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The Deal With Death Is…

 Jarrett McLaughlin
“The Deal With Death Is…”
April 11, 2021
1 Corinthians 15:12-26

Introduction:

The headstone…was made of white marble…and this made it easy to read.  Harry did not need to kneel or even approach very close to make out the words engraved upon it.

James Potter.  Lily Potter.  Different Dates of Birth.  Same Date of Death.  And an inscription: ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’

Harry read the words slowly, as though he would have only one chance to take in their meaning…A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic.  “Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?” 

Hermione answered gently, “It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry…it means…you know… living beyond death.  Living after death.”

But they were not living, thought Harry: They were gone.  The empty words could not disguise the fact that his parents’ remains lay beneath the snow and stone…not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice, yet close to wishing – at this moment – that he was sleeping under the snow with them

That’s a passage from the final book of the Harry Potter series.

I know he’s a fictional character but the questions Harry asks are our questions.  The fear he voices is our own fear.  The crisis of faith he passes through is one we all must own.

It’s the week after Easter, and yet the world spins on much as it always has.

We say that “Christ is Risen!”  But let’s linger with Harry a bit in that space where those words of death’s defeat feel wholly inadequate when experience tells us that death always gets our final moment?

Harry – along with much of the HP readership I’m sure – read that inscription on the tombstone and failed to recognize it as scripture…that it comes from the apostle Paul’s longer treatment of death and resurrection in

1 Corinthians. Listen as we eavesdrop on how the earliest Christ-followers made sense of this tension.

 

Scripture:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;

and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  

Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.

 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;

 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

 

Sermon:

I feel it appropriate to express my gratitude for the theologians who help us think through these knotty matters and today I want to acknowledge the 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich, especially his book The Courage To Be.

If you imagine Tillich as a doctor for the human condition…his diagnosis is that we have an acute anxiety disorder.  Fear is what we suffer from and it is terminal.

He articulates three kinds of anxiety that envelop human existence.  Because it’s the season of Easter, I want to focus on the most primal of the three – the fear of death.

A quote:

“The anxiety of…death is most basic,” Tillich says.  “All attempts to argue it away are futile.  Even if the…arguments for the ‘immortality of the soul’ had [any] power (which they do not have) they would not convince existentially.  For existentially, everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies.”

Who wants to read 200 pages of that?!?

In layman’s terms, Tillich is saying: everyone is afraid to die – its natural, instinctual even – and when we get down to it, no amount of theology or Bible study or prayer is going to make that fear go away.

To be alive is to be aware that someday you will not be alive…to be alive is to do everything in your power to delay that moment as long as possible.

I’m reminded of a joke about heaven:

A man died and went to The Judgment.  They told him , “Before you meet with God, I should tell you — we’ve looked over your life, and to be honest you really didn’t do anything particularly good or bad. We’re not really sure what to do with you. Can you tell us anything you did that can help us make a decision?”

The newly arrived soul replied, “Well yeah, once I was driving along and came upon a person who was being harassed by a group of thugs. So I pulled over, got out a baseball bat, and went up to the leader of the gang. He was a big, muscular guy with a ring pierced through his lip. Well, I tore that ring out of his lip, and told him he and his boys had better stop bothering this guy or they would have to deal with me!”

“Wow that’s impressive,” they all said, “Now…when did this happen?”

“About three minutes ago.”

Any sensible person avoids situations that are clearly dangerous.
Survival is hard-wired into our being.
So in some ways that fear is healthy.

But there comes a time when the fear of death runs amok and takes over.

Harry stood in front of his parent’s tombstone and read it: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death”
To him it sounded like something his enemies would say – Voldemort and the Death-eaters – those who fear death so much that they would do anything to live forever – no matter how many people they have to hurt in the process.

But Easter is not about cheating death and living forever.
What Easter faith offers us is the courage to face death unafraid –
For Tillich, THAT is what it means for Jesus to save us.

Death indeed gets our very last moment.  The question we all must answer is ‘how many other moments are we going to give it before then?’

Because the fact of the matter is that Death and all of his friends do have a way of eroding life right out from under us – snatching away moments or months or even entire years.

