“Life Up From Death” by Mark W. Harris – March 29, 2009
“Life Up From Death” by Mark W. Harris
March 29, 2009 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship from Mzwakhe Mbuli
Now is the time,
To climb up the mountain
And reason against habit,
Now is the time.
Now is the time,
to renew the barren soil of nature
Ruined by the winds of tyranny,
Now is the time.
Now is the time,
to commence the litany of hope,
Now is the time . . .
Now is the time,
To give me roses, not to keep them
For my grave to come,
Give them to me while my heart beats,
Give them today
While my heart yearns for jubilee,
Now is the time . . . .
Readings Psalm 23 (Responsive # 642 )
Psalm 22 – 1-11, 17-25
1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest. 3 Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. 5 To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed. 6 But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; 8 “He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” 9 Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. 10 Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help. . . a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet–. . . 17 I can count all my bones–they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots. 19 But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen! 22 I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. 25 From thee comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
Reading – from Remembering the Bone House by Nancy Mairs
Sermon – “Life Up From Death” Mark Harris
Most of you know that this is my last sermon before I go on sabbatical for three months. During that time I will be in residence working on a book that Andrea and I are contracted to write. There will be more information about this sabbatical in the April newsletter, and a brochure will also be available on the information table in the lobby. The subject of this last sermon is death. Now some of you might wonder if there is some symbolic meaning in that choice of topic. In addition to the finality of my time this year, most ministers also feel the need to raise this topic on a regular basis. While polite conversation may avoid sex, death and taxes, I never envisioned sermon topics to be polite, but in fact should be on issues that beckon us to reflect more deeper about the meaning of life and death, and thus are the subject of long walks, extensive conversations, or even midnight anxiety attacks that keep us enlisted on the rolls of insomniacs. Death sermons have a regular sequence in my planning for services. A few months back I was talking about the book Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. I had not read this reflection on death then, but was intrigued by the opening line which says “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” and a sermon on God was the result. At the time I told a church member that once I had read the book, I would preach about death. She responded, “Oh I love your death sermons.” I didn’t know quite how to take that, but nevertheless here we are.
While the reviewer of Barnes’ book thought it “beautiful and funny,” I am less inclined to sing its praises. It was funny in places with that kind of depressive, self-deprecating, but nevertheless self-important kind of humor that I expect from Brits, but sometimes I became a little tired of his comparisons of himself to his brother. I felt like I was watching an old Smothers brothers episode, where either Tommy or Dickie would say, Mom always liked you best. What is central to his memoir are reflections on the deaths of his parents, and his particular obsession with thinking about his own death. I suppose one could view the subject as an obsession of clergy, who by occupational hazard have to articulate the meaning of death, not merely for sermonic purposes, but because memorial services and funerals are part of the job description. But the larger reality for any of us is that we do not understand life unless we understand death. And so, for me, talking with families about how to cope with the deaths of loved ones, and learning to understand our own demise may be some of the most important work we do.
Every day I pick up the Boston Globe, and turn to the obituaries. I look particularly to see if there is anyone I know, something many of us do as we age. Then I look for famous people that have intrigued me or touched my life in some way. Recently, I have seen George Kell, the Hall of Fame baseball player; Natasha Richardson, the actor and daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, who died tragically in a skiing accident, and the scholar, John Hope Franklin, who wrote so eloquently about black history and the legacy of racism. The deaths touch closer to home sometimes. My colleague in Waltham stopped by to tell me about the woman who sang in his choir, who had been murdered by her grandson, and the struggles of his congregation to comprehend this tragedy. I conducted a funeral recently for the mother of a former First Parish church friend. She died of a heart attack unexpectedly.
It is not always that way. Sometimes death is long and slow, as it was for both of my parents. For some of us, potential pain is among our greatest fears. And so we debate in our minds, which kind of death we prefer, one in which we have a chance to speak to those we are closest to, and say goodbye, or do we want it sudden and quick? My recent experiences tell me we should be ready at any time. The choice may not be ours. For all of our exercise and diet, and precautions to live a long time, we may increase the odds of survival, but there is no guarantee. No guarantee of anything. So perhaps we remember the words of our call to worship and say, now is the time. Now is the time to tell my family I love them. Now is the time to settle the disputes you want to end. Now is the time to tell your children you are proud of them, and to tell your parents that you forgive them, and convey that they did the best job they could have. If we are always ready to die, then the implication is that we can live more fully today. Perhaps that is true. We would call up those friends we have been meaning to speak to. We would look at our own “bucket list” of things to do and places to go before we die, and we would try harder to experience those.
Life does begin to work that way as we age. When we are young the nearness of death appears less relevant to life, plus our elders often make sure it seems that way. They may want to shield us from death, and so when my grandmother died when I was nine, my parents did not take me to the funeral. Yet she had moved in with us in her final months, and I had enjoyed her company for games of scrabble and stories about my father as a boy, but it seemed as though she disappeared in death, and I was left with no opportunity to say goodbye. So my first experience with facing death, is that it is something we don’t talk about. It was almost like the famous story about the Buddha, where he is kept locked away in the palace, so he will not have to see what happens to people as they age and eventually die. He can go on believing that life is endless. Once he is exposed to the reality of life, he renounces its vanities, that he might fully appreciate the transience of it all .
