Monthly Archives: April 2020

Putting Death back into Life


Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Prayer of the Day: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A late friend and former parishioner, upon learning that he had been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, told me “nothing has changed. I’ve always known there were plenty of trains out there and one of them was bound to hit me sooner or later. Now I just know the number of the one with my name on it.” My friend’s words, spoken long before the coronavirus was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, have a contemporary ring to them. In a very real sense, nothing has changed for us. Even in the midst of life, we are in death. Covid-19 has simply brought that stark reality into sharper focus.

The words of the Twenty-Third Psalm also have a contemporary ring. Safety and danger, peace and conflict, light and darkness, life and death are all juxtaposed, contrasted and reconciled within this short piece of poetry. The shepherd leads the sheep to “green pastures” and “still waters.” Yet the “paths of righteousness” along which the sheep are led pass through “the valley of the shadow of death.” The shepherd “prepares a table for the sheep,” but that table is set “in the presence” of their “enemies.” To be sure, the psalm offers the assurance of God’s comforting presence. But that presence comes to us in the midst of a dicey existence.

There is one more thing to keep in mind. In the Bible, sheep are not adorable little pets. They are commodities. At some point, they will be sent to slaughter. David, the putative author of the Twenty-Third Psalm, knew that and so did Jesus when he referred to himself as the “good shepherd.” Just as the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep must lay down their lives for their shepherd:

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” John 15;18-21.

Of course, not all of Jesus’ disciples died as martyrs. It is probably safe to say that most of us will not perish under the sword of persecution. But perish we surely will. There is a train out there with our name on it, whether it be covid-19 or another number. Now that our mortality is placed for us in such sharp relief, what are we to make of it?

I believe the last episode in John’s gospel can help us with that. There Peter is told that he will be imprisoned and die for Jesus’ sake-a good word for him. Recall that Peter had promised to undergo that very fate just days before-and lost his nerve when the opportunity came. So Jesus was, in effect, giving Peter another chance to make good on his promise, an opportunity to redeem himself. But then Peter goes on to inquire about another of Jesus’ disciples identified only as “the one Jesus loved.” “What about him?” Peter asks. Jesus politely replies that it is none of Peter’s damned business. Peter is to follow Jesus and leave off with speculating about the destiny of others. John 21:18-23.

What I find particularly interesting is John’s commentary on the rationale for Jesus’ informing Peter about his ultimate destiny. “[Jesus] said this to indicate the kind of death by which [Peter] would glorify God.” John 21:19. Even what Paul calls “the final enemy,” is transformed by Jesus into a gift. Death constitutes the one last opportunity we have to glorify God, to bear witness to the hope that is within us and offer encouragement and inspiration to others. Viewing death as an opportunity is nearly impossible for a death denying culture like ours. There is no place for it in the way we live our lives. We plan our careers, we plan our retirements and we plan for the distribution of our wealth after we have died. But who plans for death? We go out of our way not to use the “D” word, employing flowery euphemisms, like “expired,” “passed on,” “entered eternal rest” and the like. We typically hide the dying process from the rest of life in hospital rooms and the hospice section of nursing homes. We need living wills and health proxies to make sure medical practitioners do not employ extreme measures to keep our hearts beating and our lungs pumping long after nearly all brain function has ceased and the prospect of recovery is nil. Our medicine is adept at prolonging life, but inept at dealing with the end of it. In medical terms, a dead patient amounts to failure.

It was not always so. During medieval times, death was at the very center of life. According to church teaching, the whole purpose of life was to prepare for death. Participation in worship and the sacraments was understood as a process of formation, readying one for a “good death.” Time was measured in saint’s days marking the death of biblical and post biblical heroes of faith. The landscape was dominated by parish churches and towering cathedrals which were the sites of local graveyards. The faithful were challenged to so live that in death their hope and confidence in the resurrection and eternal life might glorify God. Death was surrounded by familiar communal rituals and symbols of comfort and hope. It was sad, to be sure, but not terrifying and hopeless.

