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.
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.