To truly live our lives, we must face the reality of death. This may sound strange, contradictory, foolish or even harsh to you. You can disagree, and that’s Ok, but I still feel in the marrow of my bones that it is true. To truly live, we must face death. I wish it were not true, because facing the reality of death is difficult and painful. I’d rather not do it. But until we face our fear of death, we won’t really live. By the end of this sermon, I hope you will at least understand or even agree with me.
There are many ways for me to make the case. I could make it through Freudian psychology, and explain how eros must overcome thanatos, how the instinct to love, nurture and create must overcome the death impulse to destroy. I could make the case through existential philosophy, and speak of how we must have the courage to be, the courage to create a life in the face of alienation and meaninglessness. When we have faced ultimate nothingness and found meaning, we are free to live fully. This all sounds rather abstract, so the case can be made through natural sciences, by observing how the seasons change. In Fall things die and we harvest, the earth lies fallow in the winter, apparently dead under the ice and snow, and then in Spring we see the green shoots and purple flowers and soon life explodes with energy all around us. Death and resurrection is all around us in the fabric of existence.
Today I will make the case another way, one that is more simple and real for me, since I just faced death at my father’s funeral. The ancient wisdom became apparent again to me as I learned more about who my father really was. Dad was not overtly very religious, but he knew much about the reality of death because he was a pilot. He wasn’t just any pilot, he was a crop duster and a flight instructor, two occupations that seem very dangerous to me.
Let me explain what a crop duster does. Imagine a bi-wing yellow and grey airplane, like one you might see at the Rhinebeck Aerodrome from the World War I era. Then imagine a mile long field of corn or soybeans, with two high power lines at each end of it. I was a flagger for him in the summers as I got older. This involved waving a bright orange flag so he knew which rows to spray and then moving down the rows with each pass. It did not take long on a calm summer evening to gather a crowd. This was better than any air show, watching Dad gracefully maneuver over the power lines, flying steady just about 10 feet off the ground, spray streaming behind him, and then at the last second pulling up to clear the wires at the other end of the field. It was a thing of beauty, his work of art.
We almost lost him when I was 13. On a hot day he hit a dead air pocket and caught his wheel on a power line and crashed. He was badly hurt, with a broken leg, ruptured spleen, a huge gash that almost took out his eye, and the crop dusting ending soon after. I was shocked because Dad was always so careful. We had flown through so many calamities, a door popping open on a landing in Lawrence, Kansas, a terrible thunderstorm that bounced us hundreds of feet at a time (I would have thrown up if I could have figured out which direction was up!). Once on take off oil splattered on our windshield because someone on the ground crew had not put the oil cap back on the engine and Dad landed the plane sticking his head out the side window to see the runway. Flying is dangerous, even for birds. (Have you ever been startled by a bird smacking into your window?)
At the funeral, a woman who was one of Dad’s thousands of students said that every spray pilot she knew was a little crazy, except Dad. But all the same, under a very calm exterior, he was a little crazy, always skating close to the edge, flirting with death. Dad was notorious as a flight instructor for giving extreme challenges for people to get their flying licenses. When you learn to drive, you hope you don’t have to parallel park, but I got a few great stories of how Dad tested people. The woman who said Dad was not crazy told this story. She thought she was ready for anything, having heard of his reputation. Near the end of the check ride, it looked like he was going to pull his favorite test. He said, “Your engine just went out, where are you going to land?” at which point he often cut the engine and make the student land, sometimes in a field. She was prepared, had already picked out her nice, safe field and was ready to glide home and get her license. Dad was impressed and praised her on being prepared and then said, “What’s wrong with this field?” and pointed almost straight down. She replied, “What is wrong with that one?” Dad then took the wheel and performed what is called a “slip” which involves rolling the plane sideways and going into a steep dive. After dropping several hundred feet and coming dangerously close to the ground, he told her to level out the plane and land.
I had a similar story. I remember Dad teaching me how to stall a plane. Knowing what to do if you stall on an approach to the runway is critical, so you don’t crash before you land. Dad took me up to a high altitude in a Piper Cub, and we spent an hour learning this move. We would fly up at a steep angle until the plan lost momentum and began to fall out of the sky. Fear automatically kicks in as you feel your stomach hit the ceiling, and the automatic response is to want to pull back on the controls and stay up in the air, but that is the exact opposite of what you need to do to survive. Dad would make me count to five slowly as we fell out of the sky, to overcome the fear of falling, and then I would push the stick and thus the nose of the plane forward into the fall, and kick the rudder pedal to the left and increase the throttle. The plane would magically level out quite nicely.
I guess I need that lesson now. Sometimes life feels like we are falling out of the sky and fear, in this case the ultimate fear of death, can grip us by the scruff of the neck. I learned the lesson so often repeated in scripture, “Be not afraid!” Point your nose into the problem and throttle up.
Just two weeks ago we heard Jesus’s words to Mary, Lazaurus’ sister, “I am the resurrection and the life, and all who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.” As much as we don’t like to think about it, we are all going to die. Easter morning prepares us to face this reality without fear. This is true not just because I believe in heaven or eternal life. I also believe Jesus’ words, “I have come that you might have abundant life.” That is my earthly hope – Abudant life! That is where the theology of the resurrection ultimately leads – we face death and its sting and find abundant life on the other side of fear.
On Easter morning, I know my job. It is to proclaim the resurrection. I hereby proclaim it to you. But do not think I am merely talking about the resuscitation of the crucified body of Jesus. I am not here to show you the nail prints in Jesus hands, for what good is his bodily resuscitation if there is nothing different about our lives? The real meaning is about the living reality of Christ among us this morning – as he said, wherever two or three are gathered in my name in the breaking of bread, there I am in the midst of them. The Risen Christ lives and reigns wherever people risk and claim abundant life. The disciples did not sit around the tomb of Jesus waiting for a better lot in the next life. They went out and proclaimed abundant life to the world, often with great courage and personal risk. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life!” I challenge you this morning to hear what comes after the AND! Life! Abundant Life! The deepest reality of the resurrection will be what you do with your life tomorrow.
Christ is Risen!