I am not suggesting there is any merit in morbid preoccupation with death (and yes, the church of the middle ages did go a bit overboard with that). But I do believe that our persistent denial of death robs us of much joy, comfort and hope that comes with recognizing and accepting it for what it is: the end of a mysterious and wonderful gift that we have been given, namely, life. Part of what makes life precious is the knowledge that it is finite. Much of what makes life meaningful is the recognition that it is brief and what we choose to do with each minute of it matters. It will matter in the end how compassionately we have treated one another, especially those among us regarded as “the least.” Eternal life does not begin after death, but long before it. Eternal life, it turns out, is life lived in communion with Jesus and his devotion to the gentle reign of God. So the question is, how much of the life you have lived today is “eternal”? How much of it matters from the standpoint of God’s reign? Would your death today witness to a life that has been lived eternally?

Here is a poem by George Herbert inviting us to think differently about death.


Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
Or ten years hence,
After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did find
The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
Into thy face,
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at Doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. George Herbert (1593 –1633) was a Welsh-born poet, orator, and priest of the Church of England. He was born into a wealthy family and raised in England. He was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge where he went with the intention of becoming a priest. Instead, he became the University’s Public Orator. His skill attracted the attention of King James I through whose patronage he entered the Parliament of England. There he served for about a year. Following the death of King James I, Herbert gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his life as the rector of a small parish in Salisbury. You can read more about George Herbert and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

President Activates DPA for Production of Tanning Salons as Poisonings by Ingestion of Household Cleansers Spike

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source imageThe White House announced today that President Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act for the mass production of tanning salons to treat corona virus infection. Presidential press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters today that the president is becoming increasingly impatient with the slow pace of progress toward developing treatments and vaccines for covid-19.  “The president believes we can substantially cure covid-19 patients if we simply expose them to high levels of ultraviolet radiation” said McEnany. She went on to explain that the administration has determined that far too much taxpayer money has been wasted on equipment such as respiratory ventilators, masks and field hospitals. “If we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, we can kill the virus without drugs, hospital beds, oxygen or any of the other expensive gadgets these state governors keep asking for. All we need is tanning salons.” McEnany pointed out that Florida has already put this strategy into practice merely by opening its beaches. “All they have to do now is take all the sunblock off the shelves.”

Earlier today in one of his many press briefings relative to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump advocated the use of ultraviolet light as well as common cleaning agents for the treatment of covid-19 patients. “Look,” he told reporters, “this isn’t rocket science. We know bleach kills the virus on contact. So all we need to do is get the bleach inside whoever is infected. We have the cure right under the kitchen sink. So why are we paying all these clowns in white coats?”

The president’s remarks were met with skepticism by most Democrats and outright criticism by medical experts throughout the country. Though the Ghost has reached out to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for comment, no reply has been received to date. We also attempted to interview NIAID Director Anthony Fauci. Our reporters pursued the doctor into the men’s lavatory of the press room but could not locate him. Our investigators reported, however, that some violent head banking was heard from within one of the stalls along with words to the effect of “I hate my f@#$ing job!”

Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has reported a steep increase in cases of domestic poisoning over the last twenty-four hours that appears to have been caused by ingestion of household cleaning products. “We are monitoring the situation closely and trying to get a handle on the demographics involved,” said CDC Director Robert Ray Redfield Jr. “At this time, it appears to be primarily a “red state” phenomenon.”

Note: The CDC wishes to emphasize that it is an extremely bad idea to ingest soap, bleach and other household cleaning materials.


FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Meeting Jesus on the Road


Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Prayer of the Day: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24:21.

