I have been thinking about death a lot lately. Not that I plan to die anytime soon but given my line of work it is inevitable. I spend my days, or at least part of my days, delving in theology and the study of the Bible which more often than not involves the afterlife and eternity. Questions about death and life after death are common for ministers to be asked. In addition, as a Chaplain, I have to be prepared for the inevitable death among the Soldiers I serve. I have to be ready to counsel family and other Soldiers as well as conduct memorial services. It is just part of the job.
On top of that, I have been rereading the Harry Potter series which deals with good, evil, and death on an increasing level as you go through the series. In fact, the scripture verses for today’s sermon come in part from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yes, there is scripture in Harry Potter. In case you are curious, the Matthew text can be found on the grave of Dumbledore’s mother and sister and the 1 Corinthians text can be found on Harry’s parent’s graves. Have no clue who they are – just hang on a moment or two. So I read the books and something occurred to me this week. In fact, a sermon began to develop from the close of the book and I want to share with you this morning two different stories of death and then in light of these scriptures, what lessons we can take for living but more on that in just a minute.
Last but not least, I have been thinking about death lately because tomorrow is my birthday and I am getting a bit older. I once considered myself old until I reached this age! One’s mortality always seems to come to the surface around a birthday.
So back to Harry Potter.
The first story involves Albus Dumbledore – the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You see in his early life, he desired the three Deathly Hallows more than anything else he could imagine. These 3 things – the elder wand, the invisibility cloak, and the resurrection stone, when united, would make someone the master of Death and Dumbledore sought them with all of his energy, time, and resources. Rather than store his treasures in heaven, Dumbledore sought to be the master of death by seeking earthly treasure and the inevitable result was death – not his death but his sister’s death. He chose poorly.
Then we have Harry Potter who also finds himself in possession of the Deathly Hallows but there is a big difference. You see, he doesn’t want to be the master of death – he wants to save his friends and so he uses the Deathly Hallows to face He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and give his life in their place. Sorry for the spoilers for those who haven’t read the books or seen the movies but yes Harry dies. It is a noble death – the kind that Jesus refers to as one of the greatest things you can do for another. Harry realized that his treasure was not on earth but somewhere else and this is what leads him to lay down his life for others. He chose wisely.
So what lessons can we take from these stories? Well, the obvious is that Christians have to be poor and miserable because we cannot store things up on earth, right? I don’t think so. I don’t think that is what this scripture is saying because frankly, if we did, there would be very few Christians in the world because who wants to be miserable the entire life? I have a few aunts who may fit this category but most people don’t. I believe most people would prefer to be a little comfortable. No, I think scripture, and in light of our gospel today, is telling us that it is okay to have things, it is okay to have a car, a house, a savings account, and even air conditioning but we can’t let those things rule our life. We can’t spend a lifetime pursuing those things because when we do, death wins. When a person is so consumed by treasure that he or she will do everything and anything to get treasure, all that waits is an empty life followed by death. My New Testament professor from seminary, Mitzi Minor, whom I do quote often, puts it better than I could when she says that we all know people who are breathing but not really living. That is the first lesson, pursuing treasures on earth leads us to be merely breathing and not living life abundantly.
The second scripture is more interesting to me. You see, death still takes us because God has not yet fully destroyed death. We all will die but we know there is something else on the other side. William Penn said: “For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.” I think we all help destroy death when we share the gospel with someone. I think we all help death die when we live rather than just breathe. And there is where panic sets in because people often dread having to share the gospel with someone else. It makes us uncomfortable, okay at least it makes me uncomfortable to think about walking up to someone and opening my Bible and sharing the Good News, but it shouldn’t because there are other ways to share the gospel. You see, if we, as Harry did, lay down our lives for our friends so they might live, we are sharing the gospel. If we offer a smile to someone on the street rather than look down or look away, we are sharing the gospel. If we offer a hug or a kind word to someone during a bad day, we are sharing the gospel. If we do a random act of kindness with no desire for recognition, we are sharing the gospel. I am not saying that sharing the gospel and offering to pray the “sinner’s prayer” is not important; what I am saying is that when we live our life abundantly in spite of death, we are sharing the gospel. When we live in spite of death, we are storing our treasures in heaven and we are serving God because we are living. It more than simply coming to church for an hour on Sundays. It is more than professing to be a Christian. It is living abundantly and fully and appreciating the life God has given us! Mother Teresa said it even better: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People who really want help may attack you if you help them. Help them anyway. Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt. Give the world your best anyway.” In other words live and live life fully!
I have been thinking about death a lot lately but not out of fear or a sense of panic. I have been thinking about death in terms of defeating death – that is not avoiding it but living abundantly so when it comes, I have no regrets and death takes nothing from me. I believe this is our challenge as Christians – to live so death takes nothing from us. Let’s stop merely breathing and start living! Amen.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
A reading from 1 Corinthians 13 (CEB):
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever. Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.
