Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2017 — Preaching Notes

September 10, 2017 (Year A)
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

Season of Creation  |  DEATH

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This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. (Exodus 12:2-3, 6-7, 12-14, NRSV).

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
(Francis of Assisi, “Praise of the Creatures,” st. 11).

O God, who gave us birth,
you are ever more ready to hear
   than we are to pray.
You know our needs before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking.
Give to us now your grace,
   that as we shrink before the mystery of death,
   we may see the light of eternity.
Speak to us once more
   your solemn message of life and of death.
Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
   enable us to die as those who go forth to live,
   so that living or dying, our life may be in you,
   and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
   from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
From “A Service of Death and Resurrection,” The United Methodist Book of Worship

As Christians we have a paradoxical relationship with death. On the one hand, we, with our brother Paul, see death as an enemy whose destruction is already declared in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (I Corinthians 15:26). On the other hand, also with our brother Paul, we affirm that we are baptized into the death of Jesus, and only through experiencing a death like his in baptism are we promised the hope of a resurrection like his (Romans 6:4-8). So already, within some of the most famous passages from one early Christian writer’s most famous work we encounter death as at once enemy and portal to life.

Sometimes there is no real paradox at all.  “Collateral damage” is no side effect of war or police actions on buildings, but deaths of civilians, children and adults of all ages, who are not part of the fighting. The only way to describe death here is enemy. The slew of hung juries and acquittals in cases where black men, and it has mostly been black men, are shot and killed by police for what appears to many to be no legitimate cause makes not just death but also the police sworn to protect all the people function as an enemy to millions of our own citizens. #BlackLivesMatter happens, and must happen, because death does function as enemy in our culture, an enemy to black lives as surely as the lynchings that led to acquittals across the South, if there were charges in the first place, were death as enemy at work, and twice: first in the killing, and then in the acquittals or failure to press charges that had the effect of ratifying the killings.

Death is surely an enemy.

But also not only an enemy.

The paradox remains real, too.

Our Jewish siblings have expressed a similar paradox, and our scripture reading for today, recounting the instructions for the first Passover meal, reflects that. Death is about to come upon the firstborn of every living thing in Egypt, but precisely as a means to deliver the people of Israel from their slavery and oppression, a force of death at work among them. And, at the same time, by the death of lambs everyone among the oppressed people were to eat, and the spreading of the lifeblood of these lambs on the lintels of their homes, the “angel of death” would not affect their firstborn. Death is destruction, yet brings deliverance. Death ends life, yet gives lives hope and sustenance for the journey ahead. Death is at once enemy and portal to life.

So it is, perhaps, in some of our own experiences. A loved one is suffering intensely, with no likelihood of recovery and perhaps no good way to ease the suffering. We do not want her to die, yet death would at least end this suffering. I experienced this, firsthand, with both my father and my first wife in the final hours of their lives cut short by cancer.

And the paradox continues, even experientially. Maybe we have welcomed death in the moment, but then the terrible accumulated series of felt losses we call grief comes flooding in, and death seems to have turned from friend, even “our sister” (as Francis calls it), to cruel enemy once again. The paradox keeps turning, as this very suffering in the face of death often opens up into multiple channels of healing and strength, in time, if not at all in the moment. Enemy, sister, enemy, sister… the alternations go on, sometimes simultaneously, and perhaps in some cases for the rest of our lives.

Francis captures this paradoxical relationship we have with death in his canticle in a different way. “Bodily death” is simply “our sister,” and through her, as through all creatures named in his song, God is praised. This seems almost one sided, too cheerful a picture of death. Yet Francis could not write such a thing lightly in 1225 in Italy. That year, in addition to the ongoing ravages of smallpox and measles and the ever high rates of infant mortality, Italy faced the first of what would be seven outbreaks of bubonic plague during the 13th century, which, though paling by comparison to the destruction of the Black Death a little over a century later, was far from insignificant in its impact on the hearts and fears of people, especially in or near centers of trade. Death appeared in horrifying form, complete with black, oozing welts.

Still, “our sister death,” he wrote.

How “our sister,” even in the face of the plague?

The second line of the stanza points part of the way. Translating literally from his 13th century Tuscan, it reads, “from whom no living human can escape.” Death is always and inescapably among us. Francis chooses to read this not as a negative fate, but more as a simple reality. If we are here, death is alongside us, too. So she is our companion, our sister.

The rest of the stanza moves us to consider the pain we experience in contemplating or facing death in the light of how we live, here and now. Are we pursuing mortal sin, doing rather than avoiding evil of every kind? If so, then death is surely only woe. Or are we actively pursuing God’s most holy will, or “going on to perfection” as the Wesleys might have put it? Then for us, even death is blessing. As Paul later wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “To be away from the home of the body is to be at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8, translation mine).

So death is our sister. Still, as we pray in our Service of Death and Resurrection, “we shrink before the mystery of death.” We do shrink before this mystery. Death undoes us as we die, body, mind, and spirit. And it undoes us, altering our minds and bodies, when someone we love has died, even when we know they were faithful to the end. We shrink before that mystery, because in diminishing our capacity for denial, we feel in our bodies just how profoundly final and intractable death is.

Let us continue the prayer to its end. 

Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
   enable us to die as those who go forth to live,
   so that living or dying, our life may be in you,
   and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
   from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Enemy, sister. Wall, portal. Last word, itself silenced and undone.

Where, Enemy Death, is your victory? Where, Sister Death, is your sting?

Thanks be to God, who gives us victory over Enemy Death through Jesus Christ our Lord, and at least sometimes makes her instead, even in this age, our sister. (I Corinthians 15:55-57)

Categories: Year A, Fourteenth Sunday After the Pentecost — September 10, 2017