“Dying and Rising With Christ”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 26, 2016
Isaiah 25:6-10 & John 6:41-51
I want to acknowledge at the start of my sermon today that the topic I have been asked to reflect on as part of our Summer Sermon Series is a difficult one. I’ve been asked to reflect on death, and it is something that our community and the world has faced in very real ways in the past weeks and months. Just this week we said goodbye to one in our own community, whose death was sudden and shocking and very sad. A little over two weeks ago 49 people were murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando, a senseless tragedy like those in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels over the past year. Every day hundreds of refugees from Syrian, Cuba, and African countries die at sea in an attempt to find a better life. The loss of life in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine on a daily basis has become so common it’s almost easy to forget. So I acknowledge and validate that for us today, death is not a concept for philosophers to write about or a hypothesis for scientists to prove or disprove; it is a reality, a painful one most of the time, that we face in others and ourselves every day.
To be very clear, our faith and the Gospel of Jesus Christ has a lot of good news to tell when it comes to death. It has been my experience, however, that the Good News of the Gospel is often used to cover up the wounds of death when it has the power to heal them. I truly believe that the Gospel has the power to heal the wounds of death and I believe it because the Gospel has brought healing into my life when death has touched my heart and my home. Today, rather than talk about Christian doctrines of death and resurrection, of life here and life in eternity, I want to share with you the story of how I came to believe that there is such a thing as resurrection, as dying and rising with Christ.
My story begins in January of 1998, though it is really the story of my dad’s parents. My brother and I called them G-Mom and G-Dad because as toddlers we were not able to pronounce Grandmother and Grandfather. In January of 1998, just a few weeks after Christmas, G-Mom and G-Dad both visited doctors after not feeling well for quite some time. Their doctors tested everything. When the results came back, it was found that G-Dad has end-stage pancreatic cancer and G-Mom had invasive ovarian cancer. You have heard the news of a friend or family member’s cancer diagnosis, or had one yourself, so you know the shock and questions that come with it. The shock and questions were compounded in our family because both were young to be grandparents, so full of life and energy, and because both would be sick and suffering at the same time.
G-Dad’s decision on the advice of his doctors was to not undergo treatment since his cancer was so advanced. By August of that year, just seven months after being diagnosed, G-Dad died just a shadow of the man I knew him to be. G-Mom, however, underwent many surgeries and endless rounds of chemotherapy, and lived for another four years. G-Mom’s mental and physical health waxed and waned, she was in an out of remission, she fought hard and at times was winning; in the end, I believe, she died of a broken heart. If I have even half as happy of a marriage as G-Mom and G-Dad did, I will be lucky and blessed. They did not go a day without holding hands with each other; they showered our family with profound love; they taught my brother and I the value of hard work, of how to be peaceful and kind, and how to spot something truly rare in an antique store. My Dad was the apple of their eye, and they loved my Mom from the moment they met her. They even got along beautifully with my mom’s parents, spending many winters camping together in Florida.
G-Dad’s death so shortly after learning that he was sick, and G-Mom’s death many years later, sent my family into a tail-spin that, at times, seemed was going to break us all. First, it was the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter…these were sad and clouded by the fact that no new memories were going to be made with them. Then it was the milestones: high school graduations, driver’s licenses, girlfriends, engagements and weddings. Then it was all the stuff we wanted to share with them like report cards for which they gave us $20 for every A, or how I had won a piano competition or how my brother had scored nearly perfectly on the SATs. My Dad took over the business that G-Dad started so there were moments when he wanted to celebrate with him that the business was growing; my Mom and G-Mom loved to cook together and Mom still had techniques to share and recipes to try. I guess one of the hardest parts of death is the lost potential to share, to grow, to spend more time with someone.
We had a lot of questions after the whole ordeal was over, the type of questions that keep you up at night. What had they done to deserve such wicked suffering and horrible pain? What could we have done to comfort them better or help them more? Could the doctors have done more—did they receive the best treatment? Why would God snatch away two faithful, loving, honest people in the prime of their retirement years? If God is so good, why is there such a thing as cancer and why are the treatments for cancer sometimes worse than the disease itself? Folks tried their best to answer our questions and comfort us. “God does not give you any more than you can handle,” someone would say. “God has two more angels in heaven,” another would say. “You’ll see them again in heaven one day”—“God needed them more than we did.” It was all kind and well-intentioned, but honestly their deaths were way more than we could handle and we needed them, wanted them, here with us. Its been 18 and 14 years since G-Mom and G-Dad died, and I still want them here, still need them here.
