We could easily spend a whole year dealing with death in its many forms and aspects, but this morning I want to focus on the kinds of questions most of us have – and then begin to open up a few others. As we look at various aspects of death and our dyings, the key to nearly everything that follows is the question: "Why were we created?" What our faith tells us is that we were created for God's enjoyment and to be in full relationship with God. That reality undergirds all that follows. Keep that in mind in any thinking about death.
I want to begin with three of the best prayers dealing with death and dying, first, the Prayer of Commendation (Entrusting) from the New Zealand Prayer Book
God our Father, we thank you that you have made each of us
in your own image,
and given us gifts and talents
with which to serve you.
We thank you for Phil,
the years we shared with him,
the good we saw in him,
the love we received from him.
Now give us strength and courage,
to leave him in your care,
confident in your promise of eternal life,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Second, from the Burial Office in our Book of Common Prayer:
O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother Phil. We thank you for giving him to us, his family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And the Collect for All Saints in our Book of Common Prayer, which begins:
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. . .
With those prayers as background, I want to talk about our physical dying, what Scripture says about our physical dying – and then return to our dyings in a broader context.
SO, FIRST, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE?
(For a much deeper exploration, try Sherwin B. Nuland's book "How We Die")
What can we expect when we die? From most of the recounting of near-death experiences, we can expect calm, serenity, light and, perhaps, a welcoming presence to guide us across the threshold into our new life.
A friend of mine, Jim, who had experienced a temporary death or near-death experience, told me that it was all light and peace. He said, "Tom, I may be afraid of a lot of things, but there is one thing I am not afraid of any more – and that's death." I have to say that if anyone I've ever known had reason to fear what death might bring, it was Jim. Mostly, what we can expect is calm, serenity, light – and a welcoming presence to guide us.
The other thing we can expect in our dying (in cases of dying from natural causes) is a gradual narrowing of our world. As our condition worsens, our world narrows – from a world in which we are focused on the news of the day, our to-do lists of tasks and projects and appointments to the world of our bedroom at home or a room at the hospital or nursing home -- our focus is on a little bit of the outside world, but mostly on the comings and goings within the room, itself. That world eventually gives way to the world surrounding our bed and the visitors to our room – and then to the world comprised of our bed, itself. Soon our world is narrowed to the sound of our own breathing – and then we let go. In all of this, we never seem to have more to deal with than we are able.
If you are a caretaker of someone who is dying, please keep up with what is happening. There are a host of things that can go wrong when friends and loved ones do not attend to what is going on. One of my favorite people in Salinas was a retired doctor who had been struggling with cancer for over two years. His doctor told me and his daughter that Smiley had less than 36 hours of life – and would most likely die before noon the next day. Noting Smiley's obvious pain, I asked why the doctor was not administering morphine. His answer was that he was afraid the morphine might kill Smiley!!
Similarly, if you have a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, keep a copy in the glove compartment of your car (so you will have it when you drive to the hospital). Check with the hospital, too, to see if you can keep a copy on file there.
What should we say when visiting someone who is dying? The answer to that question is simple – the important thing is showing up. The words probably don't matter much, except to tell the patient of your love for him or her and that you will stay close in body, prayer or spirit (don't make promises you probably won't keep). Your physical presence is the most important thing, but be sensitive to the positive and/or negative effects of your touching.
WHAT SCRIPTURE SAYS ABOUT DEATH IS THIS:
In our Baptism we are joined with the risen Christ. Last week Peggy Patterson talked about the experience in the early church in Baptism of being drowned (dying) as one was pushed under water – and the liberation of being brought back out of the water into the new life of the Baptized. There is a death and resurrection here – and our reality is changed, because our reality, our identity is rooted in the resurrection Christ.
In a sense, our address has changed – it is now firmly within the Kingdom of God – and the address change is permanent. Because our home is in the Risen Christ, our rootedness. Our relationship with God is not changed by physical death. We remain Christ's – and we remain joined to one another, to the living and the dead. We continue in another dimension, the dimension of the Holy – not another "place," but within the reality of the Holy.