Nancy Mairs speaks of her love for her grandmother in Remembering the Bone House. Garm’s death means the end of an era, and of spending summers with her. Her grandmother’s death teaches her that there is this final goodbye, but she never had a chance to write her another letter to say it. So, she spends the rest of her life writing letters to loved ones. Her aunt says, “We have lost, but she has gained,” and that she is now with Nancy’s father in death. This seems to provide some comfort to Nancy. Comfort is something we seek when we feel the loss of a loved one. The church of my childhood always assured us that there was life after death to those who believed in Jesus. This was the second way I learned to talk about death, as the gateway to heaven. I wanted to believe this, but the older I became the more difficulty I encountered in accepting its veracity. For the living there is a desire to have a time where we can say goodbye, accept this loss, and find a way to go on with some kind of continuing comfort through the vehicle of memory. There is a connection between the grief we feel over the loss of loved ones, and accepting our own deaths.
A recent essay called “Death: Bad?” in the New York Times Book Review suggests that some of the ancient philosophers said it is irrational to fear death. After all, death is inevitable, and once you are in that state there is nothing to worry about. What can happen to you? Your problems are gone. Second, whether you die young or old, you are dead for all eternity, so timing matters little either. Finally, all the time before birth is of little consequence to you, so why should we be concerned about the eternity after death. There are some presumptions here we might take issue with. While being dead may not be painful, it is not exactly what we would call a desirable state to be in. Further, it seems that if living is better than death, than a longer life is preferable. And then, while you don’t remember the time before birth, you also were not created yet either. Any time lost now is time missed. The loss we feel in the wake of the death of a loved ones shows us that losing them, even if it is after a long life, is painful to us. The loss we feel over others deaths also shows us that we do not feel that our death is nothing.
The pain we feel when loved ones die is directly related to a continuing opportunity to accept our own deaths and live life more fully. When we are young we barely think about such things because we are busy constructing a life, and inventing who we are. But the death of a grandparent or parent takes away pieces of ourselves, and consequently there is a hole in our heart that will never be filled. Nancy Mairs is comforted because she has a sense that two of those pieces of her life are together in death, and so the isolated loss of her father is compensated by this death of her grandmother. As a child I memorized the 23rd Psalm. While it provides a continuity with a childhood faith, it also reminds us, adult and child alike, that we walk through the shadow of the valley of death by living at all, and like the sheep metaphor, we want some kind of staff to protect us, and especially to comfort us when confronted with illness, and the ultimate truth of our finite existence. The 23rd Psalm is a poem about a meaningful journey through life. We want a life that will continually restore our souls. We strive to live a good life. The traditional comforter may be eternal life with those we loved in this life. This is subject to severe doubts if we consider the rational possibilities about the nature of life. Death means the end of me, as I know me, and any kind of afterlife, if it is possible, is going to be very different from this one. After a person has suffered a great deal we sometimes say, their suffering is over, and now they are at peace. I have said those very words. Yet, we really don’t know what kind of state they are in. We can’t really say they are better off, even if it is true that the suffering is over. Perhaps the best way of all to understanding our own deaths is if we can get beyond self-interest, and live the larger meaning of our lives.
Right before the pastoral Psalm 23 is Psalm 22. If you grew up Christian, as I did, you memorized Psalm 23, but Psalm 22 is recognizable in a very different context. It is a context that is relevant to the coming events of Passion week, where Jesus is crucified. The Psalm begins with the words that Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus uttered on the cross. While some have speculated that he felt that God had forsaken him because he did not sense an imminent rescue, and others have said he was reciting Psalm 22, the more likely scenario is that we don’t know what he said while facing his death by execution. What seems clear is that the Gospel writers, adopted this Psalm to give substance to Jesus’ story. We not only hear the words from the cross, but also hear of him being mocked, suffering pierced hands and feet, and then the indignity of dividing his garments and casting lots for them. All the details are there. As a whole it is a prayer for deliverance from a mortal illness. The person feels as though God has given up on him. What did I do to deserve this? He recalls feeling blessed in the past, but now he is afflicted, and people are ready to divide his belongings up before he is even dead. There is in the end a glimmer of hope that he will be restored to life, and he seems to bargain for it. This is a poem that reminds us that death is not easy. We worry about pain. We worry about people’s selfishness. Even up to the moment of acceptance, if it comes, there is hope that death will not come. We want the pastoral setting of Psalm 23 – protection and comfort.
