“New Life after Death” by Grant Glowiak at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on April 17, 2016 at the 10:00 a.m. Service.
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1 Corinthians 15:35-49
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is[j] from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will[k] also bear the image of the man of heaven.
Good Morning. We are currently in the midst of a sermon series on resurrection, new life. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention on this particular morning that the Chicago white sox have started the season atop the AL central at 8-3 and the cubs are leading the NL central with a record of 9-2. New life indeed for the white sox after last year’s disappointing season and for the cubs as well. Excluding last year, as many of us are all too familiar it has been a very long time since the Cubs had a serious chance of making it deep into the playoffs. I think baseball fans particularly understand believing in things we cannot see, things that seem improbable. I think having faith, for many, is an important component of their devotion to their team. Scores of people on both the south and north sides of the city are very excited for what the summer and hopefully the fall holds.
I know my father certainly would have been one of those people. He was a big baseball fan, particularly of our family’s little league teams. On opening day he would bring a bbq to the field and when he had time he would drive our lawn mower over to the field before games and cross cut the infield so we felt like we were playing on a big stage. I remember at his memorial service, one of my sisters even brought a baseball up with her as she gave her part of the eulogy. I remember afterward standing in the reception line, thanking friends and family for attending and many of them making note of his love for coaching baseball.
Another mentor and long time friend of mine would also be excited for the beginning of this baseball season. Ross was a counselor at Camp Highlands for Boys, a summer camp I attended as a child and worked at for several years. He was a math teacher and a baseball coach at Evanston Township High School.
Unfortunately, several weeks ago he passed away from stomach cancer at age 40. He is a close friend, someone I’ve known since I was very young and one of the best role model’s I’ve ever had. He did much more than teach me proper stance for hitting and fielding, he taught me that playing the game with integrity was more important than winning. The proper way to play the game was to brag little, but to show well. He started experiencing symptoms this past December, I still am having trouble with how quickly it happened.
And as I was standing in line at the wake, weighing all the different options of what to say to his wife and teenage son, I had trouble finding the words. Not all that long ago I myself was in the receiving line and yet I still had difficulty with how to approach the bereaved. I think this is something we all struggle with. What do you say to someone who is deeply grieved? Particularly when we are grieved in the same moment? How do I help this person make sense of the new world they live in, or at least offer a word of comfort? Or maybe you feel more like Anna and Eli, his wife and son, and you have questions about why something like this happens. And yet, we are still here, living, on this earth. How do our lives continue to hold meaning, how can we make sense of the world when someone we deeply love passes away?
There are plenty of let’s call them standard responses that folks give one another when this sort of thing happens. As an example many of you I’m sure have heard, or said, is “God has a plan”. What I believe we mean by this statement is that God is in control, God will make sure you wind up okay, God knows more than we do and there is some greater plan in place that this death fits into for the betterment of the world.
And yet, I’m not sure we live in a world in which God’s plan involves taking the lives of our friends and family. I think I live in a world where God is present with me in my pain, not the cause of it. God’s plan does not mean death, God’s plan is love and life despite the pain we feel.
Another response we often hear or say is “God never gives you more than you can handle.” And I think what we mean by this is similar to the first. This also implies a sort of plan that God is in control when life seems very out of control. Furthermore, we also intend to show the person has the emotional strength to get through this tough time. We are stating that since God is good, God won’t overwhelm you even in this time of great pain. And in a small way I think we also mean to support or lift up the emotional fortitude, or toughness, of the bereaved.
And yet, I don’t think we live in a world in which God intentionally tests our emotional toughness for reasons beyond our understanding. Grief can be overwhelming and it is not your or my fault if we feel like we cannot shoulder the burden. Because what is implied here that if we feel like we are drowning… it is not God’s fault it is our own for being too weak because God wouldn’t overwhelm us. God’s plan is not to push you to your limits, but to be the wrist we grad ahold of when we cannot swim anymore. God gives us strength, love and compassion not obstacles. And God swims beside us as the turbulent waters of our lives toss us among competing currents and waves.
There are two more responses that are common in our understanding of things we say to the bereaved that have more similarities than may initially appear on the surface. One is “Don’t Cry” or “Don’t feel bad” or something to that sort. The other is “It will get better”. Both of these responses I believe are getting at making the person feel better in that moment. Perhaps if they stop crying they will feel better. Perhaps if I remind them of a brighter future then they will have something to look forward to, something to escape to. Encouraging folks to escape the here and now and feel better – whether it is through looking forward to the future or simply ignoring the present emotions.
