting to be read with today’s text, on this day of days.
Just beside me, I could see the baptismal font which reminds us of our death to sin and our rebirth in Christ. I could tell that beneath the cloth on which the thirteen Tenebrae candles sat was the Communion table on which, on this day of days, we would place the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. And in the air, I could not help but catch a whiff of the fragrance of the Easter lilies in the sacristy, these flowers whose opening symbolizes the empty tomb, hiding yet waiting to be seen.
It is the Christian life in a nutshell: for all of our painful Good Fridays when we stand in the overwhelming darkness of death, Easter awaits us, you, me, and everyone. In the midst of life, we are in death, yet in the midst of death, everlasting life awaits, God’s final word, God’s greatest victory, God’s promise that the story ends not with a broken rope, but with a bridge built by the carpenter’s son, a bridge from pain to joy, from despair to hope, from darkness to light, from death to life everlasting.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.