First Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Joshua Daniel
Year B Proper 8
Sermon Text: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24, Mark 5:21-43
In God there is no death. The author of the book of Wisdom tells us that “God did not make death…” that in the “generative forces of the world…there is no destructive poison in them.” This is a familiar kind of claim that puzzles many both inside and outside the church. What could it mean that In God there is no death?
Looking for a through-line in today’s readings one might easily conclude that death is actually the theme that connects these lessons. Lamentations speaks of grief and loss; in Corinthians Paul alludes to a theme he more fully develops in Philippians. In 2nd Corinthians Paul says of Christ “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.” In Philippians he adds that
…Though [Christ] was in the form
[He] did not regard equality
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the
point of death–
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
And in Mark’s Gospel there are two stories intertwined, both deeply concerned with death and disease.
The importance of death can be seen throughout the history of the church. If we were to travel to Europe, we’d see that at the center of many of the oldest cities from the middle ages there are cemeteries. Before they built churches, those Christian communities dug graves. In this they followed the custom of the earliest Christians. In the first 200 years of Christianity, where that faith was not legally permitted, Christians gathered mostly not in churches (neither in large public spaces nor in private homes) but in the catacombs, in the underground places where they had buried their dead.
One of the most genuinely shocking developments in the emergence of the Christian faith–something that marked Christians as, really, repulsively different–is that they did not shun their dead. For Christians the dead were not treated as unclean. This made their faith an anathema to both the “secular” and “religious” culture from which it emerged.
On the surface, of both our Scriptures and history, death seems to be very much part of God. So, then, in what sense can can the author of Wisdom mean that in God there is no death?
Okay, let’s put a pin in that for a moment so that I can say, Good morning! One of the things I love about church is that it’s one of the few public places where both celebration and mourning are both perfectly at home. The Eucharist, which we will share together in a few minutes, most literally means “thanksgiving”. This is a joyful and celebratory place! A place for laughter, high spirits, and warm fellowship. But also it’s a place where sadness is not suppressed. Sadness and lamentation, sometimes, is not a byproduct of church but an essential theme. Not something we shy away from but take in full measure. Some Sundays–even joyful days like today, my first day of worship with you all–are marked by readings focused on death. I mean, what can you do but smile!
This is the power of our scriptures and the power of our tradition. And it is tensions like these that have drawn me to ministry. In God there is no artifice. The Gospels cannot be reduced to simple catchphrases. Jesus pushes his disciples to see past their religious presuppositions and to see the complicated, often paradoxical, nature of their faith. That faith is best understood as something pulled in different directions. Something in tension. A wrestling with God and God’s creation. Something full of joy but also, because it is deeply engaged in the harsh realities of the world, not afraid to confront and name sadness. To reflect on the powerful role that death has in our lives.
….Okay, I’m starting to preach again! My feet keep getting swept up!
What’s the theme again? Oh, yes: In God there is no death. What could that mean? I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week and it occured to me that perhaps one way of trying to crack it is to reflect very briefly on my role in this church.
I can’t tell you what it meant to Jenna and I that so many of you were able to come to my ordination last March and that many more were able to hold us in prayer on that day. It just meant the world to us. But I have to confess that much of that service was a total blur. Afterwards Jenna remarked about how great it was that everyone clapped so long just after the Bishop had presented us as the newly ordained and just before the passing of the peace. She said people just kept clapping and clapping. The joy and happiness couldn’t be stopped.
Now, I have no memory of that! After we were presented everything went into blur mode.
But one of things that I do remember. One of things that was pressed into me with great clarity was that there was very little ambiguity in what I’ve been directed to do here. The authority given to me by not just the Bishop but ultimately by the Gospel of Christ is laid out clearly in the BCP and read by the Bishop in that service:
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the week, the sick, and the lonely. …You are to study the Holy Scripture … to make Christ and his redemptive love known … to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. (Book of Common Prayer, 543)
It meant all the world to us that so many of you came to that service so that we could stand side-by-side and hear those words together. I have been sent to this place to work in the garden of the Lord as a servant–as a servant–to this church and to this community.
Part of understanding that role–the role of servant–is to learn from you. Some of you have seen more than thirty Easters here, more than 30 Good Fridays, and Ash Wednesdays. Some of you have seen none (exhibit A: the Daniel family). It is from the many diverse points of view of this gathered assembly that I will learn so much about what it means to worship God here. And I will learn from you not just about what worship is like in this church but what it is like to be the body of Christ in this community. From the very beginning Jesus had global ambitions. In Matthew 28 Jesus tells his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations…” But the preaching of that Gospel must always be local. In order for that message to have any lasting impact it must be spoken in a voice that can be understood. And it is in cooperation with you, learning from and with you, taking the hundreds of years of collective experience that I will better understand what it truly means to embody Christ in this community. I am yours. A servant for this place. A student of what it means to be Christ in this community.
But here is another tension in our faith. As much as I am yours, I am also not yours. As our tradition holds, as a deacon I am to serve but also to “interpret *to* the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” Part of my role is to say to each of you that as a minister of the Gospel you are welcome here. No matter who you are, no matter what your story, you are welcome here. It is an easy thing to feel like an imposter in church. That somehow if the people around you really knew you, you wouldn’t be accepted. Sometimes people feel dragged to church. (They like the music but don’t like the preaching; they love their spouse and want to be supportive but if it was up to just them, they’d rather be at home.) Whatever your story, whatever your reservations about this place. You are welcome here. We are honored by your presence. By your presence we will better know what the Kingdom of God is like.
And that is it! That’s the answer to today’s theme. In God there is no death. When God is present death is not final. That which is of God is fundamentally about life. Everything of God is generative, is life giving.
God is not about destruction or condemnation; not about separation or fear. God–and God’s kingdom–does not build through attrition–through the purposeful disassembly of people or people groups. That kind of death–so our scriptures testify to this morning–is not of God.
I am not a fortune teller but I can tell you something about the future with total certainty. I will make mistakes here. Let me underline that again. I will make mistakes here. And as every person in here is a person, inevitably we will suffer mistakes and misunderstandings together. What makes us a Christian community is that we learn to not only live together but live in a life giving, loving community. We are able to take difference–to be different–and yet remain as One Body. In God there is no death. God is fundamentally about life. Everything of God is generative, is life giving. Amen.