504) Death at Work / A Funeral Sermon

    The rapid progression of Evelyn’s disease shocked everyone who heard of it.  First, she wasn’t feeling well, and then she didn’t have an appetite.  Then, her skin turned a little yellow, and the doctor was called.  Test were taken, but even before the results were in, she had to be taken into the hospital by ambulance.  Then, there was the news that it could be life-threatening; and the next day came the word that nothing more could be done.  And then Evelyn died.
     And the main question everyone had during all of this, was, “What is wrong?  What is causing this rapid loss of health and life?”  For a long time, there was no answer– even from all of the very best specialists at a very good hospital.  The doctors knew from the start that the liver was not functioning, but the problem was figuring out why.  One by one, all the most likely causes were eliminated:  it wasn’t cancer, it wasn’t hepatitis A,B, or C, there didn’t seem to be any blockage, and so on.  But finally the pieces of the puzzle started to come together, and it began to look like the liver failed because of a condition called “hemochromatosis.”  But by then, the deadly damage had been done, and there was no hope for Evelyn.
     The striking thing about ‘hemochromatosis’ is that Evelyn was born with it.  It is described as an “inherited disorder,” a “genetic defect,” an “inborn error in metabolism.”  It is not very common.  Less than one-percent of the population are born with it, and most of them will never even know they had the condition, and will die of something else.  But in some people, under the right circumstances, this weakness can lead to liver damage, and then liver failure, and then death.
     Hearing about all of that in the last several days, I was reminded again of an obscure little phrase in the New Testament.  In II Corinthians 4:12 Paul writes:  “So then, death is at work in us…”  Death is at work in us.  From the moment of Evelyn’s conception, her genes carried the weakness that led to her death early Tuesday morning.  In a very real way, from the very beginning, since 1925, she carried within every cell of her body that which would cause her death.
     And not only Evelyn.  I would guess even that as I say this, many of you sitting out there were reminded of something very similar in your own life or the life of someone you know.  One person inherits a tendency toward heart problems.  It is a weakness they were born with.  Others, have a lot of cancer in their family, so they inherit, from the beginning, a greater chance of getting that dreadful disease.  Others are born with an inherited tendency toward diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease, or whatever.  But in all of these, the weakness and the probability of future problems is there from the beginning.  And even if you do not inherit such a condition, you are born with a time limit on your body, and after a certain number of years, your body will start to wear out, as you well know.  We carry within ourselves the seeds of our own demise and destruction; or as Paul put it,  “death is at work in us.”  You might well wonder what it is that is already at work in you.  I have thought about that when meeting with grieving families, and hearing surprised exclamations of “he had it all these years and we never knew there was anything wrong.”  I hear that and I wonder what it is that might be going on inside of me ‘all these years’– going on right now– that will one day end my life.
     The Bible tells us that we should pay attention to these things.   Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, O Lord, and so apply our hearts to wisdom.”  Our days are indeed numbered.  Two verses early the Psalmist said:  “The length of our days is 70 years, or 80, if we have the strength.  Yet their span is but sorrow and trouble, and they pass away quickly… and we finish our days with a moan.”  In verses three and five it says, “You turn us back to dust, Oh Lord, and we are swept away in the sleep of death.”  The Bible does not hesitate to say clearly and directly what our problem is.  Death is at work in us, says Paul.  Our days are numbered, says the Psalmist. 
     But that same Bible is also as direct and as clear about the solution.  In that very same verse where Paul says “death is at work is us,” he finishes the sentence by saying that “life is also at work in us.”  And then just a few verses later he summarizes the Christian hope in some of the most wonderful verses in all of Scripture, II Corinthians 4:16-18.  I have read those verses with many folks in the hospital, where the death that is working within them has almost completed its job, and the body is about to quit functioning.  Here’s what Paul says about that:  “Therefore, we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary afflictions (now) are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
    This human body, that which we sit here with today, is an amazing piece of work.  But it is not made to last forever– not yet, anyway, not these bodies.  But as Christians we say in the Apostle’s Creed “we believe in the resurrection of the body.”  This body which we depend on for everything in this life will wear out.  There’s probably some thing or another going wrong right now in every one of us, and if nothing else, we are all aging.  So this body will wear out, or, as Paul puts it so bluntly, ‘outwardly we are wasting away.’  We know that.  We can see that.  We don’t need the Bible to tell us that.
     But what we do hear from the Bible and from no where else, is that there is more to life than what we see.  Paul tells us that not only death is at work within us, but so is life.  To believe in the promises of Jesus is to have that inner life renewed in us every day, so that when we die, we just make a little move.  We shuck off this old body and we receive a new body, and then, we go on living with God, as he sets on our feet again, in another part of his vast kingdom.  These BODIES will wear out, but WE can go on.  So Paul tells us to fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for, as he says, what is seen is only temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  And that which is unseen is what is spoken of in the story of Jesus Christ who himself died in a most awful way, but then rose from the dead, and  promised us that by believing in Him, we too will rise from the dead and live for all eternity.  That is what we do not yet see, but that is the sure and certain promise of the life to come in a place yet unseen.
     From our limited perspective Evelyn died Tuesday morning, and in a little while we will commit her earthly body to the ground.  That is what we see.  But as we do that, remember what the apostle Paul said in II Corinthians, and fix your eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  In John Chapter 14 Jesus describes what happened on Tuesday morning from a perspective that we can not see.  In the first three verses of that chapter Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in Me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I have gone on ahead to prepare a place for you.  And I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also may be where I am.”  That’s the part we don’t get to see yet, but that’s the most important thing that happened for Evelyn Tuesday morning.  Jesus came back for her and took her to that place that he had prepared for her, just as he had promised.  That is the unseen world that Paul says we should fix our eyes on; especially on days like this.  
     Although death is indeed at work within you, so also, by God’s Grace, life is at work within you, and that is an eternal life.
II Corinthians 4:12  —  …Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
Psalm 90:12  —  Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Psalm 31:24  —  Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.
Psalm 38:15  —  In Thee, O Lord, do I hope. 
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:  Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
Book of Common Prayer