“But we had hoped….” There are so many tragic endings to this sentence. We had hoped this treatment would finally arrest Mom’s cancer. We had hoped that this time the pregnancy would take. We had hoped that rehab would finally put our son on the path to recovery from addiction. Our gospel places us in the company of two people whose hopes for Jesus, for Israel and for the future of creation have been dashed. Though the scriptures do not tell us why these two disciples were going to Emmaus, I strongly suspect that they were on their way back home. In any event, it is obvious from their remarks that they had given up on Jesus. They were done with the reign of God Jesus proclaimed and ready to put the whole sad affair behind them.

I strongly suspect that, for Lutheran preachers anyway, the emphasis on our gospel reading will fall upon verse 35 wherein the two disciples, returning from their walk to Emmaus, tell those remaining in Jerusalem how Jesus revealed himself to them in the “breaking of the bread.” We Lutherans are pretty emphatic about the “real” presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine. And that for good reason. For Martin Luther, the true presence of Jesus in Holy Communion was an inescapable corollary of justification by faith. The availability in the sacrament of forgiveness for sin and the promise of eternal life depends not on the worthiness, faith or understanding of the recipient, but on God’s promise to be present in a redemptive way. Faith is not a requirement for the efficacy of the sacrament. To the contrary, the sacrament generates and sustains faith.

These days, however, we are not breaking bread together as a gathered community. Our posture is more that of the disciples on the road with their dashed hopes than the disciples at the table recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That isn’t a comfortable place for Lutheran believers like me. This discomfort has led many of my colleagues to seek ways of celebrating Holy Communion “virtually” on line, live or by way of prerecorded liturgies. I don’t want to engage in arguments over the legitimacy of these efforts. But I have to wonder whether they do not reflect, at least in part, a diminished understanding of the real presence of Jesus. Jesus was no less present to the disciples on the road where they failed to recognize him than he was at the table where they did. The sacrament is not a commodity we need to get our hands on in order for Jesus to be present for us. It is rather a gift through which that saving presence is mediated in a way that nourishes and strengthens the community of believers.

“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Luke 24:15.

It is not my intent to minimize or discount the importance of the sacraments for the life of the church. But I think we need to be reminded that, even as we are prevented at this time from seeking Jesus through these means of grace, Jesus never stops seeking us. He meets us on the road, even when we are separated from the rest of the community, even when we have given up and are moving away from him. Jesus seeks us even when we are not looking from him. Can we recognize this time of separation from our sanctuaries as an opportunity to encounter Jesus on the road? Can we see this time of “fasting” from Holy Communion as an opportunity to sharpen our awareness of Jesus’ presence in our day to day lives? Is this a time for discovering holiness in places where it has always been, but our eyes have been kept from recognizing it? It may be that Jesus is walking with us even now-and we just haven’t seen him yet.

Here is a poem by Elizabeth Bajjalieh who met God “on the road.”

I Met God on a Train Last Week

Bumbling along
As the night sky rose like fire
And the iron angels
Stuck staccato like twigs on the ground
Propped up, reaching out to the masses

And I was on the train
With a man I’d never met
And his brother, wailing to the side

My heart was a rock
Falling through my chest
And they spoke to me
With malt liquor
Singing from their tongues

We spoke
Of God
Of writing
Of Love
And of loss

And he spoke of Hope
And he told me
To hold on
As bittersweet pills
Dissolve in the pit of my gut

He told me
To hold on

These were not the words
I was ready to hear
From slurred strangers on the train

But to speak of God
With a man
Who preached from a pulpit
Of worn plastic CTA seats
Is the closest
I have ever been
To a revelation
Amongst rocks
Amongst sand
Amongst water
Amongst twigs
And iron angels

Source: Friends journal, January 27, 2020. (c. 2020 by Elizabeth Bajjalieh) Elizabeth Bajjaleih is the Interim Advocacy Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. She is a graduate of Loyola University in Chicago and has a long history of social service, including advocacy for LJBTQ rights and promotion of peaceful and just resolutions to conflicts in the middle east. She currently lives in Palatine, Illinois.

Hey Republicans: So you want me to die for the Economy?

