Easter 5, Year A, 2014

A few years ago This American Life producer Nancy Updike’s stepfather was dying. He had hospice care and Ms. Updike was incredibly impressed by the competence of the hospice nurses because she herself felt so helpless and anxious and at loose ends in the face of his death. So, she ended up producing a half hour segment of This American Life that followed hospice nurses at Kaplan Family Hospice House in Massachusetts.

Hospice care workers are a rare breed of human being. So many of us do all we can to fight death, or to ignore death while all day long every day, hospice nurses and doctors help people prepare to die. They face what the rest of us are afraid to face, and they face it with dignity and respect. They become a bridge for patients and their families between this world and the next. They understand the complex physical, emotional and spiritual process of death. At one point on the program a nurse, Patti told the following story:

“Yeah. Or [the patient is] comatose and the loved ones keeps saying, he’s waiting for his brother to get here on Saturday. They’re coming from Florida on Saturday. And I’m, inside, rolling my eyes thinking it’s Tuesday. He’s going to die on Wednesday or Thursday. He’s not going to be here on Saturday for when his brother arrives from Florida. And then the brother arrives at Logan, shows up at the Kaplan House at 12:30, and the patient dies at 1:00. And they say to me, I told you. He just needed Billy to come from Florida. And it’s like, what?”

Patti and other nurses like her know that death is not just physical. Sometimes a patient needs to see someone; sometimes they need a priest to do last rites or to hear a last confession. But even hospice nurses, the closest thing we have to death experts in our culture, can’t know for certain what happens after death. None of us can really, though they sure are marketing the heck out of the movie Heaven is for Real, aren’t they! Scripture does give us some clues about our life after death, but even the New Testament’s messages are muddied. In Paul’s letters he seems to have the understanding that all humans will be raised in a resurrection at the same time. In other parts of the New Testament, heaven is spoken of as a place where we will unite with God.

Even Jesus did not have an easy relationship with death. When his friend Lazarus dies, he weeps. When he faces his own death in the garden of Gethsemane, he prays for release. And so the words we read today from the Gospel of John are not a flippant response to his disciples’ worries, but are rooted in Jesus’ experience of being both human and divine. He knows the grief and fear of death, but he also knows that God has plans for us beyond our deaths. In this passage, his disciples aren’t so worried about their own deaths. They are worried about what they are going to do without Jesus. Our passage is part of a long speech that is called Jesus’ farewell discourse. When I was almost college aged, my dad started peppering me with advice, “Carpe Diem! Don’t pick the sick puppy! Don’t merge with anyone you don’t want to become!” He knew he couldn’t follow me to University of Richmond, but he really wanted me to take the values of our family with me to college. In the same way, Jesus is giving his disciples a framework that they can use after his death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus is reassuring them and giving them marching orders. And while Jesus’ main point is not to describe the afterlife to his disciples, his words do tell us a great deal about God’s plan for human beings after our deaths. Jesus tells the disciples his death is necessary. He has to leave the disciples in order to prepare a place for them. In John, rather than resurrection language, Jesus imagines heaven as a metaphorical place—a place with plenty of room for everyone. And blessed Thomas, ever practical, wants to know how the heck they are going to find that place? If Jesus is gone, does he plan to leave them a map? Detailed instructions? Thomas stands in for us. We want more details! More information! How do we get to heaven? Jesus then reassures Thomas that Thomas has all he needs. Thomas doesn’t need a map, because he is already in relationship with the one who prepares the dwelling places and leads us to the dwelling places.

This verse—I am the way and the truth and the life is often used as exclusionary—If Jesus is the way, then there is no other way, but Jesus isn’t addressing other religions here. Jesus is addressing Thomas’ specific concerns. Thomas doesn’t need anything but Jesus, and even if Jesus leaves, Thomas is going to be okay, because Jesus will be working on Thomas’ behalf. This exchange between Jesus and Thomas is a gift to us.

No matter how many times we ask for a map—when am I going to die? What will it be like? Will I feel pain? Will there be white light? Will I see my family?–we won’t get answers. Those answers are only knowable after our death. What the New Testament does tell us is that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to live and die for us so we may share in God’s eternal life. And all we need to get there is Jesus, and Jesus has already done the work necessary to get us there. When Jesus reassures his disciples that they will be okay, that he has them covered, we get to eavesdrop and be comforted. As we heard last week, the Gospel of John is also the Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, a shepherd who chases after every last one of his sheep, who makes sure everyone is tucked safely into the sheepfold. Jesus’ promise to his disciples is his promise to us—he is the way and the truth and the life for us, too. We are his sheep. We are his disciples. While we may face our own deaths with fear or dread, we can also know that even in the midst of our anxiety, Jesus is preparing a place for each of us. We are safe within the sheepfold of his love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Proper 27, Year C, 2013

What is heaven like?

