Monday, November 8, 2010

The Afterlife? Really?

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
November 7, 2010
Proper 27: Job 19: 23-27a; Luke 20: 27-38

The Afterlife? Really?

As most of you know, I’ve been away to attend the funeral of my brother, Chris. First, I flew to Taiwan to represent my family at his funeral there. It was held on a dreary, rainy Saturday last week, in a little chapel at the top of a mountain overlooking Taipei. There was a jazz band, and an organ, and the pastor spoke his words of comfort, and some others told their stories of affection, and we all sang our songs of love.

Then it was off to Minneapolis, where my family gathered with dear old friends in the Episcopal cathedral there; and again there was a jazz band, and an organ, and the pastor spoke his words of comfort, and some others told their stories of affection, and we all sang our songs of love.

But one thing that was different between the two services was that in Minnesota the priest began the service with the traditional words from our burial liturgy, which happen also to be the words assigned to us this morning from the book of Job:

I know that my Redeemer liveth
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
-Job 19: 25-27a

These words have been ringing in my heart ever since.

One of the many favors that my family did for me on this trip was that they gave me permission to not be a priest. I wanted to speak about my brother, but just as a brother, not as a priest. I wanted someone else to be on the job; I wanted someone else to do the work of making sense of all this; because I wasn’t sure that I could.

The Dean of the Cathedral in Minneapolis started his remarks by saying, “How do you say Alleluia and Goodbye at the same time?” I thought that was a wonderfully poignant line, and I made a mental note to steal it.

How do we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the life of our loved ones, and at the same time express our grief and heartbreak in an authentic way?

A great question. And both of the pastors, in their own way, answered that question with their words of comfort. He will be waiting for us, they said, on the other side. He is with us, even now, in our hearts, just as he is fully alive in heaven.
As I sat in my pew, I felt my heart leaping to embrace these words of comfort, even as I felt my mind doubting them.

“Really,” I wondered? Is my brother really out there, waiting for me on the other side? Even as I felt comforted by those words, I felt suspicious of them. How do we know we aren’t telling ourselves these words of comfort just because we need that comfort so much?

And for a mad, schizophrenic moment I found myself both believing, and disbelieving, at the same time. What my heart was embracing as truth, my rational mind was holding me back, doubting, skeptical, removed.

Is there an afterlife, or not? After all, the Bible is notoriously fuzzy on this point. With the exception of Job’s poetic declaration, and some pretty ambiguous references in the Psalms and maybe Isaiah, the case for an afterlife in the Old Testament is not terribly compelling. The realm of the dead, when it’s mentioned at all, is described as a shadowy, subterranean place. The overwhelming emphasis in the Hebrew Bible is on this life, not the next one; God’s judgment, and God’s kingdom, are most definitely described as happening on this earth, in this existence, not in some heaven up in the clouds. Definite ideas about an afterlife only began to take hold after the Babylonian exile, and then later under the influence of the Persians and the Greeks, when the Jews were exposed to more dualistic ideas about a spiritual reality beyond the physical body.

So, needless to say, I was feeling somewhat conflicted about all this.
And it seems that the Holy Spirit noticed this conflict in me because ever since that service in Taipei, the universe has been conspiring to get me to deal with it: Friday night in our hotel room, Clint Eastwood appears on TV to talk about his new movie, The Hereafter, (a wonderful film, by the way) which is all about the afterlife. In the interview, Eastwood says that, even though he made the movie, he isn’t sure himself what he believes about it. On the flight home from Minnesota, a TV show features a doctor and a patient arguing about the existence of heaven. And then I come home to this Sunday, in which we not only have this direct quote from my brother’s funeral, but also a gospel reading in which Jesus debates the existence of the afterlife with the Saducees.

Even Garrison Keillor gets in on the act, yesterday, by telling the story of the men’s club up there in Lake Wobegon called the Sons of Bernie, or SOBs for short. The SOBs get together every Tuesday night in somebody’s basement, where they sit around and debate the great philosophical questions of the day like Is there an afterlife, and then after 15 minutes somebody rings a bell and they all stop talking, go outside in the snow, and sing songs while jumping up and down.

