Last Words!

April 6, 2014 Ez. 37.1-14; Rm. 8.6-11; Jn. 11.1-45

At the beginning of Lent, we prayed that our Lord would protect us from “dying suddenly and unprepared”. Yet, as we all know, death happens. The last words of the famous, even the unknown, remind us of the intrusive character of death. There’s the guy who asked, “And what does this button do?” Or the guy who said, “Oh, let me do it! I saw that on TV!” Or the guy who said, “The odds of that happening may be one in a million!” In his last minute of this life, Oscar Wilde, very ill, in a cheap Paris hotel room said, “Either this awful wallpaper goes, or I do!” Death is often seen as an uninvited intruder. But Francis of Assisi called it “Sister Death”. That’s a different approach altogether.

There’s a kind of push and pull about death—we are pulled to trust the words of faith, but our fears push down our rising hopes. Death is like a doorway though which we all must pass. Whether welcomed or avoided, death comes—to men and women, young and old, rich and poor—it comes to all, without exception. Most of us believe deep down that we’re going to be that one exceptional person who is actually immortal in the flesh. It’s like the comedian Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” So, we tiptoe around death describing it as “expiring,” like death arrived as a due date on a can of vegetables, or we hear someone say a loved one “passed,” much like a kidney stone that had to be voided.

But Christ shows a different way. St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thes. 4.13)…“we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” That’s why the Church proclaims, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

We are nave about death! A few years ago, a book entitled Heaven is for Real was one of the fastest selling nonfiction books in America. Its message was that death is just the path to God. It’s a transition, a passage, a stop along the way. The book was a father’s account of his four-year-old son’s near death experience during an emergency surgery to repair a ruptured appendix. In the child’s near death experience, he had a brush with heaven. The four-year-old told his parents a number of things about heaven they expected, but also some they didn’t expect. The child said that in heaven nobody was old and nobody wore glasses. It’s like my good friend who had an aortic aneurysm and the loss of blood flow cost him a leg. He told me as he got around on his crutches, “In heaven, I’ll be able to run again.” So, what does all this teach us about death?

This passage today from John’s gospel about the raising of Lazarus tells how Jesus’ friend, Lazarus died. And Jesus came with his holy and powerful presence up against death with his friends Martha and Mary. But they could only say to him, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” And others asked, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the man born blind have prevented Lazarus’ death?” And Jesus saw his Bethany friends weeping, and the wailing of the mourners and Jesus himself shed tears as the scripture said, “he was deeply moved” and “troubled in himself”.

Here with his friends, like all of us at some point, we stare at the strong door of death, and yearning for the ones who have passed beyond our reach. The poet Edgar Lee Masters put it, “Down the gray road, friends, children, men and women, passing one by one out of life”. The poet Dylan Thomas urged, “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light.” So, were Jesus’ tears, tears of grief, or frustration, or anger, or incredulity at those who didn’t believe! Hadn’t they seen, heard, or comprehended the message from God through Christ to a hurting, grieving, and hapless world? Jesus speaks the power of God, a message of consolation and encouragement, but they and we refuse to hear. We crouch outside death’s door waiting to be called ourselves at our own time. You see, when we get so wrapped up in fear and loss, we lose the Godly vision of our life and our death and how the gospel speaks to us about them. Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor said, “The power of God is now and always has been the power to raise us from the dead. Period. (And that) is not about us. It is about God.” I know that may sound like hyperbole, but that’s how we must view death, we must see it through the eyes of the one who created us.

Probably the greatest student of death and dying ever was the medical Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She said we humans stand atop an evolutionary chain that spans 7 million years and humans have lived and died every day during that long, long time. We have put a man on the moon, but we have studied death so little that our understanding of it is just a fraction. So, after a lifetime of study, she made several simple observations about what her patients had taught her about death. She said, first, death is a part of life just as birth is a part of life, and the lesson in that is just as you came into this life and found an existence, so in dying we are making and important transition. She saw the most fretful and anxious persons…even very angry persons, find in dying a peaceful calm as they reached out and touched the other side of this life. In the same way, Jesus in the gospel is trying to teach us that lesson. Lazarus’ resuscitation brings the realization that God rules over the portal between life and death and whether we are pushing or pulling to get into or out of that door…it’s God who oversees our going out and our coming in from this time forth forevermore. Death is a part of life and God leads us through faith into new life. Second, this body in which we live is a vessel for the unique spirit that God has placed in us. There’s only one of each of us…we are all unique. You are not going to be folded into the great ocean of death and be lost. But rather, the one who put us into this body will be the first to welcome us on the other side. In the transition, death brings a complete healing…to the deaf, the lame, the blind, the addict…what is lost is found. And finally, we don’t do this alone. Just as you were welcomed into this world, God’s love gets you through that door to the reception on the other side. That love cannot be defeated, deflated, nor deflected. Heaven is indeed for real and the God who pulled your bones together, that same God will keep you together even when they are not. Faith tells you that it’s going to be OK passing through that door, because the one who called us all into existence, is the same one who stood outside Lazarus’ tomb and called out, “Come forth”. God is calling us into a new life in Him BECAUSE as we know, “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again” to each of us. And those, faith says, are the last words needed to be said about life and death. Amen.

The Reverend Wayne Ray