A Life-sized Container, Old First Sermon 11.01.15

A Life-sized Container, Old First Sermon 11.01.15

Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 11:32-44

The novelist Octavio Paz has written:
“To the people of New York, Paris or London,
Death is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips.

The Mexican, however,
frequents it,
jokes about it,
caresses it,
sleeps with it,
celebrates it
because it is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast loves.”

Bertolt Brecht’s insight was similar:
“Do not fear death so much,
but rather the inadequate life.”

I have been reading a lot about mortality and growing frail lately.
(The two books I’ve found most on point so far are
Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” and Donna Schaper’s “The End of Life.”)

No, my reading list is not just because your pastor is a melancholic with a morbid spirit.

Or even because of the Western church’s triduum of Allhallowtide:
yesterday’s All Saints Eve, known more popularly as Halloween,
today’s All Saints’ Day and
tomorrow’s All Souls’ Day.

Nope, my Dark Shadow’s themed reads
have been in preparation for a series
I’d like to offer at Old First on end of life issues.

Maybe Lent is the right container
for challenging us to look where we really don’t want to?

It’s true:
we mostly avoid considering our finitude
and the less-able-season of life that often precedes it.

Wishing not to see our limitedness might be human.

But perhaps, we’re more prone to it in our modern Western culture,
in our youth obsessed and over-medicalized world?

It would seem to me that the church —
where the prime model is not unending, smooth-sailing life forever,
but where the paradigm of faith is
a life of discipleship
amongst shadowed valleys and bright mountain tops,
and then, unavoidably, death
–- real, final, ‘dead as a doornail’ mortality —
on the way to that which is MORE,
…what in church we call “resurrection” —
even if we can’t quite explain it,
or even completely define the promise we point to.

…it would seem to me that in church,
we might be able to have a different understanding and approach to death?

I’ve told you before,
when I was a new pastor
(exactly half the age I am now!?!?),
the pastor emeritus of the first congregation I served,
… George’s insight to the profession I was just starting out in
was as dire as true:
“You’re going to see a lot of death, more than most people are willing to look at.”

Maybe that’s why I don’t find death so threatening,
or hard to consider,
or to…
well, I can’t really say I ‘comprehend’ death,
so much as ‘accept it’ — as a reality and mystery.

Perhaps pastors get habituated or desensitized.

I often say, “if, like a cat, I have 9 lives, I’ve clearly already used up 3, maybe 4…”

And ask me about my funeral:
it’s already planned out in detail.
Because a minister can’t keep doing funerals and fool himself for long,
that only his parishioners are going to die.
Mortality has its plans for me too.

Death is the great equalizer:
none of us gets out of here alive.

Or as the journalist, Ellen Goodman, stated it:
“Death rates remain at 100 percent.”

And if we are courageous and truthful enough
(both characteristics Jesus recommends to us),

…if we are courageous and truthful
AND faithful enough
to let death be real for us
(rather than something veiled, unreal…
trying to fool ourselves it will never come calling for us),

…if we are courageous, truthful and faithful enough,
we can begin to ask ourselves what what we might do while alive
to make the impending arrival,
of decrepitude first,
followed thereafter inevitably by death,
as good as possible.

And I believe deeply,
if, again,
we are courageous and truthful and faithful enough,
we will find that embracing death
we will begin to see better
what it is we want to do with whatever life we can have before death…

I told one of you recently
that I wanted to do this series on end of life issues,
and in effect, he chortled and responded,
“Good luck getting people to consider that;
we couldn’t even get traction
getting people to be open to the topic of legacy (or end of life) giving to the church.”

Church, Jesus was offering a different,
even disarming understanding of the afterlife
in which God’s grace gets the final word.

The raising of Lazarus is about many things,
but surely among them is a realistic depiction
of the grief and decomposition that we face in death.

But Jesus acts to show us that,
though all these hard truths are part of the goodbyes involved in death,
none of them is definitive,
none gets the last word!
There’s still God’s promise despite all the death.

That’s actually what all of Christ’s ministry means to show,
prove to us:
the hurts and brokenness of this world are real and harming,
but neither final nor definitive.

God’s not on his throne condemning the lustful for their lust,
or the poor for their poverty.
or any of the rest of us for our shortfallings.

Instead, Jesus preaches,
the final destiny for ALL,
sinner AND saint,
will be grace.

Grace is a different notion of the afterlife than either heaven or hell,
as popular as they both may be.

Grace connotes a mysterious and universal safety and security,
the root word for “salvation.”

In the afterlife as grace,
we are not just talking about what comes next.

We are also prescribing and naming the direction of this life.

“Tis grace that brought me safe this far,
and grace will lead me home.”

But today,
as well as Jesus (as if He weren’t enough!),
we have, I believe, a little more help here
looking towards the heaviness we often fear as final things.

