First Fruits and Last Gifts

SJF • Proper 27c • Tobias Haller BSG
Now, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive…+

Today’s Scriptures touch our deepest fears. What does it mean to die? What does it mean to be “in the resurrection” — that strange phrase in our Gospel?

We might well seek to answer these timeless questions by asking another: What does it mean to be alive? You might think the answer is obvious. But ask a doctor what it means to be alive, and you’re likely to get a shrug in response. There was a time when the answer was easy: if your heart was beating, if there was breath in your lungs, you were alive; simple. But with advances in medical care, a heart can be restarted and kept beating for years. A ventilator can keep air moving in and out of lungs, even in the absence of anything you would recognize as “life.”

The truth is, we must look further to understand what it means to be alive. There is more to life than so many pounds of flesh, so many pints of blood, so much breath. What this something is, what life is, connects us with the world around us, far beyond the edges of our skin. Everything we do, every act we perform, makes waves in the universe like the wake of a passing ship — and who knows what effect those waves may have on other vessels, on other shores.

I’ve spoken before of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. He finds out the effect those waves had, how much he accomplished in that small hick town of Bedford Falls, without even being aware of it. When he was removed from the equation, everything about that little town changed. His one life touched so many other lives, saved lives, changed lives, changed the very shape of the town and even its name, a town that without him became hard, cruel and mean — a Potter’s Field in every sense of the word.

Every life makes many such waves, and the world is built up in the interaction and the washing of these waves.

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These matters of life and death touch on another deep question, the question of identity. What is the “me” about me; what is the “you” about you? Where is the edge of my life? Of yours? How far do the waves flow? Priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, put it this way. “I am not the part of the universe that I control completely, but I am the complete universe that I influence in part.”

This is a deep truth. When it comes down to it, we do not control even our own bodies. As Jesus said, “You can’t make even one hair of your head turn black or white.” No, we do not have full control over our bodies, and death is the final proof of that fact, universal and unavoidable.

And yet, and yet… there is that influence, that wave that flows out from each of us, and reaches… how far? George Bailey learned how far the edges of his life extended — beyond his control but not beyond his influence — when Clarence the angel-in-training showed him what a gaping hole he’d leave in the world if he’d never been born. In the most memorable scene he sees his brother Harry’s grave in the snowy, windswept cemetery. George, never having existed, didn’t save his little brother from drowning as a child — and his brother didn’t grow up to save a whole troop-ship full of soldiers, lost when their ship was struck and sunk.

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How far do the waves of one life extend? And how far away in time and space are the lives those waves touch? Isn’t that influence, that being-able-to-be, to ring like a bell and let the sound go forth, to set up waves in the ocean of the world that reach uncharted shores, isn’t that a big part of what it means to be alive, to have a life, a wonderful life?

And the really wonderful thing is that those waves continue on even after our body lies in death. Yes, they do! The sound of the bell keeps rolling on, long after the bell has stopped swinging. “Their sound has gone out into all lands,” and “they still speak.” Old suffering Job has been dead for 3,000 years, but his words were written and inscribed in a book — and those words still move us today, waves of hope beating against the shores of our hearts.

And look around you at this church. Almost everything you see here was made possible, was given and dedicated, by or for someone who is now dead. And yet they are not dead, if by death we mean complete absence and silence. Behold, they live!

Even here below they are part of our present worship through the things left behind: the sound of the church bell, the images in the windows, the font in which children continue to begin their new lives, the altar at which we celebrate the feast, and the chalices from which we drink the precious blood of our Lord and Savior: all of these things continue to tell of the glory of God, and witness to the faith of those who have gone before, whose generosity in the past continues to serve our worship in the present.

Take this humble hymn-board — given to Saint James almost 100 years ago by Admiral David B Macomb. His story is not unlike that of Harry Bailey. A navy man, he served with Commodore Perry on the first entry into Japan. At the end of his life he was Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He touched the far corners of the world.

But during the Civil War he did something even more important. During a gale off Cape Hatteras, his ship Canonicus lost control — the tiller rope snapped in the storm, and the ship began to founder. Risking his own life, he dove four times into the cold depths until he could refasten the rope to the tiller, saving the ship from the storm — and who knows how many lives he saved that day? In its own simple way, this hymn-board still guides our singing, and it as if old Admiral Macomb was joining in the song.

And each of us can do the same. Each of us can ensure that the rope stays fastened to the tiller of our lives, so that the waves continue to be felt in this place. In our present contributions, and by remembering this parish in our wills, we continue to serve even after we have died; we continue to provide for those who come after us, we touch life after life after life — we remain connected by these bonds of affection.

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There is, of course, more, much more to this than a stewardship sermon, more than me exercising my duty to remind you of the importance of making a will — as spelled out on page 445 of the Book of Common Prayer! There is much, much more to it, and it is spelled out in our Gospel, and in how that Gospel echoes the lives of so many people who knew and loved this church.

You know that we lost one such loving member of this church two weeks ago. Evelyn Balz was half a year past 100 when she died. She never married, and outlived most of her friends. She hadn’t been inside this church for years — but she never stopped being here in spirit, through her support. Her pledge envelopes came in on a regular basis — mailed in a bundle every few weeks, or given to me by her still strong hand when I would visit her at home. And her faithfulness and witness relate to what Christ tells us in the Gospel today.

It concerns the promise of the resurrection: a better promise than simply being remembered by descendants, friends and fellow worshipers after we are dead, a better promise of which Job caught a glimpse, but which came into full view in the life and death and rising of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For after life and death, there awaits us a rising to life again, a rising that will sum up and multiply all the little waves of our lives into a great wave that will tower to the sky. His one life touches all our lives, all lives, all life itself.

The Sadducees don’t understand the resurrection. All they can see are the waves you make while you are alive, waves of a particular kind: your children. To die childless, like the woman they question Jesus about, like our friend Evelyn Balz, like how many people who never marry, or who never have children, to die this way, to the Sadducees, means your life amounts to nothing: the only afterlife they believed in was the biological life of your descendants, your flesh walking in someone else’s body. You can picture the smirk as they pose their mocking question about the childless woman and her fruitless marriages; you can almost imagine the air-quotes, In “the resurrection” whose wife will she be?

But Jesus is unperturbed by their disbelief in the life of the world to come. He tells them that those who attain the resurrection no longer need to worry about begetting children to serve as posthumous waves in the world, for they have passed through death, they cannot die anymore. They will continue to make their own waves as part of that great wave of the risen life in Christ.

The children of the Spirit have become part of the new life which does not rely upon biology — the life of the flesh — but upon God, in the life of the Spirit. Those who rise to the new life join with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, living again in the strength of the living God. Those who rise to the new life live like Job, in risen bodies and with new-seeing eyes experiencing and beholding the Redeemer who lives and stands towering over the wrecks of time.

And we too will know that risen life in Christ. We have heard the good news, the proclamation that death is not the end, and we look to obtain the glory of our Lord. We have known the truth of which John Donne wrote, that “No man is an island, entire of itself.” In Christ, we are all connected, you and me and Miss Balz, and Admiral Macomb, and all who called this their parish, whose worship filled these four walls with the praise of the living God, the God of the living, not the dead who was, and who is, and who is to come, Jesus Christ, our Lord.+