Bring Out Your Dead, Part 1

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on October 4th, 2020. The text is John 11.22-34. Sermons are meant to be heard: listen along here!

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

Intro riff: Michael and I have been going back and forth about getting this giant Home Depot skeleton. We found out it’s $300. We haven’t sunk the money into it yet, but… it’s dangerously tempting, because we know we could make some solid content with it.

Death is bigger than ever this year, literally. We have to laugh at it. Because if we don’t laugh at it, it overwhelms us, stunning us into fear, and silence, and grief. Death is one of those Big Mysteries around which it’s impossible to say anything even approaching coherence. But at least humor is honest.

It is one of my core convictions that we, as a society, as a people, whatever, need to re-learn how to encounter death as we would any other force of nature. Not as something to master, but as something sacred, something to reverence. I think that our relationship to it is dangerously out of balance, as evidenced by the way we treat end of life care, embalming, burial, and other facets of mystery as something unpleasant to out-source to professionals. 

It’s more critical than ever to encounter death and to come back into relationship with it because, when it comes down to it, Death is the one thing that every single human being in history has in common with each other. 

Since that’s the case, Death, as well as how we relate to it through our experiences of grief and our connection with those who have died and live on, can be fertile ground for beginning to enter into a posture of compassion toward those special humans we love to hate. Hang onto this.


Death is perhaps the one topic in all of theology with which I’ve engaged the most. It fascinates me. But I’m afraid to talk about it. I’m afraid to preach this series. One reason I’m antsy is that this topic is so emotionally fraught. But the bigger reason is the sense I have of pressure to say something definite about which any information can only be taken in faith, at least from this vantage point. That pressure comes from my upbringing, from the ways we were socialized in church, from the ghosts of evangelicalism past that continue to haunt me. So it’s a strange place to speak from, and very uncomfortable.

The fact is that there is nothing about death as it was talked about to me by my upbringing that I verify with actual experience. Nearly all of it has to be taken on faith. But I do have actual experience with death, and with the Dead, but the things I do have experience of are generally not within the “acceptable range of experiences,” as delineated by my Christian upbringing, or from polite materialist neo-liberal culture. Both my own experiences, and the experiences of those who have undergone near-death experiences, are legitimate. 

Some of those experiences are so strange, so uncanny, so outside-the-lines that they make me reconsider my own sanity, and they’ve required me to look outside the containers of our various orthodoxies to find language to describe them.

So I will do my best to speak from what I know, while also doing my best to invite us to interrogate deeply what it is we’ve been taught about death, the afterlife, and so on. At least a little bit. I think the reason that some of these beliefs become calcified is because, well, it’s hard and scary and vulnerable to talk about them! It’s hard and scary and vulnerable to talk about something so vast, so mysterious, so poignant, so personal as the great mystery of death. 

But vulnerability, as Saint Brene Brown tells us, is the sine qua non of real relationship. And relationships are what we need most of all in these difficult times, ripe as they are with occasion for grief, with death seeming to lurk just around the corner, if Twitter and the news are reliable sources.


The traditional view of the afterlife that I was given is this: you get one shot to get it right and accept Jesus as your lord and savior sometime between womb and tomb. Immediately upon your death, you either met Jesus at the gates of heaven for a big bro hug, or you’d meet Jesus at the gates of hell and he would full-on Hulk Hogan bodyslam you into the lake of eternal fire. Or, if you were lucky, you would get raptured before you ever had to taste death.

Lots of people think that’s what Christians have always believed. I’m sure that some of us have at some point believed something like that. I do not believe that any more. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever did.

It’s important to know that that’s not even actually the primary classical Christian teaching about the afterlife. What I’m about to tell you is probably the most important reason that knowing our own tradition as Christians is vitally important.

The classical belief was that after death, you went into some kind of purgative state: if you weren’t turned toward God, you’d kind of get stuck there, hell, and if you were, you were fast tracked through it, purgatory. That purgative power is known not just as fire: that purgative power was known to be nothing other than the experience of the unfiltered love of God. And those of us who have been changed by love in this lifetime know just how powerful of a force love can be in creating lasting change.

Now, there was some disagreement over this, but that disagreement was primarily over whether you could get stuck in that love-fire permanently or if love could eventually, after long enough in the oven, finally sway you. Some believed that some people just got stuck and were too evil to be made whole again. But some believed that ultimately everyone actually ended up on the other side of it. Some believed the most vile person could have their heart opened to love again, through Love’s insistent pursuit. 

