I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say that Death is not okay.
Actually, it’s kind of pointless
Like stories we’ve heard of high kids who commit suicide
because they were bullied for being gay
or my neighbor a few houses down who had been clean and sober,
Who had dedicated his life to helping other addicts clean up
My neighbor who was murdered last year in his house
by God knows who
or all the civilians being killed in Ivory Coast and Libya
in complicated wars that seem to be based on who’s in power
“Vanity, vanity,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes
“all is vanity and a chasing after wind,” am I right?
Vanity is not a great translation, though, of Ecclesiastes’ words
the word is more like wind or breath,
something which cannot be seen and dissipates in seconds,
something which has great importance or maybe is meaningless
“Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind”
Death, it seems, isn’t so much gravity pulling us down,
keeping us from soaring with Jesus—
death, it seems, is pointless, empty, unfathomable.
There’s a moment in the movie The Mummy Returns
when the charming archaeologist,
—she’s the wife of the charming, rogueish hero
and mother of the charming young boy—
And it’s so anticlimactic.
They’ve just survived a ridiculous amount of supernatural threats
And they’re resting, they’ve won!
And she gets knifed in the ribs.
And as her son and brother look on,
her husband the hero kneels beside her saying
“what do I do, Evie? What do I do? I don’t know what to do…”
and then in tears “come back, Evie, come back, come back”
there is only a breath between the life in her eyes and death,
it’s such a thin moment, such a pointless death
such a chasing after wind
“Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind”
When I worked as a chaplain in the hospital at the University of Tennessee,
death was a constant companion.
Whether or not our patients died,
the possibility was always there, lurking.
It often made our actions feel pointless
what am I praying for, exactly?
For you my brother, to be miraculously healed
of your emphysema after 40 years of smoking?
Or for you, my sister, to find a job
and suddenly pull yourself out of generational poverty? Absolutely! but not with much hope.
Let me tell you two stories of death from that hospital
they might illuminate what Ecclesiastes is talking about
and what it is that Jesus did for Lazarus and us:
In the first, a man in his mid-nineties was admitted to the hospital
I visited him and his middle-aged daughters
—he seemed charming but frail, as you might expect
They patched him up and sent him on his way
Only a week later, he was back, this time in the ICU
His daughters were there at his bedside constantly,
praying for his recovery
But as the days wore on into weeks, the situation became more grim
The man’s daughters insisted that he remain at a full code status
Meaning that whenever his heart stopped or similar
Eight nurses descended to do CPR
and they broke his ribs every time
His bed was covered with small prayer cloths, and crosses
And several bibles opened to specific passages on healing
When I visited, every single time,
they were on their knees on the floor praying hard
for the return of his health
—and not just health,
but vitality, energy, strength, youth
Brothers and sisters—their devotion and love were palpable
and I do not mock them—
but their unwillingness to see his life as well-lived
and nearing its end was tragic.
He hung on for months and, based on what else I saw at the hospital,
it was because they wouldn’t let him go.
Death became the beast in the room,
prayer became a pointless exercise in denial.
Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind.
Now, in the second story,
a man in his mid-sixties was admitted to the hospital
with complications from heart surgery
When I visited, his family was no less devoted or loving
But their attitude was much different
As he slowly slipped away from them in the ICU
They prayed with and for him
But for a different kind of healing
They prayed for his forgiving folks in his life
They prayed for his own forgiveness
They prayed that they would be able to bear their grief
They prayed that he would be with God
And they said goodbye
“Daddy” they said, “it’s okay. We love you. We miss you.
It’s time to go.”
Now, I can’t imagine saying goodbye to my dad so finally
I don’t want to think about his not being here
I know I’ll have to one day, and it’s not okay.
Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind
We’re approaching Holy Week and Easter
and it’s easy for us in 21st century American churches
to look across Good Friday to Easter like it’s just a speedbump,
to not really connect with Jesus’ death
to pretend it doesn’t mean much
because we know the end of the story.
He dies, but it’s okay because it’s not for long.
But, people, he dies.
And with him are all our moments of death
—the physical deaths we’ve experienced in our friends and families
the disasters around the world that take so many lives
we cannot comprehend them
and the more metaphorical deaths as well
When you asked someone out and they said no—a little death
When you argue with your spouse
and end up not solving anything
but just feeling bad about it—a little death
when we give in to temptation
—to anger or self-righteousness
or just ignoring another person—a little death
every one of those deaths Jesus takes with him
to the grave on Good Friday
every one of them seems pointless but they’re not.
something else happens in that last breath before dying.
Something happens to us each time someone we care for dies
And it’s not pointless at all.
—why not take a little more time to talk with someone on the street,
why not let go of some theology or political ideology,
why not appreciate every part of yourself
instead of thinking you’re not good enough?
Because we do know the end of the story.
Death is not okay. But it is real. It’s not something we can ignore.
And death is not the end.
Our Christian story says that death,
while worthy of grief, is not the last thing.
There is new life beyond.
And that’s kind of the point of the gospel today
about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
My friend and Lutheran pastor Nadia Tweeted about it:
“before Christ defeats death for good,
he first just gives it a really good slap in the face.”
This is what resurrection looks like, brothers and sisters.
This is what new life in our God is.
New life cannot grow without the end of the old one.
The plants in our gardens go dormant, die in a way,
so that they can come back lush in the Spring
We cannot live a life of charity without first letting our greedy selves die
Death is necessary for new life to flourish
But death is not the end of the story
Whether we react to the deaths we experience with denial
like the two daughters in the hospital
Or whether we react to them with tearful acceptance
like the other family,
death is not the end.
whether we’re talking about the seeming finality of physical death
or the shame of everyday emotional deaths,
it’s not the end
one of my favorite quotes is,
“Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
I saw it on a greeting card at Joseph-Beth, if you can believe it,
and the breath was knocked clean out of my chest.
Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
This is the good news in every single moment of bad news we ever have.
“True life and resurrection cannot deny the reality of death.”
But there is always, always, always new life after death.
Everything will be okay in the end, my brothers and sisters,
whether it’s tomorrow
or it’s the Rapture supposedly on May 21,
or it’s some far-off judgment day,
everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.