I get that question a lot, but since I haven’t experienced the afterlife myself, I never have a great answer.

The Bible never speaks extensively about heaven—but there are clues here and there.  Our passage today is one of those hints.

Ironically, the people asking Jesus the question about what happens after the resurrection don’t even really care about his answer.

Some Sadducees come up to Jesus, trying to outwit him.  Sadducees were the Jewish sect that was in charge of keeping up the Temple.  They came from wealthy, respected families.  And they did not believe in the resurrection.

To try to prove how illogical the resurrection is they pose the question about the widow that we heard today.

This poor hypothetical woman!  In the law of the time, if your husband died, it was his brother’s responsibility to marry you.  This was meant to protect the widow, but it also reinforces how women were treated like chattel—passed along from one brother to another.  This poor woman has not been able to bear children, and she goes through all seven brothers.  You can only imagine how much she and her mother in law loathed each other after all this!

The Sadducees want to know:  Who does she belong to in heaven?  Who has the right to be her husband, if she’s been married seven times and has no children?

Jesus’ response set the Sadducees back on their heels.

To the Sadducees, this woman is just hypothetical, an intellectual exercise.  But Jesus has known and loved women in really difficult circumstances.  Remember his loving response to the woman at the well who had been married five times.  To Jesus, women weren’t chattel to be passed along.  A barren woman wasn’t the object of derision or deserving of shame. Women were integral parts of God’s kingdom.

Jesus tells the Sadducees that in heaven, no one is given in marriage.  Each person comes to God on his or her own terms and worships God as a whole person.  In community, yes, but not tied to any individual person.

What good news this is for us!  We are in this rare time and place in history in which we understand that women and men are equally valuable members of society and the church.  We understand that a woman’s value is not based on her ability to produce an heir for a family line.

On the other hand, we in the church can do better!

Church can be a very marriage and family centered place. When I was single in church, people kept trying to set me up.  When I was newly married, parishioners felt perfectly free to ask me when I was going to get pregnant.  We treat single and childless people as if they haven’t quite arrived to adulthood.

And I am not innocent of this!  One of my goals as your priest was to minister to the women I don’t see at my women’s bible study:  women who work during the day, who are busy with other responsibilities, including children.  So, I planned this “Mom’s night out” for next week.  After we had already advertised this, I had a revelation.  There were fabulous women I really wanted to be there who did not have children. I found myself running around individually asking them to join us.  We’ll rebrand it the next time we meet, and please, if you want to join some of the young and middle aged women of St. Paul’s Ivy next week, read your bulletin for more information!

This is just a small example of the way churches treat being married with kids as the default position for adults.  But be reassured, even if your clergy get mixed up about this, Jesus never does.

Nancy Rockwell wrote a gorgeous blog post about this passage this week in which she writes,

… the Christian church has so venerated women as childbearers  that it has been unable to imagine other roles for women,  even though Jesus never praised childbearing or motherhood, and did imagine other roles for women:   Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her, he said, when Mary chose to sit among the disciples and learn, rather than work in the kitchen.  And perhaps most importantly, in this argument with the Sadducees over the barren woman, Jesus opened the gates of heaven to her, saying that in the resurrection, life is not as we know it here on earth, there is no owning or belonging to one another, for in eternity all are children of God.   Thanks to Jesus, the barren woman does what is unthinkable:  she steps into heaven on her own.

Jesus was never interested in anyone’s societal status.  He never asked a tax collector if he was the best tax collector in his company.  He didn’t ask Peter whether where he ranked among local fishermen. He didn’t keep nagging Mary Magdalene about finding a man and settling down already!

Jesus was interested in the hearts of human beings, not any of the outward categories by which we humans judge each other.

In heaven, and now, we are loved by God for who we are in all our individuality.  There is no one way to be a woman.  There is no one way to be a man.

Heaven is a mystery.  But God is not a mystery.  God has revealed himself to us in Jesus and we can trust that Jesus’ compassion for humanity will extend itself into our experiences after we die.  And for those of us who are happily married, who grieve the idea of no longer being married in heaven, we can trust that while the legal bonds of marriage may be dissolved upon our deaths, the bonds of affection between two people, the love between two people remains.   After all, those bonds are part of who we are.

