July 24, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Revelation 22:1-7, Mark 12:18-27
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
What Happens Next
Today we’re continuing our summer sermon series “I Have Always Wanted to Know” which is made of questions from members of the congregation; thank you for these. Something we human people have in common is we harbor a deep and restless hunger to find out what happens next. Today the questions we’re considering come from this hunger: What does the Bible say happens to us at death? and What is the nature of the afterlife?
In response to this second question, the most clear and honest answer is: I don’t know. I’m not sure we’re even capable of knowing what happens after death until we die. Maybe it’s like trying to remember your own life before you were born. There is something there —vivid and holy, but I don’t really know the story of my soul before I was born, nor do I know how the story will unfold after I die.
But oh my friends, not knowing does not stop us human people from imagining! In fact, not knowing might intensify our hunger to imagine all kinds of possibilities for life beyond this life. Throughout history, across different cultures, there is a yearning among people to envision life after death.
For example, some of our most influential ideas about heaven and hell do not come from the Bible but from a fourteenth century epic poem by Dante called the Divine Comedy which describes journeying through the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
For a vivid and horrifying concept of hell, you might google “paintings by Bosch” (that’s B-O-S-C-H.) Hieronymous Bosch was a fifteenth century painter who imagined hell with graphic scenes of torture, story book scenes of monsters and devils. (If I had those images haunting my dreams, I’d need to paint them too; get them out of my subconscious into the light where I can look at them!)
Of course, these days we have memoirs from people who have survived near death experiences and written about their journeys to heaven and back. Some of these books are billed as factual; some are intended to be fantasies like the next book club book Boo by Neil Smith. All of them come from our spiritual imagination.
One popular idea says there will be a Day of Judgment with a swift sorting out —send the bad people to hell and the good people to heaven. This notion is often employed to incentivize being a good person instead of a bad person, as though it’s possible to be one and not the other.
Another idea of life beyond this life is to imagine that we are all drops of water returning to an ocean of love. Here in this life, in these bodies, you might be a single raindrop or teardrop, but one day we will return to the source of our connection with the universe.
All of these ideas are imagined, and that does not make them wrong. It also does not make them certain. What matters is our hunger for the question. Asking “What happens next?” renews our connection to those who have died. We miss the people who have gone before, and where did they go? What is it like for them…
In seeking a reliable answer, it makes sense that we would turn to scripture. What does the Bible say happens at death? But as you might expect, there are many different ideas of death described in the Bible.
We get a glimpse of one vision in the scripture we heard from Revelation. The writer describes the angel showing him the river of life flowing from the throne of God through the middle of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for healing of the nations, and nothing accursed will be found there any more, and shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river that flows from the throne of God.
Now this particular fantasy also accompanies a vision of judgment: “Let the evildoer still do evil and the righteous do right” (Revelation 22:11). Even with its swift sorting out, this book of wild visions reminds us that no fantasy is too bizarre to be considered. It may not be the case that the events described in Revelation will actually happen, but that’s not the point. Instead, Revelation invites us to engage in this dreaming with prayer, to consider possibilities all the way terrible and all the way beautiful.
This sense of wonder and fantasy is exactly what is missing in the other scripture we heard which comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. At first glance, it might seem like the Sadducees are asking Jesus a thoughtful question about the nature of the afterlife. But that’s not really what they’re up to.
The Sadducees are a Jewish sect who are viewed as outsiders because they have not begun believing in an idea of resurrection like some of the other Jewish groups. The Sadducees believe that when a person dies, she goes to Sheol or the Pit, where life comes to an end.
Here, on this day, the Sadducees are looked down upon for holding onto the traditional notion of Sheol, and here, on this day, the Sadducees construct an elaborate scenario about which brother will get stuck being married to this woman in heaven, this imaginary barren woman who had been widowed seven times so you’d think she must have just laid down and died from sorrow. “Come on Jesus, who has to be her husband in this so-called resurrection?”
These Sadducees are taunting Jesus, and he knows it. He says to them, You are so wrong. In the resurrection, people aren’t concerned with questions of property and marital status; they are like angels in heaven.
And the real problem is not that the Sadducees are wrong about what happens after death. The real problem is the Sadducees are wrong about God’s power to transform, to transform us as people, and to transform death itself.
Or it may be, the real problem is that death comes with a sharp edge of separation. Even in the best circumstances, surrounded by family at home, or peacefully during sleep, there is always a seizing violence in the loss —a strange, sanitized coldness you can’t quite put your finger on. It feels entirely wrong. When death comes, the person we love gets taken away from us. No matter what. And where do they go?
It’s no wonder we dream up the idea of hell. What else would you call this vicious separation? Although I’ve got to say, no lake of fire could ever come close to the torment of seeing your child’s body in the morgue. That’s the kind of pain God knows.
In our story, Jesus says God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Now this doesn’t mean God is not with those who have died. It means those who have died are living. It means God changes us —maybe into angels, or maybe drops of water pouring into the sea. Even better, God changes death itself, so that sharp edge of separation loses its power, so the violence of loss spills into love. If we can learn anything from these Sadducees it’s: Don’t underestimate God’s power to transform. Death turns into life, every time. Even the imagined Day of Judgement can turn into a Day of Mercy and Welcome.
So could it be that this barrier between earth and heaven, life and death, is not a wall or a pearly gate? Maybe it’s less of a barricade and more like a crack in the pavement —spindly, and gentle, and totally step-overable. It’s certainly no barrier to grace which makes it possible to forgive and be forgiven by those who have died.
If you have ever sat with someone who is dying, you may have heard them speak to someone who has been long dead as though that person is right there in the room with you. That’s because the person is right there in the room with you. “God is more in the world than you are” is something my seminary professor used to tell us before he died. God is more in the world than you are.
So maybe it’s this. Maybe if we’re wondering what happens when we die, first we need to find out what happens when we live. If death crosses the crack in the pavement and turns into life, and life turns into death, then follow either of them far enough, we’re bound to run into the other. The fullness of life leads to death, leads to life. So what does it mean for us to be brilliantly alive in this world, aware of our connection to the earth and our kinship with each other?
I know there are seasons of drifting, one day pours into the next and we find ourselves just existing from week to week. So weary from not enough to do, not enough to live for. So weary from too much to do, too many demands… But sometimes there’s a day when life itself wakes you up with pulsing possibility. What if we could come back to life with sparkling intensity, with wonder that brings us to the edge of our seats praying Come on God, what happens next? Because I can’t wait to see!
I imagine those crowds standing around Jesus when he tells the Sadducees what they might do with their question. I hear him say to them, “Those who die will be like angels in heaven,” and that’s the part I wish he would explain. Jesus, go back and say more about that. But he doesn’t see me standing here raising my hand. Instead, what happens next is a scribe comes along and asks Jesus about the greatest commandment. Now we’ll never hear what Jesus has to say about those angels in heaven, he’s gone on to talking about love on earth. As though maybe that’s the point.
 Fischer, Kathleen. Imaging Life After Death: Love That Moves the Sun and Stars. Paulist Press: New York, 2004.
 See Richard Swanson’s excellent commentary http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1852
 Professor Robert Moore, Chicago Theological Seminary