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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Not The Last Word

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: faith, dead, death, crisis, palm sunday

There is a longstanding debate among preachers about the very idea of preaching on this day. It’s a debate that doesn’t fall along the usual lines that divide the church, Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic, progressive or conservative. You can find people on both sides of the question in pretty much all the corners of the church.

One view holds that of course the preacher must step in after the Passion of our Lord is recounted by all the congregation, to help the faithful make meaning of what they have just participated in. And the other view argues that there really is nothing a preacher, even a good preacher, can add to the corporate reading of the Passion and death of Jesus; the text itself should rightly have the last word.

I suppose the fact I am speaking to you might suggest to you which side of that debate your bishop is on. But you might be wrong about that, too. There is no sermon to be preached today interpreting or exploring the text you have heard more deeply; on this day of all days, that is the work the church hands to all of us.

Instead I just want to offer a few words to you about what we all have just done, and why we have just done it.

If you grew up in the church, at least any church like the one I grew up in, Palm Sunday was always the most dramatic day of the whole church year. At All Saints’ in East Lansing, Michigan, we might start out in the parking lot and parade in to the church, carrying our palms as we went. We would bring our Lenten mite boxes from home, the little cardboard box in which you’d slip a dime or a quarter every time you even thought about chocolate, and we’d be called forward during the service to use them to fill up a wooden-frame cross. 

And then, of course, the mood changed when we told the story together again. If you were a kid you might be given a speaking role —maybe you’d get to be a soldier, or a bystander, or if you were Marty Hedges in my class you’d get to be the maid. But when it was over, the whole tone was much more somber. The music was sadder, the prayers were sparse. And the mood of adults around you changed.

It may seem silly and showy to you that we do all this. It may be the one moment in the whole church year that you feel most painfully self-conscious. I can tell you that when you are the priest of a small parish, it is the single most stressful service of the whole year—because just as the reading begins, you start to wonder: Did I assign all of the parts? Will everyone remember which role is theirs? Will it all be okay?

But of course it will be okay. We are not expected to be Oberammergau here. 

The deep wisdom of the church in asking us to do this every year can be a little hard to see in all the chaos and departure from our uusal experience of church. But is deep wisdom, indeed. 

Because today is designed to get you to confront something our whole culture is designed to shield you from: The unremtting reality of our physical death. 

It is all too easy for us to be lulled into forgetting this basic fact. It is hidden from our view most of the time. Our culture celebrates youth and turns our eyes away from suffering; there is too much money at stake in selling you the fiction that you are somehow an exception to the rule.

But we shall all die. We suffer the death of loved ones; we suffer the death of relationships we have treasured. We look upon the body of someone whom life has left and we are confronted with the unsettling reality that the same will become of us.

It cannot be an accident that lately my reading list has been filled with this reminder. An essay in the New York Times three days ago by a doctor, writing about how to know when a patient is ready to hear that they are dying. A recycled article from The Atlantic magazine, a magazine I’ve written for, on the idea of the “existetial slap”—the moment terminally ill patients have of realizing that death is near. 

Or even the lovely book given to me as a gift by Archbishop Cottrell last week at the end of our time together last Saturday—a whole book of seven chapters on the tormented words of Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These are not easy things to talk about, I know. They are deeply personal, and they live somewhere deep in the core of our souls. Here in this room there are as many different ways of thinking about this as there are people. Maybe, like me, you have been at the bedsides of the dying; maybe, like me, you have been present when a life ended and death came. 

When that happens, whatever else you experience, you are profoundly aware that you are in the presence of what is holy; you are a witness to something sacred. 

This day is meant to bring all of us, you and me together, to stare the reality of our death in the face, to see it as fully and frankly as we can bear. That is the wisdom of the church. Because it is only by doing this that we will have any chance of getting the point next week, when we stand with Mary in utter confusion at the door of the empty tomb.

I am not a scientist. I cannot tell you the physical properties by which, or in spite of which, the God of all creation and all life, the God who is Jesus, accomplishes the defeat of death through resurrection. 

But what I can tell you is, it happens. And here is the outrageous claim of the faith we profess here; it will happen for each of us, too. 

Of course if it were possible to explain, if Alison or Dr. Williams or I or Bishop Curry or Archbishop Cottrell could explain it to you, we would no longer be a church; we would be laboratory, seeing if we could replicate the finding.

What we get instead is this story, this story we all take a role in again each year, in order to remind us that it is our story, too. What we get is the story of a man not just dead, but killed, executed, and left hanging and torn on a cross.

What we get is a confrontation with the inescapable truth of our physical death, a story so powerful that it demands to have the last word. What we get is this reality: we die. 

And what we get this faith; death is not the last word. Not about Jesus; and because of Jesus, not about us, either.

Nothing that God’s love touches is ever lost to death, because God’s touch is life itself. That is what is done for us by the cross. But unless we face the death, the faith we have is incomplete, less than it might be. We believe in a God greater even than death, who will never abandon us—not even in our graves. For now, as Archbishop Cottrell has written, “The important thing is the death itself. And those of us who aren’t dying yet must watch and wait.”