By Will Willimon
The last time I preached at Washington National Cathedral, after service a tourist groused, “Your sermon was so depressing! I hope you’re never invited back.”
Well, I’m back. This time I so want to be positive, upbeat. But, these days have been, well, a depressing dialogue with Death.
“We’re in control!” we said. “Sure, the White House is clueless, but soon the government may get its act together. We’re making progress! Doing just fine on our own, thank you.”
Then, “Your cheery claims of human potency, self-help positivity, and competence, are silly,” Death said. “Now, I’m in charge.”
You’d think that, as a pastor, I’d be more adept at talking back to Death. This theological thanatologist has presided over a thousand funerals. This septuagenarian knows more about mortality than you kids.
But even I’ve felt overwhelmed as Death’s haggard face stares back from the evening news. Body bags in Mexico, Monrovia, or Manhattan.
“We’ve put everything we’ve got into this little business,” she said.
“It’s mine now,” says he who bears hourglass and scythe.
“They don’t call me the ‘Grim Reaper’ for nothing.”
“Turn off the ventilator, she’s mine now.”
“Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?” asks Paul (1 Cor. 15:55). Death gives the answer. “Where? All over America, once my buddy COVID-19 and I got to town.”
“Go ahead, put your knee on the neck of a defenseless man, I’ll do the rest.”
We link arms and say, “We’re all in this together!”
Death says, “No, you’re not. Look at the numbers. You think George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery were accidents?”
“We’ll be better people after this,” we say. “Think of the scientific advances!” “It’s been wonderful just to sit in my yard and enjoy the singing birds.” “Invite someone of another race for coffee. We can beat this!”
Death mocks, “I take 150,000 Americans, I put troops in your streets, and all you’ve got is sappy, sentimental bromides?”
Try saying, “She’ll live on in our memories,” and see if it makes up for “We’ll never hear Mama laugh again.”
Conquering Death smirks, “Go ahead. Accomplish your little projects, overcome life’s obstacles, accumulate stuff, publish a book. Eventually I’ll still be able to say triumphantly, ‘Gotcha.’”
Life’s little loses eventually add up to the ultimate rip-off. Or as Paul put it to First Church Rome, in this morning’s epistle, “the body is dead.”
A microscopic cell, cousin of the common cold, steals in to teach the truth the church tried to tell us on Ash Wednesday: “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”
And I promised this sermon wouldn’t be depressing.
Paul says that Christ’s people “do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). We grieve, but not without hope. Where’s the hope?
I know hope is not in our sappy slogans, our merely human progressive strategies. Nothing human is a match for Death. As the last Pope said, “Only God has a future.”
Here’s the brash claim that is Christian hope: Jesus Christ has done in Death. Jesus stood up to hate, refused to cower before government tyranny, broke down barriers, talked back to injustice and then, did decisively that which we can’t: he defeated death. As Paul said, when it comes down to it (as eventually it will for you, even if you are not as ancient as I), “the final enemy to be defeated” is Death (1 Cor. 15:6).
The Christian faith begins in a cemetery, where God mugged Death: the resurrection of the crucified Jesus. Jesus’ disciples didn’t expect it. “It was a good campaign while it lasted, but it didn’t get him elected Messiah.” “Poor Jesus, one of the nicest people you’d ever hope to meet. Maybe he’ll live on in our memories. Matthew, you ought to write a book about it.”
The women got to the tomb while it was yet dark. The stone was rolled away! An impudent angel said, “Looking for crucified Jesus? Sorry. Just missed him, again. He’s probably out in Galilee by this time in the morning.”
That night, the disciples fearfully huddled together behind locked doors. (What they did to Jesus, they could do to his followers.) Suddenly, a stranger stood among them, showed the holes in his hands and feet, and said, “Peace! Like I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by crucifixion.”
“Wow. This Jesus thing isn’t over. It’s just beginning. Death tried to shut him up; God brought him back to us.” And they exploded into the world with good news: “In Jesus Christ, once almighty Death is dead!”
