The Good News About Death – Grieving With Hope

Steve Lindsley
(1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14, 18)

She is stilling at the hospital bedside of her brother, who is not long for this world.  She asks if she could read scripture to him; he says yes.  She starts fumbling around in the Bible, flipping page after page, not sure what to read.  He senses her uncertainty.  So he suggests that she turn to page 1649.  The numbers 16 and 49 were two of his favorites – he was a big fan of the San Francisco 49ers, and his favorite player on the 49ers was quarterback Joe Montana, who wore number 16.

She flips open her Bible but finds, to her dismay, that there is no 1649, because the Old Testament ends at page 1334 and the New Testament starts over at page 1.  She is about to ask him for a different number, until she does some math in her head and calculates that page 315 in the New Testament is the 1649th page in the whole Bible.  So she turns there.

And it was there where she finds and reads these words:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,
About those who have died,
So that you may not grieve as others who have no hope. 

Her brother beams as she reads these words and then he says to her in a wheezy voice, “Sis, those are the sweetest verses!  Read them again!”

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,
About those who have died,
So that you may not grieve as others who have no hope. 

They are sweet verses indeed.  Sweet for us; sweet for those who heard them for the very first time.  Those Christians in the church at Thessalonica around 50 CE, the recipient of the apostle Paul’s letter, they were the first to hear them.  Paul had a soft spot in his heart for this church – he founded it just a few short years before, and had taken a vested interest in seeing it grow and flourish.

But the church was going through a bit of a rough spell, as churches sometimes do.  The church had recently experienced a rash of deaths in the congregation, well-loved folks who would be dearly missed.  That kind of thing is always hard on a community of faith. 

But these deaths also raised serious theological questions that the church really struggled with.  And to understand the struggle, we have to imagine ourselves as members of that Thessalonian church around 50 CE.  See, as part of the very early church, we would naturally assumed that Jesus would not only come back as he said he would, but come back in our lifetime.  After all, it had only been a few years, practically, since Jesus had lived and died and rose again.  All in our lifetime, which is why we simply assumed that Jesus would return in our lifetime as well.  Return to embrace the faithful alive at the time and bring us all into resurrection glory. 

But now we’re really confused.  Because while we’re still waiting for Jesus’ return, some dear members in our church family have already died.  And so we wonder: what happens to them?  Would they somehow get to share in his resurrection glory, even though they’re no longer here?  Or are they just going to miss out?

It seems a strange struggle to our 21st century mindset.  We are naturally more accustomed to the idea of Jesus’ return not being as immediate.  But for those Thessalonians, it was a big deal. And it was more than just a theological quandary, more than some intellectual exercise to debate and banter about.  No, it was deeply personal.  This concerned people they knew and cared about. 

And it also forced them to face something that humanity has struggled to deal with from the very beginning of it all: the question of death, and what happens to us when we die, and what happens to those left behind.  The early church was not immune to this struggle.  Neither are we.

As I mentioned last week at the beginning of our sermon series on the Good News about Death, it is to be expected that we would be fearful of something like death.  For each of us here can only speak of death as an observer of it and not an actual participant in it.  Death is something we never fully know or understand, until we do.  And that’s the rub.

So it is normal to fear that which we do not know or understand; it is normal to have questions and uncertainties about what happens when one’s earthly life comes to an end. 

What is not normal, what is the furthest thing from normal, is the frequency to which you and I are facing these questions – every week, sometimes it seems every day. And not the deaths we expect and anticipate, hard as those deaths may be, but deaths we do not expect, those that seem to happen with no rhyme or reason attached to them, those that seem to be happening a lot more often.

The statistics bear it out: Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries.[1]  The numbers are even worse when you break them out by ethnicity: 2.4% for Caucasian, 5.3% for Hispanic, and a whopping 19.4% for African-Americans.[2]  This adds up to roughly 27 people being shot and killed every day of the year[3] – and last Sunday, it was exactly that number that were killed by gunfire from a lone shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas in, of all places, a church.

A church.

Last Sunday, as is my Sunday evening custom, I dropped the boys off for youth group and walked over to my office to start working on this week’s sermon.  I was reading this passage from Thessalonians, Paul’s words of comfort to a church dealing with death, when my computer started lighting up with notifications.  So I booted up CNN.

At some point, when it was obvious the 24/7 news pundits were not going to say much more than what they’d already said a dozen times, and when the full impact of a tiny town losing nearly 5% of its population hit me, I shut my laptop, left my office and walked in here.  Into this sanctuary.  I went and sat down in the pews, about right there.  I kept the lights off.  I do this every now and then, by the way – one of the perks of working in a church is that the sanctuary is easily accessible.  I love taking a few moments out of the day and just sit in here.

But last Sunday night, it was different.  The thought of a sacred space like this being the scene of the unimaginable.  The thought of a church being the occasion of so much death. 

I’ve spoken with some of you since who have said much the same thing.  I know you are wrestling with this too.  If we’re honest, we’re all wrestling with it more days than not.  Questions about death – and less about what happens to those who die, but honestly, more about what happens to us.  Those of us still living.  What do we as a community of faith in the midst of so much death do?  What might Paul have to say to us today?

