Monday, November 07, 2005

The Harvest of Life--All Saint's Day Sermon

Sermon Texts
John 6: 35-51
1 Corinthians 15: 51-58

I’m sure we’ve all been noticing it in the past week. The seasons have changed; we are being enchanted by the colorful spectacle of the fall. I wrote in a little meditation for the Movement of the Spirit group that the colors of fall are one of the most effective evangelists of the natural world. Riding back from Conway with Diane this week, we marveled at the blazing reds, the vibrant oranges, and the rich golds of the trees along HWY 10 and 80. Do you have favorite places to go during the fall? God’s creation gives us a grand finale of celebration before the leaves fall to the ground and decompose. One day the nutrients that they generate seeps into the very roots of the tree from which they once sprang forth. Do you think the leaves lament their separation from the tree of life? As the chlorophyll drains from them, as their ability to nurture the tree drains, they seem to celebrate to me! The marvelous colors we see in the fall are a testament to the mystery Paul writes about to the Corinthians---“We shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye—we shall not die, but instead we shall live.”
I read a magazine article about the cellular process of apoptosis. Has anyone heard that word before? In Greek it means “falling leaves” and is a reference to the continuous process of death within life, as natural and necessary as leaves falling from the trees in autumn. During the past 20 years or so, the scientific world has realized that the process of death is a part of every moment. Each day, millions of cells are dying in our bodies, allowing physiological balance and the movement of life within us. We are only 6 weeks old when our cells begin to die, through the process of apoptosis. Our fingers are webbed together, and through the voluntary death of cells in that web membrane between our fingers, our hands take shape with these miraculous little digits that have made life on land a lot easier.
In adult life, the right balance between living and dying cells means harmony and health, while disturbances in this balance are the basis of every chronic disease. Cancer is the failure of cells to die through the natural process of apoptosis. A particular and crucial role of death within life is found in the immune system, where bacteria fighting cells armed with sophisticate biological weapons actually self destruct after releasing their “weapons.” The increased or decreased rate of apoptosis lets the body know if it needs to be on high defensive alert (with fever, cough, sneezing, etc), or if the rate of apoptosis decreases, the body knows that the invading bacteria has been dealt with.
What a mystery the end of this life is! We cease to breathe, our brains stop generating electricity, our heart stops pumping the blood through our circulatory system that delivers our breath to our cells. Yet Paul tells us that the mystery is that we do not really die at all. Our perishable body puts on imperishability, we eat of the Bread of Life, and our lives become something more than we are quite aware of. Can you believe it? It isn’t scientifically proven! We have no evidence of it being so! Perhaps like cells which undergo “apoptosis,” our life and death contributes to some whole, some greater birth, which we cannot comprehend.
Bob Dylan wrote a song patterned after our Corinthians text called “Ye Shall be Changed”
(Now) the past don't control youBut the future's like a roulette wheel spinning(And) deep down insideYou know you need a whole new beginningDon't have to go to Russia or IranJust surrender to God and He'll move you right here where you stand, andYou drink bitter waterAnd you been eating the bread of sorrowYou can't live for todayWhen all you're ever thinking of is tomorrowThe path you've endured has been roughAnd when you've decided that you've had enough, thenYe shall be changed, ye shall be changedIn a twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blowsThe dead will arise and burst out of your clothsAnd ye shall be changed
Today we lifted up the names of our beloved family members and friends who have passed from this world to something we can never know until we get there.
At this preaching workshop this past week, the presenter had a favorite phrase. He’d say, “Preaching the gospel is hard, because we’re standing six feet above contradiction.” Deep in the back of our minds we have some awareness of it—we don’t spend much time thinking about it until it looms at our door like the picture of the “grim reaper,” but our lives come to an end and our bodies are put in the ground or incinerated. What we know of ourselves ceases to be in existence.
Is the Good News that has been passed down from 2000 years ago any match for the cold, hard reality of death? When it comes down to it, do these ideas we subscribe to, these beliefs we keep in our hearts—do they rise to the challenge when we are laying on our death beds? A very wise Indian philosopher named Krishnamurti said, “IF one can find out what the full meaning of living is, the totality of living, the wholeness of living, then one is capable of understanding the wholeness of death. But one usually enquires into the meaning of death without enquiring into the meaning of life.” Normally we are in denial about our mortality. This is not to say that we believe we won’t physically die—we know with our intellects that we will—but the reality doesn’t enter our interior life, our feeling, and our being. The process of death is so uncomfortable that we avoid thinking about it.
I can remember visiting a dying member of my father’s congregation in Arkadelphia. Roy Bass was a favorite member of the church, always quick with a smile, always helping out with the youth group. I remember him constantly working on one of the old church vans that we had. Roy was a Vietnam war vet who battled the aftereffects of agent orange. He was on oxygen, and battled cancer. I can remember when the family knew he was going to be leaving soon, they gathered around him, and my dad was there too. My dad told me that they were saying the Lord’s prayer together—Roy had been unconscious for a few weeks. As they all said the prayer together, “Our father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…at that moment, as if Roy was summoning every bit of strength he had left, he opened his eyes to look at his family one last time. “Thy will be done” his family gasped. Roy’s heart moniter flatlined. As his family melted into tears, Roy died with his wife and daughter’s hands on him.
Paul tells us We are resurrected in a new life in a new form. As the harvest of our fields leads to the complex foods we create, our newly created lives will be in the service of God in ways which we can not imagine any more than a grape could comprehend its place in a glass of wine, or a grain of wheat its place in a loaf of bread.
We come to this table to eat the bread of life and to drink the everlasting cup, the cup of salvation. Jesus told us in John’s Gospel that he is the bread of life, comparing himself to the manna that rained down from heaven to energize the Jews on their journey of the Exodus. The Jews complained that they didn’t have meat to go along with the manna that God provided. Do we complain that this simple meal is one of the only legacies we have from our Lord? Do we take it for granted, as the Jews took for granted the manna in the wilderness, and hesitate to show up on communion Sundays because the service might be 5 or 10 minutes longer than usual? Leon Trotsky, a father of the Russian socialist revolution, said “We only die when we fail to take root in others.” The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, took root in others, and continues to take root in our lives today, 2000 years after he lived on earth. It is through his “taking root in others” that we believe he continues to live to this day. Through his holy spirit, especially in this meal that he instituted, he continues to live and participate in our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our triumphs, and our salvation. We cannot escape him—he is as inevitable as death. In fact, Christ is more powerful than death, and through his victory through death and resurrection, he takes us on his back to eternal life. Jesus thought of the end of his life as a harvest. Bread and Wine would be products of this harvest, and in a very real way, he would remain with us in the celebration of this meal. Imagine the sense the sense of wholeness that Jesus had as he approached his own death, after struggling with the very real emotions of fear and regret, Jesus opened himself to God’s reality for him. “Not my own will, but thine own,” he said. Life and death are woven together in an intricate design. We celebrate death as a part of life, giving birth to a greater whole. We believe death is not the final chapter, but instead the end of the prologue. We celebrate the lives who have gone before us because we believe that in the remembering, in the celebration—their life carries on. Amen!


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