Recently, our Dear Leader admonished us that “we cannot let the cure [for the Covid-19 pandemic] become worse than the disease,” meaning that we can’t allow trivial concerns about human life jam the wheels of American commerce. Texas Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has suggested that he and other grandparents should be willing to risk their health and even lives in order for the United States to “get back to work” amid the pandemic. Indiana congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, told a radio-show host that it’s Congress’s job to sit Americans down and explain to them that dying in a pandemic isn’t as bad as the havoc said pandemic is wreaking on the economy. “We are going to have to look Americans in the eye and say, ‘We are making the best decisions for the most Americans possible…And the answer to that is unequivocally to get Americans back to work, to get Americans back to their businesses.” Meanwhile, in several cities throughout the country people are flooding the streets in outright violation of social distancing orders to demonstrate that no government and no risk to anyone else’s life is going to interfere with their doing whatever the hell they want to do-all with the encouragement of your beloved Dear Leader.

Hey, you all might be right. For my own part, I’m OK with giving my life for the greater good of the nation. If you tell me it’s my patriotic duty to fall on my sword for the future economic well-being of my grandchildren, who am I to flee from this solemn duty? It’s not as though I have an excuse for shirking my civic obligations like, you know, bone spurs. What’s more, I’ve had a good life these last sixty-four years with few regrets. Sure, I’d like to live a bit longer, but who doesn’t? Everybody’s life ends sometime, and I have to admit that dying in a pandemic is no worse and a good deal better than a lot of other ways I can imagine. Being retired, I’m not contributing much to the economy anymore so it’s obviously in the public interest that I expire before becoming eligible for Medicare and Social Security.

But I think if you are going to “look Americans in the eye,” and ask us to make the ultimate sacrifice, you should be honest enough to tell us the whole truth about the size of that sacrifice and how the sacrificial burden will be distributed. You should tell the American people that “opening America up for business again”  while this pandemic is peaking isn’t just a matter of vacating nursing home beds and ridding the country of usless old codgers like me. You should tell the public that you are also putting at risk 2.25 million people with Type I diabetes, like my thirty year old daughter. You will be putting at risk 1.8 million cancer patients whose immune systems are compromised by the treatments they are receiving. Not that it should matter, but sixteen thousand of those patients are children. You should be clear that you are also offering up the safety of 1.5 million Americans with some form of lupus whose medications suppress their immune system and make them more vulnerable to infection and less likely to recover. You should also make clear that you are offering up the 380,000 pre-mature infants born each year in the United States whose underdeveloped immune systems make them especially vulnerable to infection. The cost of prematurely “opening America up for business” will also place 6 million pregnant women at risk for injury, complications at birth including spontanious abortion and miscarriage . Not that you care one wit for these women, but I was under the impression Republicans were hell bent on making sure the unborn get born. I guess dispensing with unborn life is OK as long as it greases the wheels of commerce. Nice to know you have your priorities straight. Not that Black lives have ever mattered to you, but Black Americans, who are being infected and killed at a disproportionate rate across the country from covid-19, will be shouldering a disproportionate share of this noble sacrifice you are asking us to make.

You know full well this isn’t just a matter of finishing off those of us who are “on their last legs anyway,” to use words of a distinguished member of the Fox News brain trust. If you are calling upon the American people to sacrifice big for the economy, you should be telling them that they are not merely being asked to offer up their aged grandparents. Americans must be prepared to give up their siblings, their children, their unborn and their own health and safety.

Your call for us to sacrifice ourselves for the padding of your wallet is a big ask. Still, I am sure the American people will heed that call from their Dear Leader-except those whose grandparents mean more to them than a little more money in the bank; those who have cancer, lupus, are pregnant, have a premature child in the NICU, people of color;or  anyone who is related to anyone who has cancer, lupus, is pregnant, has a premature child in the NICU or is a person of color; or anyone who loves and cares for anyone who has cancer, lupus, is pregnant, has a premature child in the NICU or is a person of color; or anyone who thinks that they might one day have cancer, lupus, be pregnant, have a premature child in the NICU…in other words, anyone with an ounce of human decency.

