What do we preach about when we preach about death - Calvin Retreat 2015

The following was a sermon given as part of the Presbytery of Transylvania's 2015 Calvin Retreat exploring What Do We Preach about When We Preach about Death. I was honored to be one of the clergy not from the Presbyterian tradition asked to preach on the topic of death.  The text I used is Jonah 4:1-11.

I have a gift. A profound ability, really.

I can fall madly in love with a tv series that apparently only I and say 7 or 8 other people in the world enjoy. It runs for a few weeks, maybe months if the tv networks really want to toy with my emotions.

And then, I tune in at the same time and channel to find…nothing. Instead I’m met with repeats of Modern Family, which has been on the air since Jesus was in high school and apparently will be what we’re all watching when Jesus returns. 

Wait! What about the characters? Will they find some resolution to all the angst in their lives? And if they do, HOW will that happen? And will Mal ever come to terms with his Browncoat past? 

(If you get that last question, congratulations. You, too, were one of the few people tuning into Firefly before it was cool).

What about the end of the story?

It’s a cruel reality, not knowing how a story ends. I suspect that’s why most editors, movie makers, and story tellers through the centuries know that when the lines, “Once upon a time…” grace the page or screen, there better be a “Happily ever after” with a big final period following, unless you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie or reading a Bronte book, then no one lives happily ever after.

But we at least get an ending. A resolution. A denouement. We may not particularly like the ending, but we get one.

Maybe we’re conditioned by our culture to want resolution…closure. Maybe it’s within our selves and souls from the most ancient days of our humanity. Who knows?

Which makes the book of Jonah stand out in the canon of Holy Scripture. It doesn’t really have an ending. Or at least not the kind of ending to which we are accustomed. And quite honestly, I’m impressed we’ve allowed that for over 2000 years. We couldn’t handle the Gospel of Mark’s less than tidy ending of women running from the tomb in terror and amazement, which could be a reaction to the Resurrection…or a zombie apocalypse. So, we had to ease that uncertainty, so our ancestors in the faith took quill to parchment and penned a couple of options. Just to tidy up any loose ends and be clear...Jesus. Not zombie.

Jonah though, manages not to end. We’ve engaged in the story of Jonah, our self-involved prophet, who has actually done something almost no other prophet in Israel does - he’s successful. Nineveh, its people and animals all repent. God even repents. And Jonah is displeased and angry.  So angry he’d just rather die than live in a world where God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

Or rather, Jonah seems fine to live in that world as long as all that good stuff of God is reserved for him and the people he likes, but when God starts sharing this holy love with Ninevites and those people, well, yeah, just kill me now.

We could have an ending here, where God smites Jonah and we learn a lesson in asking God to kill us now. We could have Jonah realizing the error of his ways and all hear the increasing swell of the music telling us, "Hey! Jonah figured it out and all shall be well!"

But no. God engages Jonah with this great scene involving a bush and a worm, and Jonah continues his diatribe about wanting to die. I’m convinced every time he says that, God rolls God’s eyes. 

But that notwithstanding, God asks Jonah, “So, are you right to be so angry? Is your anger good?”

And the curtain drops. We wait for the storyteller to begin the next scene…but…


We hear no reply from Jonah and nothing else from God. God’s question hangs in the air. This saga that has taken us from Joppa to a sea voyage to Tarshish into the belly of a great fish and then a vomiting upon the shores of Nineveh just…ends. We tuned into the story, only to find out it hasn’t been renewed for a second season.

We don’t know the ending. We might have some ideas, some sense about how the story may end, but those are our own conjecture and imagination. The story as we’ve been told does not have a clear ending. The story as handed down from generation to generation has retained the central truth that we do not always have a fully explained ending.

Jonah’s constant desire to die, whether high drama or perhaps a very real hope, and its place in the story reminds us in a big way…we really don’t know the ending of much in life. 

And we really don’t know the ending of all endings – what, exactly, happens after death. 

Death is an ending, in a mid-season finale, sort of  way, with lots of the story still untold. And that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Because I like to know.  I like to have something to say to the man who has buried his wife who has suffered too long with Alzheimer’s when he asks, “She’s like she was, before, in heaven, right?” I want to much to have something to say to the young mother who is holding her stillborn baby and asks me what heaven is like and how her baby will grow up there. I want to have something to say to myself when I’ve been a bit too close to death in this ministry and I wonder what happens after my story on this side of the kingdom ends.

We have ideas from Scripture. We have Christ’s assuring words to the thief the today he would be with Jesus in Paradise, but that’s pretty vague. And Paul, who granted is not Jesus, indicates in his letters that only Jesus is raised from the dead immediately. The rest of us are somewhere else, perhaps.  Jesus talks about many dwelling places and preparing a place for us in John, but again, not really too concrete. We hear that the faithful sleep over and over again in Holy Scripture and that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and they are at peace. 

We have ideas from our own hopes and imaginations birthed in art and music and prose and poetry.  From mansions and pearly gates to endless choirs singing to the paradise that our earthly creation never quite attained in Genesis, we have many, many images of what our resurrection with God and Christ will look like.

But they are, in fact, our ideas, hopes, and perhaps needs of what life with God after our death will be. Our response to the question we have asked, “What happens after this life ends? What happens after death?”

We ask the question, and the narrative ends, in a way. We don’t have much of an answer. 

The reality, at least partly, is that we have many questions about death, about what happens after all of this is said and done and we have breathed our last and will we be with our loved ones and are there really pearly gates…and our questions hang in the air.

At least partly. Because while we don’t have intricate details about what, exactly, happens after we die in a fully written position paper, volumes I, II, and III issued by The Standing Commission of What, Indeed Happens After We Die, we do have a very full story about God. We have stories about our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We have experiences about God who binds our wounds after we’ve been beaten and bruised by life and we lie abandoned on the side of the road. We have images of God as a loving mother who gathers her children, as a shepherd who seeks after lost sheep, as a liberator who frees us from our limited expectation and addictions to needing to know. God has said that something happens after we die and that something involves the God of gracious, merciful, steadfast, and lavish love for the sinner and saint in all of us.

Perhaps our willingness not to know exact details about how our life after death will look is our ultimate experience of faith. We are invited and encouraged to have faith that in death, life is changed but not ended – but the details are not ours to know. The sure and certain hope of the Resurrection is our greatest confession of faith and belief in God’s love. Even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” And that is all we know we sing at the moment. Our song of faith in God is that the next chapter of our story, the chapter that begins with death, is written. And all of us, in our own time, will know that story, that experience, that love that only those who are resting with God now understand.

And this is what we say to grieving spouses and partners, parents and siblings, friends and loved ones. This is what we confess to our own unsure souls. What about the story that happens after we die? Well, the details are bit vague, but much like the not-end of Jonah’s story, we know that God is with us. This is our sure and certain hope. No, we don’t know all the details, but we know we are with God in some way. And yes, what happens after we die is a holy mystery, but it is a holy mystery written in love.



Betsy said…
I love the bold proclamation of "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia" in the Commendation for just this reason: it's one of the only parts of the service I can say with certainty about death. I don't know the ending, but I have great faith that alleluia is a big part of it. Thanks for sharing a wonderful sermon!
Martha said…
Thank you! Just what was needed at this moment in time
Bravegirl01 said…
Firefly! I knew it! ;-)

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