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,
About those who have died,
So that you may not grieve as others who have no hope. 

If Paul were here, and perhaps in a way he is, I think he would tell us about this hope.  This hope that keeps us from being uninformed about those who have died, this hope that doesn’t do away with the grief but perhaps gives it purpose, gives it meaning.  Grieving as those with hope, he says.

What does this grieving-with-hope look like?

Perhaps, as we consider all that’s happening around us these days, the seemingly daily brushes with death that flash in our news feeds and on our television screens, perhaps it would be best to first say what it doesn’t look like.  Because as I read Paul’s words I do not get the sense that grieving-with-hope looks like much like “thoughts and prayers:” that catch-phrase we thrown around when we simply don’t know what else to say or do.

Now to be clear: it is certainly a loving and Christian thing to keep the grieving and the grieved in our thoughts and lift them up in our prayers.  But it is not enough; and to think it is, is to undermine the very hope that Paul speaks of.  I’m reminded of the fact that, upon hearing that his dear friend Lazarus had died, scripture does not tell us that Jesus just sent “thoughts and prayers.”  No, he got up and went to the family, sat with them in the midst of their overwhelming grief.  That he would later raise Lazarus from the dead is beside the point here, because before Jesus performed the miracle that is bringing the dead back to life, he performed the miracle that is sitting with the living consumed by death.  That is the miracle of grieving-with-hope. 

It is the kind of hope that dares to proclaim, in word and in deed, that death does not have the final word; and to further proclaim that this culture of violence we find ourselves in is antithetical to everything Jesus lived and died for.  And that in particular is something we need to proclaim more and more these days.  For all of the challenging and prophetic words lifted up in the aftermath of last Sunday, perhaps none were more on point than those from our former Gilchrist speaker and my friend Christopher Edmonston, pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh.  I’d like to share a letter he wrote to his congregation this past week.  Listen:

**************

As I write, headlines have broken from yet another mass shooting in Texas. This time, like Charleston, at a church. All mass shootings break our hearts. But the shooting at a church hits particularly close to home. I know I am supposed to ask us to pray.  And we must pray: now. But sometimes in the life of the church, prayer alone is not enough.

What would Jesus say; what would he have us do in the face of such violence and horror? Would Jesus remain silent as bullets rained down upon people worshipping in his name, people attending a country music concert, folks at a Bible study, police on patrol, or children at school?

I do not have warrant to speak for Jesus. But as a pastor, I do have a responsibility to speak with him. I think Jesus would say, and I would join him in saying, “enough.” Anyone with any authority, especially if they are a follower of Jesus, must do a deep dive into personal, moral conscience and communal moral responsibility and look at mental health policy, access to guns, and our country’s immoral obsession with murder and the myth of redemptive violence. People like me, with a voice of some moral and theological impact, must continue to remind people that what is happening with disgusting regularity is not normal, and until it stops, the kingdom of God (which is our beginning and our end) will continue to elude us.

Such conversations have proven to be among the hardest in our society. History tells us that they will never be easy. But following Jesus, living like he says, has never been easy. It’s not getting any easier. But it is who we are supposed to be and it is who we must become.

**************

You know what I think this grieving-with-hope looks like?  You know what I think Paul wanted those Thessalonian Christians, and us, to see?  I think he wanted us to see that, when it come to those who had died: God’s got this.  God’s got this.  We don’t need to worry about death for the dead.  We don’t need to concern ourselves with the reach of the resurrection.  That’s God’s job, and God’s been mighty good at it so far.  God’s got this.

What God is more concerned about is not death for the dead, but death for the living.  For us.  We who are here, we who encounter death in loved ones and mass shootings, we who have to take on God’s word alone that death is not the end, that the living do not need to give in to the power of death while still alive.  We who are grieving, yes.  But we who are grieving with hope.

And so our calling: to be hope-infusers as the people of God.  That is what we are to do.  We are called to face death boldly and compassionately with the full knowledge that our resurrected God has already borne the full weight of its destructive powers – and came back to tell us about it. 

We are called to be hope-infusers by doing more than simply offering “thoughts and prayers” to the grieving, but daring to be the physical embodiment of that hope with those who feel death’s sting the greatest. 

And we are called to speak the truth about the culture of violence and death we find ourselves in, call it out, be bold in saying “enough!” and refusing to accept what is happening as a “new normal.” 

The normal we are called to proclaim, the normal we are empowered to live, is the super-normal love of a God who weeps in the face of death but is not overwhelmed by it.   That is our calling in these troubled and troubling days.  That is why death can never have the last word.  That is grieving-with-hope.

Sweet verses, indeed!

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-u-s-gun-deaths-compare-to-other-countries/, visited on 11.7.2017.
[2]https://www.indy100.com/article/the-chart-that-shows-americas-shocking-murder-rate-compared-to-other-countries–bkAvfB5lwx, visited on 11.7.2017.
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/upshot/compare-these-gun-death-rates-the-us-is-in-a-different-world.html, visited on 11.7.2017.
[4] https://pastoronpoint.blogspot.com/2017/11/from-tomorrows-church-newsletter-as-i.html, visited on 11.8.2017.