So is Psalm 22 the reality of confronting our own deaths, and Psalm 23 the answer? If Psalm 22 is the reality, then the rational response to the specter of non existence is fear. Here I agree with Julian Barnes. When I wake in the middle of the night, I cannot convince myself that death is something not to worry about, as easy as falling out of bed. Yes, it is like falling, but it is falling onto the floor permanently, and never getting up. There is much wisdom in the Buddhist tradition to let go of those things that attach us to this world. In that faith, a story is told about the monk Baddhiya. One day during sitting meditation, he cried out, “Oh, my happiness!” Other monks thought he was talking about material things that once brought him pleasure. When the Buddha questioned him about this, he said, that he was recalling a time when he was a political governor, attended by servants and protected by bodyguards. During that time he said he always lay awake with fear. I was afraid that people would steal my wealth. I was afraid of being assassinated. Now, he said, I am free, because I have nothing to lose. I enjoy every moment. “That is why I cried out, Oh My Happiness!” Like the call to worship, the story reminds us that now is the time to contemplate what truly makes us happy, and how we must be nourished in the present moment, as material things are merely passing fancies. As my father used to say, “you can’t take it with you.” And yet my siblings ended up fighting over those very material things of this world. Their very real fear of death remained a fear that was revealed in their grasping for the things of this world. Julian Barnes tells a story of the emptiness of finding heaven in self-fulfillment. A successful business friend of his was determined to arrange all the particulars of his own death, including all the funeral planning in advance. He even admitted that he wanted to succeed at death. When we are always proving ourselves even unto death, it becomes impossible to live in the moment, and we only see the importance of the self, and not what our contribution might be to the larger whole. My loss of those family material things has reminded me to this day that I didn’t need any of that wealth to enjoy my life, and that fear ruined the one sustaining thing my siblings had, the love we once knew in relationship with each other.
Fear of death afflicts us all, but we can reduce that fear, when we do live for what is eternal in this moment, and when we live a life where self-concern is not our highest interest. I have been told that women are more comfortable with death than men. Sometimes this is said to be true because women are more in touch with the natural processes of the earth and their bodies than men are. Traditionally the male is a sky god, and the female is an earth god. It may be true that women are more likely to understand the natural processes of life and death, and find death something to be accepted rather than feared. But I also believe that the traditional role of women as care giver and mothers makes it so that their lives contributes to a greater life that survives them – the family, their children. By doing this we contribute to the future beyond ourselves. Charles Hartshorne, the UU theologian called this “contributionism.” This means that we give more to life, when we give to others. People who are miserable, and given nothing to the larger continuation of life, are likely to fear death most of all. This is not to say there is an immortality of deeds, but rather that the larger contribution to living that we make, will make living more abundant for us, and those who follow. Those who follow then must then heed our call to live more abundantly.
I learned the 23rd Psalm in the church of my childhood. While I don’t follow the church’s beliefs about God, the Bible or its message of redemption any more, I do know that that ancient Psalm is something that still brings me comfort. Maybe it is from a time when I felt cared for and safe, but it is that kind of balm that stays with us throughout our lives when illness or even death threatens. But those words also had to do with home. One thing most of us experience is that as we age we see our parents in the mirror, in our actions, and in our words. As much as we rebelled against them, or style ourselves as different, there is something enduring in us of them. I think Nancy Mairs was right in knowing that our loved ones who are deceased are together in memory, and it comforts us to know they are not alone in that way. It may also be a bit of a comfort to us now that they wait for us when our time comes. They are part of that prior contributionism that beckons us forth to contribute to life in our time, even if we know it has a finite end. We were formed in life by all those who loved us and taught us and guided us, and so when we think of our end, we do feel the need to be reconciled and even redeemed by those same people. When we lay down to sleep, we want to be at peace, and giving our heart and soul to others will bring us that peace like no other action we can perform in this life.
Julian Barnes says, “We live broadly according to a religion we no longer believe in.” Psalm 23 still comforts me even though my childhood faith is gone. While we may move away from our parents in life, Barnes says, they reclaim us in death. So our parents and other loved ones are still alive and speaking to us and in us, and we still cry some times that they are gone. We live what good they taught us, and let go all that might cause shame or hurt. We die as we live. One of my parents died holding on and saying little, and the other was grateful for the good life he enjoyed, and perhaps we struggle with both. It is hard to let go of this beautiful earth and the people we love, but in reflection, we can also be grateful for all we are given. Love and death, living and dying are two sides of an equation. There is a land of the living, and a land of the dead, Thornton Wilder once wrote, and the only bridge between them is love. It is in the nature of things that we return to the earth, and become part of its renewal, too. We are living with the dying and death every day, and that is truly why NOW must be the time. We must let that voice of memory speaks through us now of love, of friendship, of the desire for justice, of humor, of struggle, of striving to live more abundantly. You are what you have contributed, and dying will come easier when you have lived with a larger life of contributions to the world, to the community, and to each other. What we should always remember is that life rises up from death. That has always been true in the life of the earth, in evolution. We die, so that others might live. That is an immortality worth dying for.
Closing Words – from St. Francis
God, make us instruments of your peace,
where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine master,
may we not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving, that we receive;
and in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that become part of all that is eternal.