Careless of the Dead
Tuesday of Pentecost 2
20 June 2017
If Augustine of Hippo had any doubt about the value of the human flesh because of his Platonic philosophical background, it did not show in his concern for the proper treatment of the remains of the blessed dead. Augustine was concerned that Christian folk were left uninterred at the time of the sack of Rome in A.D. 410. This too opponents blamed on the Christians, all the while pointing out there was a moral defect upon both the uninterred and those who failed to inter them. Augustine sought to defend the Christian folk from this heartless catch-22 inflicted upon them by their opponents with mocking laughter, "The Christians cannot even properly bury those whom they expect to be heirs of a bodily resurrection."
 
Augustine confessed that the human body is a gift from a good giver and is to be accorded proper and honorable burial. God has shaped this mortal clay now returning to the dust of the earth, and even in death the cadaver is the instrument of earthly life. That which God has created and over which He holds the power of life and death (Mt 10:28), is to be treated with proper honor. Do we not treasure and honor mementos of the blessed dead? Do we not keep in a special place that pocket watch handed down from father to son as a remembrance of those who have given us our patrimony and who have now gained, not just usufruct, but the possession of eternal life? Shall we treat with any less care the body that was closest in use to the earthly life of our beloved dead?
 
We are to confess the bodily resurrection by the proper burial of the body to be raised. We would still honor the flesh of the blessed dead as future vessels of the incarnated life of those who are in Christ, the incarnated God. If we treat those remains dismissively or disrespectfully, we will be guilty of calling into question our faith in the resurrection of that flesh. That which we incinerate in the trash barrel is hardly honored by us, it is merely the detritus of life. The body dishonored in life is now desecrated in death. The body remains sacred and is to be left in the hands of its Creator until the day of Christ's return.
 
If we have desecrated the human body in our burial customs, this is indicative of our de-sacralizing of the whole world. We are attempting to take the sacred out of things. How we treat the body of the blessed dead tells us a great deal about our faith, the way we treat the bodies of the dead tells us what we think about life, and the continuity of our community of faith. To simply trash the bodies of the blessed dead without any further to-do, means that we are pitching out the dead. They have no place in our community joined with angels and archangels. A church which no longer honors the dead and sees to proper burial is following the city council of San Francisco, which in 1911 outlawed burials anywhere in the city. If you are dead, you have no place here.
 
While Augustine encourages proper burial of the dead, he also recognizes that in extraordinary circumstances such obsequies are impossible. Do corpses feel it when they remain unburied or are used as fertilizer on the 18th green? No, but we, who are living, do. It tells us who we are. Will cases when it is impossible for proper burial keep God from granting a triumphant resurrection to those dead? Of course not. This is His power and His business to use it as He sees fit. However, God's power does not grant us permission to be careless of the dead.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Augustine of Hippo
 
"The men against whom I have undertaken to defend the city of God laugh at all this. But even their own (pagan) philosophers have despised a careful burial; and often whole armies have fought and fallen for their earthly country without caring to inquire whether theywould be left exposed on the field of battle, or become the food of wild beasts. Of this noble disregard of burial (Lucan's) poetry has well said: 'He who has no tomb has the sky for his vault.' How much less ought they to insult over the unburied bodies of Christians, to whom it has been promised that the flesh itself shall be restored, and the body formed anew, all the members of it being gathered not only from the earth, but from the most secret recesses of any other of the elements in which the dead bodies of men have lain hid!
 
"Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the clothing of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing! For the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man's very nature. And therefore to the righteous of ancient times the last offices were piously rendered, and sepulchers provided for them, and obsequies celebrated (Gn 25:10; 35:29). They themselves, while yet alive, gave commandment to their sons about the burial, and, on occasion, even about the removal of their bodies to some favorite place (Gn 47:29-31; 50:24-26). Tobit, according to the angel's testimony, is commended, and is said to have pleased God by burying the dead (Tob 12:12). Our Lord Himself, too, though He was to rise again the third day, applauds, and commends to our approval, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial (Mt 26:10-13). And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly linens, and see to its burial (Jn 19:38).
 
"These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God's providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the resurrection. And we may also draw from them this wholesome lesson, that if God does not forget even any kind office which loving care pays to the unconscious dead, how much more does He reward the charity we exercise towards the living. Other things, indeed, which the holy patriarchs said of the burial and removal of their bodies, they meant to be taken in a prophetic sense. But of these we need not here speak more, what we have already said being sufficient. But if the want of those things which are necessary for the support of the living, as food and clothing, though painful and trying, does not break down the fortitude and virtuous endurance of good men, nor eradicate piety from their souls, but rather renders it more fruitful, how much less can the absence of the funeral, and of the other customary attentions paid to the dead, render those wretched who are already reposing in the hidden abodes of the blessed! Consequently, though in the sack of Rome and of other towns the dead bodies of the Christians were deprived of these last offices, this is neither the fault of the living, for they could not render them; nor an affliction to the dead, for they cannot feel the loss."

Augustine, 
The City of God, 1.12-13

Genesis 23:1-20

Sarah lived  years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, "I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight." The Hittites answered Abraham, "Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead." Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. And he said to them, "If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place." Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, "No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead." Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, "But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there." Ephron answered Abraham, "My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead." Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. So the field of Ephron in Mach-pelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.   (ESV)
Prayer
Lord Christ, You received burial to hallow the graves of Your saints. Lead us to be respectful toward the dead in funerals rites and in the communion of saints. Amen.
 
For President Dale Meyer and the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, that Christ would continue to support their mission to preach the good news in all the world
 
For the family of Cathy Pierson, whom the Lord took to Himself, that they would mourn with faith in the resurrection of the flesh and the life of the world to come
 
For Susan Bomar, who has cancer, that the Lord Jesus would grant her strength and healing
Art: Albrecht DURER,   The Adoration of the Trinity (1511 )
Memorial Lutheran Church
smurray@mlchouston.org
http://www.mlchouston.org
©  Scott Murray 2017