Stewardship, VIII: Life at Its End
let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. —I Thessalonians 5:8
We conclude our series of the ways Christian faith calls us to steward all of what we are given. Today we will consider how to faithfully steward our life, our individual and communal life, at its end.
Imagine being a part of a church in the fifth decade of the Common Era, a mere twenty years after Christ’s resurrection. Gathered in Thessaloniki, you will hear a letter from Paul, who taught you about Christ. Little do you know that this letter will become the oldest writing in our Christian Bible.
Like the others present, you believed salvation was at hand with Christ’s imminent return. You expected his second coming any day, so that as your friends or family died, despair began to creep in. “What will happen to them since they died before Christ’s return?” And also “What will happen to me?”
Paul begins the letter by praising your “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope (1 Thess 1:3).” He reminds you that you already have all you need. The way you are living exemplifies what is essential and, again little do you know, how you live will inspire generations beyond your time, including a group of people in Chicago.
We have the privilege of learning from them.
Dear God, through your spirit, settle us into this time and place as those first Christians. Silence in us any voice but yours. Let it linger in our hearts and minds. May your truth startle us with your love beyond our wildest imaginations. Teach us to live as those whose lives were infused with faith, hope, and love. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 5
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do but let us keep awake…let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
WeCroak is an app you can buy for your smart devices. Its graphic image, a red frog, pops up on the screen at random times of the day to remind you—one day you will die. We all croak at sometime and at a time we never know. In Apple’s App Store, it is listed under “health and fitness” with a four out of five star rating.
This wisdom saying from Bhutan inspired the app’s creator: contemplating death five times a day will bring happiness.
Along with the little red frog a quote appears on your iPhone or Apple watch. Here are a few samples from just the time I’ve spent writing this sermon.
“And it is because you don’t know the end and purpose of things that you think the wicked and the criminal have power and happiness.” Boethius
(How appropriate as we remember all veterans on Veteran’s Day to receive this quote.) “At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any solider will tell you, if he tells you the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness.” Tim O’Brien
“Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.” Jeffrey Cranor
“Whether or not enlightenment is possible at the moment of death, the practices that prepare one for this possibility also bring one closer to the bone of life.” Joan Halifax
ome people think it morbid to be reminded, each day, we will die. Live and be joyful instead. Don’t be such a downer.
Until you have been diagnosed with a serious illness, suffered an accident, said “goodbye” to a loved one who died, endured abuse, or faced a mortal struggle, you truly may not know the sweetness of life.
In church we tell the truth about all of our lives: death is as fundamental as birth. Before God imagines us into being, we are with God. Throughout life’s race, God cares for us until we finish. Our baptism into Jesus’ body promises he will take into eternal rest.
The way we steward our end of life is highly dependent upon the way we have stewarded all the days of our life.
The Christians in Thessaloniki first clamored to the promise of grace Paul preached. Unlike the pagan religions they had turned away from, the God that Paul served would forgive their failings, lavish them with hope to begin each day, and assured them of salvation.
The wounds inflicted upon them and the burdens they carried became lighter. Jesus’ promised return sheltered them from fears of death. They could endure their daily struggles since despair of death was gone.
Removing the fear of death opened them up to see the stranger as friend, not enemy. Like never before, this church included Greeks and Jews and pagans. Without death’s sting, sharing replaced hoarding. Forgiving others relieved them of grudges and renewed relationships.
But death still existed. As they waited Christ’s imminent return, some of their friends and family had died. Their confidence waned.
They questioned, “How long were they to wait?”
“Wait,” Paul answers.
Such anxiety prompted Paul to describe for the first time a triad he will continue to unfold in subsequent letters to other churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome.
Faith, hope, and love are not randomly chosen Christian virtues, nor are they simple emotions.
Paul writes, Jesus offers a breastplate of faith and love to protect your heart. On your head, Jesus places a helmet of hope.
