While looking for something else in my files I found this sermon from November of 2004 and thought it might be worth reading again. The story referred to in the 6th paragraph is of two twins in the womb just before birth debating what lies ahead of them. Click "Read More" to read the sermon.
On Death, and Life After Death, and Mystery
Questions. We all ask them and we all try to answer them. And the reason they are asked it to get answers, preferably concrete, specific, black and white answers. But there are times when those answers just aren’t there. Any parent knows this. So do teachers. In the development of children there comes a time when they find out that their parents don’t really know everything. (Often this is followed by the phase when they decide that their parents know absolutely nothing.) Teachers too are expected to have answers to every question, until students take up the “stump the teacher challenge”. And clergy, well clergy have it even worse. Clergy are expected to have answers to the really hard questions. The questions about existence and meaning. Questions like: “why are we here?” or “why do bad things happen?” or even “what happens after we die?”.
And truly people expect an answer. There is a story I read this week of a minister who not only was expected to have answers to these hard, almost unanswerable, questions but when he was honest enough to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “I believe that…” it was seen as a sign of incompetence. We have a hard time accepting the greyness that lies in those answers.
But in truth those questions about existence, what the philosophers call existential questions, usually don’t have black and white answers. They have answers based on faith and belief. Faith and belief are cast more in shades of grey than in clear tones. There is always a bit of mystery and doubt and unknowing in the life of faith.
But still we want the answers. We are conditioned to read stories like the one we have just heard from Luke and berate the Sadducees for asking such a stupid question. But to be honest, we ask them all the time. “Will I meet my husband (or mother, or child, or favourite dog) in heaven?” Will my leg grow back?” “What is heaven like?” The only honest answer I can give to these questions is I Don’t Know.
I don’t know what waits for us after we die. But I do know this. I know that I believe there is something. I know that my faith tells me that there is more than this life. And that can give me comfort, even in the uncertainty of not knowing exactly, it still can give me comfort.
During confirmation classes last spring, we took most of one evening to discuss Christian beliefs about death. We did so because it is something that is very important to Christian faith. We did so because all too often we don’t talk about this except at funerals. As a part of that discussion I read two stories. Here is one of them (read story – attached).
I have always liked that story. It seems to capture exactly that anxiety about the unknown and unknowable “Can there be life after birth?”. To those of us here we know that birth is a step along a road. Some may say the first step. But what if the baby was as self aware as these twins are? Then the process of leaving the womb would indeed be traumatic and terrifying. And there is no way to change that. As the one twin points out, on one who has been born has gone back into the womb to share what it is like. (I have another story that touches on that, it is called “Waterbugs and Dragonflies”. It will have to wait for another day.)
It is my belief that, just as birth is a transition from one world to another, so it is with death. We move from what we know to what we can not know until we go there. We try to draw pictures in our minds of what that will be like. But they are only guesses. Paul says that we will be changed. I take that to mean that existence will be different. Still we are promised, over and over we are promised, that there is more. That is our faith, and that is what we rely on. We have faith that there is more, in the end that is what we trust.
One of the problems with trying to grapple with these questions around what lies beyond death is that we don’t take time to talk about it. We only bring it up at funerals and memorial services. And then we are so busy grieving that we seek the comfort of the promise without delving deeper. Mind you, I am not sure that we could do any other. I read a story this week about a philosopher. One of his students came to talk about death. The teacher asked “how old are you?”. “25” “Go away, I only talk about death to people who are over 30”. It is hard to talk seriously about death until we are forced to. Maybe we lose a parent, or a grandparent, or a close friend. Maybe we get seriously ill. Then we have no choice but to face it, then it is real.
However, I suggest that if we let our children do that we do them, and us, a disservice. Only talking about death and faith at times of sorrow leaves us unprepared. My sister and I grew up in a household where we were forced to attend Sunday School until we were teens. We heard the stories of the faith all our lives. And yet. My sister went to her first funeral when she was in Grade 10 or 11. A classmate of hers had gone home on Friday apparently healthy, developed spinal meningitis, and was dead by Monday. None of those students were ready, few of them had tools that could help them deal with the reality of death. Now it is fair to say that nothing could really make you ready for the sudden death of someone who “should not have died”, but surely if we take time in our formative years and beyond to think and talk about what we believe lies beyond death then we have a step up.
No, we have to talk about what we believe on and ongoing basis. Otherwise our faith is meaningless. We have to consider what we believe happens after we die. We are promised that there is more, that death is not the end. What we don’t have is a blueprint. We don’t have a clear picture of what we will find when we die. But we have faith. In the end that is what we have, that is all we have. And that is alright. It is OK to say “I’m not sure I know but I believe…”. Mystery is a part of belief. Doubt and questions are a part of faith. In asking questions and in embracing mystery we let ourselves grow as people of faith.
Agreed, it would be wonderful to have all the answers. It would be so much more comforting to know exactly what to expect. WE don’t though, and lest that disconcert us, remember the story of Thomas. In reading about Thomas we learn that faith is about embracing the mystery, it is about accepting what we don’t know for sure. Mystery and uncertainty are hard to take sometimes but remember this. In the end, we have faith, we have hope, we have promise. And because we have that we can say with confidence the words of the New Creed of the United Church “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.” Amen.