Sunday, July 19, 2015

Whether We Sleep or Wake: A Sermon in Memory of Rev. Melvin Stehr

From Genesis 3 through Revelation 20, this world is a tragic world. And because our lives, our psyches, were made to be responsive to the world around us, created to filter and reflect our circumstances, our lives are tragic lives in this fallen world. We know what it means to hunger and not be filled, what it means to thirst and not be quenched, what it means to yearn and not be satisfied. We experience the dreadful gap between how things ought to be and how they are, the chasm between God's design and the wispiness of our fragile life: “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14). And so, seeing the chasm in our woundedness, our sickness, and the inevitability of death stalking our every step, we respond to tragedy with grief.

Sometimes, when we're grieving, or when we see someone in the pains and passions of grief, we want to take a shortcut out of the grieving process. We want the quickest route back to sunny skies and the balmy summertime of the soul, away from the cold, cloud-choked doldrums and their dreadful drizzles of despair. We want to pave over the potholes in the road of life, pretend that smooth sailing on stormy seas is the norm. And so we invoke our array of platitudes, trying to prematurely leap from those choppy waters to terra firma.

Or sometimes, we're just so caught up in what the Bible says about the “joy of the Lord” that we can't see how the Christian life leaves any room for grief, no matter the circumstances. Just look at our hymns! “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light / and the burden of my heart rolled away, / it was there by faith I received my sight, / and now I am happy all the day” – happy, happy, happy, is it any wonder we have so little room for grief and silence? So many classic hymns have a sequence that tells the story of a believer up through a confrontation with his or her own mortality, but we excise those final stanzas when we print our hymnals. When we sing “Amazing Grace,” who even knows the lost fifth verse about “when this flesh and heart shall fail, / and mortal life shall cease”? When we sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” what about the verse: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / soon bears us all away; / we fly forgotten, as a dream / dies at the opening day”? And though it's in our hymnal, how often do we meditate on some of the closing lines of “Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me” that deal with the time “while I draw this fleeting breath, / while my eye-strings break in death”? For most of us, not so often.

Why? Because in this country, we don't do the cross well. We're drawn to dazzling light, to messages of fantastic prosperity and instant healing. American churches are full of the truncated gospel of the quick fix. We have so little space for lament and outcry; we have no time for stillness in God's presence; if it doesn't resolve, our disquiet speaks volumes. Who preaches the grittiness of Leviticus, the mournful plaints of Lamentations, the dreary outlook of Ecclesiastes, or the psalms of woe? Who would stay to listen? We want a sanitized world of emotional highs and easy plots. Underlying many American churches is the unspoken conviction that the godly life is a life that either escapes tribulation altogether or else bears it undisturbed.

That is not Christianity. That is warmed-over Stoicism in pious coating – but Seneca didn't die on the cross for you. Jesus did, and he models the godly life. And in the Gospel of John, we read how the eyes of the Word-made-flesh dripped and gushed with hot tears in pained anguish over the graveside of his best friend Lazarus, whom he loved dearly (John 11:5). Witnessing the sorrows of his sister, the wailing of her companions, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33), and he himself “began to weep” (John 11:35). If Jesus, who knew that Lazarus' death wouldn't last even a few more hours, grieved in the face of that most poignant instance of tragedy, the marring of God's creation by death's invasion, who can deny that godliness and grief are compatible after all? “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). Just so, the Apostle Paul “served the Lord with all humility and with tears” (Acts 20:19).

And so away with our platitudes, away with our shortcuts, away with our secret allegiance to prosperity preaching and our addiction to joyful noises. There is such a thing as holy lament, such a thing as sanctified suffering, such a thing as godly grief. But what is it that makes grief godly, if it can also be ungodly? The answer is hope – hope makes grief godly or ungodly, healthy or unhealthy, by its presence or absence. Paul writes to the Thessalonian believers in a time of distress to reassure them so that they “may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) – not that they won't grieve, but that they won't grieve hopelessly. Hopeful grief is not in vain: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Psalm 56:8).