My family and I remained covered by the veil of mourning for several years before anything started to change. You might be surprised to hear that it was not prayer or pastoral advice that began to heal our hearts, at least not at first. For me, the healing started when I began to notice things. First it was little notes stuck to the bottom of things we had kept from G-Mom and G-Dad’s house. Little porcelain figures, pieces of furniture, even plates and cups; G-Mom had written little notes about where the thing had come from, why it was meaningful, and who should have it when they were gone. These turned out to be much more than notes—they were small, square affirmations that they knew death was coming and were not afraid. I then started to see them in my life: in my music, in learning how to garden, in how my parents so faithfully raised my brother and I. I would hear them in my mind when I was about to make a bad decision, and I would hear them cheer me on in my successes. I started to believe that they were there for graduations and engagements and weddings, and that they were cheering me on when I was ordained as a pastor, and when I bought my first lawn mower, and each I pass on the wisdom and knowledge they so selflessly gave to me.
It took someone with more knowledge than I’ll ever have to tell me that that is resurrection, that this how God picks us up when death beats us down. The dark veil of mourning that covers us in the presence of death—when that begins to lift, when we start to see our loved ones and hear them and live as they did, that is resurrection. There is no rhyme or reason as to when it will happen, only that in time it will. When it does, the mystery of death is overtaken by the life, by the love, by the faithfulness and humanity of the one who has died. In God’s goodness, my family and I experienced resurrection after G-Mom and G-Dad’s deaths, and that is what it was even though I had no idea how to describe it. Out of this tragedy, God led me to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ and to a deeper faith in resurrection after death and here and now.
You see, so often we think that resurrection is something that is promised only to those who die. But I think it is also for the living, for those who are left to wrestle with the pain of death. The promise of resurrection for the living is that the gaping holes left by someone’s death will eventually be filled to overflowing with hope. The promise of resurrection to the living is that even though death stripped away the ability to live, life is stronger than death. The promise of resurrection to the living is that you will see and hear and feel those who have died, and you will carry around in your body all the lessons, all the love, all the life that they gave. The promise of resurrection to the living is that God has swallowed up death forever, and there will be a day when the Lord forever wipes away the tears from every eye. There was a time when I didn’t believe these things, but now I do. And because I do, I have hope.
Each time someone is baptized, or each time we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul who says, “Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” This reminds me of two things. It reminds me first of the glorious eternity that is waiting for all of us when our time on earth has come to an end and we are resurrected. What a day that will be! It is then that we will be reunited with all those who have gone before us in life and in death. It will be a place where there is no more crying, no more pain, and no more death. Paul’s words also remind me that Christ lived and died and rose again to make this life, this place, more as God intends it to be. God’s intent for us and this world is to live life abundantly even though death is all around; God’s intent for us and this world is to be resurrected from the shadow of death while we are living. Dying and rising in Christ promises us a place in eternity when that time comes, but it also promises us that right now, while we are living, life with overcome death.
And so today, approaching two decades since G-Mom and G-Dad died and joined the saints in light, my heart is healed, I am resurrected. The veil of mourning has been lifted and God has put me in a board place where life is abundant. I would like to think that I got there on my own, with my own knowledge, with my own wisdom, with my own maturity. But it was God. It was God, the One who creates, redeems, and sustains all things. It was God, whose son Jesus Christ stood outside of the tomb of Lazarus and wept. It was God, the One who protects us like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. It was God, who took on the shame and darkness of death, was buried in a tomb, then broke open the tomb door to render death utterly silent when asked, “Death where is your sting? Hell where is your victory?”.
I share my story with you today because for all the learning I have done, all the books I have read, all the things I believe, my best testimony is my experience. I share my story with you today because maybe someone here needs to know that they are not alone in their grief. I share my story with you today because maybe someone here needs to know that their weeping and sadness is not dramatic or unnecessary or impolite. I share my story with you today because maybe someone here is thinking that God arbitrarily takes people from the earth or that God is not concerned with our pain or suffering. I share my story with you today because maybe someone here is thinking that there is no more life left for them now that someone is gone. Maybe there is someone here who needs hope.
So I call all of you to hear these things today: Death is absolutely the worst thing in most circumstances. There is no way to avoid death or to avoid the deep and life-changing impact it has on us. Mourning and grief and tears are normal, and no one has the power to tell you to stop or when to stop. It is OK to doubt the promises of Scripture and to doubt God’s power in life and death. God does not just pluck us off the earth on a whim; God does not take us because God needs more angels. Just beyond the shadow of death that might be hanging over you is life, life as God intends it to be. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ensures that there is a place for us in eternity when this life comes to an end. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus also ensures that there will be life on this side of eternity, too. There is hope and it comes from God; God weeps with you, God laughs with you, God protects you, and God knows your pain, your struggle, your broken heart. And even though death tries over and over to stripe hope away, there is nothing that can separate us from God, from God’s love for us, or from the care, protection, and mercy of the One who created us and called us ‘very good.’
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, believe in the Good News of the Gospel today. Believe in Jesus Christ, for in him there is eternal life, and he will raise you up on the last day. Amen.