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Death: A Sermon Series

5 December 2008

What an uplifting title, huh?

—–

A quick book plug before I get started:  Peterson’s Tell It Slant.  Yes, it’s that good.  He helps me fall in love with the Scriptures anew, every time he writes, and to find new ways of looking at the text.

—–

When you really think about it, it becomes apparent that much of modern, evangelical Christianity is trying to compete with the secular world around us.  The culture gives us Dr. Phil; we counter with self-help sermon series on how to deal with difficult people, manage our money, turbo-charge our sexuality, honor our marriage vows, and all the rest.  After we persuade ourselves that such things are “relevant” and “practical,” we package them with slick Sunday productions, glossy postcards, and clever web campaigns, all to make sure our voices are not drowned by the steady drone of the culture, competing for the masses’ attention.  After all, truth be known, we know best how to live, and we think others ought to listen to us.

—–

But we’re at least as shrill, at least as violent (in word, if not in deed, but I’m not ready to concede either), at least as unfaithful, and at least as broken as “they” are.  So when the culture exposes us in our brokenness, we counter with what we think is the trump card, which I saw yet again on another church sign the other day here in Amarillo:  “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

Bully for us.  Yeah, that’ll get ’em in the pews – no, they’re not pews anymore, they’re theater seats! – for a sermon and a prayer.  Maybe while they’re in there learning how great it is to be forgiven if they can’t be perfect, they’ll get infected with the same bug we have and suddenly want to follow Jesus.  By which we mean, of course, “placing membership” there, as if the time-honored practice of affiliating with voluntary associations were a gateway to forgiveness and self-help…provided that it’s the right association, with [______] in the name.  And the professional religionists know which one those folks ought to join up with:  almost invariably, the religious empires that the professionals are building.  

And stamping their names on:  the slide sets, the billboards, the web sites, all identified with that indispensable dude in the pulpit.

—–

Next week:  “Seven Days of SEX (a sermon series by Pastor Ed).”  Come and join us as Pastor Ed and his bride – not that it’s important, but look how smokin’ hot SHE is! – teaches us how to rev up our lives to enjoy ALL of God’s incredible blessings, if ya know what I mean…wink, wink.  

You want rock ‘n’ roll?  We got it right here with a worship band that’ll blow all your fuses.  Great music, great sex.  You don’t want to miss it!

It’s such an exciting time to be a part of [_____], where God is moving mightily and people are being saved.  So much so, in fact, that we’ve got a building campaign under way to handle all of the new Christians finding the life they’ve always wanted, right here, with us.

—–

I find it remarkable that Jesus brushes through people’s lives ever so briefly, barely touching them before he moves on.  Except for a group of three, a group of twelve, a platoon of seventy or a hundred and twenty, he pops into a Galilean synagogue, rolls a grenade or two in the direction of the religious professionals, touches a leper, forgives a whore, and moves on, leaving the seekers to pick up the pieces behind him.  Then he disappears into the hills to pray, or something.

—–

We approach the end of Jesus’ three-year ministry, and things are getting murkier, not clearer.  We can’t deny the miracles; we saw them ourselves, and the word is out.  The donkey ride from Bethany was an odd touch, but what itinerant rabbi keeps a war stallion handy, anyway?

What’s really odd, though, are the themes from his three-year teaching circuit that seem to be intensifying.  One word and its cognates are beginning to resonate, something quite different from the messages that the competing rabbis and philosophers are selling.  It must be central because Jesus seems to be preoccupied by it, almost morbidly so.

—–

Death.

qb

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 December 2008 4:16 pm

    qb,

    You heard of the AHA, HAHA, AHH (relaxation or scream) responses. In the face of even a momentary transcendent experience maybe our most common response is the HUH response. It is sometimes verbalized using the frequent anomic and anemic “whatever.” I remember asking an acquaintence to listen to a fugue by Bach. He listened but apparently did not hear. I recall being quite frustrated with his “I don’t like it” because I liked him. I didn’t like him any less but I was saddened.

