Sunday, November 11, 2007

11/11/07 Sermon, "Ye shall be changed"

Sermon Texts:
1 Cor. 15: 51-58
Luke 20: 27-38

The Harvest of Life
I’m sure we’ve all been noticing it in the past week. The seasons have changed; we are being enchanted by the colorful spectacle of the fall. I wrote in a little meditation for the experiential worship service a few weeks ago that the colors of fall are one of the most effective evangelists of the natural world. Do you have favorite places to go during the fall? If you’ve never been, I’d recommend the mountains just east of Poteau, on the Queen Willomena highway. It is truly beautiful there.
God’s creation gives us a grand finale of celebration before the leaves fall to the ground and decompose. One day the nutrients that they generate seeps into the very roots of the tree from which they once sprang forth. Do you think the leaves lament their separation from the tree of life? As the chlorophyll drains from them, as their ability to nurture the tree drains, they seem to celebrate to me! The marvelous colors we see in the fall are a testament to the mystery Paul writes about to the Corinthians---“We shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye—we shall not die, but instead we shall live.”
I read a magazine article about the cellular process of apoptosis. Has anyone heard that word before? In Greek it means “falling leaves” and is a reference to the continuous process of death within life, as natural and necessary as leaves falling from the trees in autumn. During the past 20 years or so, the scientific world has realized that the process of death is a part of every moment. Each day, millions of cells are dying in our bodies, allowing physiological balance and the movement of life within us. We are only 6 weeks in the womb when our cells begin to die, through the process of apoptosis. Our fingers are webbed together, and through the voluntary death of cells in that web membrane between our fingers, our hands take shape with these miraculous little digits that we call “fingers.”
In adult life, the right balance between living and dying cells means harmony and health, while disturbances in this balance are the basis of every chronic disease. Cancer is the failure of cells to die through the natural process of apoptosis. A particular and crucial role of death within life is found in the immune system, where bacteria fighting cells armed with sophisticated biological weapons actually self destruct after releasing their “weapons.” The increased or decreased rate of apoptosis lets the body know if it needs to be on high defensive alert (with fever, cough, sneezing, etc), or if the rate of apoptosis decreases, the body knows that the invading bacteria has been dealt with.
Life and the end of life are such mysteries! We cease to breathe, our brains stop generating electricity, our heart stops pumping the blood through our circulatory system that delivers our breath to our cells. Yet Paul tells us that the mystery is that we do not really die at all. Our perishable body puts on imperishability, our lives become something more than we are quite aware of. Perhaps like cells which undergo “apoptosis,” our life and death contributes to some whole, some greater birth, which we can’t comprehend.
Last week we lifted up the names of our beloved family members and friends who have passed from this world to something we can never know until we get there.
At a preaching workshop I attended years ago, the presenter had a favorite phrase. He’d say, “Preaching the gospel is hard, because we’re standing six feet above contradiction.” Deep in the back of our minds we have some awareness of it—we don’t spend much time thinking about it until it looms at our door like the picture of the “grim reaper,” but our lives come to an end and our bodies are put in the ground or incinerated. What we know of ourselves ceases to be in existence.
Is the Good News that has been passed down from 2000 years ago any match for the cold, hard reality of death? When it comes down to it, do these ideas we subscribe to, these beliefs we keep in our hearts—do they rise to the challenge when we are laying on our death beds? A very wise Indian philosopher named Krishnamurti said, “IF one can find out what the full meaning of living is, the totality of living, the wholeness of living, then one is capable of understanding the wholeness of death. But one usually enquires into the meaning of death without enquiring into the meaning of life.” Normally we are in denial about our mortality. This is not to say that we believe we won’t physically die—we know with our intellects that we will—but the reality doesn’t enter our interior life, our feeling, and our being. The process of death is so uncomfortable that we avoid thinking about it.
Paul tells us that we are resurrected in a new life in a new form. As the harvest of our fields leads to the complex foods we create, our newly created lives will be in the service of God in ways which we can not imagine any more than a grape could comprehend its place in a glass of wine, or a grain of wheat its place in a loaf of bread.
Leon Trotsky, a father of the Russian socialist revolution, said “We only die when we fail to take root in others.” Jesus Christ took root in others, and continues to take root in our lives today, 2000 years after he lived on earth. It is through his “taking root in others” that we believe he continues to live to this day. Through his holy spirit, he continues to live and participate in our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our triumphs, and our salvation. We cannot escape him—he is as inevitable as death. In fact, Christ is more powerful than death, and through his victory through death and resurrection, he takes us on his back to eternal life.
Life and death are woven together in an intricate design. We celebrate death as a part of life, giving birth to a greater whole. We believe death is not the final chapter, but instead the end of the prologue. We celebrate the lives who have gone before us because we believe that in the remembering, in the celebration—their life carries on.
Jesus said in today’s scripture that those ancestors of the faith that Moses knew and recounted at the burning bush were “alive to God.” We hear that our earthly relationships and ways of relating to one another are transcended in the life to come. This is why, when we give ourselves to one another in Christian marriage, the priest blessing that marriage asks each person, “till death do you part.”
Our covenant with one another is bounded by our earthly lives, but our covenant with God is everlasting, and through our covenant with God, we know that we become truly living beings: alive to God and alive to one another. We are alive in a way that can never die. Though this may be reassuring to us on an ultimate level, it may be jarring or shocking to us on a worldly level. We’re used to thinking about our relationships with one another as something that defines us and gives us life. Well, perhaps this difficulty with the passage begs us to dig a little deeper here.
Jesus tells the Sadducees that the cultural and relational structures of "this age" are superfluous in "that age." The notion of marriage to the Sadducees pertains to procreating and giving an everlasting future to men and women through the lives of their children, (because to them, by a reading of the first 5 books of the Bible, that was the only route to immortality, was through the perpetual remembrance of your family line. That is why we see so many genaeologies in the Bible, and that is why the bible commanded a man to marry his brother’s widow.) The Sadducees meant to juxtapose the cultural realities of marriage with the idea of the resurrection to show that resurrection is absurd. Jesus takes their juxtaposition and turns it. In the reality of resurrection, he says, it's your cultural idea of marriage that's absurd.”
In this age of death, the focus is on having children. But for "those who are considered worthy of a place in that age," the focus is on being children, "children of God . . . children of the resurrection." In that age where all are children of God, there is no need for having children or having a partner. The having of people, one by the other, will be finished. All relationships will be equalized, all relationships transfigured.
However, To conclude from this that cherished intimacies on earth will be discontinued in the resurrection has no warrant in the text. A central part of our faith is that at God’s very basic nature, God is 3 in 1. God is a being who is relational in nature. The three persons of the Trinity, probably best portrayed by this icon, are constantly in fellowship.
Friendship and love are elemental to God’s revelation of himself. So, instead of being concerned that those whom we are united within friendship and family in this life will “cease to be connected to us” in the life to come, we should instead look forward to our relationships blooming into a transcendent love—one that surpasses what we have experienced in this life. As Charles Wesley writes in the hymn we will sing together today, “Come, let us join our friends above who have obtained the prize, and on the eagle wings of love to joys celestial rise. Let saints on earth unite to sing with those to glory gone, for all the servants of our King in earth and heaven are one.” I hope that you don’t read this passage and fear that those people who have taken root in us and whom we have taken root in will cease to be connected to us. In the life to come we will see that those interwoven roots, those connections we have made during our lives in this gift of life are more deeply and wonderfully intricate than we can possibly see right now.
This is what we can count on from a God who is Love. Death is overcome, our love is perfected, and we are changed into a new reality.
“Oh what fellowship, Oh what joy Divine, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

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