Death is Swallowed
Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23
A sermon preached by the Rev. Adrienne Koch at Cheshire House on Sun., Oct. 15, 2017
“How old were you when your dad died?” I asked my mother as I popped open a blue four-pack of Pillsbury dough rolls.
It was Christmas morning, and the two of us were baking. Every year my mother bakes a sticky and sugary sweet known as “monkey bread.” This year, I decided to bake it with her.
“I was 19.” She responded.
I had never met my mother’s father, Martin. I knew that he came from a family of Polish immigrants, that he and my grandmother fell in love over a deli counter in Cleveland, Ohio, and that he died of colon cancer before I was born.
This was my first Christmas home since I graduated from college, and as far as I could remember, this was the first conversation my mother and I had ever had about her father’s death.
“My dad knew that he was going to die soon,” she said in an awkwardly understated tone. “He wanted his final days to be lived in home hospice, so we moved his hospital bed into grandma’s living room.”
I could picture it, as she shared, my grandmother’s house.
The room chilled at the mention of death, and I felt the kitchen walls crumble into a late summer night in 1976.
“My father had difficulty speaking above a whisper,” my mother whispered.
“If he needed anything late at night he would ring a small bell kept on his bedside table. My bedroom was nearest to him, so I was usually the first one to come when he rang.
“On that night, my dad rang his bell around the time he usually needed help to get to the restroom; so, I rolled out of bed and went to him.
“Grandma heard the bell, too, and it was a good thing, because his body was becoming so heavy. It took the two of us to help him up.”
I was listening so intently to the story that my hands had stopped preparing the dough. My fingers, dusted with flour, placed the last piece of unbaked bread gently into the silver bunt pan.
My mother’s hands were paused over a bowl of cracked egg shells.
“His arms were draped around both of our shoulders,” she continued, “but his body was so heavy.
After just a few steps into the kitchen, toward the bathroom, he collapsed in my arms.”
I glanced up with a start to find my mother’s brow wrinkled with memories.
“I looked into his eyes,” she said, “but he was no longer there.”
“Your father died in your arms?” I asked, astonished.
“I suppose so.” She replied, as she emptied the bowl of egg-shells into the waste bin.
“I can’t believe that I never knew that,” I exclaimed!
My mother quietly opened the oven and turned on the stove-top fan. “I guess I never thought to tell you,” she said.
Death is not something we often talk about.
If we haven’t experienced the loss of someone close to us, we feel that we don’t know what to say, and if we have experienced the loss of someone close to us, we feel that don’t know what to say.
Death isn’t something we often talk about, because it frightens us, and it frightens us because like the scariest monster from our childhood nightmares, we know death is coming to gobble us up.
Just as a shadow in a valley swallows the light around it, death swallows human life.
Using burial language, Isaiah tells us that death is “the shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”
His words come to us, today, in a song about God’s great deeds among the people of a certain city—a ruthless city—that did not take care of its weakest members, a place where the poor where being swallowed up by death, one by one.
God’s response to the cry from the people of this city is to swallow death. Death that once swallowed every person whole, is swallowed up completely by God.
Now let’s think about the mechanics of this for a moment, using our best Kindergarten brains, do you remember the old lady who swallowed a fly? Anybody?
“I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die?”
She swallowed a spider to catch the fly, then swallowed a bird to catch the spider, then swallowed a cat to catch the bird, and a dog to catch the cat, and so on and so forth.
It’s a song for children to imagine the chain of events that occur inside of this poor woman when she swallows something unusual.
That children’s song uses similar imagery as Isaiah’s song where death swallows the people and so God swallows death… to catch the people.
Remember those t-shirts and posters, “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten?” This is one of those t-shirts, friends.
God swallowing death to catch the people is one of the core messages of our Christian faith.
We are terrified of death, and rightly so, because there’s no avoiding it, but as the Psalmist wrote,
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Even as the shadow of death approaches to swallow light and life, as people of faith, we know that our God does not leave us alone in frightening moments; our God is there to swallow death as soon as death swallows us.
And if God swallows death, then that means that God is not just “with us,” but that God “surrounds us” completely.
We are consumed by God, an image that harkens to our baptisms where we die to ourselves and become alive in Christ; we are submerged in water as a symbol of submersion in Christ.
Like the old woman who swallows a fly or like a mother carrying a child in her womb, the mechanics of it aside, the imagery is the same, in death, we find ourselves in the belly of God where we are never alone.
Today, in the life of the church universal, we celebrate the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun from the 16th century. We remember this contemplative theologian and mystic for her spiritual writings and teachings.
In her famous book, The Interior Castle, she tells us that when we die our lives are hid in Christ, immersed in God’s greatness.
God becomes our dwelling place, where we, like a silkworm inside a cocoon, await new birth and transformation.
It is human to fear, and most of all, to fear death, but as Christians we do not face that fear alone, our Lord swallows death completely, and brings us into himself where there is life eternal.