A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 11, 2007.
Based on Job 19:23-27a & Luke 20:27-38 (Proper 27, Year C).
There are certain words or verses or poems that are impossible to hear without the accompanying music. One famous example are the lines penned outside of Fort McHenry in 1812 by Francis Scott Key. You can’t read his poem without humming the tune. To hear it read without the music even sounds bizarre: “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light.” It just doesn’t sound right unless it’s sung to that old English drinking song with which it was eventually paired.
This is an extreme example but others abound. I can’t listen to the famous poem “The Call” by the 17th century English priest and poet George Herbert without hearing the music in my head. “Come my way, my truth, my life.”
And then there’s this morning’s passage from the Book of Job. Thanks to Handel’s Messiah, I bet most of us had trouble listening to it without singing along. “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”
It’s also hard to hear this particular passage without thinking about the burial rite. If you’ve buried a loved one or a friend at an Episcopal Church, this was part of the opening anthem at the funeral. It was lifted straight out of the Book of Job. And so just hearing it this morning may evoke a swirl of emotions as we remember those whom we have loved and lost.
These lessons do point us beyond this earthly life. They force us to confront the age-old question of what happens to us after we die. Does the end come when “my skin has thus been destroyed?” Or, as Handel puts it in the graphic King James language, when “worms destroy my body?” Is there anything beyond the “ashes to ashes and dust to dust?” Or is that it? Job’s not sure. Which is why he cries out, “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!” I think Job captures all of our uncertainty about what will happen after we die. He gives voice to the desire that something of us will live on even if we do not.
The Sadducees who question Jesus also speak of the afterlife. And talk about a loaded question! Luke tells us even before they ask their question about the resurrected life that they, as a group, do not believe in resurrection. So theirs is not an open and honest search for knowledge but an attempt to paint the whole concept of resurrection as an absurdity. Which is how they get into the business of asking about the woman who marries seven different brothers over her lifetime. But underneath the Sadducees’ posturing there’s probably a genuine uncertainty about what happens after death.
It’s still something that fascinates us. We’re intrigued anytime we encounter someone who’s had a near-death experience. We want to know about that bright light, we want to know what it’s like to “break on through to the other side,” to quote Jim Morrison. It’s why these folks are always turning up on talk shows – there’s great interest in their stories. And we want reassurance that these experiences are real and good and peaceful. Because otherwise the end of our mortal lives really is the end. Death becomes a big dark hole of nothingness. And that, among other things, is depressing.
We talk a lot about resurrection in the church but what do we really believe about it? And what does it matter? Well, everything. Jesus of course was resurrected from the dead – Easter Day, the empty tomb, and all that. We affirm his resurrection in the words of the Nicene Creed each week: “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.”
And so Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is at the foundational core of Christianity. It is why we can proclaim that death no longer has dominion over us. And that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. And at a very practical level, it’s why we’re here every Sunday morning. It’s why we’re not home eating blueberry pancakes and reading the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. Because as good as that sounds, it doesn’t bring us any closer to the resurrected Christ. Which is, ultimately, what this mortal life is all about.
Okay, but we all want to know what resurrection means for us. How does resurrection impact our own life after death? Well, at one level I can’t answer that. I haven’t died; I haven’t had a near-death experience. If I had I’d be off on a book tour making the rounds of Oprah and Ellen and The View, and whoever else would have me. But even if I did have the vaulted near-death experience, I doubt that being clinically dead for a few minutes would make me an authority on all the great mysteries of life.
So I don’t have all the answers about life after death. But I do know that for those who have accepted God’s love and entered into relationship with God in this life, Jesus promises the fruits of eternal life. And that this relationship transforms us into what Jesus terms “children of the resurrection.” And I know that in response to his plea to “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus says to the repentant thief on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” And I know that Jesus speaks in wonderful images about entering into the heavenly banquet in the next life. And I know that Scripture speaks of the Second Coming of Christ at which time we will all be resurrected and take our places in the kingdom of heaven.
Can I personally prove and attest to all of this? Of course not. But, like Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth and that at the latter day upon the earth I shall see God.” We are indeed “children of the resurrection.” And for this reason we can, along with Handel, sing the rest of the lyrics: “For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007