In this chapter of the Bible, which is often misunderstood, Paul is trying to express that spiritual gifts are secondary to love. He emphasizes that the need for such gifts will soon come to an end, when Christ comes again. Ultimately, Paul is emphasizing the need for more Christlike love.
I thought about how I have forgotten the important things, like God’s love and the love that I need to give people. How many times have the wrong things gotten in the way of love?
I have been blessed with many people in my life who show the Christlike love mentioned in this Bible verse. These are the people who stand by your side when you feel like the world is shutting you out. They come in many different forms – family members, friends, spouses, etc. You know when you have this kind of love from someone.
People who give this kind of love don’t look at your past, your mistakes or your shortcomings. They love you no matter what.
Dear Lord, we ask for your peace that passes all understanding to come to everyone this year. Use this time to draw us to you, and give us much grace today and every day as we learn to trust not in our own understanding but to trust in you. Help us to let go of all the anger and frustration.
Lord, you make all things work if we let you. Help us to just surrender all this to you and fill us with a knowledge of your love and grace and assurance that you will guide us today and in the days to come. Help us to not fear tomorrow but rather look with anticipation to the future. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful. I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything. Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, and yet God will do away with both. The body isn’t for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. God has raised the Lord and will raise us through his power. Don’t you know that your bodies are parts of Christ? So then, should I take parts of Christ and make them a part of someone who is sleeping around? No way! Don’t you know that anyone who is joined to someone who is sleeping around is one body with that person? The scripture says, The two will become one flesh.The one who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. Avoid sexual immorality! Every sin that a person can do is committed outside the body, except those who engage in sexual immorality commit sin against their own bodies. Or don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves? You have been bought and paid for, so honor God with your body. -1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (CEB)
Our lives may be ordered by commitments to many different things: career, wealth, power, reputation, sex, nation, church, tribe, or ethnic group. But we are not meant only for these things. We are not fitted to live only for these things. These things, important as they are, need to be fitted into a broader context. They need to be put into their proper places. Indeed, when we are oriented toward these things alone, when our attitude and disposition is not adjusted by an appreciation for and loyalty to some greater and grander reality, we become skewed and enslaved. Then we do things that are neither beneficial nor helpful.
Paul’s teachings remind today’s churches that the body and sex are good and that what we do with them matters. To be made as physical and sexual beings is to be given a powerful means of finding physical and spiritual union with other beings. However, this goodness and power also give us a profound responsibility to live in our bodies and express our sexuality in ways that glorify God and build up our communities. What might it mean for us to glorify God with our bodies, especially in the expression of our sexuality? What might it mean to think of our bodies as belonging to Christ and of sexual acts as done with Christ and to Christ?
Yesterday, I took some time to stop and reflect on the things that I am thankful for. There are so many people and yes even things that I am thankful but they all come from God. Everything in my life in my life is a blessing from God and yesterday was a day to stop and reflect on that. Some things I was especially thankful for yesterday included being home for the first time in two months, sharing Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, and being able to share the meal in peace thanks to the sacrifice of our military.
I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. -1 Corinthians 4:4-6 (CEB)
I have made a bigger effort to thank God each day for something, anything, to look for the positive in each day and to seek it out. If we stop and look at our day and our lives, we will find we have more to be thankful for than we realize. It is that simple. We can receive everything with thanksgiving but as a culture, we seem to have lost this idea.
Everything that has been created by God is good, and nothing that is received with thanksgiving should be rejected. These things are made holy by God’s word and prayer. -1 Timothy 4:4-5 (CEB)
Lately, I have been observing people and I have noticed that there is a trend of ungratefulness in our world. I was recently in multiple airports while I was traveling (and yes I was a bit conspicuous since I was in uniform) but I had the chance to watch how people treated each other. I did not hear many thank yous or even grateful thoughts. Instead, people were rude and even expected others to do things for them. I strive to be grateful towards others and wearing a uniform helps because I do have to remember that I represent the US Army when I am in that uniform but do I need a uniform to be grateful? Do we need a reminder as a culture to be grateful? Every person on this earth was created by God and we should be thankful not only for their service but for their lives as well.
But I will thank the LORD for his righteousness; I will sing praises to the name of the LORD Most High.-Psalm 7:17 (CEB)
But, the worse loss of Thanksgiving comes on Thanksgiving Day itself. I noticed yesterday while we were enjoying time together and celebrating God’s presence in our lives, and yes watching football, that many stores were beginning their sales later in the evening. Instead of waiting until today to encourage greed and selfishness, they were starting it on a day when we should be sharing and remembering how grateful we are.Thanksgiving Day and its traditions and meaning seem to have totally been lost somewhere between Halloween and Christmas sales. Of course, one could argue that we do not need just one day to be thankful and that is correct. We should be thankful all the time but have one day set aside to be specifically thankful is a wonderful idea. It gives us the chance to be intentionally focused on one thing and not on the anticipation of greed or counting down the days until Christmas. We need to be conscious and thankful. Let’s make an effort in the coming year to take back Thanksgiving and dedicate the day to its true purpose:
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union. -Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863
Be thankful. Be grateful. Be gracious. Be selfless.