Sermon  September 6 2020   “ And what of death?”  by Rev. June Fothergill

Scripture: Exodus 12: 1-14; romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20

     Not too long ago Jim and I watched again the movie “ Hannah and Her Sisters.”  In it, Woody Allen plays a character who has become obsessed with his own death.  He is terrified and anxious about not being anymore.   He goes to his Jewish parents for advice but they don’t see the issue.  He tries a Catholic priest and comes away with a pile of reading but that’s not for him. He even talks with the Hari Krishna but can’t imagine wearing an orange robe and hanging out at the airport.  Discouraged and still in terror, he goes to the movies.  As he watches an old Marx brothers which makes his laugh, he has a revelation that he needs to turn away from his anxiety and search for “ answers” and embrace life with all its mystery and maybes and laughter.  I admit it, his antics made me laugh.

  Most of us face the reality of death at some point in our lives.  And Woody Allen, although exaggerating, is right, it is a fearsome thing.  We do shrink before the mystery of death.  This is only natural.  So what of death?  What place does it have in our lives, our theology , our faith?  I cannot answer all those questions in one sermon. I ‘m really not sure I can answer them any better than a Marx Brothers movie.  Yet, the reason I bring up the topic at all, is the impact of this passage from Exodus.  Let’s look at it together.

    When reading again this passage in Exodus, I got a bit of that terror at or at least the solemnity of death. I had always thought of the first born- when I thought about them at all, as children- terrible enough certainly.  But this time I realized- I am a first born.  I would have been dead.  It was a little like when after 9/11 I realized that that many dead, would be everyone in the town I lived in at the time would have died! We do not usually keep thoughts about death in the forefront of our minds. As Woody Allen showed it is not a healthy way to live, obsessed with death.  Yet, death and transformation are at the heart of our faith and our deepest questions.

  The passage from Exodus depicts a liturgy, an important ritual of the Israelite life and faith.  According to the commentators it is made up of materials from many centuries of Israel’s worship and faith.   It proclaims that God delivered them from oppression and death. The blood of the lamb not only saved them from the angel of death but marked them as a set apart, liberated people. 

  But there was a cost to this liberation- the deaths of innocent Egyptians.  Biblical scholar Terrance Fretheim points out that neither God nor the Israelites savor this victory, “Israel, like  God voices no pleasure in the death of anyone.” ( p. 136 Exodus, Terrance Fretheim)   There is a story from the Rabbi’s in one of the more recent Passover liturgies that tells of God chastising the revelers after the drowning of Egypt’s army in the sea,  “ These are my children too.” God tells them. 

  There is a solemn reality to the situation. The hardness of heart of those in power does lead to the death of the innocent.   If the King of Egypt had been willing to let them go, all that death could have been avoided.  We see it in any war. We saw it in the Halocaust in Germany. We see it in past and present lynching and killing of brown and black lives and in the stories of drug kingpins and mob bosses. Innocent, untimely death is heart breaking and wrong.  That Pharoah let the request for freedom of his slaves go this far challenges us and upsets us.  Yet, we as a country fought a dreadful war at least in part to defend oppression and slavery. The Passover liturgy does not glorify but solemnly reminds us of the dreadful cost of slavery and hardened hearts.    As they celebrate liberation, they also recognize its cost and the human suffering that oppression brings to the oppressor and the oppressed.

     Yet, ultimately the Passover is a liturgy of liberation. It lets each generation re-imagine not only the cost but also the possibilities of God to bring life and liberation even in the midst of death and oppression.  The liturgy doesn’t just remind people of an historic event but allows them to re- member, re involve themselves in it. 

   This is very much like what happens for us in Holy Communion. Here too we remember a terrible act of oppression and death- Jesus death on a cross.   For us we connect Jesus death to that of the Passover lamb whose blood saved the Israelite people from death. Only this time through the interpretations of Paul and the early church, we believe this sacrifice of Jesus is for the whole world.  Its purpose is to be the final living sacrifice to liberate all from sin and death and oppression. 

    This means standing in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters in their Passover of liberation. It means standing in solidarity with anyone who suffers because of the sins of the world. It means standing in solidarity with all human beings for we all need the freedom and love and grace Christ brings. 

    These ancient liturgies show us a  Judeo Christian approach to death.  Not as something to be glorified but as a solemn reality in our mortality and sinfulness- the outcome of hardened hearts.  Not as something to be avoided in this life – but to be understood as a threshold to a new life with God- a resurrection.  Not as something that we have any right to bring upon another, because we are not God.  And finally not as something to fear but as a part of our human journey toward God. 

   Jeffrey Munroe has a prose poem called “ Imagine the Dexterity of God.”   It ends this way,  “And now imagine the dexterity of God, who stands both in and out of time. Consider that it cost God everything to have a foot in our world and a foot in eternity. It may cost God still. Imagine a God who keeps choosing to do so despite the cost, a God who keeps saying yes.”  ( p. 29  Christian Century, “ Imagine the dexterity of God,”  Jeffrey Munroe)

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