Death has always been a question, 4 Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – 2009

June 28, 2009

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Psalm 130; or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24 and Lamentations 3:21-33 or Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”

What do you think about that verse from the Wisdom of Solomon?

If God didn’t make death and doesn’t delight in the death of the living, then why do people we love die, and who thought up heaven and hell? Why do our loved ones or good people or poor people or children die?

If there were no death, God would be a lot easier to figure out, don’t you think? Then God might be only the completely loving God who takes care of us, heals our sickness. A nice God, one who watches benignly from above as we live to be – what? – a million, a billion? Oh wait, now this gets to be confusing. If there were no death, we’d have to rethink the whole living thing.

So, what do we do?

First, we need to go back and consider where this passage from Lamentations comes from. Fortunately, we don’t read the scriptures as coming literally from the mouth of God into the ear of Moses, or any other writer of Biblical texts. These passages came from the hands of human beings just like you and me. The writers didn’t have magic powers to be able to probe God’s mind. They wrote from their own life experiences and an understanding of the culture and situations they found themselves and their people in at the time. We say inspired, we don’t say dictated.

And this is the beauty of scripture. The books of the Old and New Testaments were included in the canon of scripture because they, out of all the writings of those particular times, best commented on the connection of God to God’s people. These books were the ones used by the communities of those eras as helpful commentaries on how God worked in people’s lives. The writers were most likely very holy, thoughtful, devout people. They were probably very faithful to their prayers and so were able to listen to the inspiration of God. But they were human and had human questions and concerns.

Death has always been a question – especially the death of the young. If God loves us so much, why do we die? The writers of Lamentations and Jairus from our gospel probably wondered this. Maybe it’s because we don’t really know what’s on the other side. We have only God’s word of eternal life in union with God as promised especially by Jesus to hold on to.

The Book of Wisdom tells us that heaven is a place where tears are no more, neither crying nor sighing. The dead are in the hand of God. But what does that mean to us? Have you ever really thought about it?

In our mortal lives we don’t have a good image of what that means. Of course, we have those nice little carvings of a child leaning into the palm of a huge hand. The tenderness of that image gives us some idea, but there must be more. What we might do then is when we’re led into considering death as we do especially when we hear gospel stories like the daughter of Jairus or the raising of Lazarus, is to let our minds and hearts be just open to taking in our own images of what we see in the stories. We might consider the beauty of the church building around us – the music that stirs us – the image of a loving and faithful God that carries us into each day. Somehow all of this may be part of that place we call heaven. God does love us so much that our eternal life will be peace and love and joy. No one’s who’s ever had a near death experience has ever come back and said it was awful, have they? So, we must trust.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why the death of others so often hurts us so much. In an alternative Old Testament reading for today, David mourns the death of both Saul and Jonathan. And that’s a bit odd, don’t you think, when Saul gave David such a horrid time of it? Surely David loved Jonathan like a brother, but in their deaths, David mourned both. He cried:

“Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.”

There is part of our answer. We are the ones who mourn. Those we love are no longer visible to us. We can’t touch them or see their love for us. If we believe what we know and if we really trust God as we claim to in our prayers, hymns, and worship, then we know that they are in a good place – a place where they are not suffering but are whole and joyful and intimately united with the God we pray to. Our hearts are broken. They break not only for our own loved ones, but our hearts break when we hear about genocide, when we remember times in our history such as the Holocaust or times in our current day when people still die for their faith and the faith of others. We think of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyr of El Salvador – we think of our most beloved friends and our hearts break.

But – but – we must believe as many writers and holy people have told us, that God weeps with us, too. When the writer of Lamentations says, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living,” we must remember that this writer is speaking from a human understanding. In one way, that writer is right – God didn’t make death. Death is a natural part of being a human being with a finite life on a finite planet. Suffering, sickness, pain, and evil is a part of being a human living in the natural world.

Death happens, and as we consider death on a Sunday like this when we’re not involved right now in a requiem service, we can look at it perhaps more objectively. We can ask our questions and think quietly about them.

Maybe we can come to a deeper trust that the second part of that verse is true: “God weeps with us, too.” God weeps because we weep. God is there to comfort us as we weep. There’s nothing wrong with pouring out our deep sadness as the loss of someone we love or at an evil that’s been committed in our world, but we are not alone.

Another thing Jesus was offering us in his raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead was the promise of the resurrection. As humans we need visual images to help us understand. The idea of finally all being together in eternal life, rising from our own death, is hard. This helps us a little. This and the other stories of Jesus raising people from the dead give us an insight into resurrection.

It might also give us an understanding that the dead are indeed still with us. They are spirits, both Wisdom and Revelation tell us, but they are in our hearts as God is in our hearts. We may not be able to see or touch, but they are with God, they are with us.

God is love. God is with us in every emotion, in every part of our lives. We pray for the dead not because they need it, but because it helps us – it keeps them close to us, it touches our memories.

As it says in 2 Samuel: “Beloved and lovely! In life and in death we are not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

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