The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Listen, I Will Tell You A Mystery--A Sermon on Death and Hamilton

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.

Spoiler alert: everyone dies. We are a culture obsessed with death--the one thing we all have in common, the one thing we cannot control. As Americans, we spend so much of our energy, our time, and our money trying to figure out how to live longer--eat better, exercise more, drive safely, use some age-defying face cream. Some of these tactics are more reasonable than others.

In the United States, in 2016, life expectancy hit a record high. For women, it’s 81 and for men it’s 76. There are a lot of reasons for that difference, mostly to do with occupational hazards. Now, those are averages--we know a handful of people over the age of 81, so obviously it’s not a hard line. But just 100 years ago--in 1916--the average life expectancy was 49. In 1816, it was 34. In just the last 200 years, Americans have more than doubled the length of our lives.

In 2011, a biomedical gerontologist (person who studies old people), claimed that the first person to live to be 150 has already been born. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because this guy, Dr. Aubrey De Grey, also claimed that the first person to live to be 1000 will be born in the next two decades.

What he means by this is that the rate of technological advancement in biomedicine is so great that we will soon be able to prevent every degenerative condition we know of. His ideas of preventive geriatrics do not mean that once we get old and ill we will stay in a haphazard state of old and ill for 1000 years, but rather that he believes we will reach a capacity of “preventing people from getting sick as a result of old age” in the first place. We will soon be able to reach in on the molecular level to solve problems before they spread.

All this because we are afraid of death.

The world we live in is full of images of death. We see constant images of death as headlines pour out of Syria, that another bombing has killed dozens of innocent civilians. We see death every 29 hours, when an unarmed black person is killed by police in the United States. We see death as climate change results in another hurricane sweeping through Haiti, killing everyone in its path. We see death when we log on to Facebook to find a bittersweet Rest in Peace post about a friend’s grandparent. We see death all around us.

And then God comes along and swallows up death forever. God promises that, though we die, we will live. That we will not truly die, for we will be raised. Jesus comes along and says, “I am Resurrection and I am Life!”

This resurrection business is a struggle for all of us. In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we get a clue that they weren’t sold, either. That didn’t bother Paul. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” He writes. 

“We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” Remember, Paul was convinced that the second coming of Christ would be in his lifetime. That the kingdom of God was right there, just over the horizon, just out of their grasp. “Any minute now…” I can hear him saying.

Safiyah Fosua is a professor of spiritual formation at Indiana Wesleyan University, and she wrote about this resurrection skepticism: “The Corinthians were not unique in their struggle to believe in resurrection….[we] continue to have difficulty with both the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and the likelihood that believers in Christ will follow suit. God’s promise of resurrection from death confronts us with yet another promise that we cannot control, predict or understand.” [1] And if there’s anything we 21st-century Americans like, it’s control. We want to lay everything out for our best life, and never encounter anything that thwarts us. Every once in awhile, death thwarts us. Doesn’t it?

From up here, I have a wonderful view of our altar in the back, covered with beautiful photos of your loved ones, and some of mine. Thanks be to God for their lives. Thanks be to God for the ways they loved us, the ways they made our lives more fun and more full. You can tell that some of those pictures are of grandparents and other older folks, of whose lives we witnessed mostly just the end, and whose deaths kind of made sense. But there are a few photos there of young people. Middle-aged people. Those deaths, in particular, thwart us. Those deaths don’t feel right.

That’s why today is one of the best/worst feasts of the Church. Today, we look at those photos of those whom we have loved and we weep. We think about those around us who are in the process of dying, today. We think about the atrocities in the world that call death to the front of our minds without our consent. We think, for a moment, about our own eventual deaths.

I know that, like me, some of y’all are fans of the Tony-Award-Winning Musical Hamilton. It was written by a genius named Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I have been a devotee of his for nearly a decade. If you aren’t familiar, it’s about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States—fairly unusual subject matter for musical theater—and it is completely constructed of hip-hop music—also fairly unusual for musical theater. In the first act, Aaron Burr—the man who eventually kills Hamilton in a duel—sings the most beautiful, poignant song of the show. It’s called “Wait For It.”

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints
it takes and it takes and it takes
and we keep living anyway
we rise and we fall and we break and make our mistakes
and if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died
then I’m willing to wait for it 

Aaron Burr’s life was full of tragic deaths—his parents, his wife, his daughter—but he had faith. He didn’t understand the way the world worked, why he could never quite win. But he had faith. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to identify with an American Revolutionary before, but I bet you have faith. I bet that you don’t always understand why things happen the way they do. I bet you wonder a lot about why bad things happen to good people, and why not-so-good people seem to be getting ahead. I bet you wonder why people you love die, and I bet you’ve asked God to bring them back from the dead.

I am not here to tell you that that is possible. But I am here to tell you that resurrection, transformation, rejuvenation, and new life are possible. “...this promised transformation of the physical body offers hope that other transformations are also possible. The belief that flawed circumstances need not be our permanent estate is an extension of resurrection thinking. Belief in the resurrection conditions us to believe that dead [relationships] have hope, that people once imprisoned by dead works have a future, that imperfect governments and broken economies can be repaired, and that even hurricane-flooded cities or cities buried under the rubble of earthquakes are able to rise again.” [1]

None of those things will happen without work. None of those transformations are possible without faith, without hope, without prayer, without struggle, without justice. It is a mystery, as Paul wrote, how any of this resurrection business actually happens. But the good news of the Gospel, my friends, is that it does. When? We don’t know. How? We don’t know.

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

I’m willing to wait for it.

[1] Safiyah Fosua, “Proper 3” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, 261-262.

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