Dust and Wonder

The First United Presbyterian Church
“Dust and Wonder”
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 12, 2019

Genesis 3:14-19
14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."
 16 To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
 17 And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Ecclesiastes 3:18-22
18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.
 19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.
 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
 21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?
 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

Psalm 139:1-18
O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
 7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
 13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
 17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
 18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you.

My grandmother can be unflinchingly honest at times. As we looked down at my grandfather in his casket, she remarked, “He doesn’t look like he’s asleep. He looks dead.”

We don’t often get this kind of honesty around death in our world today. Euphemisms for death abound. People have “passed away,” or “crossed over.” They are “no longer with us.” We hope they will “rest in peace,” or assure ourselves they have “gone to a better place.” Rarely do we take a realistic look at where they are, right now, in death.

Our avoidance of dealing with death honestly has led to much confusion in our society, and within the Christian community, about what death is, and what happens after. And so, for the remainder of this Easter season, we’ll be focusing on what scripture says, and what it means, when it talks about our Heavenly Home, the life after death.

But before we can talk about life after death, we have to talk about death itself. Bishop N.T. Wright, a biblical scholar in the Church of England, writes in his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, that “some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else.” Our understanding of death and the afterlife profoundly shapes what we think and believe about justice and compassion, about relationships and community, about every aspect of how we live and what we value here and now.

And so, it’s a wonder that churches spend so little time talking about it, teaching about it, preaching about it. For those faithful few who attend Ash Wednesday services, we may get an annual reminder of our mortality. On Easter Sunday, we hear about the resurrection of Jesus. At funerals, we may hear some rehearsed words of comfort without much specific interpretation.

Perhaps we think it morbid, or embarrassing, to talk about death. Perhaps we feel we must be humble before so great a mystery. Perhaps we don’t want to bring people down on a beautiful Sunday morning when so many people have been dragged to church for the first time in years by their mothers.

But the Church’s relative silence on the topics of death and the afterlife have led to much confusion – even among Christians – as to what we believe, and what scripture tells us, about these things. There is a prevailing belief in our society that all religions believe more or less the same thing about the afterlife, which couldn’t be more untrue. Whatever the reality may turn out to be, the Christian hope is distinctively different than that of the Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist. People hold a wide range of beliefs about the afterlife, ranging from total annihilation to reincarnation, going to some happy place to be with loved ones or merging back into the natural world. Many Christians have fused a number of these popular theories with their faith to form a diverse, vague, and confusing witness to what they believe about death and the life after. Wright concludes that, because the church has not been clear in its teaching, “most people simply don’t know what orthodox Christian belief is.”

But before we can understand what Christians believe about death and the life after, we must begin with understanding the Jewish perspective out of which Christianity emerged. Today’s scriptures reflect some of those beliefs. After Adam and Eve have defied God’s command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, their new reality is defined as “life is hard, and then you die.” The writer of Ecclesiastes, is his cynical way, says we all die like dogs, and who knows what happens after. So live it up while you can. The Hebrew scriptures also speak of the dead “sleeping with their ancestors” or “going to Sheol,” a land of the dead from which there is no return.

These perspectives are depressing at best, and terrifying at worst. But they do illustrate two important truths about death.

First, these texts tell us that death is part of what it means to be human and part of the created order. We have come from dust, and we will return to it. While God may have made us stewards of creation, and we are made in the image of God, while God has made us “a little lower than the angels,” we will die, just like every other living thing. Thinking ourselves to be any different is “vanity,” vapor, fleeting, dust in the wind.

It is the vanity of forgetting that we are dust, that we are mortal and will die just like every other living thing, that prevents us from meaningfully preparing for our death. 
Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, who has researched the art of dying well, insists that a good death involves the ability to let go. We must let go of our things, of course, but also our relationships, our identity even, to return to our dust peacefully. Accepting our mortality is the first step in letting go of all the things we cling to, all the things we hope will immortalize us – wealth, power, knowledge, achievement, reputation, influence. We must let go of all of it to honestly acknowledge that we are dust, we are part of the created order.

Nancy Duff, Professor of Christian Ethics, writes in her book Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life, that “People’s inability to talk about death means that many of them experience dying in a way diametrically opposed to what they actually want.” Because we are afraid or embarrassed or just think it impolite to discuss our mortality and death, we fail to prepare for a death that aligns with our values as Christians and as human beings. And so we end up dying in ways that are sometimes inhumane. We prolong suffering with treatments that are both painful and ineffective, that keep us from enjoying the life we have remaining. We submit to a culture of medicine whose primary goal is to prolong life at any cost because it refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of death.   