Which seems like probably the best advice. At times like these, the ancients advise, intellectual arguments only get you so far; and then the best thing to do is to get outside, jump up and down, and sing some old songs.

It pains me to admit this, but it’s true.

We didn’t do a lot of jumping up and down at my brother’s funeral, but Episcopalians have our own version of that: we stand and sit and kneel…

So I should probably just quit right now then; except you don’t pay me to sing and I still have a couple minutes on the clock, so I should probably say a little something about Jesus.

Hmmm: Maybe Jesus can even answer my question.

This story in Luke’s gospel comes toward the end of his life – when Jesus is in Jerusalem; which makes sense because that’s where the Sadducees used to hang out. The Sadducees were a big part of the Temple cult system; they got their name from Zadok, who was a Temple priest in the 10th Century BC; Zadok was one of King David’s most loyal priests; his descendants – the Saddouk - were appointed to officiate at the Temple after the return from exile. The Sadducees were a very conservative line of priests; they only used the first 5 books of the Bible, and since they could find no evidence for an afterlife in the Torah, they refused to believe in the resurrection.

And this is what made them sad, you see…

But what’s interesting about this gospel story is this. As I mentioned, we’re getting toward the end here: Jesus is in the Temple and talking about his death and resurrection quite openly; and the Sadducees don’t much like this guy coming into their house and teaching some doctrine that they think goes against the first five books of the Bible. So when they come to Jesus and start to argue with him, Jesus uses a story from the book of Exodus:

"And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

In other words, God didn’t say, “I WAS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” God says, “I AM” their God – in other words, they are still alive; that relationship still continues; I am the God of the living, not the dead; and to God, “all of them are alive.”

The first time I read this story, I have to say I didn’t find it very convincing. I thought, well Jesus is just using a technical point of grammar to make his argument. It reminded me of Bill Clinton saying, “It depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.” I mean, here we are debating one of the great questions of mankind – what happens after we die – and the entire weight of this question, this mountain of a question, this question that every human being has been asking since the very beginning of consciousness – is answered by this tiny point of grammar?


But then I thought, of course. This is exactly the kind of argument the Sadducees would have appreciated. Jesus is in their house so he is speaking their language, and beating them at their own game. Jesus is showing his brilliance, his complete mastery, in terms that only they could appreciate.

Which is what gives this story its ring of truth.

And now Jesus is speaking my language, because the more you study this story, the more it looks like Jesus’ own words, singing off the page; and as I dig into it more deeply it feels like Jesus is speaking directly to me.

And then it occurs to me, maybe Jesus actually knows what he’s talking about.
Maybe I could give Jesus a little bit of credit for knowing a thing or two about the afterlife. Of those who have died, he says,

"Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection."

One thing we know about Jesus, he wasn’t much interested in saying things just to make people feel comfortable. To Jesus, these are not just words of comfort spoken to grieving mortals desperate to see their loved ones again. No, these are words of challenge, to people in power who are out to get him. It would have been far easier for Jesus to have spoken agreeable words, to have gone along with the program – in fact, it could well have saved his life. But Jesus had a truth that was burning inside him; Jesus was carrying a truth that needed to be spoken, a song that needed to be sung, even if it killed him.

And so he spoke his truth – because he knew it to be true. And that knowledge eliminated his fear of death, and gave him the courage to sing his song of faith.

So I guess if Jesus knew it to be true, that’s good enough for me. And that’s how these other words, from the book of Job, come alive as well:

I know that my Redeemer liveth
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

So now, like the Sons of Bernie, let’s ring the bell, and stop talking, and jump up to sing this ancient song of our faith, the mysterious words of the Nicene Creed….


Ron R said...

Isaiah 26:19 - Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust for... the earth shall cast out the dead.

Daniel 12:2 - And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me how the "sting of death" brings so much life. Perhaps this too is the message of the "I AM" not the I WAS?
"Even as you drink this-do this in remembrance of me" We remember in the present and sometimes, such is exampled by your sharing here, that brings new life.
Thanks for sharing.
May your grief continue to create life as you remember: Resurrection at times even. Don't be shy about feeling it either way.