By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
November 1, 2020
Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/1023698011464830
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1–2a, 12, 16–18, 20, 35–38 a, 42b –44, 54–55, 57
The reading we heard today is a very traditional funeral reading. This reading from the Apostle Paul is one of a handful New Testament readings you might usually hear at a Methodist funeral. It always makes me a little worried about what people might be thinking when they hear it. I mean, folks who go to church a lot might just ho-hum through the scriptures because they’ve heard them a million times, but at funerals, you often have people who maybe don’t go to church, so they are perhaps listening a little more bit closely…which is why I am always uncomfortable with St. Paul being such a jerk in this reading.
Did you hear it? I want you to imagine this scene. Paul’s followers are asking him a rather important question. They have heard Paul speak about the resurrection and about how Christ is the first fruit of the resurrection. In other words, because Christ lives, it means that we too will live on after we die. But this is a new teaching for Paul’s followers, so they simply ask him a clarifying question: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
Did you hear how Paul responds? Does he say, “That’s a very good question” or “I’m glad you are taking your faith so seriously to be interrogating this.” Nope. That sounds like how I would respond, but not Paul. You heard him.
He responds, “Fool!” … “Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” He says it like this is the most obvious thing, and of course, if you don’t already understand it and believe it, you are a fool. St. Paul is terrifying sometimes.
To be honest, here I can relate more to the questioners than I can relate to Paul. I don’t think anything we believe and ground our hope in here in church is just obvious. Our faith is not provable in any scientific way. Frankly, it is totally countercultural to insist that the God of all the universe is a God of love and hope and life, especially this year, especially when we see so much death and decay and division and despair among us.
Well, the apostle Paul must have had some mercy on his followers because even though he calls the questioners fools…he still tries to help them understand by using a metaphor. He says that the resurrection is kind of like the transformation that a seed undergoes into a grain of wheat. As I talked about with the children, it’s this radical transformation from one thing to another. It’s a movement from something essentially dead to something infinitely alive.
But yet it’s not EXACTLY like that…
Jesus too offers us a metaphor about the resurrection. In another common funeral reading, in the Gospel of John, chapter 14, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” I don’t think this is meant to be taken literally either. I think it speaks to the expansiveness of God’s eternal love extending to all of us – that we are going to be eternally with God just like Jesus is. But I don’t think it means that our physical bodies somehow just get transported to a literal place in some indeterminate location.
Both Jesus and Paul – they are using our limited language to get at something completely beyond our comprehension. They both invite us to really engage with this idea of resurrection, this idea of eternal life, and try to get a glimpse it from another angle, using another metaphor, imagine it from another side. Eternal life is like a dwelling place with room for everybody in it. Eternal life is like the change from our physical existence to a spiritual existence. Eternal life is like the transformation from a decaying seed to a plant full of life.
But yet it’s not EXACTLY like that…
What happens to us after we die is something beyond what we can describe. I truly believe all of our words that try to capture what eternal life is like fall short. Words will never be able to capture it. But I do think it is something we can experience. It is at least something we can glimpse.
That’s why I love funerals so much. I know that sounds weird to say, but I find funerals to be some of the most hopeful events I am ever a part of. It’s because I always glimpse God’s eternal love as I sit with a family and remember a loved one. I always glimpse God’s love in the story of humans going through their lives just doing the best they can. I always glimpse God’s love, even in the grief of those who mourn.
I glimpsed God’s love in every funeral I had the honor of leading this year. I glimpsed it in the laughter and irreverent stories that the good people of Le Mars, Iowa told about Bev Weber. I glimpsed it in a heartfelt eulogy by Dennis Fleming about his Dad, Bob, as Dennis shared that the first life lesson he learned from his Dad was that you could never have too many lawn mowers. I glimpsed it in a streaming funeral we did for Dave Tripp – the first funeral I’ve done where every song was composed by the man we were celebrating.
I glimpsed God’s love in Leonard Neff’s funeral, in his zest for life despite health challenges, and his ever-expanding circle of love for his wife and for the daughter he reunited with 30 years after placing her for adoption. I experienced it as I sat by the bedside of Marian Mach, hearing from her hospice nurse how Marian’s son with developmental disabilities took the bus every day to visit his mom in her last weeks.
Maybe the most, I glimpsed it in the love of mothers for their lost children. I experienced it in Peg Bostic’s absolute conviction that God was protecting her son Jeb now – and that nothing would ever hurt him again. Even in the love in Abby’s eyes today, for the loss of her daughter Ava by miscarriage, I see the depth of God’s love – like a Mother’s love – that never ends.
Parents know too well, as Rev. Kate Braestrup says, “the risk they take by loving in such a precarious world.” And yet they do love. Yet we do love. Knowing very well that it will break our hearts.
Love is our hope. Our human love, in its all technicolor luminosity, in its bubbling delight, and unbreakable strength – it is still nothing compared to God’s love. Nothing compared to the God who IS Love. Yet every time we look squarely into the face of human love, like we do at a funeral, like we do when we remember the saints who have gone before us, we get a glimpse of God’s eternal love.
Now, sometimes I imagine St. Paul in today’s scripture, standing triumphant, fist in the air, sneering at anyone who would question him, as he proclaims his final word on death. I sometimes imagine him almost shouting, “Where O Death is thy victory? Where O Death is thy sting?” And sometimes I can join Paul in that attitude: when life has been long and a death not-too-tragic. In those moments, I glimpse the triumph of God’s everlasting love. When it’s big and bombastic and full of laughter.
But I want you to know, I also glimpse God’s love when the loss is so crushing that I can barely eek out the words, not as a sure sign of victory, but as a cry for consolation beyond understanding. Even through our tears, even if we can’t believe it right now, it is still right and good to cling to Paul’s words, “Where O death is thy victory? Where O Death is thy sting?”
We celebrate All Saints’ Day together because we love so deeply, and death is so hard. We celebrate it together because some of us today can rejoice and raise our fist in the face of death, and some of us can only eek out the words through our tears. Yet we carry one another. Even today, in our celebrating and grieving together, we glimpse the love of God. It is the same Infinite Love that that will be the totality of what we experience in the next life.
When our bodies go to decay, our spirits go on in nothing but love.
Jesus says it like this in John 14: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
So we will be in eternal life: our loved ones in God, and ourselves in God, with nothing to separate us anymore.
May we live in that hope.
May it be so.