The church calendar or its holy days
appoint for us this Sunday
a celebration towards finitude and mortality
… but not our own.

As we say in the UCC’s funeral liturgy:
others’ deaths inevitiably make us aware of our own frailty and mortality.

Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted a concert
in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery on June 11, 2014.

It was a huge free concert
in a graveyard that has “a Jazz Corner,”
where Duke Ellington and other jazz greats are buried.

Of course we regret that the greats and our friends are gone.
But we can still celebrate their lives.

I’m seeing All Saints’ Day
as singing and dancing in thanksgiving
on the graves of those who have gone before us
-– and our own graves.

For the lives lived.
The grace received.
The blessings shared.
Faithfulness rewarded.

We are to remember in gratitude, the saints,
OUR saints,
…those who have gone before us,
and for whom we give thanks,
because without their lives and their witness,
we could not be who we are or where we are.

Church, if we can’t quite muster the strength
to struggle a bit with our own ends,
we have others’ mortality to start with today.

But not just the lives of the dead…
We have lives we know intimately,
the lives of OUR saints
to help lift the burden a little.

The people who’s actions or spirit or presence
have given your courage
and made living your life easier,
more about others,
and more alive.

In my reading,
I have learned
that hospice care argues
there are five things you should say to a dying loved one:

“Thank you.”

“I love you.”

“Please, forgive me.”

“I forgive you.”



It occurs to me…
that’s a pretty good summary of how our faith teaches us to live.

And that the church,
while trying to get us going in these ways as soon as possible,
assures us we can never say these things too often.
And it’s never too late to start saying them
or to say them again.

So I want to ask you today to bring to heart and mind
the people whose actions and spirit and presence have given you courage for life,
who have made living your life easier,
more about others,
and more alive.

“Who are your saints?
Can your bring them into your consciousness?…”

And, asking you to go a little further with this,
“What was it about those people’s living — or dying — or both —
that allowed them to be a saint for you…
to accomplish their blessings?”

They only had so much time.
And limited resources.
Including energy.

But somehow they gathered and organized what they had,
and made something of it.

You may not be able now,
to figure out how they all were saints,
what made for the blessings of all the people you are thankful for,
(you could work on it also during communion
and later this afternoon)
but for one or two…
can you name at least this day in church,
something of what about their lives made them touch and transform yours?…

Though they died,
they somehow live on, in you and me,
and with us.

Even here and now.

In some sense, they are even in this Sanctuary with us now.

Can you feel their presence?
Can you tell how this sacred space is filled to bursting as we are joined by our saints?

Not just today; maybe every day.

Beloved, death need not be such a stranger,
nor an enemy either.

Could we, in reaching to acknowledge it,
to admit it,
to accept it as someone who has drawn close to us already,
and who will in time call for us too…

Could we find a new ability,
to think about how we might relate to death differently,
-– courageously, truthfully, faithfully —
with the life that we have and are leading,
and with the promises we look forward to
and surely must pass through,
as well as the promise of yet more to come?

Lazarus was brought back from the dead.
But, the church teaches,
that even he was to die again.

But, I bet, beloved,
that those years between his hearing Jesus say “Lazarus, come out,”
and when God closed his eyes again,

…I believe inevitably they must have been different,
qualitatively different
in a blessed way that he and everyone else could not fail to miss.

I believe that Lazarus
in those years between his two deaths
…That Lazarus lived differently
more courageously, truthfully and faithfully,
so that his life was also a different approach to death,
with more heart
and with less fear
and with a truth that set him free the second time.

And that in Jesus,
just as Lazarus’ first death led him toward living resurrection
such that his second and final death
was truly a passing,
into difference, into grace.

That Lazarus’ life in between Jesus’ resurrecting him and his death into resurrection
was not only abundant,
but also visible and transformative for his own witness,

…and also for those who witnessed it and were left behind
to live their own witness to such grace.

Beloved, to people in Philadelphia,
Death is a word that is hardly ever pronounced
because it burns the lips.

But to the people of the church, even here in Philadelphia,
with courage,
in truthfulness,
because of grace,
we can frequent the word and the experience faithfully.

We can even joke about it because God has removed its sting.

We can caress it in as much as God’s love still hold us even though we shall die.

We can sleep with it as surely as we shall sleep in Jesus.

We can celebrate it, as we celebrate the lives of the one’s who are our saints,
and pray in turn our lives might be celebrated for their saintliness.

Because for those who are Christians,
death is but one act in a much greater play
that is unquestionably,
even in its most difficult passages,
about the most steadfast of loves,
that Love that can see us through…

Because we are the church,
Because Jesus has gone before us to take us with him,
Because God gives us the faith and grace and courage and truth,
Death can be someone we know, who will come for us too,
But never separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.