Sermon: Death Has No Dominion

By Bill Wylie-Kellermann, last sermon as Pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Detroit

Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 10:24-39

When I was called to St Peter’s in 2006 it marked the close of an important part of my life and the beginning of another. On the last night of 2005, Jeanie Wylie crossed over to God, having lived 7 years, and gloriously, with an aggressive brain tumor. Though marked with grief, that was nonetheless an amazing time for me, for our family: in those seven years she was teaching us how to die, and so how to live.

Within days after she was first struck down, we received a note in the mails from one of my theological/political mentors, Walter Wink. He wrote:

…Richard Deats called to tell me that Jeanie had a brain tumor, but was pretty skimpy on the details. I don’t suppose they matter a lot in terms of what to pray for. As I meditated on that task, a kind of mantra rose up in me that I will use, if it’s OK with you: We claim victory over the power of Death whether in this life or the life to come, Death will have no dominion.

It was OK to be sure. I trust you recognize the echo from Romans 6. Moreover, I do believe his prayer, as those of others, was answered. Jeanie lived with that illness, free from bondage to death. Facing it in the fullness of freedom.

That verse likewise connects with a couple other mentors of mine, also now gone to God. In 1968, two weeks after the assignation of Dr. King, Daniel Berrigan, with 8 others entered a draft board office in Catonsville, MD, removed the 1A files and burned them with home-made napalm in the parking lot. During their federal trial, in the evenings after, there was a festival of hope at a local church. William Stringfellow, his friend and yet another mentor, appeared to speak. Berrigan once recounted the event. He told how Stringfellow, then seriously ill, climbed the pulpit in considerable pain. Whereupon, according Daniel, he uttered a single sentence: “Death shall have no dominion!” It was he said, “pure Stringfellow,” though of course, it was pure St. Paul or better pure Gospel.

Now Stringfellow’s remembrance and self-accounting is a bit more verbose. It may be that his is  midrashed memory (or Berrigan’s the digested nugget), but he claims to have said,

Remember, now, that the State has only one power it can use against human beings: death.  The State can persecute you, prosecute you, imprison you, exile you, execute you.  All of these mean the same thing.  The State can consign you to death.  The grace of Jesus Christ in this life is that death fails.  There is nothing the State can do to you, or to me, which we need fear. (Second Birthday)

Gospel indeed (and not a bad translation).

Notice the versatility of Death being named. Or as Jesus puts it in Matthew, it can kill the body and, worse yet, can kill the soul. He warns, you’ll be demonized, marginalized, your soul threatened, you’ll suffer a costly division within your family, you’ll be called before the authorities and into court to renounce and deny Christ, but fear not, there is nothing they can do to you. God watches every detail, knows you down to the hairs of your head, fully and freely you.

To be baptized into the resurrection means living in freedom from Death, free to die if you will. Now this freedom has categorically nothing to do with giving up, individually or collectively. Instead it means the freedom to bet the farm, the port folio, to risk it all, wage it all. To put on the line career, employment, good standing, repute, all in the struggle for life.

Some years ago, in the early 80’s, a group of us undertook a liturgical action at Wurtsmith Air Force Base where first-strike cruise missiles were just then being loaded onto B-52s. We walked the Easter Vigil which meant we actually started in the dark of night traversing the 2 mile long runway. As dawn broke we knelt at the entrance to the high security area and there received eucharist at gun point, surround by guards with automatic weapons. And yet the most powerful moment for me took place an hour earlier. Partway down the runway we stopped and renewed our baptismal vows. I must say to stand looking toward loaded B-52s and in that place “renounce Satan (or the Power of Death) and all his works,” presented a moment to which a soul might return again and again.

When I came to St. Peter’s I didn’t so much bring with me, as walk into, partnerships with the Catholic Worker and the Detroit Peace Community. That’s embodied in the Manna Community Meal table set daily in the undercroft, in the procession on Good Friday through the streets of Detroit, but also, perhaps least known, the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. Each year in the dark, we also renew our baptismal vows, very concretely.  When we renounce the works of Satan, we name names… rejecting militarism, white supremacy, consumer materialism, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, more.

Some years ago, I think in north Africa, an archeological dig uncovered a stone baptismal pool. Reconstructing the liturgy from the directional layout of the architecture, it appeared that the catechumen would first face Rome, then turn their back on empire, put off their garments, go down into the water, dying out from under empire and rising out the other side, born into new life, a new creation, a new world.

I have been thinking on baptisms at St Peter’s over the last decade – Some into the Detroit River, Ira and Cedar as recently as two weeks ago, some at the font in the back, in recent years often surrounded by cases of water for distribution to those shut-off.

In many churches this too is a liturgical architecture. The font is placed at the back of the sanctuary, sometimes even right at the entrance way. On the one hand, this affirms that baptism is the “way in” to church and community, an initiation. But also, and perhaps moreso, it is the “way out” into the work and struggle of the world. Baptism, rather than ordination or pastor-hood, is the authority for public work and action.

When Jesus had himself done a powerful direct action overturning tables at the currency exchange, the Temple authorities pressed him, “By what authority do you do these things?” Jesus flips that script, saying, “Let me ask you a question: Was the baptism of John from God or from human authority?” When they dissemble politically and equivocate, he says, “Then neither will I answer you” – but, of course, he already has. His authority comes from the Spirit descending as a dove, it is named and arises in his own wilderness baptism. He acts in a deeper freedom than they know.

The reading from Matthew this morning sounds a little like a Gospel mash-up, but its coherence all lies in being about baptism into Christ’s death, or as Jesus himself puts it, taking up the cross. He warns, you’ll be demonized, marginalized, your soul threatened, you’ll suffer a costly division within your family, you’ll be called before courts and authorities to renounce and deny Christ – all of these mean the same thing, taking up your cross. But fear not, God is present to you in every detail down to the hairs on your head.

I don’t know what’s ahead for St Peter’s – but I do know the form of it: baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus; even the way of the cross.

This decade we have seen the aggressions of death, be it city or nation, in the corporate fascism of emergency management, the dismantling of public education, in Black neighborhoods destroyed and assaulted by predatory loans, forerclosures, and water shut-offs, in the assault on the human right to water and life, on the planet itself. We’ve seen the demonization of immigrants, the impunity of police violence against people of color.

But we have also witnessed signs of resurrection. In the face all that St Peter’s has opened itself, joining and offering space, to movements and communities who claim the deepest freedom there is. They, we, live in the conviction that Death shall have no dominion. Amen.

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