    Children have to be taught boredom and adults assuage their hunger for reality with all sorts of distractions. If one sits with a child, even a small child in one’s lap, and expresses joy in a piece of music or a sunrise or a flower’s fragrance or a flight of geese or in any other hint of transcendence, the child will be available for the sharing of the experience. Not often with adults. Death focusses the mind. For followers of Jesus, it must. As Bonhoeffer said: “When Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die.”

    Blessings,

  2. queueball permalink*
    8 December 2008 5:28 pm

    Yeah, Coop, that’s what I mean. Exactly.

    But I can’t figure out how to do the next installment on this. There’s so much jangling around in my head about the unique (and dare I say, dominant) place of death in the Jesus way, I can’t figure out where to re-start. Death as both metaphor and reality – perhaps the former is more real than the latter? – is somehow the exclusive province of Christianity. Maybe I just haven’t read widely enough. And it will be hard to fill the seats for an extended meditation on the place of death in discipleship. But it seems to me inescapable. Where to start?

    qb

  3. 9 December 2008 1:38 pm

    qb,

    Maybe not knowing where to start is a form of the beginning of wisdom.

    This morning one of my veterans died before I got to the VA. Sometimes I watch them in the moment of death. I “experience” death quite often. One particular hospice veteran I deal with is my age, has a master’s degree in history, and is very bright. He is dying of (or living with) lymphoma. I want to encourage him to see that he is living with lymphoma. But he sees it otherwise and is terrified, confused, and avoidant. His main tendency is to intellectualize. But sadly, thinking about death is necessary but offers no solution. Thinking (and Cartesian medicine and the hubris surrounding control) cannot fix death. The pain can be dealt with, but not the suffering. The suffering can only be accepted as the necessary tension between life and death. “When one suffers, all suffer.”

    Scripture, drama and poetry offer more help, I think. Personally, I like to think that Dylan Thomas’ line “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . .” is but an echo of not only Jesus’ agony but his rage when we read “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Or Paul’s rage when he says “O death? where is thy victory! O death, where is thy sting?”

    I hate death. It violates all of the ten commandments. And yet, and yet . . .: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto eternal life.” And yet, and yet: “I came that ye might have life and have it abundantly.”

    Blessings . . .

  4. queueball permalink*
    9 December 2008 2:19 pm

    The impulse to intellectualize our experience leads to a lot of nonsense. Perhaps our deepest emotions get short shrift because their counterfeits are so pervasive in culture: we mistake happiness for joy, pleasure for wholeness, eros for phileo or agape, pain for true grief or suffering, pity for empathy. But I do it all the time, and I see my friends do it…they “confess” a fear or a weakness, and then they turn right around in the same breath and explain it to me as if they had it figured out. There is no patience to embrace brokenness and weakness in that paradigm. We don’t want to wallow, so we rush out to the mall to get ourselves a shot of commercialization to desensitize us.

    One friend in particular just seems in denial all the time about his weakness, but he paradoxically has it all figured out…strange. There is a “reason” for his continued struggles, and that reason is predictably disconnected from his person…mechanical, you know. Explainable. Inevitable?

    Why are we so impatient with our own weakness?

    So your experience as a chaplain puts the cookies right on the bottom shelf.

    qb

  5. 11 December 2008 2:13 pm

    qb,

    A short response to your question. Much of our impatience with our weakness is, I think, shaped in us socially by the latent, yet powerful and pervasive, Calvinism gone to seed in American culture. It is the toxic water we swim in–causing us to deny the good in us, to exaggerate our individual sin and neglect corporate sin, and to be self-hating and self-punitive. One of my wry counseling mantras is telling: you have to stop beating yourself up for beating yourself up. Beating oneself up for beating oneself up is but one instance of the Protestant ethos which brought Catholic monastic flagellation out of the monastery and into the public square.

    I do not want to minimize thinking. Thinking is very important. So is a healthy introspection and a realistic self-awareness. But nothing in isolation for long. For such leads to easy rationalizations which are really stones instead of fish. Death instead of life. Otherwise as Eliot has it in the “Four Quartets”: we have the experience and miss the meaning.

    Lechiam,

    Coop

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