A View from the Pew: Preaching on Death?

When I attend a Sunday service at an Episcopal church, my own or another, I can be fairly certain that I’m going to hear a sermon about life. I expect that similar sermons are heard at the sabbath services of other faiths and denominations.

I welcome this life-focused preaching. I nod in agreement when I’m told that I should be alert to moments that allow me to be surprised by joy. I value the reminders that in my own life, I should love my neighbor, seek peace and follow it, further the cause of justice, and respect the dignity of others. I appreciate being reminded that the care of children, the sick, and the poor should be always on my mind, and that I should cherish the earth. Amen to all of this.

We need to talk.

We need to talk.

The topic of death, however, is rarely explored in any depth on Sundays – even though many in the congregations I know are at an age when death is something they are thinking about, or should be. Death does come up when there has been a mass murder the previous week, as is so often the case these days, or when a young person in the church has died. Natural disasters and war inevitably raise the subject. We may be told on these occasions that this sort of death is not what God intended and not part of God’s plan for his people. I can accept this thought, though as a lay person I might not put it in those terms. Surely in the world as it should be, we would all lead long and fulfilling lives.

But what of our own inevitable deaths? What framework does faith give us for grappling with that subject? I for one would like to hear more about that on Sundays.

Of course, there are references to resurrection and eternal life in the creeds and prayers we recite, but these remind me of Baptist theologian William Hendricks’ remark that in his experience, geriatric people generally do not take such promises very seriously. The everlasting life promises are a problem for anyone raised in a society that claims to value reason and science.

Another difficulty with preaching about death on the sabbath is that it might empty the pews of young people and anyone else not yet ready to face the topic. I’m not sure this is true, though. There might be a yearning in the wider society for insight and guidance on death. In times past, such a yearning filled churches rather than emptying them. The Death Café movement is flourishing today because of that same yearning.

Clergy have much to tell us about death, of that I’m sure. Pastoral care is a major part of their vocation, and they have spent countless hours in conversation with the dying and the bereaved. I’ve found that funeral sermons often convey brilliant flashes of insight that must come from the familiarity the preacher has gained with death.

So every now and then, with fair warning, could we perhaps hear a Sunday sermon on death?

Last week, the New York Times ran an article on efforts to improve acceptance of hospice care and advance directives in the African-American community. The article quoted a sermon by Bishop Gwendolyn Coates-Stone of God Answers Prayers Ministries:

“Just like Jesus talked about his death and prepared his disciples for his death, we ought to be preparing our disciples for our death!” At the benediction, she added, “Help us Lord to have the courage to have conversations with our families that will also not leave them wandering and wondering, ‘What should I do in case of the death of a loved one?’ ”

Bishop Coates-Stone has seen the need, and she’s responding.

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2 thoughts on “A View from the Pew: Preaching on Death?

  1. Ray Copson Post author

    From David Grant Smith

    Frankly, I agree! We preachers need to say more on it. The BCP commends clergy to deal with issues of mortality in a semi-direct way through the Ash Wednesday service. The BCP also commends clergy to tackle the topic of wills/estates in a bizarre context (see bottom of p. 445). I’m not sure why more isn’t said on the topic from the pulpit. It’s certainly a topic Jesus spoke about; why the clergy who follow him don’t follow suit is a mystery to me (and I’m as guilty as any). The blog entry seems to raise all the right questions. I hope it spurs others into meaningful dialog and consideration for sermon fodder!

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  2. Ray Copson Post author

    Here’s a comment from Frank Wade.

    Ray

    Your comments are thoughtful and helpful. I teach a seminary course on Preaching the Pastoral Offices which means baptisms, weddings and funerals. One of the basic points in the class is that there is a reason people come to the church for those events. We do not baptize in libraries, get married in hospitals or take our dead to the courthouse. We do those things in church because the church has something important to say about such things. If we limit our teaching and proclamation about funerals, etc to emotion laden events like baptisms, weddings and funerals we severely limit the depth to which our message can go.

    One of the things wish I had thought of while I was still serving in a congregation is the notion of having annual “instructed” baptisms, weddings and funerals. Having a mock funeral on a Sunday morning when no one has died provides a wonderful teaching opportunity, preparing disciples for the inevitability of death as Bishop Coates-Stone wisely suggested.

    Frank Wade

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