That was actually what Christians believed: our end is love. Not all of them believed that love could eventually sway someone into healing; it wasn’t a majority opinion. But it’s there, and it’s much more complicated than what I was given growing up.


Why might that simpler view be so prevalent? Well, one, it’s simpler. But moreover I think it’s because of the snare that we all get trapped in: us-versus-them thinking. Self-justification. “We’re the good guys. We’re going to heaven. They’re the bad guys. They’re going to hell.” When an empire takes over the religion as it’s brand, that kind of thing is bound to happen.

And if we watch the way that early Christians began to talk about death, we see this pattern: Even death itself became the bad guy, the enemy, the great “not-us” of religious experience around 2500 to 1700 years ago as the largest empires the world had ever seen roared into existence. 

St. Paul writes, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Christianity’s oldest songs of triumph emerged from the height of the Roman Empire’s sprawl. And one of them sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.”

That said, consider too that Christians for those early centuries were marginalized and persecuted, put to death with capricious malevolence. Death was real, present, and potent in their world. But they were people for whom Death became a non-issue: that’s because their view of reality, afterlife included, made them people who could not be controlled by the empire. 

When you’ve robbed a tyrant of their last resort, you’ve become very dangerous to tyranny everywhere. And when death itself has lost its sting, no power on Earth could stop you from living life to its fullest, its richest, its most just and thriving, even in the midst of incalculable suffering.


So I want us to consider our beliefs about the afterlife as a tool for liberation. They are not simply fodder for theological speculation by people with too much time on their hands. Because here’s the deal: we have the ability to imagine a world that is based around the idea that even the most vile person can be made whole again through loving, insistent devotion, over the course of a lifetime, or the course of countless lifetimes. 

Imagine how that view of people might change the way we think about who we are in society. Imagine how that view of people might completely revolutionize who we understand ourselves to be as a church. Imagine who we might be able to become if we take such a simple but joyous position that erases all arbitrary boundaries of separation. 

That when it comes to death, love indeed wins. And when love wins, there is no need to fear death at all, but instead, the presence of death seasons our lives like salt and makes them all the richer, more poignant, more personal, and more eternal than anything else we could imagine.

We need that kind of vision to face the challenges of the coming decade and beyond. That’s something else that the gift of death has to offer: perspective. Because we will not enjoy the fruits of our labor in this lifetime; all we can do is to ease the suffering of whoever is to come after us.


So here’s where I want to land, a common encounter we can all hold together: Jesus facing death through tears. Jesus’ humanity really shines through here. Encountering death and reckoning with it is part of what it means to live a fully human experience.

Here’s something else to rely on: Jesus shows us that grief is good, that tears are a gift. That gift is something that modern society has robbed many of us of, especially men, who from a young age were taught not to cry. Sometimes only death is strong enough a force to break open our armour and sever the seals on our hearts that were beaten into us by the patriarchy. Sometimes only death is strong enough to break us open to love.

And the final thing that we can rely on is that we will die, and knowing that should shape how we live. Lazarus died once, and he died again; yet it is his story that is at the heart of the gospel bearing John’s name. Lazarus, I believe, was the disciple Jesus loved. And, as Lazarus’ witness shows, of all the forces that hold our life and our universe together, only love is stronger than death.

Whether you accept the gospel accounts as reliable or not, the story suggests something that I think deep down, each one of us knows on a soul level, even if every other voice in the world is shouting over it, calling it a lie. Love is stronger than death. And that’s the core of the entire Christian message. Love is stronger than death. 

And even then, death is no evil on its own. The Christian story tells us that God redeems every part of the human experience. The story tells us that even such a great terror as Death has been redeemed as the gate into which everything, from stars and planets to plants and animals to you and me, enters into resurrection. When it comes to looking at death, “You will see the glory of God if you believe.” Amen.

Traveling Mercies

I spend a lot of time in my car.

My intrepid Nissan Altima has seen many, many miles of the American countryside during its time in my care, the lion’s share of which it has suffered during my daily commute. I haven’t vacuumed the floorboards in a while so there’s a fine layer of road grit and leaf litter spangling the black upholstery abyss.

A few articles linger on my back seat–a CD wallet, a small cardboard box containing the “Insanity” workout DVDs (unused, naturally), stray mass bulletins that never found the recycling bin, and a binder from a conference I attended last summer.