Hope makes all the difference. And this hope is not wishful thinking, not an optimistic outlook, not a wistful expression of desire, like when we say, “I hope it doesn't rain today,” or, “I hope it doesn't get too hot out” – the latter hope being, alas, sorely dashed today. This hope is something else, something greater and more tangible. This hope is a faithful disposition that prioritizes God's promises over current transitory circumstances. That's what hope is. “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:26). Consider Abraham, Paul's hero of hope. Confronted with the physical reality of advanced age, God asked him to believe the impossible, the absurd, that he would yet father a son who might look upon him with his own eyes, maybe bear his mother's nose and charming smile. As far as the fertility of his own body, Abraham was “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:11-12). Staring death in the face, both then and atop Mount Moriah when asked to make a stunning sacrifice, Abraham chose to look past what his eyes saw and choose faith in “the God who gives life to the dead” (Romans 4:17). Abraham chose the hopeful faith of resurrection. An irrational faith, a faith against reason? No, say the scriptures: “Abraham reasoned that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). With reason daring to build on faith's foundation, Abraham saw hope lead him through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond.

Paul says that it's suffering that brings endurance, and endurance that builds character, and character that makes way for hope (Romans 5:3-4). Hope in God's promises emerges out of the endurance of suffering, not out of escape from suffering. Hope is not the opposite of grief, but actually is birthed through the wails of sorrow and distress, when grief is made fertile by faith. Hope is born from the psalmist's words, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6), ultimately issuing in the psalmist's relief that “the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping; the LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:8-9). But that's just it: there are two ways to grieve – fertile and infertile.

Many in this world grieve with no hope. They don't recognize that God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ, who “died and rose again” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). And in denying outright or giving no space in practice to this world-changing confession, they have to make do with hope-substitutes. Some might try to employ a universal optimism, an unfounded wistfulness that just anyone who dies must surely be in “a better place”. These are just the pirated trappings of real Christian piety, a boiled-down residue that treats heavenly life as a matter of due course and not as an astounding penultimate stage in the radical saga of God's grace bursting into the world in his Son and his Spirit. Those whose lives are hid with Christ in God really are in a better place – not because they were so good, but because Jesus was so good to them and in them (Colossians 3:3).

Or some who grieve with no hope, grieve in godless resignation. They might admit that death is the end, as it appears to the natural eye to be. They might confess that a person's story is, in a cosmic perspective, insignificant. They might concede that this proverbial “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” finally comes to a close when the heart stops beating; that its epilogue trails off as the casket and its vault are lowered into the earth; that there will be no sequel and no re-make; that “neither have they any more portion forever in anything that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6). And they might try to evade the inevitable ticking clock of their own mortality through distraction. All that's left to do in the meantime is chase after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:11). But this hopeless grief is too fearsome and vain and pointless a thing to stare in the face.

Yet one need not grieve a hopeless grief. One can grieve, but grieve not “as others do who have no hope.” Our grief can recognize that the Last Enemy has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). Our grief can recognize that the Last Enemy will be defeated and destroyed forever (1 Corinthians 15:26). Our grief can look forward in anticipation to the final victory given to us by God in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57), the victory that swallows that Last Enemy up and puts it out of sight and out of mind for all eternity (1 Corinthians 15:54). Even our grief, our lament, our sorrow, our flood of tears, can drown the shattered jaw of our Last Enemy.

But what does it look like to overcome? What does it look like to conquer death? In light of the end of the story, the Apostle John calls for “the patience of the saints,” expressed in active obedience: “They keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). We need this obedient, faithful patience – a patience expressly rooted and anchored in a God made known to us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a God who knows what it's like to mourn, even what it's like to be buried in the tomb; a God who offers himself as the “Joy of the Desolate.” Only with such obedient, faithful patience can we have this certain conviction. Only then do “we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19), a “hope in the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

Through such hope, we know the last word on human existence is not, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Not even close. Hear these words instead, recorded in the Revelation given to John: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.” Death is a curse, death is an enemy, make no mistake; but God holds its leash and uses it to precious ends, even now. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, having shown the patience of the saints, having kept the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. And the Spirit answers, “They may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

Followed by their works they go
    Where their Head had gone before,
Reconciled by grace below;
    Grace had opened mercy's door:
Justified through faith alone,
    Here they knew their sins forgiven,
Here they laid their burden down,
    Hallowed, and made fit for heaven.   (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 2:189-190)

