The stories of Elijah and Jesus resurrecting the dead sons of widows (1 Kings 17.8-16 and Luke 7.11-17) invite a troubling reflection: how do we respond to death, particularly the death of children? What do we say about it, as people of faith? I suggest that encountering the deeply troubling and bitter reality of death is necessary in order to embrace the fullness offered by resurrection and life everlasting.
At the beginning of this sermon I read this poem by Billy Collins:
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
Here is an animated version of the same poem, read by the author:
Toward the middle of the poem I quote this chunk from the essay "As a Door Nail" in Episcopal Cafe by Donald Schell:
It’s not some irreducible, barely glimpsed idealized essence of my dad that escaped and flew free from the fires of the crematorium. He’s gone, what remains is ash, is dead as a doornail. And the whole of him, the hands I marveled at as a kid when he played Rachmaninoff’s B minor prelude, the face that looked so much like mine and which, in the pictures I’ve got still teaches me to smile, the courageous heart that managed to squeeze almost eighty-seven years of living from a terrifying beginning as a preemie in 1921 and scarlet fever a few years later, the whole of that good man was, is, and will be held in God’s love. I don’t know what it means or looks like but I trust it - God’s initiative, God’s creative embrace that won’t let one vibration of one atom that was him out of the old/new whole of God’s making.
The Gospel writers are so determined that it’s God’s initiative that their preferred language for Jesus’ resurrection is that the Father “raised him up.”
The darkness, the abandonment, the devastation and decay and knowledge that we’re all just in remission and each of us alone faces a ‘moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark’ must sink in, take hold, and be bitterly true. We’re none of us going to make out of this alive. None of us and nothing in us is any match for death. Nothing except the love of God. (source)
Talking about these passages on Saturday at the healing prayer service it was pretty clear to me that the grief evident in both passages is absolutely essential to understanding what God is up to. Attempts to ameliorate that pain by going immediately to the resurrection place--saying something like "he's in a better place"--shortcuts the process in an unhealthy way. Embracing the pain of death is the path toward Kingdom Wisdom. Jesus did it, and so should we. I know it sucks, but there it is.
This is not a sermon I particularly wanted to preach. I don't like thinking about my own death, much less the death of my little Henry. Nor do I wish to remember the deaths of children I saw when I worked in a hospital as a chaplain... but part of the discipline of preaching is accepting the responsibility of preaching the sermon the Holy Spirit gives you, not the one you want.
If you want preaching that is transformational (for the congregation and also yourself) you have to have the courage to go into some dark places in your own imagination. It's tough work. And I've preached many gut-wrenching sermons in the shower that never made it to the congregation. That's healthy, and part of the preaching life. But sometimes that gut wrenching material needs to find its way to the surface and today was such a day.
I'll just mention that the subjective experience of preaching a sermon this "heavy" was remarkable. People were riveted. They listened intensely, and the quality of the reflections and questions offered after the sermon in the "forum" time were top-notch and often quite personal. But after a while the congregation self-regulated all that hard material with some laughter and amusing stories. I've become experienced enough with my congregation that I am very confident that can process stuff like this and find a resolution and balance at the end.
Preaching about the death of children truly sucks--but you gotta go where the Word takes you. In the end I felt really good about this sermon, and it was a beautiful bookend to have the kids choir perform at the end of the service.