1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. 8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. 9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” 11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Friday night we had a really nice movie night here. It was a good reminder for me of some of Laurelton’s strengths. It was relaxed and comfortable, like Laurelton. Our challenge is making sure we’re always actively reaching out to include new people in the intimacy and family feeling that makes this such a fun place to be.
The reason I mention that now is that I want to bring that relaxed spirit to our time with scripture right now. Ritual and worship are important in the Christian life. Sermons help us learn and grow but they aren’t always the best way to engage with scripture. That’s why I like to spend some of our “sermon time” outside the box of traditional sermons.
The church is a community shaped by love, trust and truth. Today we’re talking about death, about aging, about facing the end of life, both our life and the lives of those we care about. The end of life can be a scary topic. I suspect fear of death and questions about the afterlife are some of the most important reasons people come to church and run away from church.
Because the topic is already surrounded by anxiety, I think it’s going to be more helpful for us to have a relaxed conversation about life and death than for me to just stand up here and preach a sermon. I’ve done some thinking and writing in preparation for this moment, but I want your questions and thoughts to guide us too. This is only going to work if we can trust each other. Different people have different beliefs about death and the afterlife. The point isn’t getting the right answer to intellectual questions about Christian teaching. We’re here to listen to each other and to bring our questions and fears to God’s word, trusting that God speaks through scripture and through us.
It’s OK if someone believes something that we don’t think is true: we are always learning and growing, so there’s no need to correct each other right now. And it’s OK if you don’t have the “right” answer. You can share your thoughts and fears here without worrying what someone else will think. So I want us to promise here and now that we will listen to each other without judgment, that we will share honestly and that we will respect each other. OK?
Great. So let’s start with a question: What was your first experience with death? Not everyone has to share, but let’s hear from a few people.
What emotion do you feel or think of when you think about death?
That’s the warm up. Here’s the big question: What is your biggest fear about death? Think about that for a moment then get into groups of three or four and talk about it for a couple of minutes.
Now I’d love for you to share your fear in a word or sentence.
Hold onto that word while we listen to God’s word from Paul’s second letter to the Corinithians: 2 Corinthians 4:5-18; if you’re reading along, that’s page___.
5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Are there any ideas or words that jump out at you from that passage?
Any areas of the passage that spoke to the fears we talked about?
Is there anything there that touches how you think about life and death?
There’s a tension in Christian faith between life and death. This is certainly not the only place we see that dynamic at work, but it’s on full display here. Life and death are related, not opposites. And life and death are not all or nothing; there’s a continuum, which I think we know from our own lives, right?
Part of aging is the power of physical life in us getting weaker. We get achier and our bodies are less able to do the things they used to be able to do. So in that process of getting older we see a side of death. That’s part of why we do things like dye our hair or buy anti-aging creams. Our culture worships youth and a superficial kind of beauty connected with youth. Along with that, we worship speed and wealth and other signs of outward power. In popular culture life is about success, about having it all together. When we don’t feel like we have it all together, when we don’t feel fast or successful or young we feel the threat of death creeping up on us. That can be as major as a cancer diagnosis or as minor as a cold that slows us down and keeps us from doing what we “have to do.”
Paul sees it a different way. He looks at the story of Jesus, how the Lord Jesus Christ gave up the infinite power of divinity to become fragile and human and weak. He not only faced all the normal challenges of life, he faced the pain of torture and death to bring us closer to God. The life of God, true life itself, showed up most clearly in a man willing to die.
In death and in his resurrection Jesus shows that true life is more than success and wealth and power. Those things seemed so important in his culture and seem so important in ours, but they are not what matters most. By rising from the dead, Jesus shows that death isn’t the end; it’s not the ultimate power. And when we put our trust in Jesus we find the life beyond death, the endless power of love shining in our hearts too.
There’s great power in that faith, the Holy Spirit working in us. When we read about the early church we see that God gave the apostles power to do miracles. Many members of those first churches had miraculous powers of healing and prophecy. It can almost seem like there’s a new ideology of power in Christian faith, that we replace wealth and social/political power with spiritual power, but that’s not quite it.
Paul says we have this treasure, that’s the treasure of the Holy Spirit, the treasure of Christ’s light, we have this treasure in clay vessels, so that it will be clear that the power in us comes from God, not from us. In other words, our weakness is part of our witness to God’s love and power. When we do our best as a church, when we become more loving and welcoming than we ever thought we could, our mistakes and our basic human frailty remind us that it’s not about us; it’s about Christ in us. Our aches and pains, our weariness, our nervousness and stammering speech are not limitations to the gospel. Our limitations point people to God instead of to us.
Part of what Paul talks about when he thinks about the power of Christ in us is that because Christ has been raised, we will be raised with him. That’s one of the most important Christians convictions. In faith we are joined with Christ in his death and so we’ll be joined with him in his resurrection as well. Death is not the end, and surprisingly, if we loosen our grip on life, we find a life that’s fuller and more open.
The other part of that is maybe even more important for us since many of our fears are really about aging more than about death itself. That is that in our aging, in our weakness, in all the small ways death creeps into our life now, we are able to show Christ’s life through our weakness. Paul talks about it especially in terms of his persecution and abuse, but it’s true in the natural process of illness and aging too.
The weaker we are, the more it’s obvious that the strength in us comes from beyond us. We can learn that lesson when we’re strong and young and healthy and successful, but often when things are going well we get caught up in ourselves and in our success. When things aren’t going smoothly, when the tests come back positive, when the cough won’t go away, when we can’t do it on our own anymore we’re forced to lean on God.
How does that fit with your experience? How has your faith changed as you have aged and faced illness?
That’s true not only in our own aging and illness; it’s also true in the lives of those we care for. When we care for aging or dying parents or spouses or friends we are reminded how fragile we all are. We’re also reminded of what’s really important: love, tenderness, care, laughter, singing, prayer, time that’s not counted by a clock. We’re reminded to get off the endless treadmill of the rat race and focus on something more fleeting and also more eternal.
When I lift up the holiness of caring for a dying loved one I’m not denying that it is a hard, sometimes grinding ministry. It’s exhausting for someone to depend on us. There are so many emotions that come with caring for someone else. There’s tenderness, but there’s also frustration. There’s love, but also anger and guilt. There are moments of joy and peace, and sometimes hours of bone-deep exhaustion. Sometimes we feel guilty about feeling tired or angry or frustrated, but those feelings are natural and you are allowed to feel them. When you care for someone else, you also need to care for yourself. You need time away, time to recover.
You need to continue your life too, but let it be a changed life. A life marked by compassion and humility in rest as well as in care. Let it be a life marked by knowing that success isn’t the most important thing, even as we strive to succeed. Let your life carry the experience of illness and aging and death within it, and the eternal life of Christ will shine through you.
It’s not that God weakens us so we’ll depend on God. Time and trouble and chance do that all on their own. When we’re weak we can get bitter and depressed or we can lean on God. We can open our eyes and our hearts to the lessons still to be learned, the lessons sometimes only failure can teach. We can’t do it alone and we don’t have to. Even though our outer nature, even though our strength and health and wealth are wasting away, our inner nature, our Christ Spirit, our inner light are being renewed day by day.
Thanks be to God.