Jeremiah 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33
******** United Church of Christ
April 2, 2006
It seems hard to believe but we’re approaching the end of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the beginning of our keeping vigil with Jesus as he moves toward Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Are you ready? Do you feel like you’re prepared for all this? We are following a man to his execution. I don’t know of anything that would prepare me for that; except perhaps preparing for my own death. Eventually I am, we are, all going to die. Like the song says, we won’t get out of this world alive.
At first my Lenten devotion to take on was going to be writing to others to let them know how important they are in my life. But I had done that one before, and it is something I try to do every day with those around me. Instead I started writing in a book by Hallmark, full of empty pages and questions to answer that would tell the story of my life to my children. After Eleanor’s funeral I began to wonder: who would tell the story of my life to a pastor, to my children? Who would be able to go back to my childhood, my teenage and college years, my time in seminary, and my first position in a church as an associate? I began to reflect on the words of Ash Wednesday: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” I didn’t want to be dust and ashes without someone, especially my children, knowing how my life had been lived. So I began to write my brief history to my husband and my children, so that, in the words of Thoreau, when I came to die I would not discover that I had not lived.
How often do we think about our own death? How many of us have made out a will? How many of us have a living will? How many of us have life insurance? Freud would say that our unconscious fear of death is what motivates most of human behavior and neuroses.
In the movie “When Harry Met Sally”, when they first meet, neurotic Harry and neurotic Sally have a discussion about death:
Sally: Amanda mentioned you had a dark side.
Harry: That’s what drew her to me.
S: Your dark side.
H: Sure. Why, don’t you have a dark side? Oh, you’re probably one of those cheerful people who dot their i’s with little hearts.
S: I have just as much a dark side as the next person.
H: Oh really? When I buy a book I always read the last page first; that way, in case I die before I finish, I’ll know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
S: That doesn’t mean you’re deep or anything. I mean, yes, basically I’m a happy person.
H: So am I.
S: And I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with that.
H: Of course not. You’re too busy being happy. You ever think about death?
H: Sure you do. A fleeting thought that drifts through the transom of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days…
S: And you think this makes you a better person?
H: Look, when the [bleep] comes down I’m going to be prepared and you’re not; that’s all I’m saying.
S: In the meantime you’re going to ruin your whole life waiting for it.
Some of us think about death to avoid living life. The kind of reflection about death that I’m talking about, that Jesus is talking about, is the kind that leads us toward living a whole life that bears much fruit.
I want to tell you two stories about two women, both of whom faced their own death and lived to live life anew.
The first is about a white woman who traveled with a tribe of Aborigines for four months across the Australian outback. She was to learn their way of being and living on this planet. Each day they would pray to Divine Oneness, asking for whatever was needed for that day if it was for their highest good and the highest good of all life everywhere. Each day she would travel in the group, sometimes at the rear, sometimes in the middle. One day she was given the assignment of being out in front, to lead the tribe to their evening destination of dinner, some water, and rest. She tried to decline, but she was told that ultimately everyone must lead at some time. One cannot understand what it is like to lead unless one takes on the leadership role.
So they began their day with her leading the way. It was higher than 105 degrees by her estimate. They stopped midday to create some shade with some animal skins. Then later in the day they continued their trek, walking much longer than usual. No animals or plants had emerged along their path to be honored for the evening meal. There was no water. Finally she called the day’s journey to an end.
She went to the tribal member who spoke English and asked for help. She asked others for help but no one would help her. Instead they talked about how every person at some time walks at the rear of the group.
The next day the tribe once again traveled with this woman in the leadership role. The heat was unbearable. She felt her throat closing. Her tongue was dry and swollen. Every step was slow and difficult. The land around them was barren and hostile to any kind of life. In the distance there was a heavy rain cloud but it stayed out their reach; they could not get close enough to enjoy even its shadow. They ended the second day again with no food and no water.
On the third day the woman pleaded with the tribal members. She begged them on her knees to help her, to save themselves. They listened to her with compassion but only smiled at her as if to say, “We are thirsty and hungry too, but this is your experience so we support you totally in what you must learn.”
As they traveled that third day the woman could no longer feel her body. She was numb from the heat. She knew she was suffering from fatal dehydration. She thought to herself, “This is it. I am dying.” She began to question why was she here; had she traveled 10,000 miles from home only to die in the desert? She realized that she was still using her western mind, her western way of doing things rather than the ways of this tribe, who used mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart communication. She had used her voice to ask for help rather than open her heart and mind as in prayer.
