Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 11, 2018
“Content for Our Obituary Writer”
Ephesians 2: 1-10 – New Revised Standard Version
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Some obituaries can be humorous, such as the one which stated that the deceased “respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns football players to serve as pall bearers so that the Browns can let him down one last time.”
Mary Anne Noland’s obituary began “Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne chose instead to pass into the arms of eternal rest in the love of God.”
Then there are those which ride along the edge of humor. The obituary for Mike Blanchard read “He enjoyed booze, guns, cars, and chasing younger women until the day he died.”
Others convey a less humorous message by the person who submits it. Josie Anello is survived by her son, ‘A.J.’, who loved and cared for her; daughter ‘Ninfa’ who betrayed her trust; and son ‘Peter’ who broke her heart.
But the children of Johanna Scarpitti really crossed the line with their obit which began “Ding dong the witch is dead, but the memory of our mother lives on.”
But then there are those for whom the pain is really on display and who even use obituaries to get revenge. Or maybe not revenge, but just to express their deep disappointment.
For example, the obituary for Leslie ‘Popeye' Charping, says he “lived much longer than he deserved. He served in the Navy not because of bravery or patriotism but as part of a plea deal to escape sentencing. Leslie's life served no other obvious purpose, he did not contribute to society or serve his community and he possessed no redeeming qualities besides quick witted sarcasm which was only amusing when he was sober.”
I don’t mean to make light of the dead. But I was struck by the similarity expressed by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians. Pretty harsh words. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath.”
Kind of like a long-winded description of Johnny “Big Buck” whose obituary spoke of a life filled with affairs with beautiful, smart women, “mostly brunette.” Curious detail. Was that a statement of admiration or admonition?
I don’t much like the first half of today’s passage. The second half is much better, and more familiar, and usually read without the first. It’s basic Protestant Christianity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. Not of our own doing, but as the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one can boast.” Sound familiar?
No wonder we skip the first part; disobedience, flesh and children of wrath… But without that, it doesn’t do much good to say we’ve been raised to new life if we can’t articulate what our old life meant. Saved by grace through faith. But from what?
Mike Blanchard was remembered for his life of booze, guns, and cars. Joanna Scarpitti’s children memorialized their mother by calling her a witch. And Leslie, Popeye, Charling, we’re told, had no redeeming qualities.
I don’t know what kind of pain they caused their families. But I have a problem with churches making everything about the faults of individuals when in the grand scheme of things, it’s all too small, trivial. Like when I was seven years old, I went forward for an altar call. It was an incredibly emotional experience as I confessed my sins and gave my life to Jesus Christ. I still remember it vividly. But I have to laugh. Was I dead because of my sin? Was I captive to the desires of my seven-year-old flesh? Following my passions? Not yet, at least.
And yet others do have very powerful stories of conversion, who totally get “dead.” My ministry in Cleveland was with a lot of men and women in and out of recovery who had gruesome stories of actions they had taken, mostly as a result of their drug and alcohol addictions, who were now, by the grace of God, one day at a time, living a sober life. They still had things about their past for which they felt shame and regret, but it no longer controlled their lives. But even my saying that tends to focus on addiction as “moral failing” without consideration of addiction as disease. Nor does it go beyond the fault of the individual. What does it say about the will of society to then not fund treatment centers?
So, yes, there is our past life. Whatever it might be. And there is the promise of new life. The slate wiped clean. Everyone is more than their worst mistake. A new life, as the text declares, we can’t earn because it’s a gift from God, not an achievement for which we can claim credit. But, again, saved from what? I don’t particularly care about whether individuals love booze or chase women.
Although I do care about attitudes that excuse “locker room talk” and “boys will be boys” that are complicit with the abuse of women, who don’t deserve to be “chased.” Men so weak “they can’t help themselves” around beautiful women? Really? But that’s also the same pattern that excuses pay inequity, and provides unlimited health insurance coverage for Viagra but not birth control. And I do care about booze. About companies that profit from peddling booze in the border towns around reservations, like White Clay, Nebraska.
But here’s my point: Christian theology too often turns this text and others like it into a screed about personal habits and individual salvation. It even ignores the text later in the same book of Ephesians which speaks of confronting the “powers and principalities.” Why is that?
Pope Francis declared this week that Oscar Romero will be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. Finally. He was assassinated while saying the mass in a hospital chapel in 1980 by a right-wing death squad aligned with the government of El Salvador. Killed in front of patients and nuns hours after pleading on the radio for government soldiers to disobey the orders of their commanders to kill civilians.
Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador, a mild-mannered man who was elevated to Archbishop because he was safe. He wouldn’t rock the boat. He wouldn’t confront the powers and principalities. But the suffering of his people led him to embrace liberation theology, saying “We must save not the soul at the hour of death but the person living in history.” He said, quite contrary to his earlier beliefs, that “A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that?” It was statements like that which caused Popes John Paul II and Pope Benedict to hold up his canonization. They did not approve of the church’s involvement in social justice. Also known as: Save them from their sin, not the sin of their society. Archbishop Helder Camara said, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.”
I might like to skip over the first half of today’s passage because it has been trivialized into personal foibles and bad habits. Or turned into accusations – “you’re just captive to the flesh” has been quoted many times to me. But then again, how can we proclaim, “I’ve been saved by grace through faith” while claiming no need for change? It seems pretty pointless. Cheap grace. And fooling ourselves. Lent calls for self-examination.
There are clearly both individual and social implications in Christianity, as well as this text. Requiring both halves. That’s where hope lies. Adam Eckhart invites us to view this text, the whole text, from the perspective of a “redemptive ethic.” A process of critiquing and transforming – ourselves and our world.
So, what might it mean to bring a redemptive ethic to today’s divided and polarized world? Goodness knows there is enough to critique. So, then, consider this about the powers and principalities: What holds power over you? What about today’s divided and polarized world holds its power over you? For example, is it the power of hope? That’s what this text proclaims. Or is it the power of despair? Every week I confess at times the power of despair, its temptation toward hopelessness, growing suspicions which can lead us to disengage. A cynicism that is susceptible to anger. An anger which leads to hatred. A hatred that leads people to conclude they want nothing to do with anyone who does not agree with them. I want to be saved from that. Our country needs to be saved from that.
The first half of today’s passage considers what we are saved from. Or need to be. The second half is the how. By grace, not by good works – no matter how many marches and meetings we attend. By God, not our own effort – which, thankfully means hopelessness and cynicism, hurt and anger, are temporary and can be overcome.
But there’s a little line I had never noticed before. It’s not just what we are saved from but what we are saved for. Sure, we’re not saved by good works. But the text goes on to say we are now “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Huh. Salvation is to result in a way of life filled with good works. Christians are always talking about salvation being a ticket to heaven, with everyone else “left behind.” Have any of you ever seen or heard that line before, that little tiny “it changes everything” verse before? Especially the preachers in the group? We had the from, but not the for. We had the how, but not the why.
But here it says it clearly: Created in Christ, we were made for good works. Here, not heaven. Now, not later. On behalf of a world, so loved by God, that Christ came to show us our way of life. Hopefully providing some good content for our obituary, which of course is not the point.
But it does beg the question, having heard what was said about Johanna Scarpitti, and especially Popeye Charping, how do you want to be remembered?
What do you want your obituary writer to say?
 Adam Eckhart, “Pastoral Perspective on Ephesians 2,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 112