Sermon for Sunday, November 10th, 2019.
There was a miniseries produced by the BBC a few years ago called “The Passing Bells.” The title was based on a line from a Wilfred Owen Poem called ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’ “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” The miniseries followed the lives of British and German soldiers during the First World War. It was a pretty good series, but whoever made the last five minutes, well God bless them. You don’t even have to watch the whole show, but if you watch the last five minutes you will see a vision that will break your heart wide open. Let me try and paint the scene for you:
It early November 1918, they last days of the First World War, the most horrific battle the world had ever seen. Millions are dead; millions of lives destroyed and families ruined. It’s the last day of the war. In a distant city, the distinguished leaders are trying to hammer out the terms of the armistice, working out the details to make it all end neatly on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Meanwhile in the trenches, men are still fighting and dying. On one side is a young British soldier that we have been following throughout the war; on the other side, his young German counterpart. They both get drawn into a one-on-one battle in no-man’s land. They are wrestling back and forth while their friends on either side watch in the distance. Just then a wire comes through that the war is over. Hostilities have ended. Only word can’t get to our two young men fighting it out between the trenches. They are each fighting for so many things: for their loved ones, for their countries and for their own lives. They are both determined and brave and strong, and in the last moments of the struggle one grabs a knife and the other his gun, and just as the knife hits its target, a trigger is pulled, and both soldiers lie dead on the ground, and the war is over.
Two bodies lay side by side in the bloody mud. But then, the camera focuses on two little red poppies growing up in front of the two dead bodies. The bodies become a blur all you can see are the poppies. And then, there is movement in the background. Our two soldiers get up and embrace each other. And then one by one you see all these other soldiers getting up, the British and the Germans and they are all standing up, the entire field, as if the director had just yelled cut and the actors were all heading home. They get up and they laugh and smile and they begin to walk off in the distance arm in arm. And the field is full of little red poppies. And then the scene changes and the poppies turn into a field of little white crosses, a war cemetery, a field of graves of young soldiers who still lie in wait for that glorious day.
I must admit, that scene turns me into a weeping mess. But it isn’t just sadness or despair that I feel; it is also hope, and joy. It’s like I feel everything at once, because whether they knew it our not, whoever made that scene created a powerful vision of my faith. When I see that field of crosses it is like I am standing in the valley of dry bones, and I can hear the words of God to the prophet Ezekiel asking “Can these bones live?” God shows Ezekiel the answer: yes. These bones can, and will, live again.
There is this crazy belief that shows up again and again in ancient scriptures; it is the belief that there will be a future day, when the dead will rise again. Not in some creepy, spooky way as ghosts or zombies, but as bodies that are given new, restored flesh; the image of all that God created them to be. No more pain or suffering. Called from their graves and called to stand before their creator. Ignorance and hatred and animosity, all gone. Nothing left but truth. People can finally see each other for what they really are.
Now you could say that this was just a nice way for the filmmakers to put a happy ending on a terrible story. You could say that the dead are just dead and that there is little or no meaning to the tragedy and struggle of human life. You could say that, plenty of people do. Plenty of people think that the only thing that matters is what happens right here and right now. But I’m not so sure.
In the Book of Job, probably one of the oldest books in the Bible, Job, who is a good and righteous man, suffers in body, mind and spirit, yet as he is suffering he has the power to say:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
You have probably heard those words from the Book of Job before, only they might sound more familiar to you in the old translation:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
Those words of Job are some of the first words we say as a part of our funeral service. Our funerals begin with the words of Jesus where he says: “I am the Resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
Then we jump right back to those words of Job, words that no doubt Jesus knew very well:
“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”
There it is: this crazy belief. Dead bodies in some distant, blessed future day, coming back to life. What a hard thing to believe. To be able to look at a field of grave markers and see young men and women getting up; pulling themselves up out of the mud, holding on to each other again and standing in the sun. Is this just some director’s idea of how to end a tragic historical drama? Is this just an ancient myth, or is there more here?
The Christian answer, is that there is more here. In our creed, we say we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The resurrection of the body. I become a puddle when I watch those soldiers getting up in the field, because for me that is a vision of my faith. When I stand in the midst of a field of crosses I want to see bodies that are about to get up and stand in the sun again. Maybe that seems hard to believe; sometimes death is more real to us than resurrection. Maybe you are afraid to believe it; because people will think you are crazy, or make fun of you for believing something so impossible as dead bodies coming back to life. Sadly, there will always be those people that are all too prepared to mock you for this crazy belief. Even people that are otherwise faithful and good will think you are crazy for thinking that the dead will rise again.
In Jesus’s day, there was a whole sect called the Sadducees, that worshipped God, but didn’t believe in the Resurrection. They made fun of Jesus for believing in everlasting life. In our gospel reading today, they are making fun of Jesus, not asking a serious question about marriage. They are making fun of his belief by asking that if a woman has been married seven times, and then dies and then rises again, who will she belong to? Jesus’s answer is priceless. He says: she will belong to God. She will belong to God. Those who are raised up on that day, will belong to God. And God will do all the sorting. God will know who belongs to him.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, and as is our custom here, we take this time to remember the men and women that have given their lives fighting for what they thought was right. We remember people who sacrificed everything for liberties that we so often take for granted. We remember them, and we should remember and give thanks for them, but we don’t do this just as citizens, we are Christians, and this is Sunday and this is Church. We need to remember them, but we need to remember them as people that gather to witness and proclaim the resurrection of the dead every week. God has not just told us, God has shown us what he is going to do with the dead in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And Christ has promised us, that he will never lose anything that belongs to him. We say it in our creed, we proclaim it at our funerals; the vision of that future day when the dead will be raised is not just the extra ending tacked onto the story, it is the story.
I am not here today, we are not here today, to just remember past tragedies and lives lost. We are not here to whitewash the pain and destruction of war and human sinfulness. We are here to give thanks to God, that human history is not going to end with soldiers lying dead in a field. Human history is going to end with God’s children standing in the sun once more and forever.