With apologies to Jesus and the Evangelists, “the economy was created for human beings, not human beings for the economy.” There is a reason why “life” comes before “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Without it, the other two aren’t worth a rat’s petunia.  So yes, you can gladly have my life. But the lives of children, my grandchildren, all of the wonderful people in my life for whom infection with Covid 19 would likley result in serious injury or death? Let me put this in terms even a Republican can understand: You can have those lives for your money when you can pry them from my cold, dead fingers.

Peace with Us


Acts 2:14, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,[1] Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:19.

This Easter has seemed more like Passover to me. Rather than celebrating in a sanctuary surrounded by believers, we had our Easter celebration at home as a family. While the angel of death breathed its threats of sickness and death over all manner of media and the death statistics climbed throughout the world, we ate our meal with the hope and expectation of salvation-a life both here and in the days to come that is more than mere survival. Though alone in our home, we knew that we were recalling and reliving the same narrative shared by millions of households like our own. So though very much alone, we were far from lonely. This night was for us unlike all other nights.

Perhaps that was something like what the disciples were experiencing on that first Easter Sunday spent sheltering in place behind locked doors. Their fear was justified. Rome had few compunctions when it came to dealing with persons it considered a threat to its dominance. Jesus’ crucifixion made that quite clear. People known to have been closely associated with Jesus were wise to keep a “safe social distance” from everyone else on the street. Yet into the heart of this den of fear, Jesus appears with a massage: “Peace be with you.” Peace in the midst of mortal danger.

Peace is the antithesis of fear. Peace is the posture of a heart that rejects fear in favor of faith. And let us be clear, faith is not to be confused with foolhardy recklessness. Religious leaders who encourage their congregations to meet for worship, notwithstanding the danger of increasing the risk of infection for themselves and others, are not demonstrating faith. To the contrary, they have fallen prey to the devil’s timeless invitation to “prove their faith” by throwing themselves from the pinnacle of the temple into the hands of God’s protecting angels. Jesus rebuked that temptation and so should we.

At the same time, however, faith does not shy away from taking risks for the sake of one’s neighbor. That is why we have grocers, garbage collectors, lab technicians, nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, soldiers and ambulance drivers who are exposing themselves daily to infection by coronavirus in order to maximize safety for the rest of us. That is why several small businesses in my community are taking out loans to continue the salaries and benefits of their workers during the current shut down. Disciples of Jesus understand that caring for their neighbors, especially those considered “the least” among us, puts them at risk-and they are at peace with that.

This is indeed an age when, as poet Wendell Berry tells us, “it seems too difficult to think of the life of a man grown whole in the world, at peace and in place.” Yet that is precisely who Jesus was and is. For Jesus, his heavenly Father’s determination to redeem the world was more real than the powers intent on ruining it. He understood that eternal life, that is, living out concretely the love binding the Trinity as one and that spills like healing balm into all of creation far surpases the mere prospect of survival. Knowing Jesus is to leave behind the craven fear that sets us at each other’s throats and diminishes our common humanity. It is to be at peace.

To Think of the Life of a Man

In a time that breaks
in cutting pieces all around,
when men, voiceless
against the thing-ridden men,
set themselves on fire, it seems
too difficult and rare
to think of the life of a man
grown whole in the world,
at peace and in place.
But having thought of it
I am beyond the time
I might have sold my hands
or sold my voice and mind
to the arguments of power
that go blind against
what they would destroy.
I leave that behind.

Source: Poetry, June 1967, p. 130. Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] The term “Jews” here is better understood as the “religious leaders of Judea.” Other than Pontius Pilate and possibly the “royal official” in Chapter 3, everyone in John’s narrative is a Jew.

