May 10, 2020
For the last two weeks the lectionary has assigned readings that are generally considered to be staple passages for funeral services. Of course, last week it was the 23rd Pslam: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” This week it is John 14, a piece of a larger section of scripture called the “Farewell Discourses” in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his death. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says to them as he tells them the most troubling news possible. He continues, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you also may be.” No doubt, in a pre-resurrection world, where death was the end of the story, words like these would have been baffling and disorienting for followers who had wagered everything on this journey that Jesus was taking them on.
It’s interesting to me in a way that here during Easter, a season of renewed love, and victory, and abundant life, we turn again to passages that we associate with death. But, I suppose it makes sense as well. Rather than put death aside to focus on happier thoughts, the liturgical tradition of the church is to spend some time rethinking death in the light of the good news of resurrection.
This task would be one thing in a normal year, but here in a time that feels remarkably abnormal, a time of deep vulnerability and the constant reminder of human mortality, the task of reexamining death is all the more pressing. On Tuesday I watched as a professor from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy addressed a conference of Lutheran and other church leaders on COVID19’s place in the recent history of pandemics, its particular characteristics, forecasts of its spread, and what can be done. I’ll be honest, it was pretty sobering. The gist was that we will reach a 60%-70% infection rate in our country, and until we do the virus will continue to spread with its current potency. (By the way, the speaker was very non-partisan. He had served under multiple presidential administrations in various capacities, including this current administration. He wasn’t panicked or attempting to incite fear. He was just laying out what the science is saying.) He said that we’ll reach that rate of infection either through illness or through vaccine. Of course, vaccine would be preferable, but to have one ready for mass distribution within a year would be almost miraculous. In the meantime, about 3,000 people will die per day with COVID19 just in the US.
Another stunning comment he made was that in Ecuador they are no longer even trying to count the bodies. Instead, they are counting the piles of bodies. Of course, we can surmise that among developing countries Ecuador is not alone in lacking the resources to handle such widespread sickness, and as bad as things are here they will be even more dire elsewhere.
I finished with this very depressing presentation and then clicked on an op-ed article whose first line read, “The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.” That’s when I stopped reading about the virus and got very sad for a while. The sadness lessened over the hours but didn’t really go away until I met with those of you who joined me on Zoom to discuss Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book “Accidental Saints.” I know this about community, but it was nice to be reminded of the power in shared faith and shared experience to shift our dispositions and perspectives – to remind us of the hope that we have!
Nadia’s book is all about the confounding, remarkable grace of God, which turns our expectations on end and works in and through all the wrong people, including ourselves. I’m going to read you part of one of her stories because I think it works so perfectly with my thoughts for the day. At this point she’s at the hospital with Duffy and Charlie, a couple who had just given birth.
Anyway, here I was on Ash Wednesday, standing in a birthing room at the University of Colorado Hospital, on the day that the church remembers that we are but dust and to dust we will return. With one hand, I held a small metal pot of ashes and with the other, I reached across Duffy’s recovery bed and made the sign of the cross with black ashes on her forehead, then on Charlie’s too. Duffy had that beautiful and totally exhausted look of a woman who had just given birth, and Charlie had that proud and totally exhausted look of a partner who had just spent hours feeling helpless.
“The baby too?” I then asked her parents.
Duffy and Charlie said, “Yes, please, the baby too.”
My voice strained a bit as I pressed ever so gently into the brow of baby Willa’s brand-new skin, flesh that had been exposed to air for only a few precious hours. I couldn’t completely constrain the trembling in my voice as I reminded all of us in the room that even she, full of beauty and hope and just hours from her mother’s womb, will, at her death, return to dust and the very heart of God.
And the mother mouthed, “Thank you.”
And then I knew. I knew more than on any other Ash Wednesday that the promises of baptisms and funerals, the promises of birth and death, are inextricably wrapped up together. For we come from God and to God we shall go. There is so much that gets in the way of that simple truth. And it is times like funerals and births when all the other BS just doesn’t matter.
Nadia imagines our lives as a strip of fabric with our baptisms on one end and our funerals on the other. Ash Wednesday is that day when the fabric is pinched so that the past of our baptisms and the future of our funerals come together as one. She writes, “And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”
This time that we are living right now kind of feels like a pinching of the fabric to me as well. We celebrate Easter’s life and we grieve the pandemic’s death. We begin the hope of a new week and we enter the anxiety of life’s fragility. And, as we do we hear Jesus say to us too, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Then, in witness to these words we read also about Stephen, the first martyr of the Church who while dying for his faith commits his spirit to Christ and echos Christ’s words as if a truth greater than his death were offered even to his enemies: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
In answer to that op-ed article, I hope we do not get used to the reality of dying. I think there’s a truer alternative for us. We can accept death’s inevitability. We can understand that it will come. But, in the same moment we can proclaim the greater truth that death is not what it was. To God, in God, with God we live because to God all that is dead is death itself. The empty tomb, the risen Jesus, and the Spirit of God that meets us when two or more are gathered are testament to this.
We began this sermon talking about funerals. I would like to end it that way too because the most powerful thing we do in acknowledging life as both death and resurrection is the act of committal. In fact, the most powerful thing we can ever do is to commit ourselves, those lost to us and those whom we will lose, to the eternal care of God. So, I’ll invite you to refer to your bulletins and pray with me a prayer of committal now:
O God, you have ordered this wonderful world and know all things in earth and in heaven. Give us such faith that by day and by night, at all times and in all places, we may without fear commit ourselves and those dear to us to your never-failing love, in this life and in the life to come.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Accidental Saints,” Convergent Books: New York, 2015, page 112.
 Page 113.