Sunday, April 16, 2017

Year A, Easter, John 20.1-18, The Living Dead.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Following the death of one of her patients, my sister, who is a nurse, called the on-call physician.
“Dr., we need a pronouncement.”
“I’m the one who makes that determination, not you!”
“Your quite correct, Dr., but I will say that in over 20 years of nursing I have not been wrong yet.”
The doctor came, did his examination and determined that the patient was indeed dead.  As he left he turned to my sister and said:  “Right again.”

There are a lot of things about this life that we do not understand and which remain mysterious to us.
And then there are those things that we know all too well.
Death is one of those things that fits both categories.
Over the course of my ministry I have been called upon many times to be with people as they died, and then to conduct their funerals.
I’ve buried children who died in the womb, as well as newborns that lived but a few days.
Within just a few years of beginning my ministry back in Thompson Falls, I had buried someone in every decade of life, from birth to people who had lived a century.
One of the mysteries surrounding death is “Why?”
“Why does death come far too soon for some?”
“And why, pray tell, does death come not soon enough for others?”
And is there ever a time when a death occurs at just the right moment for us?
These are the mysteries surrounding death.
We will never understand these things.

But one thing we feel quite sure about is death itself.
We fear it.
We do everything we can to avoid it.
We grieve when a loved one dies.
But we know it when we see it.  That is certain.
“Right again.” The doctor replied.
“Right again.”

Another Story:
I went to visit one of my oldest members in Thompson Falls. 
Gladys turned to me that day and said, “Pastor, I have just one more question.  “When we die, do we go directly to heaven, or rest until the last day and then be raised from the dead?”” 
I shared with her that there were Bible verses to support either belief, and that the only thing we really know is that following our death, the next thing we will be aware of is being with Jesus.  We won’t be aware of the passing of time between death and resurrection.
“Gladys,” I asked, “what do you hope for?”
“Pastor, I’ve lived 94 years and I’m tired.  I hope that I get to rest for a long while before I have to live again.”

Behind my home in Sandpoint is a graveyard.
Lakeview Cemetery.
As I walk out the back of my yard into the cemetery, one of the first graves is for George Chatfield.  George was a retired Colonel from the Air Force.  He prided himself on being “a little to the right of Attila the Hun” as far as his politics went.  He was the chair person of our altar guild and set up communion and often served as the assisting minister in worship.  He was a faithful member in our choir.  And I might add, he drank an incredible amount of wine. 
Well there he lies, just outside my back door.
Next to him lies Nancy McFarland.  Nancy was one of the members of our church choir as well and often accompanied us on the piano.  She also played the harp.  She was single, and didn’t want to be buried next to strangers, and so she bought the plot next to George’s so that she wouldn’t be alone.  Dear lady.
As I cross the graveyard, next to the shore of Lake Pend Oreille, there is a columbarium, where ashes are inurned. 
Jim Nelson is there.  Jim was another choir member, come to think of it.  When we moved to Sandpoint Jim decided to help us unpack.  His task was to set up all our beds so that we’d have some place to sleep that night.  His widow is one of our family’s adopted grandparents.
In the same columbarium, Mary Neuder is buried.
Mary was our next door neighbor.  Her son was my associate pastor in Sandpoint.  She and her husband raised Christmas trees and when we moved into the parsonage in Sandpoint, they had set one up for us.  What a gift.
Dear friends that lie in their graves behind my home.
Some people wouldn’t want to live next to a cemetery.  It has never bothered me.  Especially because these are the people I loved and served as a pastor.
Many times I’ve stood in that cemetery, and others.  Surrounded by the graves of those who have died, I am aware of the inevitability of death.  And that one day I too will join them.  My hope is to be buried in that cemetery behind our house.  But not too soon. 
But of this I am certain.
I am still very much alive, and they are dead.

Mary entered the garden, convinced that she too was alive, and the one she loved, was dead.
We know the story all so  well.
The tomb was open.
The rock was rolled away.
Jesus was not there.
 “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
There was one thing that she felt she could count on that morning.  And that was that Jesus who had died, would be there.
But this was Easter.
The Day of Resurrection.
And everything changed.
Jesus called her by name.
And everything changed. 
Not just for Jesus.
Or Mary.
But for you and me.
Just when we think we have figured it all out, everything changes.
We walk through the graveyards of our lives, convinced that one day we will die, but today we are very much alive.
And yet, the reality is much different.
It is we who are dead, and they who are alive.
Or as Paul puts it:
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
“Your life is hidden
                With Christ
                In God”
Paul writes in Romans 6:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Mary didn’t realize yet that she had been buried with him.  That was yet to come.

But more important is the knowledge that she too would walk with Jesus in the newness of life.
For Mary, that “newness of life” began when Jesus called her by name.

Death is, for us, a mystery.
We think we’ve got it all figured out.
But we don’t. 
I envision living out the rest of my life in our home in Sandpoint.  And then when I die, being laid to rest in the cemetery out back.
And yet Easter changes all that.
If my hope comes true,
I will die in my home,
                But will live, as my bones are laid in the cemetery out back.

We think of baptism as the celebration of the new life of our babies, and rarely think about it as a dying and rising with Christ.
And yet it is, just that.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that with each passing year I am more and more aware of my impending death.  Death is closer, now than it was yesterday.
I look at my first grandchild and I wonder how much of his life I will be able to witness and enjoy.
One of the reasons I think more about death now, than I once did, is because following my last night of drinking, now 4 ½ years ago, my doctor told me “You almost died.”
It was a pronouncement I was not ready to hear.
But today, living my life anew in an Easter faith, I believe that Dr. Carlberg was in fact wrong.
In reality, I did die, but was raised.
Not on that fateful night, but in the waters of baptism.
Our lives have always been hidden with Christ in God.

One last story.
Ted Kato was a member of my congregation in Thompson Falls, and died of cancer.
Before he died, he talked about ‘losing the battle’ to cancer.
In an effort to comfort him, I responded that just because our lives come to an end doesn’t mean that we’ve lost the battle.  It only means that the battle is over.
The night Ted died, he had a strange request.  He asked those of us beside him to lift up his arms over his head.  For hours we held his arms high.
It wasn’t till after Ted had died that I realized what he was doing.  Ted was a football and wrestling coach.  We had talked about how just because the game or match is over, doesn’t mean you’ve lost.  It’s actually at the end of the game that the victors and losers are declared.
Ted chose to die with his arms raised high in the sign of victory.
Death was for him, and will be for all of us, the beginning of life.  It will be a victory celebration. 
Strange world we live in isn’t it.
Where the living die,
And the dead live.
But so it is.
Christ is Risen,
Christ is Risen, Indeed.  Alleluia.

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