Faith is confidence in the gospel itself. However ethereal faith may sound, it opens the heart to believe the truth of God’s love life.
Love animates faith in concrete actions to feed the hungry, include the outcast, and care for least, both within the Christian community and beyond.
Hope is the firm expectation of the return of Jesus Christ. It possesses the resilience to withstand the reality of struggle and pain, anticipating God’s goodness to prevail for all time. The crash helmet deflects any false notions of salvation and protects against slipping into the devastating abyss of despair.
Paul does not dismiss the reality of death for any of them or for himself. When you keep your heart, soul, and mind fixed on Jesus in this life, you will continue to feel his constant presence as you move beyond this mortal realm.
Jesus is the way in this life and into the life to come.
Stewardship of life at its end begins by learning to hold onto hope throughout life.
Paul describes hope as a helmet—forged metal. Protect your mind from slipping into a false promise of something rational or visible.
More commonly the ancient Christians represented hope as an anchor to steady your life in turbulent seas. Those ancient ideas may resonate with you.
If not, consider those who taught you.
I think of the men and women in this congregation who have died in the faith, remembering those from the greatest generation, who withstood the devastation of the Depression and fought in World War II.
They stood ramrod straight. Erect. As if they possessed a backbone of steel. Did basic training produce such posture? Perhaps. It prepared them so that in the depths of struggle, we can imagine hope forged into their spine to sturdy them.
While witnessing the worst humanity could do to each other and between countries, they carried hope and prevailed. They returned to families, work, and school. With this same hope, they created legacies and remained attentive to worshipping God and serving Jesus.
One of the saints we laid to rest who, although a builder, humbled himself nightly to kneel at his bedside in prayer, asking for forgiveness and strength for another day.
We are grateful for a woman who was called to love others through the intimate practice of nursing. As often as possible, she sought The Lord’s Supper. Communion with Christ restored her soul.
They stewarded each day, in faithful obedience to God’s hope for the future. It was both and. They taught Sunday School and served as Trustees and they stood firm in families and careers for the principles of their faith.
When one entered hospice beds, we heard him say, “No, I don’t want any more pills; let me die so I may live again.”
Another repeated each morning before she died, “why me? Why was I so lucky?” surrounded by family.
And we are inspired by the woman who asked to see the water once more. “I know the creator of all this is not finished with me.”
No one takes away your hope.
When someone is not well, we hope for an accurate diagnosis.
When illness persists, we hope for healing cures.
When the treatments lose their effectiveness, we hope for full days while in hospice.
At the time of death, we hope our loved one will pass in peace. At the lip of the grave, we feel grief and love, and speak of the hope that protects us from despair.
We hope in the promises of life beyond life, just as lived each day.
We are granted such a short stay in this mortal flesh. Stewardship of life at its end calls us to care for people throughout life and to let them go.
The creator of Snoopy and the Peanuts gang, Charles Schulz, articulates Christian theology by sketching common life with clarity. His comics and movies distilled relationships and growing up’s challenges to simple characters and words.
One single-frame comic depicts Charlie Brown and Snoopy sitting on a dock, gazing at a horizon joining water to sky. Charlie Brown confides to his best friend, “We only live once, Snoopy.” Snoopy imagined response is, “Wrong! We only die once. We live every day!”
Canine instinct recognizes the rhythm of life and the reality that we all will die one day. No one, animal or child, escapes this fate. We do not know what day we will die only that we will die, so live.
A wise minister once observed, the worst thing to bring to a funeral is a bagful of regrets.
Fully experience each day as within God’s care. Love and forgive, win and lose, work and play, rest and rejoice. Swing out wide for this life does not last forever. Let your life be guided towards the hope that rests beyond the horizon of our sight: life eternal as revealed by Christ.
May it be so, my friends. May it be so.
Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), p.107.
Jurgen Motlmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implication of a Christian Eschatology, Trans. James W. Leitch, (New York: Fortress Press edition, 1993).
Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998).