Sunday, July 1, 2018

Phil Kniss: So how does God REALLY feel?

“Death and how God feels about it”
Lamentations 3:22-26, 32-33
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24

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In my line of work, I think about death . . . a lot.
And I’ve been around death . . . a lot.
151 deaths at Park View, since I arrived almost 22 years ago,
not to mention many I was close to outside the congregation.

There are as many ways to think and feel about a death—
as there are people who have died,
multiplied by the number of people
who had a relationship with the one who died.
Every life, and how it ends,
engenders strong feelings in those who encounter it.

When it comes to emotions, I’ve seen it all,
standing in the presence of grief—
agony, anxiety, gratitude,
rage, shock, relief, regret,
deep sadness, overwhelming tenderness and love . . . 
but almost never, indifference.

Because the nature of the person’s life, 
the manner in which it ended,
and the shape of our relationship to that person,
all impact how we feel about it,
and what we think about it.

And when we think about death, we think about God.
We seek God’s presence as we confront our grief.
We seek God’s help and guidance in how to move forward.
We understand God to be with the deceased—
with them as they died,
and with them still, in the eternal dimension.

We also speculate on how God feels about the death of that person.
Makes sense.
We believe our God, the God of the Bible, is a feeling God.
God loves, suffers,
knows anger, disappointment, and tenderness
toward humans and creation.

But . . . cliches abound
when it comes to God’s feelings, thoughts, and motives,
around someone’s death.
Those cliches don’t work for me.
But I try not to pass judgment on persons 
who find it helpful to imagine, and say things like,
God wanted another angel in heaven,
or that it was God’s time to call them home,
or that it was God’s will,
or suggesting God decides when someone should die, 
and God always knows best,
so we shouldn’t question God’s timing.

I try not to pass judgment on words like that . . . 
but some days I can’t help it . . .
Today is one of those days.
Because those sentiments get something wrong about God.

God hates death.
Let me say that again, so you hear me clearly.
God hates death.
Death is not God’s doing, nor God’s will.
That is true when the one who died was in their prime of life,
and that death came suddenly, or tragically,
or unjustly at the hands of violent persons.
And it is true when the one who died
had lived a very long and full life,
and was beloved by all, and died peacefully of natural causes.

Regardless, that death was not God’s doing,
and God took no pleasure in it.

Now just saying that gives me pause.
Because, as a pastor, I don’t always see the evil present in death.
Sometimes it is truly beautiful to witness,
and to be a participant-observer
in the process of someone’s dying.
Some of my most sacred and treasured moments of ministry
have been at someone’s bedside
when they took their final breath.
More than once, I have left that space and that moment,
saying to myself, or even saying aloud to others,
“That was a good death.”

I mean that with all my heart,
but I probably need to be more precise in my words,
if I want them to be true, biblically and theologically.

I should say, that was a beautiful and good way 
for that person and their loved ones to accept, 
and even embrace the reality of death,
and to walk into and through the process of dying.
The way that they died was good.
But I should not call it a good death.

I’m parsing my words carefully here,
because of insights we get from the scripture readings for the day.

In the lectionary, the Old Testament reading for today, 
sometimes called the “First Lesson”—gives two options.
There’s a reading from Lamentations 3 for most churches,
and for churches that value and use the Apocrypha,
there’s an option to read instead 
from the Wisdom of Solomon, chs. 1 and 2.
Today, I decided we should read both.

We don’t often read from the Apocrypha,
because it’s not part of our canonical scriptures,
but there is much wisdom and inspiration found in these texts.

I was immediately struck by these words about death.
Which I’m going to repeat . . .
God did not make death, 
and God does not delight in the death of the living.
For God created all things so that they might exist; 
the generative forces of the world are wholesome, 
and there is no destructive poison in them, 
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.
For God created us for incorruption, 
and made us in the image of God’s own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, 
and those who belong to his company experience it.

Is that really true?
Is death really not of God?

I love these affirmations of God’s core purpose and nature:
God created all things to exist (i.e., not to be destroyed).
What is wholesome are the generative forces of the world,
those powers that generate things new, and things living.
The realm of destruction belongs to another world, not the earth.
God created the earth to generate and sustain life.
Righteousness is immortal (i.e., does not succumb to death).

And can it be said any clearer than this phrase?
“God created us for incorruption, made us for eternity.”
It was by the “devil’s envy” that death entered the world.

Now . . . is that just . . . off?
Is that why this book ended up in the Apocrypha and not our Bible?
Can it be trusted to be true?

How can it say, “God does not delight in the death of the living.”
when Psalm 116 declares, in our bonafide scriptures,
“Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful servants”?