The back seat of my car runs the risk of becoming that one forgotten room in the church building where the husks of summer vacation church school programs go to die. In some ways it’s like my car itself has become a church building–or at least it’s become the thing I wish a church building can be.

I’m at my most human and unguarded while driving, after all.

In the course of my commute I can run a traffic-induced gamut of emotions spanning all degrees from rage to elation depending on how the turn onto Old Bridge Road from 123 is going to go. Everyone knows about road mania in Northern Virginia–we live on the roads, we work on the roads, we rely on the roads to organize our family lives. Pedestrian-accessible? Nonsense. And not even with public transport is the stretch of highway between DC and Richmond really navigable for those poor souls without vehicular means.

So we spend hours on end in our cars, living a significant portion of our life behind the wheel–I clock at least ten to fifteen hours a week driving. It’s only natural that bits of my spirituality seep in through the cabin air filter.

I wish that I could be as ecstatically open with my feelings toward God as I am with my feelings toward the beloved child of God who–bless their heart–just cut me off in their Land Rover in the middle of a left turn. Glory! But perhaps that’s some of what the Psalmist felt when they wrote “blessed is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

But the truth is, even with an hour-long commute in one of the worst traffic areas in the country, I love to drive.

My adventures have taken me to cities and seas, to monasteries, mountains, and myriad wild, wonderful places; to truck stops and dive bars and dance clubs; to weird little antique shops in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of I-44 in Missouri that consisted of nothing but porn shops and Churches of Christ.

I’d stop on the side of the road to instagram sunsets and valleys and the accidental waterfalls that leach out where the water table hits the giant scar gouged into the earth to construct I-64 west of Lexington. Sometimes the beauty would pull a tear or several out of my eye.


When I came out I put a lot of miles on my car.

Quite unsure of what I was to do and, in hindsight, oozing shame and terror, I took off in my gold 2002 Chevy Prizm with a peeling clear coat and peeled out of the driveway.

I spent many balmy autumn Kentucky evenings driving a circuit that took me out southwest of my college town, over the Kentucky River palisades, by a Shaker community-turned-museum, around to another much more liberal college town where my first job was–I’d stop and buy liquor just to bask in irony, because I worked for a tea-totaler baptist church–back up US 27 and into Wilmore.

In my car–not church–I felt for fleeting moments as though I could get away from the things that were holding me in thrall, and that if I widened my spiral around my town enough I’d eventually run into a monastery where I could dramatically crash my car into a tree, throw a robe on, and make it into the chapel just in time for mass.

If I spent the rest of my life running, I reasoned, I’d never actually have to become a whole person. And so I ran for a solid three months.

When I finally stopped running long enough to sit still and heed the perplexed voice of God wondering aloud what the hell I thought I was doing, I kept driving. I traded the Prizm for the Altima in the following spring, during Holy Week. And I kept driving, a fresh car with new memories, playing a Beyoncé CD on repeat.

Somewhere in all that time spent in my car, my car became a church. There’s an icon of Christ the Teacher in my console and a St Benedict medal hanging from my rear-view mirror. More than once there’s been a black leather bag with a phial of God’s blood and a hunk of God’s flesh in it on the seat next to me, ever so gingerly placed (and buckled in).

In addition to giving Jesus a ride, I gave a stranger a ride too; they’re the same thing, after all. I shared meals with friends at the Parkette. I blasted dance music in parking lots. I took the Eucharist to darling people. I forgot to take the Eucharist to someone (ask me about that later). I swore like a trucker and got mad. I had long, hard conversations. I wept and I guffawed. I drove to go see a moonbow at 3AM the night before I had to preach for the first time in years. And then I packed up all the crap I could fit and drove–not ran–home to start a new job in a new field as a new person.


A car might be a means of grace. It’s not so patently ridiculous–if God becomes bread and wine to feed God’s people, if God is blowing everywhere and filling all things, then surely she can use metal and vinyl and upholstery and glass and gasoline to be a sacred space.

Whenever I had to make that long slog from my parents’ home in the DC suburbs to my college town–when I was still running, in other words–my dad would always pray for traveling mercies. In fact, dad still prays that whenever we take a trip together, or when I’m off for a trip by myself.

Maybe it wasn’t that he was praying I’d get there safely, though perhaps that was a part of it. Perhaps he prayed that I’d be able to hear the voice of God amid the road noise and Beyoncé beats.


When I mentioned packing all my crap into my car and driving home, what I failed to point out was that said trip was actually my second haul from Lexington to DC in a month’s time.