Just twenty-four hours ago, beneath the heat of the day amidst the greenness of God's persevering earth, the Rev. Dr. Gordon R. Lewis recited the words of Revelation 14:13 in the small village of Pitman, standing at the graveside of the Rev. Melvin H. Stehr – a patient, obedient, and faithful servant of the Lord if ever I've known one. Not too many yards away, in that same hallowed ground, stands a fractured marker above the mortal remains of Melvin's great-grandmother Elizabeth Kehler, whose sixty-six years on this earth didn't last so long as Melvin's ample ninety-two. And on that slim stone slab, barely above the blades of grass, is etched a reference to that very verse. So, like his believing fathers and faithful mothers before him, we know that Melvin is blessed with rest from his labors. It may fairly be said – nor could be gainsaid – that all the way, his Savior led him. He lives on now as a blessed “upper saint / who can praise and never faint, / gazing on [God] evermore / and with flaming heart adore.” The earth has spun on its axis a mere five times since he departed to be with Christ and so gained even in the tragedy of death (Philippians 1:21-23). And while no earthly riches or titles could go where he's gone, the works God worked through him do follow him – and oh, what works! Over a century ago, the great Evangelical preacher William Yost closed his Reminiscences with these reflections:

Had I wrought upon marble, it would perish; had I worked upon brass, time would efface it; had I reared magnificent temples and splendid palaces, they would crumble into dust; but having wrought upon immortal minds and imbued them with sacred principles, with the fear of God, I have engraven upon their tablets something which time can not efface, but which will brighten to all eternity.

As an ardent preacher of the word of God and a minister of his grace, Melvin, too, engraved upon immortal minds the sacred principles that will brighten to all eternity in the lives of each man, woman, and child here today, and so many others who are not – as we should all aspire to do, all being servants of the grace of God and doers of his word. And so the epitaph that Charles Wesley wrote for Thomas Forfitt could be affixed to Melvin just as perfectly, and may we live worthily of it likewise:

Of gracious riches full and happy days,
    A Christian here concludes his glorious race;
Disciple of a meek and lowly Lord,
    He labored on and longed for his reward,
'Til, ripe for bliss, he laid his body down,
    And faithful unto death, received the crown.   (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 8:434)

What's more, those who rest from their labors now will one day return with Christ, being the first to rise: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. … For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16), being “revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). The credits have not rolled on the life of Melvin Stehr, nor Elizabeth Kehler, nor William Yost, nor any of our blessed and beloved who've died in the Lord and gone to join the church triumphant. The credits have not rolled. Only the pause button has been pressed, giving rest to them before the face of God and calling us to live, even through grief, in the suspenseful silence of the still screen. But that silence, however truly long and pained and mournful for us to whom a thousands years are a thousand years and not a day (cf. 2 Peter 3:8), lasts only until Jesus descends with the exuberant exclamation, “The pause is over; press play!” And oh, the harmony that awaits when all those stories resume and when we who remain catch up with them!

In light of God's promises, we have a sure and certain hope that shapes the patterns of our grieving. Because we have faith that “Christ died for us” and hope that “whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10), we live out this hope socially in the church. We comfort one another, we build each other up, bearing one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2), sharing our griefs and encouraging one another in bearing them: “Comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Ah, “even as also ye do” – because at Pequea as in Thessaloniki, we see many examplars of hopeful grief in the face of tragedy. Look around, and you'll see people who know how to put hope into practice.

In supporting each other, our grief does not vanish. It does not disappear in a flash of light. It does not immediately subside and restore us to the freshness of spring. But it becomes something else, something greater than itself, something holy. It becomes part of the life of Christ's body on earth, belonging to that “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). And by being made Christ's grief and one another's grief, even our grief becomes a living witness to the hope that will never, ever, ever disappoint (Romans 5:5). That hope will prove true in its time, through the patience of the saints bearing burdens together in obedience to Jesus, our faithful Lord, a Lord who “doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), a Lord who sends his Spirit of Consolation to guide the patient through times of grief and trial. And when the time has come, “may those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5) in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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