John Bell is a pastor in the Church of Scotland and a gifted hymn-writer.  I heard him preach at Montreat a couple years back and he shared this story about an encounter he had in Gugulethu (Goo-goo-leth-you), South Africa.

He was worshipping at a Church and he couldn’t help but notice this young woman in the first row of the choir.  Her name was Namsul – he describes her as having a smile like the rising sun – and she didn’t just stand there and sing – she beamed the music to the congregation and she danced and swayed and shook as she praised God.

The pastor of the Church said to John “You should speak with Namsul, she has a story that would be good for you to hear.”

So John went up to her and began a conversation: “Your pastor tells me that we should talk – that you have a story I ought to hear.”

Namsul said “Of course, I know what you mean.  The story is that four years ago I was assaulted by a group of men.  They dragged me into their car, drove me into the countryside, and they did things to me.  When they were finished they left me out there.  After that, I felt like my life was not worth living.  What man would have me for a wife after that?  And who, in my society, would believe me?  ‘You must have given them encouragement’ people would say.’  I gave no encouragement.”

“I went to pieces,” she continued, “I stopped caring about my health, how I looked.  I lost my job.  About a year later a friend said to me ‘Namsul, have you had a health check-up?’ I said ‘No.’  The friend insisted, so I went.  And when I got the results I was told that I was HIV positive.”

Namsul said, “I had just spent a year of my life in despair…angry beyond measure.  But it was a curious thing that it was at this moment that I realized – I couldn’t do anything about what those men did to me.  I couldn’t change the fact that I now have a terminal illness…but I could take care of myself.  So I took myself on – I got a job, I began to exercise, to take care of my skin.  I joined the choir and I began to sing on Sundays and everything changed.”

She concluded her story by saying to John, “I made a decision to live.”

Amazing, isn’t it – to find the courage to be when Death and all of his friends have done their worst?

Harry stood in front of his parent’s tombstone and read it: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death”
Like most of us, He didn’t understand what it meant.
Life was bitter and hard and for a moment he even wished to be sleeping beneath the snow with them.

A rather insightful friend helped him interpret the words:
“it means…living beyond death…living after death.”
I might make one minor adjustment to Ms. Grainger’s words:
“it means living in spite of death”

That is the heart of Easter faith
Faith isn’t an opinion about what is true – it’s not about holding an intellectual position even if it stands against all evidence to the contrary.
Faith is a state of being – a posture of defiant courage in the face of all that makes us afraid.
Faith is trusting that Jesus Christ saves us…and saves us for life.

May we live every moment of this life in the fulness of that truth.

Let God’s people say it together.
Amen.

Jarrett McLaughlin , Pastor

Email: jarrett@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Jarrett grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina where he had a pretty regular childhood – riding bikes around the neighborhood, muddling through school, trying to play various sports (emphasis on try), going through a phase of wearing lots of black in high school, and through it all, always finding a place of welcome in the Church. Jarrett became a “traitor” to his NC State traditioned family when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college.  Missing youth group terribly, Jarrett quickly discovered Presbyterian Campus Ministry where, in addition to exploring his call to ministry, he also met Meg. After college, Jarrett served as a youth minister for one year and then spent another year traveling, spending a great deal of time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti living in community with disabled children at Wings of Hope. He then went to Union-PSCE Seminary (now “Union Presbyterian Seminary”) and then went on to serve as an associate pastor for mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.  In June of 2013 Jarrett and Meg accepted a call to serve as co-pastor Heads-of-Staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. In July of 2013 they learned that they would be expecting. In August of 2013 they learned they would be expecting twins.  In September of 2013 they moved and told the Church all of this on their second Sunday. Jarrett is very much looking forward to NOT repeating that pattern as they accept the call to serve University Presbyterian Church. When not engaged at Church, Jarrett enjoys running and hiking.  He is also an obsessive music fan intent on keeping up with independent music of all kinds – reading blogs and record reviews, scoping out live shows and constantly spinning tunes in the car, home or office.  Most of all, Jarrett has a deep passion for the Church as a place of radical welcome and hospitality and tries his best every day to honor the ways he has experienced that in his own life as grace upon grace.