Resurrection in the Time of Pandemic


Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

This year Easter Sunday will fall at the apex of a pandemic the likes of which few of us have seen in our lifetimes. As we rise to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the death count from Covid-19 will likely be at its peak. The Sunday on which we usually anticipate packed sanctuaries, our churches will be empty and we will be shut up in our homes. This is a national calamity like no other. On the evening of the 9/11 attacks, we flocked to the church where we found comfort in worship, prayer and the warmth of human embraces. This national crisis compels us to stay far away from each other, avoiding human contact. The coronavirus appears to have rendered ineffective the church’s most powerful agents of healing: the Word calling us into assembly, the sacrament of our shared holy meal, the consolation of the community, the redemptive power of congregational singing and the corporate witness of the gathered people of God in a singular time and place pointing to the larger communion of saints we confess.[1]

Then again, perhaps this Easter is a lot closer to conditions on the first Easter morning. There was no church that day. The disciples were all missing in action and Matthew doesn’t tell us whether they were all together or whether they were scattered across Judea when they hid in the shadows. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew says nothing about why the two women were going to the tomb. There is no mention of bringing spices to embalm Jesus’ body. Were they going simply to weep at the graveside? Or is it possible they had an inkling the story of Jesus had not yet come to a close? Is it possible the women came to the tomb not in despair, but in hope? Is it possible they did not come that first Easter morning expecting to find a dead body? I don’t have answers to these questions. But over the years I have learned that the gospels seem more intent on evoking the right questions than giving us the right answers.

These times demand of us a faith that looks for hope in the graveyard. This year Easter comes to us, not as the triumphant conclusion to Holy Week, but as a longing for sunrise in in the middle of a Lenten nighttime that seems to have no end. For many in our midst, Easter will be the promise to which they cling as the darkness of death overtakes them. For many, Easter will be the strength required to stand at the window of an isolated ICU wing and bid a last farewell. The glib phrase that I hear again and again over numerous media, namely, “We’ll all get through this together,” rings false. No, we will not all get through this together. Some will be separated from us and we will have to find a way of going on without them.

This adds a note of urgency to the importance of preaching the promise of Easter. I am not sure we always do that as boldly as we should. Many preachers of my generation have been greatly concerned that preoccupation with eternal life will somehow divert us from addressing evils and injustices in the here and now. If we get our pie in the sweet by and by, why concern ourselves with the trials of this passing world? So the argument goes. The late Marcus Borg, a teacher and theologian I greatly respect, argued in one of his last books that Christianity is losing members and influence because its preaching and teaching are mired in antiquated language and a world view that no longer makes sense to Twenty-First Century people. “Heaven” is one of the concepts he finds unintelligible to modern thought. Borg declares that he has no need for the promise of personal resurrection from death and that “We die into God…that is all I need to know.” Speaking Christian, Borg, Marcus, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., c. 2011), p. 201.

Is that really enough? For my own part, it might be. I have lived for sixty-four happy years. That’s not particularly old by my demographic. Of course I would like to live a bit longer. But who doesn’t? I have had a long and happy marriage. I have seen my children grow up into mature, kind and productive adults. I have had two fascinating careers that have been challenging, exciting and deeply rewarding. Whatever regrets I have pale in comparison with life’s many rewards. So, yes I suppose I could simply “die into God” and be content. But what about my grandson, Parker, who lived for only a day in a PICU incubator? What about the millions of children who live for only a few years knowing little more than sickness, abuse and an aching hunger? What about all the Black Americans who knew only slavery and never got to see the inauguration of Barack Obama? For those whose last breath is a prayer of thanksgiving, dying into God might be sufficient. But for those whose final word is a cry of lament, not so much.

