How God Responds to Death

cemetary sunsrise

Luke 7:11-15 NRSV

All Saints’ Sunday gives us an opportunity to reflect on a topic that we all like to avoid. Though it occurs to every living person, we do everything we can to distance ourselves from it.

Just a century or more ago, people seemed to be more comfortable with death. There was less distance between the living and the dead. Instead of dying in a hospital or a nursing home, people usually died in their own house.

And their bodies were not sent off to the funeral parlor, but kept at home, prepared there by family members for visitation and burial.

Today, death usually occurs in isolated places where where we have these specialists who deal with it. When families make funeral arrangements, we have more specialists step in to maintain a margin of protection around the grieving.

When I was growing up, I remember being shielded from death. Visitation with the family always occurred in the home of the deceased without the body being present. It stayed at the funeral home.  Although one had the opportunity to privately view the body at the funeral parlor, most people chose to only visit with the surviving family members in the home.

I remember my parents teaching me that there was no need to go to the funeral home to see my Great Granddaddy, because Great Granddaddy was not at the funeral home.

“That’s just his body, an empty shell. He is in heaven with God,” they’d say.

My parents were only doing what they could do to protect me, to keep me at a safe distance from death.

There’s a growing trend to revert back to a more acceptable view of death, to an understanding that death is a natural part of life. After all, at some point, everybody’s doing it. Hospice Homes have been built to accommodate entire families, so everyone can be included in someone’s final moments.

I believe this is a better approach to death. To face it. Accept it.

However, if we are not careful, I believe Christians can take acceptance of death too far. For I believe it can become very problematic when every death, no matter how tragic or horrific, is accepted as the will of God.

In fact, I believe we misconstrue who our God is when, upon hearing of someone’s untimely death we say things like: “Well, it must have been his time to go.” “The Lord called her home.” “Another flower was needed in God’s garden.”  “This is just God’s will, and we just have to accept it.”

By having an understanding that every death is God’s will, I believe some Christians encourage the grieving to move on too quickly with their lives. They infer that spending too much time grieving over a loss means their faith in God is weak and shallow.

“You need to accept that this is all a part of God’s plan. So dry it up. Get yourself together. Get on with your life.”

Thus, many people who still find themselves grieving over a loss they experienced as little as six months ago begin to feel guilty for lacking faith.

People today even try to naturalize the death of children. I do not believe there is anything more unnatural than the death of a child. It is a break of the natural order of things. Our children are supposed to be there to take care of us when we grow old and die.

But I’ve heard people try to limit the tragedy, naturalize the heartbreak. At the funeral of an infant, I one preacher said: “Some children have always died before their parents. The only reason that it seems so tragic is because, today, people are having fewer children.”

He then told the story of Johann Sebastian Bach who had 20 children by two wives. He said, “Only ten of his children survived to adulthood.  What nature took away in the form of untimely death, nature made accommodation by the fruitfulness of human union.”

It was as if he was saying to the grieving parents: “Your grief today is your fault for not having more children! Don’t blame death for your grief, for death is a natural, God-willed process.”

I believe our scripture lesson this morning encourages us to have a better-informed theology when it comes to death.

Jesus and his followers encounter a funeral procession while traveling through the town of Nain. Nothing unusual. A very common occurrence, even today. However, instead of ignoring and isolating himself from death, instead of distancing himself from or denying death by calling it a natural part of life, Jesus confronts death. Jesus stops, recognizes the harsh reality of death

And when Jesus learns that the funeral was for a widow’s only son, Luke tells us that he was moved with compassion. The Greek word used here is a “visceral” verb. It literally means that Jesus was moved from deep within his inner bowels. Jesus had a gut-wrenching reaction to this widow’s loss.

Jesus recognized the tragedy of this death, the unnatural pain and heartache that this death had caused. Jesus recognized that sons should bury mothers. Mothers should not bury sons. Jesus recognized that this was not the will of God.