And yet, I don’t think we live in a world where I can’t or shouldn’t cry. When a loved one dies, it can be a terrible and crushing feeling. This is not only normal but the healthy grieving response. It can be brutal, maybe for a short time or maybe for a long time but God allows us as much time as we need to process death. Maybe that person’s life will get better, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will get worse before it gets better. The future is uncertain, but what is certain is that God is both hurt when we are hurt and with us when we are hurt.
With all these pitfalls in our standard responses, maybe we shouldn’t say anything at all? After all, silent presence can be a very powerful form of caring for one another. Furthermore, how can what I say in a few words or even a few sentences really affect another person’s pain? So maybe I will just ignore it, chat with the bereaved about other people in our lives, or work, or the school, or the weather, or the cubs chances at winning the world series this year.
And when we do that it can come across as a welcome distraction, or it can come across as avoidance. We avoid these issues for all sorts of reasons. I’m uncomfortable going that deeply into my own emotional state or it reminds me too much of my own mortality, or the mortality of my own loved ones. But I don’t believe we live in a world where, when we are faced with death and the best response is silence. We shouldn’t be scared to address our greatest fears with those closest to us but we should be encouraged to share our hopes and our fears with friends and loved ones. God’s plan is not for us to bury our emotions but to share them with confidence that others have felt or feel the same and will not judge us.
Death is a tricky fact of life. What do we say, how do we handle it, what happens to someone after they die? None of these are easy questions, and most of our answers fall short.
When I was a little boy I asked my father about what happens when people die and how heaven worked. He grew up Catholic and had a rather interesting notion of how heaven worked. He said all of my ancestors who had passed away were up in heaven and were looking out for me. He said I had many guardian angels that were personally invested in my safety and that I could talk to them and ask them for advice whenever I wanted. Every aunt and uncle, great grandfather and grandmother, and all those who came before them sitting up in heaven anxiously watching as their offspring stumble through life, doing whatever they can to protect the family line. Hoping to share some of their wisdom when I or my sisters looked up to the sky with tough questions.
When I was very young this worldview worked quite well for me, but as I grew up it seemed less and less believable. That there was a group of past family members that could respond to my prayers as well as intervene in my daily life to keep me from harm, physical or otherwise seemed unlikely. Throughout my youth and young adult life I was fortunate in that no one in my family passed away to really put this belief (which I had already dropped for all intents and purposes) to the test.
However, that all changed after I graduated from college. My father had lost his job and in January of 2011 he was diagnosed Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. The progression of the disease was simultaneously both too fast and too slow. It seemed as though once we got into a rhythm for his caregiving, his condition would change. And while it seemed like it was so fast I couldn’t keep up, at the same time some days and weeks and months felt brutally long and painful. He passed from this earth two years ago this August.
So Paul writes “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
As humans we are sown and perishable like a seed, but God raised Jesus and raises all of us in a way in which we cannot perish. We are raised up from this life in glory, not in shame or dishonor. For many folks, over time the bad memories of their deceased loved one pass away and we are left not with the dishonorable memories but glorious memories. We live here on earth in our limited, weak physical bodies but God gives us so much more in God’s powerful spirit.
I couldn’t tell you if what Paul is saying is factually true. I couldn’t tell you if what my father said about guardian angels is true. No one knows whether there is an afterlife or not, or if there is what it looks like. Paul here is taking a stab at it as my father did. No one knows what that kind of future looks like. But what I do know is that if I die and nothing happens, then it doesn’t matter anyway at that point and I can’t control that. The future that I can control is what I choose to believe about life and death while I live here in this life. What I believe is that I prefer to live in a world where I can still talk to my father. That I can ask him for advice, tell him things I’m excited about and that he is up there somewhere smiling down on me and all of us right now. I believe God created a world where there are forces beyond me that are personally invested in me, in you, in you, in all of us as well as the outcome of the world. We live in a world where resurrection is real.
Now I can’t tell you exactly how resurrection works, and I can’t tell you anything for sure about how death works.
But I do know the story of Easter and the resurrection. Jesus Christ’s resurrection showed us that death does not have the final say. Despite our human attempts God turns the story upside down and the tragic death of the hero is not the end but the catalyst for the best part of the story. The pain and suffering in the story and the pain and suffering many of us experience every day is not the way of God and will not conquer life and love. In our story God loves us so much that God became human to be with us and to feel our pain. Then Jesus overcame death so that we don’t have to be afraid of it. We are free to live because the threat of death is not the end to our story. We live in a world where the death of a friend or family member does not mean the ending of the relationship but a revisioning of what that relationship looks like. As our anthem you will hear shortly says:
I will shed the sins and struggles
I have carried all these years
And I’ll leave my heart wide open
I will love and have no fear
I believe we live in a world where death is not final, and I believe we live in a world where the resurrection can set us free. Thanks be to God.