I wonder if both statements might be true, 
and whether they might illuminate each other.
Because we also read this morning, from Lamentations,
something that agrees with Wisdom of Solomon:
“God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

A straight reading of that statement
(God does not willingly afflict or grieve)
tells us that affliction and grief happen in spite of God’s will.

So how does God really feel about death?
And what comfort is there for us, 
in the way we answer that question?

I think we have to go back to the basics of what we know about God.
Our baseline theological affirmation is God is love.
Love demands a genuine and voluntary relationship,
where an exchange is possible.

While God might prefer
a perfect and glorified and uninterrupted and endless life
of love and worship from us humans,
love . . . required God to give us freedom.

The book of Genesis is a story of the consequences of human free will.
(I’m talking theology here,
not talking history or biology, so don’t get lost in the weeds.)
But according to Genesis 1-3,
our freedom resulted in the fall,
and that fall permeated all creation.
It introduced death and decay—thanks to “the devil’s envy,”
so says Wisdom of Solomon.
And since the fall, we don’t transition seamlessly into the eternal,
the forces of destruction, decay, and death
are fully and inevitably present in this life.
We move toward that end with an irresistible force.
That is life in this temporal and compromised world.

It’s not quite the world as God created it,
“It was by the devil’s envy that death entered the world.”
It’s not quite the world God still dreams of,
and is on a mission to restore and re-create.
But for here, for now, the evil of death is an essential reality.

That doesn’t make death good.
But neither is it an absolute evil.
We need not fear death, or think it irredeemable.

Through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross,
and the cosmic exclamation mark of approval
that God put on Jesus’ life,
by raising him from the dead,
we need not be overcome by this evil reality called death.

Sometimes when a person dies the evil is all too evident.
It’s plain to see.
When a life is snuffed out too soon, or too violently, or too randomly;
when there are clear forces of evil at work causing death—
as in war, terrorism, humanitarian crises, mass shootings,
racial violence, domestic violence, and more—
then we have no problem naming death for what it is,
the work of the evil one.

Yet sometimes when our loved ones die,
it is quite plain to see how life wins out over death,
how even as someone passes through the portal of death,
even in that moment,
love and life and gratitude are on full display,
and we can stand around that bed
and give thanks and praise to God.
The death may even be welcomed as a blessing,
because it is better than the suffering.

Emotionally, we respond differently.
But theologically, in both those cases, we can affirm that
neither the death nor the suffering that preceded was God’s doing.
Scripture affirms that death comes from another realm.

Whether the death is an opportunity for God’s love and mercy
to be put on display and experienced in abundance,
or whether the dying is agonizing, and we rage against it—
in death, we are all still on level ground.

As soon as we start thinking of death
as sometimes good and God-initiated
and other times evil and devil-initiated,
then we get confused about God’s love and justice.
Why would God call one person home,
and not another,
when they both had the same illness?
Why would God end a good life in its prime,
and let a truly immoral person 
live to an old age and die in their sins?

In death, God is present and active and extending love, always.
But God still hates death, all death.

Any beauty and goodness in the death of God’s faithful ones,
is a result of God’s grace, 
and God’s power to redeem what is fundamentally evil,
and make something new and something good.

Those are the generative forces
we read about this morning in the Wisdom of Solomon.

Sometimes that redemption, that generative work,
is easily seen.
Sometimes it’s hidden, remains unknown to us forever in this life.

But whenever we see an impulse toward life,
know that God is generating that.
And whenever we see a push toward death or destruction,
know that “the devil’s envy” is at work.

Reminds me of one of Ray Gingerich’s signature phrases.
Ray, a former professor of mine, and probably many of you,
died a couple weeks ago.
When doing theological ethics,
when measuring our actions against God’s agenda,
Ray would ask the baseline question,
“Is it life-giving, or is it death-dealing?”

Life is of God. Death is not.
The biblical image of God’s irresistible move toward life,
is the tree of life.

The tree appears at the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden.
It’s off-limits to Adam and Eve,
especially after their sin 
of eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,
and proving they had an urge to be like God.
God limited their access to the tree,
but it remained there in the garden.

But at the very end,
in the last chapter of the book of Revelation,
the tree of life shows up again.
On the banks of the river of the water of life, the tree of life stands,
green and lush bearing fruit for all,
giving leaves for the healing of the nations,
and the water of life keeps flowing,
from the throne of God to the earth.

Eden is restored.
God’s commitment for life, and against death,
is made clear, and definitive, and eternal.
Let’s sing about it.
HWB 606 – O have you not heard of that beautiful stream

—Phil Kniss, July 1, 2018

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