Sermon from 9-29-19 Preparing for and Understanding Death: A Reflection on Psalm 146

Blessed be the Name of God

I have been preaching in the Church’s liturgy for over fifty years. Three things I know: I like preaching right here best of all. Being a member of this congregation and being able to preach with you is a great joy and privilege. I only wish more of you were closer to me here, more in my neighborhood, unafraid.

Secondly, my favorite listeners, if I were pressed, are musicians. I’ve had the happy opportunity to be the conference preacher at several gatherings of church musicians and they have drawn out of me images and patterns of thinking that have not come to me elsewhere. I guess I really do like “preaching to the choir.”

And my favorite liturgical context for preaching is a funeral. I’d rather preach in the Prayer Book’s Order for the Burial of the Dead than in any other rite. Ironically, I have preached two funerals in the last three months, both at St. Augustine’s.

To help me explain why funerals are so important to my understanding of the preacher’s task, I want to read Psalm 146 again:

Hallelujah!  Praise the LORD, O my soul!*
I will praise the LORD as long as I live; 
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,*
For there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth,*
And in that day their thoughts perish.

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
Whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;*
Who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,*
And food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind;*
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous;
The LORD cares for the stranger;*
He sustains the orphan and widow,
But frustrates the way of the wicked.

The LORD shall reign for ever,*
Your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!

Funerals are often times of considerable tension, expectation, sorrow, sometimes anger. Someone has died and the consequences of that death are everywhere.

Funerals are also times when “the public” comes to church. Like weddings in that regard, funerals are when people who often would not be in church, are in church. That’s the first reason I like to preach at funerals—the public turns up.

The second reason is that, best I can tell, the fact of death is the real test of all that we say and all that we purport to believe. Preaching in the face of that test is another reason I like preaching funerals. We have something powerful and fundamental to say about death and in a death-denying culture, it needs to be said to as many people as possible. “Christ is risen.” God is good. Life wins. In the end, this is all we have to say but it is enough. “The LORD shall reign for ever * your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!”

We all die. Life is terminal, as someone has said, and however much we may wish it otherwise, it will be so. Consequently, mindful of our own eventual deaths, it is so very prudent to make the necessary preparations. My mother died nearly 30 years ago. As the eldest son—one of three—I was the executor of her wishes. Happily for me, she had left detailed plans for her funeral. It was an enormous help and, frankly, a considerable comfort for those of us left to put the funeral together.

It must be that I learned about funeral planning from my mother, who taught me countless other valuable things. The plans for my funeral are on file in the office. In my case, Tom Johnson will preach. [Tom has asked me to preach at his funeral. We’ll see how this works out.] The Bishop will preside; Harry Anderson and Mary Green will lead the wake ahead of time. Terry Bible will carry my remains in the entrance procession. Susan Ho will help at the altar. Christen and Peter will be with Amy as family. Hymns are chosen as well as the readings. I will be interred at the cemetery in Langley, ashes only—no container. All done!

In teaching sessions in Miller Hall, I have urged any who would listen to follow my mother’s good example. I wonder just now, how many of you have followed her good counsel?

Get the paper work done and put it where other people know about it. Protect and care for those who will survive you by writing down your wishes and setting in place the things over which you have control. They cannot check with you once you have died. You’ll be well out of range!

And speaking of “out of range,” what’s out there? Mary Oliver calls it “the cottage of darkness” and Larry McMurtry calls it “the Great Perhaps.” So, what’s out there.

This is where the fun begins! My mind, my imagination is full of things that don’t make sense together but I’m absolutely clear about the bottom line. I know where the last stop is in this jumbled train of thought.

I imagine that beer and peanuts are served in the next go round. I want very much to visit with my parents. I have photos of them but I have no recording of their voices. I want to hear their voices. I want to meet Red and Bernice, Amy’s parents, and to thank them more than I can say for the gift she is to me. I want to rest and eat very well, enjoy wine I can’t afford currently and continue to share the life and love of my dear Amy. That’s one line of reasoning.

If we study the scriptures about this, we find two different lines of thought. For the Hebrew mind, when we die, we die. Punto. Fullstop. But in death, we await God’s promised resurrection.

For the Greek mind, when we die, the body dies and goes toward decay, but there is a part of us, the soul, that survives in some fashion.

The church has struggled from earliest times with the really incompatible nature of these two opinions. One opinion takes death and resurrection to be the way of God, the other takes the immortality of the soul to be the way of God. One cannot die and be immortal, all at once. So, there they sit, side by side. There are subtleties and nuances to be found or created, but these two notions are the persistent ones. You and I are likely somewhere in the mix.

The testimony of the gospels is the testimony of the Hebrew mind; the testimony of later writings in the New Testament moves in the Greek direction. Our Prayer Book is reflective of both perspectives. What I would propose to you is this: when we die, we remain with God. In neither life nor death are we lost to God. We are surely God’s own possession, and remain so. Death is a state of being with God in the same way that life is. The decay of our bodies does not change that.

In the burial rite we say, "You only are immortal, the creator and maker of [humankind]; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created [us], saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." [499]

In the spring of 2000, the son of a seminarian I was close to died in a car accident. Jeremy was 28 years old when he died. The last day of May that year, I preached his funeral. In that sermon I said to those assembled what I want to say to you this morning: “No one understands death, save perhaps God. We struggle to teach ourselves things that will make death tolerable, digestable, domestic. Even when it comes as a blessing and a mercy…, we don’t understand. We say things to ourselves to help us cope, to deflect our sorrows, to bring us reassurance. ‘He has gone to a better place.’  ‘He’s in the nearer presence of God.’ We say such things and we are settled by them. We say them so we can take a deep breath and expel our disappointment or anger or astonishment or pain.

“But in saying such things, we risk saying something we don’t want to say. Do we really imagine that Jeremy is now closer to the heart of God than he was a week ago…? Is Jeremy’s death sweeter to God than his life? Is Jeremy’s absence from us a surer sign of God’s love for Jeremy than Jeremy’s presence with us? Is God in fact more true, more gracious, more loving to the dead than to the living?” Surely not.” So I said then and say now.

Further, in our way of speaking, we will often speak of the dead as lost. “I lost my mother in January 1990.” It is surely true that I lost her companionship, her care for me and my brothers, her penchant for thrift and her love of bridge, but I know full well that in the economy of God, she is not lost—she is neither forgotten, as if lost from memory, nor is she misplaced, like a lost set of keys. She is not lost. My mother, Hortense Marie Bass, remains even now in God’s good care.

So, irrespective of your age, for those of you who have not done your paper work in preparation for your own deaths, you have homework to do, for your own well being and more to the point, to the well being of those who will grieve your passing—and have to clean up after you.

And to all of you, I say please be confident in the constancy of God, in life and beyond. Whatever you imagine to settle your hearts, that’s up to you, as it has been up to me. Just, please, do not imagine the absence of God, do not construe the future after death to bear the loss of God’s grace and care. The Psalmist is right: “The LORD shall reign for ever * your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!”

Blessed be the Name of God