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24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 32


Readings: Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
An Indian Chief named Crowfoot once proclaimed most eloquently, "A little while and I will be gone from among you, whither I cannot tell.  From nowhere we come, into nowhere we go.  What is life?  It is a flash of a firefly in the night.  It is a breath of buffalo in the wintertime.  It is a little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset." 
Those are the words of one who has pondered the meaning of life, one who has reflected on his sense of mortality and faced it with wonder and hope.  He sees death as an extension of life.  Is he not reflecting on a question that we all think about? "What happens after death?"  We all think about it, but most of us don’t talk about it.  In fact, we avoid talking about it.  We don’t even use the word.  We say that someone has passed over, or passed away, or my personal favourite, ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’. 
One thing is certain, as we travel through life, we are all confronted with the inevitability of death.  We must all face it, difficult as it may be to look at.  We fear what is beyond our experience.  A friend of mine once described it to me this way.  "It is like looking at the sun.  You look and then you look away."  It causes us to question.  It makes us uneasy and fearful.  We don't like to talk about it, even, or especially when we know someone is dying.  And yet I think perhaps the most tragically lonely way to die must be when one is unable to talk about the experience because there is no one ready to listen.  
I experienced that with my father when he was dying.  He shared with me that no one would talk about what he was experiencing.  I said that I would.  We began to talk about the whole process of dying.  Just then my sister, a nurse by profession, entered the room.  She immediately changed the subject.  He said to me, “See! I told you.”  I let him know that our conversation wasn’t over.  It was some of the best sharing I ever had with him. 
As we celebrate the Feast of All Soul's and Remembrance Sunday, that question about what happens after death comes to the forefront.  What we really want to know is what is life all about?  What has happened to those I love who have gone before?  How can I walk in paths that lead to life, now and eternally?  What is my place in the whole scheme of things?  Such questions are important, in fact, basic to our existence.  It is probably the most universal question known to humanity.  People of all ages and in every culture ask it.  If you question whether or not it is relevant to the average person, you need only consider the number of books that have been written about near death experience and about the afterlife. 
It is a universal question because death touches each one of us.  How is it possible to wipe away our first childhood experience of death?  How can we forget when it invades our family circle taking away one we love?  As we approach Remembrance Day, how can we forget the obscenity of war with the death and destruction it causes? I find it especially poignant as we hear of more and more casualities of the war in Afghanistan. We have a whole new generation of Veterans to remind us of those who have died serving their country.  
The questions arise from the uncertainty of the world in which we live, a world where war and violence still exist, where people die unnecessarily.  But I wonder if the real questions are the deeper existential issues, the issues with which philosophers have grappled throughout the ages.  "Why are we here?"  "What is life all about?"  "Is there purpose to our existence?"  Hopefully an underlying concern is "How should I live my life?"  Many want to have reassurance.  "I'm not certain I can buy into this religious stuff,” they seem to be saying, “but ... just the same, I want to cover all the bases.  How can I make sure about what is to come?  That I'm in on it?"  This is all part of what we are doing today as we remember those dear to us who have died and as we remember those who have died in war.  I see it reflected in the readings for today. 
The exiles returning from Babylon certainly questioned their existence.  They come back to find total destruction; Jerusalem has been turned to rubble.  They begin the task of rebuilding the city.  Yet it is a city that most of them have never seen before.  They have lived their whole lives in exile, dreaming for the day they would be ‘home’ yet knowing nothing of that place.  They have no memory of its former glory.   Not only that, it is a period of terrible drought.  Money and resources are in short supply.  The constant barrage from enemies hampers progress.  They question their very existence.  The job grinds to a halt.  Through it all, the prophet Haggai maintains his sense of vision of what is possible if they trust God.  He assures them that they are not alone, that God is with them as they persevere.  Of course, his prophecy did come true.  The temple in Jerusalem was restored even beyond its former glory.  It became a true memorial to those who were not able to return. 
Paul has a similar situation with the people of Thessalonica.  Life has been difficult for them.  It is not a temple that they need to build, but a community of faith.  Rumours about the end times abound. Such rumours are always frightening.  They cause us to examine the fragility of our lives.  They remind us that death comes to all of us.  For these early Christians there is always a sense of hope, for they have been taught that before the end times come, Jesus will return. The hope keeps coming to them that they will be spared death through some special intervention; Christ will return during their lifetime.  They look for miracles.  They look for an end to the misery and hardship around them.  Yet time passes.  Hope begins to dwindle; the rumours become more prevalent.  Paul reminds them that God has chosen them, that they are part of God's purpose.  It is a reassurance and also a challenge as they come to terms with their part in God's plan of salvation.   
The Gospel begins with an argument about the resurrection.  Although the intention of the Sadducees is to entrap Jesus, concern with the afterlife is certainly behind their question.  They did not believe in the resurrection.  If you don't believe that there is anything to look forward to after this life, then those deep concerns about what does happen become even greater.  And so they ask that convoluted question about whose wife the woman will be in the afterlife.  Despite its underlying agenda, Jesus answers it in a very pastoral way.  What he says in effect is that all life consists in friendship with God.  Nothing less is worthy of the name of life.  Death in no way severs that relationship.  It merely puts an end to physical existence.  Relationship is eternal.  People may lose their friend by death, but not God.  It ends with a wonderful affirmation. 
“He is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” What reassuring words those are! Christ involves himself in human life.  He offers an eternal quality of life, not a quality that begins after death, but one that carries us through all of life.  It begins when we look at life through our Lord’s eyes, when we try to reflect in our lives what we see in his, when we see how his birth, life, death and resurrection offer us a lens through which we come to see meaning in our human experience. 
Today we remember those who have died, but are alive in Christ.  We celebrate their lives of faith.  We remember everything in which they were great.  I invite you if you have not already done so to prayerfully light a candle as a memorial for those who have died having touched your life.  On this Remembrance Sunday let us lift up also those who died in the great wars and those who continue to die in service to their country.  Let it be more than just words.  Let us be mindful of our need to be advocates for peace and justice everywhere and for all people. 
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