An episode in John Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, raises this very question. Updike’s story takes place in a state run home for the destitute elderly overseen by prefect Stephen Conner. Conner is a product of the New Deal. He believes in the inevitability of human progress through social evolution and the perfection of governmental institutions. Conner becomes engaged in a conversation among the residents about the afterlife. He shares his vision of “heaven on earth” formed in a future society where illness is overcome by advanced medicine; pollution eliminated through harnessing atomic power; and oppression defeated through the spread of democracy. Mrs. Mortis, one of the residents, asks him whether this heaven on earth will come soon enough for her to see it. Conner responds: “Not personally perhaps. But for your children, your grandchildren.”

“But not for ourselves?”

“No.” The word hung huge in the living room, the “o” a hole that let in the cold of the void.

“Well, then,” Mrs. Mortis spryly said, “to hell with it.”

Updike, John, The Poor House Fair, (c. 1958 by John Updike, pub. by Random House).

I share Mrs. Mortis’ sentiments. If we cannot say confidently to a bereaved parent that what God began in the birth of their Child God will complete and weave into the fabric of a new creation, then we don’t have much of anything worthwhile to say. If the unsatisfied longings of billions for justice, peace, freedom and life never find fulfillment in God’s future, then for too many that future will have been a cruel hoax. A robust Easter faith is not a flight from reality. There was nothing more real than the tomb to which the two Marys were drawn on that morning of our Lord’s resurrection. But I think the women sensed what the gospel goes on to tell us: the tomb is not the only reality and it’s not the last word.

The Easter proclamation is a reminder that the threat of death is finally as empty as was Jesus’ tomb. That doesn’t make dying easy or erase pain of grief. St. Paul does not tell us that death isn’t real, but he does tell us that it has lost its fatal sting. We are not told that we shouldn’t grieve. Rather, we are told not to grieve as those who have no hope. I can endure the pain of separation I am bound to feel at home on Easter Sunday because I have the joyful expectation of being together again at some point in the not too distant future with my siblings in Christ. I can endure losing the ones I love because I believe they are not lost to the God who raised Jesus from death. I can endure the end of my own life because I believe that I will remain within the communion of saints who anticipate the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. I take infinite comfort and joy from the above image of Jesus breaking death’s gates and leading Adam, Eve and all their descendants into the sunshine of a new creation. Easter is different this year. But it is still Easter. The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Here is a poem by Sister Maris Stella that preaches the resurrection with greater power than many a sermon I have heard on the topic!


from the deep sea wrack
from the green light under the sea
from the coral caves men will come back

on mountain tops where
dropped from the air
or hurled
against the world
their bones grow cold
among the old
rock-frost above the tree-line
they will rise up with the divine
breath breathed into them again
as on the first of men
Adam, newly conceived of clay
on the sixth day
God breathed even somewhere Adam will rise
opening again his eyes
on the world to find
nothing much changed but of a mind
that he was blind before
Abel, first-slain
having lain
longer in the earth than any other man
and Eve with the look of the new Eve
upon her but still Eve
they will rise up having
the terrible trumpets blown
would cry: this is doom

this is doom

who will record the innumerable horde

in hope to see
what publican will mount into a tree

what wind what weather what bird
will shout unheard
against the sound

of whole tribes and families growing up out of the ground

what earth does ever spring
is only a hindt of the thing. 

Source: Poetry, April, 1943, pp. 24-25. Sister Maris Stella (1899-1987) was born Alice Gustava Smith in Alton, Iowa. She graduated from Derham Hall High School in 1918. Two years later she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph and took the name Sister Maris Stella. Smith received her undergraduate degree from the College of St. Catherine with majors in English and music. Shortly after receiving her degree, she became a faculty member of the college. She earned her master’s degree in English at the University of Oxford. After returning from Europe she resumed her teaching role in the English Department at St. Catherine’s. She became a popular creative writing teacher as well as a poet-in-residence.

[1] Yes, of course we have Facebook streaming, U Tube and Zoom. But without wading into the morass of argument over the appropriate use of such tools for worship, let me just say that, for me, a computer screen is a lame substitute for a gathering of people who give you a face to face smile, punch your arm and slap you on the back.