So in her mind she cried out, “Help me. If it is in my highest good and the highest good for all life everywhere, let me learn.” An answer came to her mind: “Put the rock in your mouth”. She had been carrying a small rock in the cleavage of her chest since the first day of this walkabout. She put the rock in her mouth, rolled it around, and moisture began to return to her mouth.
She then asked with her heart and mind: “I will do whatever is necessary to find water, but I don’t know what to do, how to look.” The thought came to her: “Be water.” So she thought about water in all its various forms and images, in vapor, ice, snow, cold, tepid, clear, muddy, still, bubbling. She became in her mind whatever images of water came to her.
She walked up a small sand dune, about six feet high, and sat down on the rock on top of it. As she gazed down at her friends, they were all smiling at her. Then she stretched back her hand to steady herself and she felt something wet. She jerked her head around and saw a rock pool extending ten feet from the rock ledge she had been sitting on, its contents the water from yesterday’s rain cloud. She estimated that it only took 30 minutes from when she surrendered her way to the tribal way and thought about being water to the time the whole tribe was splashing with joy.
The other story I want to tell you is about a woman when she was in her late twenties. As a result of an overly-strong measles vaccination, her immune system created auto-antibodies that assaulted her muscular and vascular systems. In several months she lost 20 lbs. She barely had enough strength to lift her body out of bed in the morning. Every day she suffered from chronic pain. Her doctors had no cure for this but could only give her massive doses of steroids for the pain, hoping that this would shock her system back to normal.
She tried many kinds of alternative medicine as well: vitamins, psychic healing, shiatsu massage, chiropractics, macrobiotics, biofeedback—nothing worked. One day she just gave up. She went to her biofeedback appointment and while the technician was attaching the electrodes, she prayed to God to just let her die. She was tired, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Every day she was in pain. It was so bad she thought it would be better for someone else to raise her two children.
As she imagined herself shedding her body, being greeted by God in heaven, and had these thoughts of death and giving up, the tone on the biofeedback machine kept going lower and lower. A lower tone is what is desired, indicating that the body is relaxing and allowing the body to heal. The closer she felt to death, the lower the tone on the monitor. The technician told her excitedly that whatever she was doing was working, that she was on the track of mastering her life.
She had come to death only to discover how to live. She was still worn out but those few minutes of giving up and giving her life completely to God were the most peaceful she had since becoming sick. The technician told her to go home and practice what she had discovered during the session. So she went home and practiced dying, giving up, surrendering.
Jesus surrendered. As a seed surrenders itself to the soil, dies, and brings forth new life, Jesus also died. He was obedient, even unto death on a cross. Over the centuries this has been interpreted by some as God demanding Jesus’ obedience to die on a cross so as to appease God’s death sentence for sin. What Jesus was obedient to was love; God is love and love is God. He came to glorify that love in the way that he lived. And the way Jesus lived, as the full expression of God’s love for all people, became misunderstood by some, raised their fears and angered them, so much so, that Jesus could see that his life would lead to his death. But he also knew that God who is love would not let death be the final word. New life, resurrection, eternal life that begins the moment we are ready for it was to be the word that would speak to all people. If Jesus had run away from the garden that night and left Israel, he would have saved his own life, but he would not have love by cheating death. By his surrendering, by his obedience to this love that is God, even unto death, Jesus would draw all people to himself.
What if we were transformed, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “into a community of glad obedience”? Imagine what the Church would look like if we surrendered completely to the covenant of grace that God offers us. It is this covenant that helps us to be obedient to love, for God’s law, which is love, will be written on our hearts. In order for this love to take hold within us as a community, our communal need for control and security has to die. Any thought of success or fear of failure as a church has to die. Our worship of the past and our anxiety about the future has to die. Our inability to forgive and our memory of those who have wronged us have to die. In letting go of these things, in giving them up, we will be surrendering to love. We will die in order that we may love and live abundantly, fruitfully, glorifying the One who died for the sake of love.
So, ******** United Church of Christ, to what do you need to surrender, to obey, to die so that you might bear much fruit? How is God’s law of love written upon your hearts? What about God is difficult for you to trust? What does it mean to you that Jesus died and lived again? In God’s covenant God will remember our sin no more; what are you prepared to offer God as your part of the covenant? As a community of faith, are you living to eventually die or are you dying that you might love and live abundantly, glorifying the One who died for the sake of love? Are you living to die or dying to live?
Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior who showed us the way of love, the way of good death, and the way to eternal life that begins right now. Amen.