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Learning to Love Our Greatest Enemy: Death

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/25/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 12:22-34, and 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I remember back in March, when the pandemic was first getting serious here in California and we all began to lock down. Started working remotely. No more in-person gatherings at church. Trips to the grocery store became a major excursion and involved a lot of waiting in line. Lots of us were wondering if supply chains would break down. We stored up food, just in case.

For me, this was a moment of reflection. On life. On death. On how easily things could all fall apart. I couldn’t take anything for granted. There was a disease out there that could kill me or anyone I loved, any time. Death felt very close. Life was fragile.

As the pandemic has worn on, we’ve adapted. Life goes on. We wear our masks to the grocery store. Remote work becomes the norm for some of us, and others of us learn to take precautions at our in-person workplaces. And as this sense of normality returns, the raw urgency of the moment begins to fade. The routine returns.

For me, that routine has meant that it’s harder, once again, to feel the cold breath of death on my shoulder. It’s easier to pretend that this life stretches on forever, that this day exists as a means to an end: to be rushed through, optimized, leveraged for maximum profit. It’s easy to forget myself, to lose track of the reality that this moment is all we have. Death could come at any time.

Death is always close. And death is no respecter of persons. Babies can die. Children can die. Young people can die. The healthy can die. We are all just one heartbeat away from eternity. Whatever that looks like. We don’t know what it means yet, but we’ll be finding out soon.

Death gets a bad rap in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures we learn that death came into the world through the Fall, the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Death is a natural outgrowth of sin – our choice to turn away from God and become our own masters. From this perspective, death and hardship are not natural; they are of human making.

The heart of the gospel is that Christ has come to liberate us from both sin and death. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

So in the view of the Christian church, death is an enemy. Death is the result of sin, and will be abolished when sin is put away. Death is not something to be welcomed, it is an evil to be defeated.

And in many ways, this is true. Death is an evil, because death brings the destruction of life, the destruction of the human personality. Death is the extinguishing of God’s creation, which God meant to be unending and overflowing, full of abundant life, just like God is.

Death came about because of our choice to turn away from God, to seek our own wisdom, and attempt to become little gods ourselves. Death exists because we insisted on having it all, regardless of the consequences, regardless of reality! Death is the consequence. It’s the imposition of reality on our delusions of grandeur and self-worship. Death is an evil that we are forced to endure, but wish we didn’t have to.

And yet, in the context of our own experience of being lost and sinful creatures, death presents itself as a strange sort of friend. Death is an enemy, yes – but perhaps just the sort of enemy we needed. God knew we needed an enemy like death, if we were ever to come home; if we were ever to see the foolishness of our ways and turn back to God.

Death is an enemy who can instruct us, if we will listen.

In CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, he paints a picture of the afterlife, both heaven and hell, but he spends a lot of his time describing hell. And rightfully so, because unfortunately hell is something that we can understand a lot better than heaven. We’ve spent the greater part of our lives experiencing it.

CS Lewis describes hell as a place without boundaries, without limits. In hell, if you want a brand new mansion with eighteen bedrooms, a golf course, and an olympic swimming pool, you just have to wish for it. The world of hell is infinite, and you can go anywhere and have anything. Hell is a realm of ultimate wish fulfillment. 

Not what you expected, huh?

At first glance, this sounds nothing like hell. It sounds more like heaven. To have anything we want, whenever we want, however we want it, forever? Wouldn’t that be great? CS Lewis aims to convince us that it would not.

According to Lewis, hell is a place of ultimate suburban sprawl. Hell expands infinitely. Because, since everyone has everything they could ever want or imagine, no one needs anyone else. Every time a person has a disagreement with someone else, or some aspect of their life isn’t “just so,” they can immediately escape. They imagine a new house, a thousand miles away – and poof, they’re gone.

Hell is a place without limits. It’s a place where we are God. And becoming gods, we find that we are demons, fit only to torture ourselves and others. And especially ourselves.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus gives one of his greatest and most challenging commandments: “Do not worry!” Everyone is running around, concerned about making sure they have enough to eat, and drink, and wear. But we easily forget about the most important thing: the kingdom of God, the power and presence of Jesus in his resurrection. 

We forget that this very moment, right now, is bathed in the radiance of eternity. We forget that this is a sacred time, a holy place – not just a means to an end. We imagine that we are waiting for a better day to arrive, a better moment, a better place – but this is all that there is, and it is enough!

Jesus says to us:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Do not be afraid, little flock of Berkeley Friends Church. Give it all away. Feel the cold breath of death on your shoulder. The angel of death is coming to take away everything that seems so important. You can’t take any of it with you. 

The kingdom of God is not a light at the end of the tunnel, far in the future. It is not a commonwealth to build or a paradise to inherit some day. This moment is everything. In the midst of all the stress, struggle, and evil of this present time, this day is shot through with rays of glory. God’s presence dwells with you now. Let tomorrow worry about itself. 

We’ve got no guarantees. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we know that God loves us, and that we need one another. As long as we are living in the kingdom of God, and not CS Lewis’ vision of hell, we need one another. We need God’s presence. And that is enough.

This is the appointed time. This is the hour of Christ’s coming.

I do not mean this metaphorically. Jesus is here, resurrected. Jesus is present to teach and guide us. Now is the time to take hold of that resurrection, to come together as friends of Jesus. Because God knows what tomorrow brings. 

As the apostle Paul writes in our scripture reading this morning:

“…brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. Elections and plagues and causes and heartbreak, they are passing away. Death is passing away, too. Because God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, not only to die for us, but to live for us. He is here. He is speaking. Listen to him!

One of the things that Jesus is teaching us is that we have to love our enemies. We have to love those who are destroying our planet and harming the innocent. Jesus calls us to be like God, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Loving unconditionally. 

And if we have to love those folks, maybe that means we have to love death, too. After all, death is our enemy. Death is the horror that has haunted us as long as people have been people, ever since we chose to turn away from God and follow our own will. We have to love our enemies. 

We have to love everyone, especially our enemies, because we can only see the world clearly when we look at it through the eyes of love. And we need to see this enemy. Death has a lot to teach us about the moment we live in. Death provides clues about how we are to live in this present world, and what it might mean to be participants in the reign of God.

It’s like Jesus says: Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies of the field. They live without fear, provided for by God. They live in love, and they don’t fear death. We can be like them. We don’t have to be afraid.

Death dominates our lives when we seek to avoid it. We deny death psychologically, refusing to remain conscious of our own finitude. We deny death with our actions, doing everything we can to protect ourselves. For our ancestors in the garden, that first took the form of covering their nakedness. 

These days, we seek to protect ourselves in much more sophisticated ways. Health insurance, 401ks, standing armies, and nuclear arsenals. The kingdoms of this world are built on fear and rooted in denial of death.

Jesus invites us out of this hell world. Jesus reassures us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As the apostle Paul reminds us, the appointed time has grown short. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Now is the time to live without reference to this fearful society we inhabit. He urges us to practice non-attachment to the ways and priorities of this human empire we live in, because “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Perfect love casts out all fear, and total dependence on God makes us utterly free with regard to the rules and anxieties of this world. 

Berkeley Friends Church – little flock – let go of your fear. Let your light shine on friends and enemies alike, even death! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.