In our community, may we strengthen and widen those bonds of love so that everyone, no matter their life situation, may feel welcomed into our little corner of the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day, Year C, 2007

Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints day, perhaps the most bittersweet day of the church calendar.  Today we honor and pray for those we love who have died in the last year and we contemplate the long line of saints who have gone before us, those who will go after us, and of course, we contemplate our own mortality.

In the very early years of Christianity, the Church would honor the death of every martyr for the faith.  Unfortunately, because Christians were persecuted so thoroughly, soon it became impractical to honor each person martyred and a yearly celebration of the martyrs’ deaths was incorporated into the Church calendar.  Over time, the day of celebration morphed into a commemoration of all the saints.  For a long time, saints were defined as people who were heroically virtuous, but Protestants now celebrate All Saints day as a way to remember all persons who have gone before us in the faith.  The change came as the theology of justification changed-Protestants believe that we do not work to earn our salvation, but that Christ justifies all believers. 

This year, for us at Emmanuel, All Saints Day is particularly poignant, since one of our own saints, Bill Colmery, died unexpectedly of heart failure on Monday morning.  We read his name on the list of the departed, and it seems shockingly wrong for us to see his name there.  Bill was a devoted husband and father, a faithful member of this parish, and a consistent fixture at the Bread Fund, our food bank program.  He was far too young to die, and yet here we are, a mere six days later, celebrating his life along with the lives of the great prophets, apostles and martyrs of the church. 

All Saints day is a reminder that death is not very far from us, that we will all experience death. This is a sobering thought, but ultimately All Saints day is reminds us that death is not the end of the story.

None of us knows exactly what happens when we die, but one fundamental part of Christian belief is that Jesus’ death and resurrection radically changed humanity’s relationship with death.  Rather than just dying, Jesus’ death and resurrection invites us into an eternal relationship with God.  This relationship is not bound by the constraints of time or death. 

So, if we who are alive are in fellowship with God and those who have died before us are in relationship with God, then at some level, we are still in relationship with those who have died ahead of us.

We just celebrated Halloween this week, and many a ghost decked the porches of my more creative and industrious neighbors. We as a culture are fascinated with the dead. We love ghosts, haunted houses, psychics who speak with the dead, but for Christians, none of this is necessary.  We have a connection with our dead loved ones that is far deeper and more real and more profound than any parlor trick.

In every Eucharistic prayer you will hear a reference to the communion of all the Saints.  When we take communion-when we share in the body and blood of Christ-we become physically connected to the communion of all the saints-those kneeling next to us, those praying on another continent and those who are already experiencing the fullness of God in heaven.

We do not know exactly how this communion works.  We do not know at which level those persons who have died are cognizant of those of us still alive.  References to life after death in the Bible describe heaven alternately as a city, as a mansion with many rooms, and always refer to the saints praising God.  We know there is no grief in heaven.  We also know that heaven will have many features of the Kingdom of God that we read in our Gospel lesson today.  The hungry will be filled, the grief stricken will be comforted, and the poor will finally find their place.  We know our relationships won’t be entirely the same-Jesus straightened out the guy who wondered which husband a widow of several men would get to marry-there is not marriage in heaven.  But some kind of relationship will exist, though I imagine it will be centered on God in a way we cannot even imagine.

Our prayer book includes prayers for the dead and Catholics have long prayed to the saints, so maybe there is more of a relationship between the two parts of the communion than we might think.  As a child, I used to ask God to say hi to my grandfather when I said my prayers at night.  For a long time I was embarrassed by this, but upon reflection, I might have been on to something!

I think we have the Biblical and theological freedom to continue our relationships with our loved ones through prayer.  Sometimes as we grieve, we realize there are things we have not said to the deceased that might help if said prayerfully.  Alternately, we may experience a specific joy we’d like to share with a loved one.  While we may feel silly, and there is certainly no proof  that our communications reach our loved ones’ ears, I don’t think there is anything harmful or unchristian about speaking to our friends and family who have gone before us. 

Let me be clear-we make a baptismal vow not to mess around with the spiritual world-so I do not advocate séances, psychics, ouija boards and the like.  The church is not in the business of raising the dead.  Well, Jesus was, and the occasional apostle, but it’s generally wise for the rest of us not to mess around with all of that.

But when we prayerfully communicate with members of the Communion of Saints, we are not trying to raise them from the dead.  We are acknowledging that they have gone before us to a place we are soon to follow and that the bonds between us have not been entirely broken by death.

Acknowledging that we are part of a larger communion of saints than the communion that is currently alive is not a morbid Halloween exercise, but a celebration of the eternal life Christ has given us through his death and resurrection.  Today, as we celebrate the Eucharist together, just imagine who might be kneeling with you, joining with you as you become one in communion with Christ.