This is how I believe our God always responds to death. God does not will death. God is not sitting on a throne pushing buttons calling people home.

No, Luke teaches us that when someone dies, God is moved and moved deeply. God has a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction. God is flooded with compassion and overcome with grief. God does not accept death as a natural part of life, but on the contrary, God recognizes the unnatural aspect of it, and God is moved from the very depths of who God is.

Remember Jesus’ response when his friend Lazarus died. It’s the shortest but perhaps most hopeful verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”  When a loved one dies, our God does not say: “Have some faith. Move on. Get over it and get on with your life. Stop cying.”

No, our God grieves. Our God cries with us.

With compassion, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the casket and speaks to the one within it: “Young man, I say to you, get up!”

And then (listen to these wonderful words): “When the son arose, Jesus ‘gave him back to his mother.’” Isn’t that beautiful?  This young man’s life was restored, but so was the life of his mother.

Thus, Jesus demonstrates what our God is all about. God is and has always been about bringing life to all people.

Genesis says that the first act of our God was to breathe the breath of life into creation. God’s breath, God’s Spirit, swept over the face of the waters. God breathed into the human the first breath of human life. And it was in the same manner, God, in Jesus breathed new life into the young man from Nain by speaking the words: “Young man, I say to you, arise,” demonstrating that God’s business is always to give life, not death.

Therefore, I believe it may be questionable theology to say that “God wills death,” or “calls people home,” “or takes our loved ones.”

For our God is always giver. That means God is never a taker.

Thus, it’s more accurate to say that when any death occurs, no matter the age, no matter the circumstance, God confronts it. God is moved with compassion by it. In that moment someone takes their last breath, God is not there taking, but God is there giving, giving all that God has, pouring God’s self out into that person, fully, completely and eternally.

God does not ignore death, demean death, or simplify death saying: “This is all part of my plan.” God does not let any funeral pass by like it is somehow meant to be. No, God is moved with compassion and sees death as a force contrary to God’s will and takes action to overcome it, transform it, resurrect it.

It could be said that God’s whole life in the story Jesus is about this one thing: overcoming the power of death. As Jesus spoke life to this young man from Nain, God speaks life in the resurrection of Jesus and accomplishes not a resuscitation of one, but the redemption of all.

Through Jesus, God restores the natural order of things. God may not keep all children from dying before their parents, but God does restore the power of life over death, and the power of God over everything else in all of creation.

This is the good news for us on All Saints’ Sunday. We worship the God of life. We worship the God who has brought life to the ones we have lost this year, and who is even now bringing life eternally to us.

And this is the challenge for us this day. Because we worship the God of life, we are called even now to do what we can do to bring life, restoration and hope at the graveside of grieving parents and grandparents, as we will do this afternoon, at a Hospice Home or a funeral home, but also wherever there is degradation and dehumanization, wherever women are harassed and objectified, wherever children are neglected and victimized, wherever outsiders are scapegoated and demonized, wherever people are oppressed and demoralized, or wherever anyone is made to feel like they might be better off dead.

I will never forget the response of a homeless woman after our church served her a hot meal this past Easter Sunday.

She said, “Today you have made me feel human again.” T

hink about that. On Easter Sunday, because of the actions of a church, a woman, demoralized and dehumanized by the world, just didn’t learn about resurrection, she actually experienced resurrection.

Thank you for being the God of resurrection, the God of life and restoration. As we follow the Christ wherever he leads us, may we always be your resurrection people who make it our business daily to bring life and restoration wherever it is needed.

Invitation to the Table

Now, may the God of life breathe upon these gifts of grain and grape that they might be for all of us the live-giving presence of the living Christ, that we might be reflections of God’s likeness in a hurting world, so that others might know the blessings of life, abundant and eternal.

We remember all who have gone before us into God’s eternal splendor and now join them and all the angels and all of the saints of heaven as we continue to sing our praises to God together.

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