There are several things I have tried to say in almost every funeral sermon I've preached. The first goes something like this: "When someone has died, we often say that 'he now belongs to God.' But he has always belonged to God – in his Baptism, through childhood, his teen-age years, young adulthood, middle age and now in his dying. He has always belonged to God, just as you and I belong to God, now and through eternity.
The second is that when a loved one dies, our relationship to her is changed; but it is not over. We can still love one another, pray and support one another – just not in the flesh in this world. As is celebrated in that Collect for All Saints Day in the Book of Common Prayer, our relationship with the dead is that our lives are knit together, intertwined.
In the Litany of the Saints in the Prayer Book of the Berkeley Free Church, saints and exemplary people through the ages are invoked with the words, "Stand here beside us." I think, as well, of the meeting between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Prime Minister Botha when the Prime Minister began to chastise Tutu about his opposition to apartheid. Tutu interrupted to say, "Mr. Prime Minister, this is not a matter merely between the two of us: if it were, you would surely prevail. However, you are not just dealing with Tutu: behind me and beside me are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Deborah and Sarah and Isaiah and Jeremiah; Jesus and Mary and Peter and John and Paul – and it is we who shall prevail!"
One of our tasks in life is never to forget Tutu's words – for our own use. We are never alone or without support for all the saints, the big shots and the everyday saints are constantly standing with us and behind us.
We belong to Christ in life – and we belong to him in death. In both instances we are enfolded by the Communion of Saints.
SECOND, THERE WILL BE A RESURRECTION OF THE BODY.
There is nothing in the Christian Scriptures about immortality of the soul. It is resurrection of the body. We will be persons – recognizable persons. We will not be amorphous souls, all kind of blended in with one another. We will be embodied persons – having, as St. Paul writes, "spiritual bodies," but bodies none the less. Do you remember Peggy's discussion of Ezekiel's Valley of the Dry Bones? The Biblical scene is of bodies which have been killed in war. As God's Spirit is joined with the dead bodies, they are given life – both body and spirit are necessary for life. In Ecclesiastes, spirit disembodied from flesh is, simply, wind.
AND THEN JOHN WRITES ABOUT THE CHARACTER OF THE RESURRECTED LIFE:
"Beloved, we are now God's children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, Because we shall see him as he really is." I John 3:2-3
The healing, the compassion, the commitment, the beauty and power we know in Jesus -- that is what we grow into. That is what life will be like. "If you want to know what our new life will be like," says the Bible, "look at the Lord telling the stories, holding the children, eating and drinking and trading stories with his friends, that bursting in of life upon life. That is the What as well as the Who it – will be like.
John's Gospel is, in many ways, a meditation on our relationship with the Risen Christ. For me, two images stand out. The first, in chapter 13, is the image of the Risen Christ as the Vine and we as the branches. That life-line, that absolute connection of life and nurture and identity is so whether we are alive or dead. Spend time with that powerful, powerful image – as well as the second image, of abiding or living in God. That theme runs all the way through the Gospel, with Jesus telling us to abide, to live in him. Rather than my explaining it, get your own understanding of that in reading through the whole Gospel. Both images describe our life, now, and our life through eternity.
HOW CAN WE FACE OUR DYING?
The first emotion most of us will feel as we face our dying is fear. For us to fear the process of dying is natural – just as it was natural for Jesus. In describing the experience of Jesus (John 12:27), we speak of the Agony in the Garden – and that was true: there was deep, deep agony in the heart of Jesus. But that was not all that was there – and that is not all there is for us. There comes a time for many people in their dying when they decide to let go. . to let go of life and begin that process of transformation into resurrection. It is a real blessing to come to that point where we simply let go and allow ourselves to be borne, simply, by the loving hands of God. (I spoke last year of allowing our bed to represent the hands of God, praying simply "Into your hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit.")
For others, their dying is dominated by a struggle to stay alive – a determination to fight death .. as thought death were really an enemy. So there is a holding on. . at any and all expense. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "There is a time to live and a time to die." (Ecclesiastes 3) It is important for us to know which time it is.
My father knew. One of my most vivid memories of my father is when he and my mother were living in Wickenburg, Arizona. My father was very sick and he had been in near constant pain for several years. He and I were out walking in the desert when we spotted a large group of buzzards circling overhead. My father looked up at them, raised his by then emaciated fist at them and shook it, shouting "Not yet, you sons of bitches! Not yet!" He was not ready to die.
