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The Revd Tom Keates Sermon on "Living and Dying Well"

Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips and may I speak in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon Notes: 14th October 2012 – Living and Dying Well

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15: Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark10:17-31.

A theme running through our readings today is about living well. I don’t mean living the high life, feeding off the fat of the land, gaining wealth or power or any of the other trappings of success by which the world measures “a good life”. I’m talking about following the path which God wishes us tread.

Amos doesn’t mess about in his message. He was one of those great prophets who weren’t afraid to tell it as it is. “Seek the Lord and live”. The implication is that without the Lord we are not alive. He then lists the dire consequences of not following the Lord – destruction of one kind or another. It is not the sort of threatening message that goes down well these days and we might be tempted not to read further but hidden in the verses that follow is the recipe for a good life. The final verse of the reading sums it up:-

Be prudent in speech;

Seek good and not evil;

Establish justice.

The Hebrews reading gives further incentives to live well, because the word of God is living and active. The word of God who was in the beginning with God, that word is alive and active and watching over all we do. That might sound a bit like Big Brother watching us, but I interpret it as God watching over us because he cares and we also have the reassurance of the gift of the Holy Spirit to support us in living well.

In the Gospel we hear the story of a man who was living well. He was keeping to all the laws God gave Moses. Jesus recognised that – he loved him for it. But the man wanted to go the whole hog – he wanted to be guaranteed eternal life. So he pressed Jesus further and the answer he got shocked him. “Give away all you have and follow me!” He went away grieving; the price just seemed too great. Of course like many of the people we meet in the Bible we don’t actually know the outcome. That man’s life will certainly have been changed by his encounter with Jesus, as ours will be. Who knows, he may even have done exactly what Jesus said at a later point!

I wonder what challenges you face in trying to lead a good life, in following Jesus who is the way. Whatever the challenges are keep working at them, but remember that whatever you do will not be enough to earn your way into God’s Kingdom. The people of the Old Testament had only the Laws of Moses to guide them as to how they should live. That is why Amos was so prescriptive about the consequences of not following those laws. We have the benefit of Jesus, God incarnate, as the pattern for how we should live. He himself, in that Gospel, said how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. We can’t hide anything from God, and no matter how good we think we are, he knows the real us. He knows the things, the “wealth” we find hard to give up. The teaching is so hard that even the disciples were perplexed. But Jesus says that although these things may be impossible for mortals, they are not for God. That is why Jesus came, the only perfect one, the one who died in our place, a sign of God’s love for us. Jesus conquered death, for us. He is the way to eternal life. All we have to do is believe in him.

So that’s OK then we can do as we please as long as we believe! Well, no. Because if we truly believe then we will want to respond to that overwhelming love, by loving God and those God himself loves. Love for others, love for God’s creation, love for his Son, love in response to his love for us rather than in fear of his retribution when we get it wrong; that is what should motivate us to live well.

So that’s the first part of my message today. Love Jesus, then we will want to live well, but when we get it wrong we can say sorry, confident that through Christ, the great high priest of whom Hebrews speaks, we will obtain mercy and forgiveness.

The second part of my message is more challenging – you might hear that word a few times in what follows. Living well is one thing but what about dying well. Again I don’t mean going out in a blaze of glory or seeking some heroic death like a knight of the round table. Let me explain.

Last Saturday I was at a training session for deacons on funerals. We were challenged to think about our own mortality. David Deboys, the diocesan worship officer was leading the session and one thing he said was “when did you last hear a sermon about dying well?” That really challenged me to think about what we mean by dying well. It is after all a messy, unpredictable business. We can never know when and how it is going to happen. Yet it is part of life, we are all touched by death in different ways.

The account of Jesus death is a harrowing, brutal, gut-wrenching affair. Did Jesus die well? What about the martyrs of the early church, Stephen, Peter and Paul. Did they die well?

What about John Suddards and the distressing circumstances that emerged this week about his death did he die well? I would like to suggest to you that dying well, like living well, is more about our relationship with our Heavenly Father than about the manner of our death.

I have been privileged this week to preside at two funerals of longstanding members of our congregations. At the funeral of Betty Rees her son-in-law had written a tribute entitled “A Christian life well lived”. All of us who knew Betty would say Amen to that. Betty was able to bear her Christian witness right up to the end. She read the lesson in Church just a few weeks before she died. She was running her Friendship Group and raising funds for the Missions to Seafarers right up until the end. Her husband Conrad died over 35 years ago and sadly her daughter died recently. Betty lived well and died peacefully, confident of meeting her loved ones again and confident of the love of Jesus and his presence. I’d say that was dying well.

The other was the funeral of Marjorie King. I visited her about a week before she died. Although she was very ill I saw in her smile the sparkle that had marked her life. She said to me “I have been praying for you”. I interpreted that as a collective “you” meaning our community. Right at the end of her life she was still praying for the people that she and God love. She knew he was near her. I’d say that was dying well.

John Suddards death is much harder to come to terms with. I know from conversations I had with him how much he loved and cared for all of the people around him. He wanted to live well, and I don’t mean his enjoyment of a good bottle of wine. He found it difficult to live as well as he wished. He had talked to me about how challenging he found the callers at the door in need of food, money or shelter. I can believe he had concern even for his killer. I can even believe he might have prayed for him. I feel confident he would have had Jesus standing by him at the end. That would be dying well.

Despite the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion or Stephen’s stoning, we read in both those accounts of a love shown even at the point of death. Jesus prays, according to Luke “Father forgive them; for they do not knew what they are doing”, and Stephen echoes that sentiment as he prays while being stoned “Lord do not hold this sin against them”. I believe theirs was an example of dying well, praying to a God who was near them at the time of their death.

Jesus death required a moment of complete abandonment by God, hence his cry “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”. That was not only Christ’s ultimate sacrifice but God’s. The ultimate demonstration of their love for us that, for that brief instant they were able to let go of one another out of love for us. This is a challenging area of theology which is too deep to explore here and if you are inclined to read more I would recommend Jürgen Moltmann’s book “The Crucified God”.

The thing that struck me about the deaths I have mentioned is the assurance of God’s presence with those dying. Why else would they be praying? William Paul Young’s novel, “The Shack” tells the story a father whose daughter has been abducted and murdered. I won’t tell you much about it in case you have not yet read it, but Mack, the father of the girl, meets God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and is told “There was not a moment that we were not with her. She knew our peace, and you would have been proud of her. She was so brave”. I pray that the parents of little April Jones can feel God’s assurance that he was with her in whatever she went through. It is with the assurance that God is with us all through the process of death that we can feel confident of being in his presence after death. Feeling that assurance for ourselves in death will be much easier if we have walked with Him in life.

We cannot know the hour or manner of our death. I don’t want to die yet, there are too many things that I still want to do, but I do pray with hope the opening words of the service of Compline, which I love and use often. “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end”. For me that perfect end will be to know that God is holding my hand as I take that final step in this life.

We can have confidence in that because as we have a great high priest who has already passed that way. In his name we can approach the throne of grace with boldness, and receive mercy and grace in Jesus name. That’s what is says in Hebrews.

I know some of the things I have said today are difficult. If you want to talk about any of them please do contact me or one of the clergy team; or come along on Saturday October 27th when Revd. Dr. Jan van der Lely will be asking the question “Where is God in all this?” There are signup sheets at the back of Church, I would urge you to make the effort to be there.

Jesus says “Trust in God, trust also in me”. If we do that each of us can strive to live well, and when the time comes, to die well.


Revd. Tom Keates.

14 October 2012.