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We Do Not Grieve Without Hope

November 2, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Stewardship Commitment & All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Jesus those who have died. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

Many of you are familiar with the author, Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote the young adult book, A Wrinkle in Time. One evening while her children were doing homework, she was sitting at her desk, writing, when one of their young neighbors, high school age, came in demanding, “Madeleine, are you afraid of death?”

Barely turning she answered, “Yes, Bob, of course.” He plunked himself down on a chair. “Oh, thank God. Nobody else has dared to admit it.”

Like Bob we all fear death. But it’s not just our own death that we’re afraid of.

The other day I opened a book and found the following, “Are you afraid of dying? Have you ever worried about growing old, about becoming a burden to your children? Do you wonder how you would survive the loss of your spouse, a parent, a child? Is someone you love facing illness or death?” And I thought, yes. Yes and Yes, Yes, yes, yes. And yes.

And so there can be a kind of scramble to prepare, to put our lives in order, to make sure we have a will, to check out the continuing care facilities, because we don’t want our death to be a burden to others. And when a loved one is expected to die, we want to cross every “t” when it comes to preparing for their last days. We call the insurance and start that horrible process of putting a price on palliative care; we tiptoe into conversations with the ones we love, testing around the edges to see if it it’s OK to talk about what we don’t want to even think about, what we can’t bear is coming. And all of this is normal and preparations are good. And having conversations – even starting conversations – are important steps.

Because we know grieving starts well before we die or someone else dies. For well before we take our last breath, we’ve needed to let go, let go of so much that once was dear, pattern by pattern, change by change, relinquishing – though not always willingly.

tears_of_sadness

“Do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” If this phrase is not to be immeasurably cheap, it must be more than some day, in the sweet by and by, we’ll be reunited with the ones we love in God’s presence. It must be more than that. Because I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have one more day with the people I love here than have to console myself with hope. So what might this mean, if we assume it’s not a platitude intended to paper over grief with a muscular optimism?

The ancient church liturgy for a memorial has the words “in the midst of life we are in the midst of death.” Death is all around us, and grief is our experience of death in this life. But can we accept the kind of living that does include death – not as people simply resigned; who have given up resisting, but rather as people who love ourselves and others, who allow ourselves to be immersed, entwined, entangled, moved and stripped bear as we walk with one another, facing each challenge, grieving each loss…for death is a part of life, a mysterious, unfathomable, opening into something we cannot know right in the midst of where we are.

My wife Noelle’s favorite theologian is Dorothee Sölle, who, as she was dying was writing a book called, The Mystery of Death. She never completed it; and her husband Fulbert Steffensky, describes her process of writing it as an extraordinarily difficult one – she who wrote so much, so easily, struggled over every line. And upon her death he was left wondering whether he should publish this unfinished fragment. Their family thought about it for a long time and decided to publish it, as is, as an unfinished manuscript – even the last sentence is unfinished.

I think one reason we fear death is that it will catch us, unfinished. Our guard will be down. We may not have put our lives in order. We may not look as attractive as we wish. We may not have said words of honesty or forgiveness to the people we needed to. And any façade we had been hiding behind, will wilter. And then what? We wonder, will we still be loved? Will we, caught off guard by death, still be loved by others? By God? And when our loved one lays dying we wonder, am I forgiven? Am I forgiven for all those things I did and didn’t know I did? Am I forgiven for not being able to stop death?

Fulbert explained their family’s decision to publish Dorothee’s unfinished manuscript saying that following her death, they received so many letters from people whose lives had been changed, who had found the church or gotten courage to venture because of Dorothee. Hundreds of letters. “We believe,” Fulbert wrote, “these people deserve to experience the intimacy of an incomplete text and its unprotected thoughts.”

When I read those words, the fear of death melts away, for I realize that fear is the substitute for intimacy. Fear is not the opposite of courage. It is the opposite of intimacy.

It is through the practice of love, the development of intimacy, the risks and mistakes and forgivings that are all a part of it, that we move in this life from death to life. Dorothee wrote these words in the closing pages of her unfinished manuscript from First John:

“We know that we have passed from death to life because we have loved one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. To be Christian means that we HAVE passed over into life, we have transcended death. Our path cannot be described in biological terms of first being born, then dying, but the other way around: we pass from death to life. The individual then no longer needs those faith-crutches that are expressed as hoping to see each other again or for a continued individual existence. Nothing can separate us from the love of God…”

The hope here in Thessalonians is not merely chronological, it is about what we know when we live in love now. Hope grows when we risk sharing the depths of who we are with one another – and receiving the depths of who another is in return. Hope is born, now, real, not abstract, in the midst of life and in the midst of death.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 3, 2014 9:19 pm

    “In the midst of life we are in the midst of death” became a favorite phrase of mine when I served at a Presbyterian church some years back. Thank you for the thoughtful reflection on a subject we all wrestle with–whether we admit it or not. You reminded me of my own brief post a week ago: http://mitchteemley.com/2014/10/24/dying-to-love/

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