During the beginning of November last year, I wept in my Altima during a conversation when told by an administrator from my seminary that I was under disciplinary investigation by my conservagelical seminary. Someone had reported statements I had made on my blog regarding my identity and support of queer people. That same administrator–in the same breath, almost–told me that my calling and identity were sacred gifts that nobody could take from me.

Later that month I was in a Red Robin bar when I got a phone call from my dad, who was audibly shaken. My godfather had passed away. We knew Fletcher was going to pass for a while—he was in his late nineties and had lived the kind of teeming, abundant life Jesus talks about in John’s gospel—but even when one expects these things, one is never quite prepared for the lurch.

A hurried missive from the bar—I was trying to keep it together—went to my field placement mentor to ask for a bye for the following Sunday. With her blessing I went home and threw together my clericals, cassock and surplice, and some other odds and ends of clothing so I could leave first thing in the morning to make it to the funeral.

There wasn’t a lot of music on that trip; mostly road noise and a smattering of Beyoncé songs from the CD still in the dash. The next morning we sullenly dressed, piled into the car and set off on our way. Dad prayed for traveling mercies before we backed out of the driveway; between Dumfries and Fredericksburg I remember numbly saying my morning office to myself in the back seat of my dad’s hybrid, the ceiling too low for my enormous head, the plastic rectangle on my clericals digging into my throat and pulling whiskers that I hadn’t had time to trim.

I didn’t weep until the frigid Sunday afternoon when we buried Fletcher in Danville, while we were singing “In the Garden.” I remember hiding my face behind the half-sheets of paper with the lyrics on them while the guardsmen’s captain hassled the presiding pastor about the funeral taking too long.

We ate at Wendy’s later, mom, dad, and I; we didn’t say much.

Fletcher baptized me and set me on my journey, and I suspect that he’s surprised by the turns it’s taken since I was a rotund little thing in the baptismal waters. He was responsible for my dad’s meeting Christ, and in that mystical communion-of-saints way, my own. And more besides.

Fletcher was the kind of man who prayed for traveling mercies, and I suspect that he still does. And I pray to St. Fletcher sometimes, too, because he didn’t just pray for traveling mercies; he lived them.

Let God be Dead (for now)

“God, according to Luther, is found first on a cross, beaten and dead, not as a masochist but as a bearer of what is, a God who takes on our destiny of death in all its forms…God is found in the despair of the cross. God is found in our many deaths, bringing possibility out of nothingness.” – Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair
You have faced a lot of deaths this week, Soul. A combination of rejection, disappointment, and outright grief at the losses and lesions that have made this the Very Worst Holy Week Ever. And now this night God is dead.
It is okay for God to be dead. Yes, Soul,  there is an overblown Newsboys concert presently in theatres dressed up with interviews from the Duck Dynasty boys (bois?) that loudly proclaims God’s Not Dead! but in order to really call yourself Christian you have to meet the dead God. Have you met that God, Soul?
Can you look at God’s broken body, wracked with abuse and despair? Or is that too hard for you, Soul? Is our God only someone you understand when you are on the mountaintop, ignoring the piercing gaze of the monster of Death through the feeble veil of mass-marketed, glossy, high-octane saccharine joy? Or will you look at the dead God, who has entered into despair to destroy it from within?
It is comfort that God dies. Because in God’s death, God knows the despair that is winding its stitches through the sinews of your heart and body. God knows your loneliness, your brokenness, your sorrow unto death. Soul, can you enter into the passion of the despairing Christ, who despaired to rob the monster of death of its power? Can you look with awe on the one who gilt the trees with blossom and leaf, now himself pierced upon his very creation? The one for whom the earth shakes, wracked with sobs? It is here that God is lifted up and glorified in the flesh of the failed Messiah, the abandoned Teacher, hung on the tree and clothed in ragged, whispered promises of resurrection.
Soul, let yourself be crucified with God. Die with God that you may rise with God. In your darkness, in your wounds, in your ache and sehnsucht, there is God crucified, beaten, and dead, absorbing your despair as God undoes death from the inside. That is, after all, the only way to destroy the monster: from within. Do not rush the resurrection. Let God linger in the grave, sitting with you in your death. And when your death has been consumed, it will blossom forth in new life, Soul.
“In the tomb in body, in Hades in the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and seated at the right hand of the Father, you did circumscribe all things, oh Christ, yourself uncircumscribeable.”