The text for the sermon comes from the Epistle reading Romans 13: 8
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
Today we begin our Advent series on the Four Last Things. Today I will preach on Death. Next week Fr. Gene will preach on Judgement, followed by Fr. Mark’s sermon on Heaven and concluding with Fr. Sean’s rousing sermon on Hell.
In his poem, Aubade, Philip Larkin wrote,
I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark. I stare.
In time the curtain-edges grow light.
Till then I see what is always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thoughts impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation; yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and terrify.
Such a world view is so earth bound, materialistic and hopeless. More often our avoidance of death in our materialistic culture is often expressed in Hollywood movies and television. The hero and heroine defy death effortlessly, jumping off tall buildings or out of fast moving cars, while fighting off hordes of armed adversaries with their bare hands, as they walk into the sunset; smiling though, perhaps a bit dirty and must up hair.
Even in the more serious and reflective aspects of our culture we shrink away from the consideration of death.And this is no truer than for much of the church today in our American culture, where funerals have been replaced with “celebrations of life,” alters and crucifixes replaced with video screens depicting endless scenes of chirping birds, billowing of clouds and sunlight, masking reality with banality.
Yes, Jesus most certainly is our loving shepherd. He leaves the 99 sheep to find the one lost lamb. He heals our broken lives and loved us enough to die for our sins. He is all that but more than that He is, thankfully, also our judge. In our culture, the denial and avoidance of death, of contemplating, reading and talking about it will diminish our Christian world view. We are creatures of the earth, but we are also creatures of spirit who have been given an eternal future. Death is part of our future, our last enemy, and will be so till the second coming of Christ.
When I was the paster of Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church I walked through the cemetery every day to get to my office. Founded in 1756, by Scots-Irish settlers, the oldest seventy five or so graves were on the front lawn. You had to pass them or go around them to get inside the building.
The world in which these Scots-Irish Christians lived was harsh and unforgiving. The reality of death biting at their heals from the day they were born. Only a handful of people (literally 5, I counted them) in the first 100 years of that church lived to be as old or older and Fr. Glenn and I. One of the newer graves on the front lawn, from the early 1800s, stood out. The man’s name, birth and death dates (he just made it to 60) were followed by these words,
“As you are now so once was I,
and as I am now
you must be,
prepare thyself to follow me.”
Initially this inscription could seem morbid and morose. But in his time he was being a heavenly minded optimist. Pay attention to your life, live it well so you will be ready, as ready as you can to meet your great Shepherd and Judge. What does this preparation look like?
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another; for he that loves another has fulfilled the law.”
This truth every Sunday when the Celebrant of the Mass declares, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all they soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On the two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Paul was concerned that the Christians in Rome knew how to live out their Christian faith, to love others as Jesus first loved them. He wanted the best for them in their small churches, the best being lives lived together for the common good so completely that non believers would come to faith through their witness. Paul wanted them to be law abiding subjects of Imperial Rome, and top known as good neighbors on their streets. Such love is subversive, it will change everything around it.
To love this way requires one to fully engaged with all of ones human faculties, engaging those five theological imperatives Fr. Glenn is forever pointing us to. Preparing for our death is summed up in this, “Be loving.”
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Love is not an emotion which “happens” to us. It is not something over which we have no control. Love, the love of which Paul speaks, rooted in a conscious act of the will, my active participation on behalf of the welfare of others. Doing what is beneficial and not harmful.In other words, exercising my will to love others as God, the Blessed Trinity, first loved me.
Every human being is my neighbor whether I like them or not, whether I agree with their politics and world view or not, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.
Preparing for death requires an attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible and loving life.
Imagine for a moment Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was a report of an actual historic event, which actually it was since He is “The Good Samaritan,” but suppose he was talking about a Jewish victim of a mugging.
The victim, a law abiding Jewish man, is left beaten, robbed and naked in the gutter on the side of the road. The Jewish priest and scribe walk past their fellow Jew. Then comes the Samaritan, whose social standing with the victim lying there is less than that of a dog, a half breed, not !00% human person he would never sit down with to break bread. It was the Samaritan who was moved by love, who stood on the side of the road and then walked over, stooped down and attended to his Jewish neighbor’s need.
Owe no man anything, but to love one another, for he that liveth another hath fulfilled the law.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.