He was not ready to let go of anything. There is a time to live and a time to die -- and for us, the necessity of knowing which time it is.
There is another way of talking about death that is very important – it has to do with our identity – and our destiny. Here is how Scripture describes our identity: we are "in but not of the world." Our lives and our destiny is not linked to the structures/ the powers of this world. In Baptism we have been set aside (one of the meanings of "holy") from all that.
Again, Peggy talked about the sense of death in the waters of Baptism. The hold of the world, as marked by sin – has been broken. We have died to that. In order to live fully in the Kingdom of God, we first die to "the principalities and powers" -- the world's violence, consumerism, misogyny, racism, suspicion, isolation and all the rest. We continue to live in it: our lives are surrounded by it, constantly tempted by it. But our vocation is to live out our identity of being in, but not of. . that world.
That reality is described different ways in Christian Scripture: we are "in but not of the world," we are citizens of heaven, Ambassadors from heaven and, again, in John's Gospel, Jesus talks about our living in, or "abiding in God." My favorite illustration of all has to do with the character of Murray in Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns." A social worker has come to take Murray's nephew away from him, as Murray is more than seriously unconventional. The climax of the conversation occurs when the social worker says "Murray, you've got to come back to reality." To which Murray responds, "OK, but only as a tourist." In but not of the world.
At the heart of our Baptism, we die to our allegiance/captivity to this world marked by sin and alienation. In this, we follow Jesus' own journey into wholeness through a series of renunciations/deaths:
-Jesus' time in the Wilderness;
-Peter's admonitions to compromise/get along, to which he responds "Get behind me, Satan."
-The Syro-Phoenician Woman – forces him to confront his own racism Mk 7:24-30.
-The Parable of the Leaven – "Kingdom of God is like a woman. ." Luke 13:21-2
-Parables, especially Leaven, which renounce morality-based kingdom (corruption/flour mixed)
-Marriage Feast – marginalized fully a part of the Kingdom
-Good Samaritan – alien/enemy embraced and honored.
-Jesus calls Matthew to be an apostle when Matthew was a dreaded tax collector.
-Jesus having "table fellowship" with sinners and tax collectors.
-On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides the donkey (symbol of the country at peace, renouncing violence)
-In the Passion, Jesus does not respond to the demands of Pilate.
-His scepter, symbol of authority, is the bent reed (symbol of flaccid penis).
Each step was away from sin – and into his full humanity. And in all this he transformed the basis for our morality – away from guilt, shame and a rule based morality. The keys to a moral and holy life were, instead, the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 ("Blessed are the. . ."), the basis for the separation of sheep from goats Matthew 25:31-46, and Paul's list of the marks of a Spirit filled life in Galatians 5:22-23. For Jesus, the command, "You shall be perfect," has to do, not with obedience to a set of rules, but wholeness, being complete. (The word he uses most for sin is a term from archery, meaning "missing the mark.")
Throughout his life, Jesus chooses another world – one that involves dying to the kingdoms, principalities and sin which presses in on us and oppresses us. So central to the meaning of the Cross is that on it, one person accepted the full cost of being human – really human. At that moment, in such a way there would never be any question about it, one person utterly and completely rejected the craziness of the world. There is a remarkable beauty in that.
The central theme of Jesus' life: You have to die . . .in order to live. First he died, then he lived. That is the pattern of Jesus life and our own.
An illustration from our own lives: on marrying another we promise that we will " forsake all others. . ." That means a lot more than burning one's Little Black Book with addresses, telephone numbers and e-mails of past romances. It means saying "No" to anything and everything that might threaten the life and health of this marriage. We die those deaths of forsaking for the possibility of full intimacy with another and with ourselves – for the possibility of healing, completeness. The promise of marriage is: first you die, then you live.
On the other side of each renunciation is affirmation. We renounce, in order to affirm – our relationship with God/life in the Kingdom of God. And so it is in the Baptismal Covenant in our Book of Common Prayer.