Who is Jesus? “I am resurrection and life.” (Note he didn’t say, “I will be the resurrection. I am. Now. Find yourself at the end of your rope, a dead end, in an ICU, or before a man with a gun and a badge, fear not. I am resurrection. I am life.
While Death is real, terrible, the final foe, Death has been done in by Jesus. Christians can be brutally honest about Death because we now know that God is the One who refused to allow Death to keep Israel enslaved or to have the last word on Jesus.
That’s why Christians built the first hospitals — our little death-defying act.
That’s why when deadly white supremacy ravaged Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston, at the funeral President Obama burst into song!
That’s why watching the cathedral service a few weeks ago, one of us visitors tweeted, “Where’s the Prayer of Confession before Communion?” An obviously old-school Episcopalian tweeted back, “It’s Eastertide! Enough with the groveling, already. Christ is raised! Your sin has been made inconsequential!”
That’s why she said to the attendant on the way to the hospital, “Young man, I have no fear of what’s next. Promise me. If there’s a shortage of ventilators, I want mine given to a person younger than I.”
That’s why, when asked, “Is there any hope that America will ever overcome the virus of white supremacy?” I responded, “Our history since 1619 suggests there’s not much hope of that. Still, once God raised crucified Jesus … well.”
That’s why, the Sunday after George Floyd’s funeral, when many churches were content merely to wallow in lament (“We’ve been bad, we’re so sad”) impudent Imani-Grace Cooper stood up in the cathedral and defiantly shouted, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
Death is separation, annihilation, loss, loneliness. Christ is union, reunion, new creation, gift. Some of you, in the way you have stood up to death, are proof that what was said in this cathedral on Easter is true: “He is risen. He has risen indeed!”
“There is no condemnation in Jesus Christ,” says Paul. Lord knows, we gave reason enough for God to condemn. God chose not to condemn but to save, showing up as Jesus Christ, God refusing to be eternal without us. Get this straight, says Jesus, “I came that they may have life” (John 10:10).
Thus Paul says, “If the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies …”
The God who raised crucified Jesus will bring us along with him into eternity. In love, Christ reaches out to us in our death, as he has reached toward us in life and takes us along for the ride. Jesus Christ refuses to be raised alone.
From what I’ve seen as pastor, the main grief at time of bereavement is the death of relationships, loss of beloved friends, family, work. But because of Christ, death isn’t the end; it’s a new, intensified relationship with the God who, from the first, wanted nothing more than to be in relationship with you. In life, in death, in any life beyond death, that’s our hope, and if that’s not so when it comes to death, we are hopeless.
I was there when he got the diagnosis. We grieved together. “Preacher” he pleaded, “don’t let him in. I’m not ready.” I dutifully stood sentry, allowing entry only to medical people, closest friends, and family.
After two weeks, the doctor said, “Sorry,” as she shook her head.
“Preacher,” he said. “Lock the door!” I put my weight against the door, friends and family took turns, leaning against the door.
Then one night, as he lost ground, gasping for breath, the door cracked open, there was a hissing whisper from without, “Step away from the door. He’s mine now.”
“No!” said we all. “No!”
But at sunrise he greeted me … with a smile … said weakly but, as defiantly as Imani Grace, “Lying here, I’ve had time to think. I’ve remembered all those times when I wasn’t thinking about God, but God just showed up anyway. Thinking back, all those times when God came to me, uninvited, so determined to have me. After all that trouble, I don’t think Jesus is going to let Death stump him. Live or die, looks like I belong to Jesus.”
I heard Death sigh, trudge down the hall, slamming the door, defeated, robbed of another trophy.
Let Paul tell you your last, best hope. “If the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also.”
Or as Paul put it elsewhere, “whether we live or die, we belong to God” (Rom. 14:8).
The Rev. Will Willimon is the retired bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.