The second thing we learn from the Hebrew scriptures is that death is woven into the fabric of creation from the beginning. While many people understand death to be punishment for the sin of Adam and Eve, some biblical scholars don’t see it that way. The statement “you are dust, and to your dust you shall return,” can be interpreted as simply a statement of a fact that already existed before the fall. Pain in childbirth and tilling the earth may be punishment. But returning to the dust from which we were made is a fact. Humans were never intended to live forever like God. The name Adam is a Hebrew wordplay. The word in Hebrew for dirt or earth is “adamah.” Adam was created out of the “adamah.” Our mortality, the inevitable reality that we will return to the earth, is built into how we were created.

Death is part of what it means to be human, it is built into the created order. But that does not mean, as we so often hear, that “death is natural.” For most of us, breathing is natural. Getting out of bed in the morning is natural. Sharing life with others is natural. All of this is antithetical to death. We might say, in the theoretical sense, that “death is natural.” But when considering our own death, or the death of someone we love, it feels the opposite of natural.

Nancy Duff says that, “The Bible insists that we accept the mortality that is ours by virtue of being created human beings and not gods. Nevertheless, quite contrary to the idea that death is natural, the Bible never says that death is beautiful.” An individual death might involve moments of profound beauty, but that is not the same thing as saying death itself is beautiful or natural.

There is nothing beautiful or natural about the death of a student gunned down at school. There is nothing beautiful or natural about a child dying from malnutrition. There is nothing beautiful or natural about the death of a young mother.

We don’t accept our mortality because there is anything good about death. We accept it because we have no other option.

Rachel Held Evans, a young mother, a brilliant writer, a prophetic voice for the church, died just over a week ago, leaving behind two small children, a family who loved her dearly, many friends and colleagues, and a huge following of people who were inspired by and grateful for her words and wisdom.

Here is some of that wisdom, from her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church: “there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

Rachel Held Evans could not be cured. Her death was not natural or beautiful. It was ugly and painful and sad. But there were many people in her life who stuck around with her, anointing her pain and the pain of her loved ones, even though the outcome was not what they had hoped and prayed for.

We could ask why God didn’t cure her, why God doesn’t cure lots of people. Many of us here today would love to know why our mothers, or children, could not be with us today, why God could not cure them. Any rote answers I could give to that question would be unsatisfying.

But if Rachel Held Evans was right, and I tend to think she was right about a lot of things, the beginnings of an answer lie in the difference between curing and healing. God is in the business of healing. In individual lives, in the church, in societies, in the whole creation, God’s work is “the slow and difficult work of healing.” God entered our pain and anointed it as holy. And God sticks around, no matter the outcome.

Even in death, God’s work is healing. The Psalmist affirms that God’s healing presence is inescapable, from before we are born and even after we die. “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” We may be dust, dirt, “adamah,” but God is right there with us, “knitting us together” into what we will be. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Wherever we go after we die, God is there with us.

Once we face death as a reality, as part of our created-ness, the next thing we can say definitively as Christians is that we are not alone. There is nowhere we can go, in life or in death, that God is not there also.

While this truth existed long before the time of Jesus, as the Psalmist proclaims, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ exhibits God’s presence with us in all places and at all times in a new and profound way. Jesus came to show us who God is in the truest and most tangible way possible. Jesus is God’s assurance of the Psalmist’s faith that “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” Jesus’s death on a cross demonstrates that even when we come to the end, God is with us.

As Christians, we must be honest, and we must be clear, about death and what happens after. It shapes what we believe, and how we live. It determines how we prepare to die and to die well. It offers the world a unique and transformative hope. It allows the church to go about the “slow and difficult work of healing…to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

If we can look at death with the unflinching honesty of my grandmother, and the Hebrew people, and the preacher of Ecclesiastes, we can begin the healing process. With honesty and acceptance, we can enter the pain of those who are dying or grieving the death of a loved one. We can anoint their pain as holy, because scripture tells us it is part of our sacred humanity, part of the divine order of created things. And we can stick around, no matter the outcome, because we know that God us with us, and with the dying, and with the grieving, in all times and all places. God’s healing presence is constant and inescapable. And so we can endeavor to be the healing presence of God, the healing touch of Jesus Christ, to one another.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, says that “...New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” In the coming weeks, we will talk more about new life. But it starts in the dark. In the dark that is not dark to God, in the dark that is bright as day to God. Death is dark, but we are not alone in the dark. God is with us. And there, in the dark, is the start of new life.

To God be glory forever and ever. Amen.


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