Life is, in reality, a series of dying. When we go off to school for the first time, life is changed and we have died to something. In all our transitions in life – if those transitions are to be healthy ones -- life is changed and there is a dying. . as well as a rebirthing. Whether it is life transitions or saying "no" to the elements of death in our culture, life is not a continuum. . .but a series of deaths. The heart of our belief, as Christians, is that we can let go. . .and entrust our lives to God. First we die: then we live.
"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian's lofty and divinely appointed function, from which flourish under persecution. flourish under persecution.
-From the Second Century Letter to Diognetus
OTHER IMAGES OF LIFE AND DEATH
First, a poem by one of the Beat Poets, Robert Creeley, an Episcopalian. I have often offered a prize for the best approximation of the title – no one has come close. The usual entries are "heaven," or something similar. The title is at the end of this blog.
If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit
for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places.
from "For Love"
In Frederick Buechner's novel, Lion Country, Leo Bebb, the founder of Holy Love, an ordination-by-mail enterprise, talks about his assistant Brownie, who is not a bad guy at all:
"Now you take a man like Brownie, Antonio, and you ask yourself where the Almighty went wrong. Well, I tell you it's not the Almighty went wrong, it's Brownie went wrong." The Almighty gave Brownie life, and Brownie never lived it. He just crammed it up his ass. . .and sat on it."
In Equus, the play by Peter Shafer, Dysart, a psychiatrist, is wrestling with the way his own life has become a matter of compromise – moving steadily from life into deadliness. He is talking his patient, Alan Strang:
"Look, to go through life and call it yours – your life – you first have to get your own pain. Pain that's unique to you. You can't just dip into the common bin and say, "That's enough!" He's done that.
"All right, he's sick. He's full of misery and fear. He was dangerous and could be again, though I doubt it. But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it."
In Graham Greene's novel, "Dr. Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party," the narrator, Alfred Jones, recalls opening an anthology at random and reaching Chin Shengt'an's "33 Happy Moments."
"To me," he recalls, "there. . seems to be a horrible complacency about (much of) Oriental wisdom: 'To cut with a sharp knife a bright green watermelon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon. Ah, is not this happiness?"
"Oh yes, if one is a . . philosopher, well-to-do, highly esteemed, at ease with the world, above all safe, unlike the Christian philosopher who thrives on danger and doubt."
Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of the March to Selma: "If I do not do now what my conscience tells me I must do, I may live a long life – and if so, when I die, it will just be my body catching up with my soul. . which died a long, long time ago."
Similarly, out of all the turmoil and all the confusion over the uprising at the Attica prison, there is one thing I will not forget. It was one of the Black prisoners, standing before the TV cameras, trying to express what the whole event was meaning to him. I do not remember his name, but I do remember his words: "If they won't allow us to live like human beings, at least we will die like men."
Much of our calling has to do with the vocation of the Fool: it is most often through the vision of the fool that the world is returned to its senses, thus: The Austrian officer paused during a training drill to ask: "Katsenstein, Katsenstein, why does a soldier give up his life for his country?" Private Katsenstein responded: "You're right, Sergeant. Why does he?"
I know no better illustration of our identity in the world than one of the fantasy lives of Jesus by A. J. Langguth. He is writing about the boyhood of Jesus. His fantasy about Jesus has its own reality in the imago Dei that is each of us.
"Jesus opened his notebook on the study hall desk. Using the ruler from his geometry class, he drew a ledger's line down the center of one page. At the top of the left hand column he wrote 'ASSETS.' and over the other, 'LIABILITIES.' Under 'LIABILITIES,' he printed in block letters, 'IMPATIENT.' Shielding the page from the girl across the aisle, he added:
FILLED WITH DOUBT
TEND TOWARD ARROGANCE
With some dismay he counted the entries and began to contemplate the "ASSETS" column. With another look to be sure the girl couldn't see the page, he wrote, "SON OF GOD." In better spirits, he closed the notebook and started on the next day's translation of Cicero."
Despite all our liabilities, confusion and the dailyness of our lives, we have been chosen for a God who, for some strange reason, delights in us. It is so important to remember the left hand column: it really cannot be taken away from us. Part of the ministry of the fool, in this culture, is to remind us, always, to contemplate the ASSETS column.
The title of Creeley's poem is "Oh, No!"