Sunday, April 02, 2017

Mortality and Immortality: Sermon, April 2, 2017

A man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, became sick. Bethany was the town where Mary and her sister Martha lived. (This Mary was the one who poured the perfume on the Lord's feet and wiped them with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was sick.) The sisters sent Jesus a message: “Lord, your dear friend is sick.”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “The final result of this sickness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory.”

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he received the news that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days. 7 Then he said to the disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“Teacher,” the disciples answered, “just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you; and are you planning to go back?”

Jesus said, “A day has twelve hours, doesn't it? So those who walk in broad daylight do not stumble, for they see the light of this world. But if they walk during the night they stumble, because they have no light.” Jesus said this and then added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I will go and wake him up.”

The disciples answered, “If he is asleep, Lord, he will get well.”

Jesus meant that Lazarus had died, but they thought he meant natural sleep. So Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad that I was not with him, so that you will believe. Let us go to him.”

Thomas (called the Twin) said to his fellow disciples, “Let us all go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been buried four days before. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Judeans had come to see Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother's death.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for.”

“Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her.

“I know,” she replied, “that he will rise to life on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord!” she answered. “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

After Martha said this, she went back and called her sister Mary privately. “The Teacher is here,” she told her, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up and hurried out to meet him. (Jesus had not yet arrived in the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.) The people who were in the house with Mary comforting her followed her when they saw her get up and hurry out. They thought that she was going to the grave to weep there.

Mary arrived where Jesus was, and as soon as she saw him, she fell at his feet. “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Jesus saw her weeping, and he saw how the people with her were weeping also; his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved. “Where have you buried him?” he asked them.

“Come and see, Lord,” they answered.

Jesus wept. “See how much he loved him!” the people said.

But some of them said, “He gave sight to the blind man, didn't he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. “Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered.

Martha, the dead man's sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!”

Jesus said to her, “Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?” They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me.” After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go.”

Many of the people who had come to visit Mary saw what Jesus did, and they believed in him.
- John 11:1-45, Good News Translation

I got an email the other day that said, “Here’s how to cheat death.” It turned out to be a link to a magazine article about research into how to make people live much longer, even forever. This is a big topic now. I found articles with titles like “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever” and “The road to immortality". That one has the sub title “In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life is only a few years away.” I was reading in one of these about a gathering of Hollywood stars and tech billionaires to hear about radically lengthened lives. And the speaker asked how many people in the room would want to live to be two hundred years old, if they could be healthy, and almost every hand went up.

So technology companies are now taking on the ultimate problem, death. One billionaire says that he wants to end mortality. He and others who made fortunes in computing and the Internet are ploughing money into research on extending life, altering the enzymes that regulate aging in the body and the genes that control life span, or even somehow downloading the human brain and your memories into a machine so that, in theory, your mind can last forever.

Now, I’m not sure I want to live on as a mind inside a computer, or have my genetic makeup changed so I live to be two hundred years old. But if you asked a group of people who aren’t Hollywood stars or rich technology executives if they want to live to be two hundred, there would still be a lot of hands go up. Particularly from baby boomers. They’re the largest group of Canadians currently living. And many baby boomers have assumed for most of their lives that they will live forever. This isn’t based on any evidence; baby boomers just don’t want to think about being dead, or old. But, of course, now people born in the postwar years are at an age where it is obvious that they will die, or are dying. And they understandably want every medical and technological intervention possible to keep death away.

You know, our culture goes to great lengths to avoid death and even thinking about death. Our own deaths, that is. At the same time as denying our own deaths we watch and read about many, many fictional deaths on TV and in movies and novels. A colleague of mine, Rev. Linda Yates, says that our obsession with watching people die in the name of entertainment may in part be due to our resistance to dealing with our own impending demise. And these fictional deaths skew how we imagine our own deaths, and create unrealistic fears. For instance, the statistics show that we are far more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than a terrorist, but we don’t have expensive and elaborate government programs for lawnmower safety. And there are no action movies about saving the world from lawnmowers.

Linda Yates notes that things weren’t always this way. For much of human history, death was familiar. It was observed and accepted. It had rituals. We see that in the story of Lazarus. Not so long ago, dying was not hidden in a hospital. When many of my ancestors died, their bodies were laid out at home.

We still have rituals, maybe more so here than in the city. A funeral or memorial service or graveside service is important, I think, because in storytelling, celebration of life, and lament, we are helped to remember the loved one who has died, and to think about our own deaths and the meaning of our own lives.

Well, we will die. There is no getting around it, as much as we don't want to acknowledge it. They say nothing is certain except death and taxes, and just as income taxes are due this month, death is coming up sometime. I just finished editing the United Church of Canada’s draft statement on medical assistance in dying. Now, we don’t have time today to deal with assisted dying for terminally ill patients. But the statement does say that despite focusing in Holy Week and Easter each year on the story of a God who died on a cross, and being part of a Christian faith fundamentally shaped by questions around the meaning of suffering and death, we in the church have often been swept up in our society’s denial of death. The church should be one place where we can overcome our society’s reluctance and have conversations about death and dying. It’s important to think and talk about death before dying is actually near. At church we hear stories and see symbols from our faith tradition that expose us to the idea of our own death. Linda has more to say about this in her book For the Death of Me.

And our church statement says that those facing the end of their lives should have access to palliative care, because each human has dignity, each person is created in God’s image, and Jesus commanded us to care for the sick. It is essential to offer relief of pain and suffering when life draws to a close.

And that makes me think about this research into extending life and keeping the mind going outside the body. I’m not sure these life spans of two hundred years are intended to be for everyone. Only those who can afford it would be genetically modified to live longer, or have their brain downloaded so their mind could be immortal. So a lot of brainpower and money is being sunk into projects that will only ever benefit rich people. I can’t help but think this is trying to solve the wrong problem. Funding improvements in palliative care would be a much more meaningful response to the problem of death.

And we already know how to extend and improve life, but it’s far less glamourous than coming up with a way to download your brain. Those technologies are already here: clean water, urban sanitation, smokeless cooking, access to healthcare, quality education. The arithmetic of improving life just by adding more years is too simple. It ignores what makes a life an abundant life, in Jesus’ words.

Yesterday we had a funeral service. And I said the traditional words,
"You only are immortal, O God, Creator of all.
We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to the earth we shall return.
All of us return to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."
Billions of dollars in research may add a few years to the life spans of the rich. It may even preserve their minds for centuries. But the earthly lives of humans will still be finite. "You are dust, and to the dust you shall return," God tells Adam and Eve. Humans can’t live forever through their own power.

But our story shows us what is possible through God’s power. Lazarus died. And then he lived again, through Jesus using the power of God. Now, Lazarus would die eventually. But after this story took place, Jesus himself would be raised from death by God’s power at Easter, raised to new life, and because he has been raised we will all be raised. Jesus took on the ultimate problem, death, and won. "Our mortal bodies will put on immortality," Scripture says. "Death will be swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells Martha. “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.” And then he asks her, “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she answers. How will we respond?

Rev. Linda Yates' resource For the Death of Me: Accepting Death, Choosing Life was very helpful in preparing this sermon and, along with her oral remarks to a consultation, in writing the proposed United Church of Canada statement on Medical Assistance in Dying. It is a great resource for individual and group reflection on death and dying.