Sunday, March 26, 2017

Facing Death

Facing Death

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 26, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

John 11: 20-35

2 Samuel 12: 15-24

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, “While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.”

20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ 23 But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

24 Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and went to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and he named him Solomon.

Little did I know back when I was deciding on this plan for Lent how it would all work out. I knew that I wanted to seek to accomplish two things. . . the first I preached about 2 weeks before Lent even started, I wanted to reinvigorate us, to reinvigorate myself, to get us thinking again, to get us focused again, to challenge us again, and so I preached on “Shining our Lights.” We were working our way through the Sermon on the Mount and had come to the part that talks about shining our lights for the world, to not hide them under a bushel, and I wanted us to think anew of ways that we could do that again. . . and then as we headed into Lent, I was thinking about how the times where we need to shine our lights perhaps the most is in the darkness, and it is in the darkness where light is most needed, but also in the darkness where it is the hardest the most difficult to shine our lights. . . and that if we were going to be able to, we’d need to practice in the light, we’d need to prepare, like Jesus did in the desert, we need to prepare, and so this series of Facing the Darkness. . .  began and it evolved in its planning to 5 categories for the 5 weeks. . . Danger, Disease, Death, Deception, and finally Desertion. And the order was important because I wanted them to steadily grow more and more intense, more and more dark, more and more challenging as we approached Holy Week and Easter, and I wanted them to also parallel the journey of Holy Week itself. . . so that being the case you may ask, why would today’s topic, Death, be the last, the worst, the most frightening, the most depressing, the most daunting of the dangers. . . and I’m not sure why three weeks ago I made that decision, except to maybe try to line desertion and deception up with Palm Sunday. . . but now as I head into it I think I did make the right decision, not just because it lined up with Tom’s passing, but because of what Tom’s passing and much of my thoughts and study this week reminded me of. . . so let us begin.

The Old Testament Lesson reflected one of the tragic death scenes from the Old Testament, and one of perhaps the most devastating archetypes in all of human suffering: the death of a child. . . and in this case the death of a Child born into a difficult situation, the sins of his parents, of course that he himself the child took no part in. . . we remember the story of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whom David sent into battle at the front lines so that he may be killed. . . and this child has died, and through his devastation David regains faith, or remains faithful, rededicating himself to the service of God, and so then is given a new child, Solomon, a story of redemption. . . perhaps. . . though still very much a challenging one.

The New Testament reading is more well known, and I have preached on it recently, I think two years ago, when we were journeying through the Gospel of John, here the death, but not the raising of Lazurus, John 11: 20-35.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[f] Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep.

Both of these stories, that of David’s son, and that of Lazarus share one really important thing in common, and it is an important thing, that actually connects these stories to us, and that connects these stories to almost every other piece of literature from the beginning of time together. . . do you know what it is? Can you guess. . . They are told from the perspective of those close to the dying or dead person, and not the dead themselves. . . the truth is that we do not really know what it is like to actually face death because no one who has actually died, at least permanently and all the way, not like what we call a near death experience, but this fact is why we are so interested and curious and inspired by so called near death experiences, because those are as close as any one has ever gotten. . . and those are experienced by so few of us. . . so most of us, and our experience with facing death comes not from ourselves, but by those around us who we’ve seen first hand. . . and the difficult part of that experience is that it is all loss for us. . . Emily Dickinson wrote about, parting like this, when she says, that Parting, is all we know of heaven, and all we need of Hell. . . what she is saying is that all we truly know, we may have faith for more, but all we can truly know, from experience and from other people, is that death is parting. . . two people who are not apart from each other, and we know that truth all too well. Its symbols are all around us. . . an empty chair, an empty pew, a place in the memory of our hearts that will forever be reserved for those we have loved and have lost. . . it is hard to not do a quick memory rolladex in our mind of those we’ve know and lost, and not shed a tear, and feel a pit in  your stomach and a tightening of your throat. Is this the very cause of our fear of death? It’s negative light. . . it as darkness, a darkness to be faced. . . and faced by all of us at some point.

Because death is something that is shared by all human beings, and not just now, but all throughout time. . . you could make the argument that it is precisely the thing that makes us human, the fact that we face death, and that we know we do, we are aware of it, and this awareness makes us human. . . but what does that mean? What does the relationship to death and humanity do in shaping us?

The oldest piece of literature that is extant was found on a stone tablet just over 100 years ago, and it is the story of a tyrant, a king of kings, who ruled by an iron fist, who oppressed his people simply because he could. He knew no limitation. . . so his people prayed to the gods to save them from him. . . and the gods do not oppose him, or depose him, instead they send to him a friend. . . who at first is an adversary, and they fight, and though the king of kings wins, he is unable to break the spirit of the other, he is unable to completely achieve whatever he wills, without the expense of energy, and he knows this. . . so he becomes aware of his limitation for the first time in his life. . . humility. . . this is part of being human, but then after their battle they become inseparable as friends. . . and he learns companionship. . . and then his friend dies, and he learns loss. . . he becomes aware of his own mortality in the loss of his friend, and he goes on a mission to try to find a way to live forever, but he fails, find finds he cannot escape death. . . and he changes as a king. . . he has become fully human, no longer a tyrannical limitless king of kings, but a fragile, human being, in need of companionship. . . he is different because he learns compassion. . . and the story shows that when forced to face the realities of life. . . human beings become compassionate. . . it is when we ignore these realities where we are not. . .

Throughout history this story is repeated again and again. . . and its lessons are all but lost in today’s escape from death at all cost culture. . . we like that king find ourselves on the quest for immortal life, and in so doing, have we lost our compassion for one another? It was not but so long ago that death was very much a reality and an inescapable one. . . in the Reivers, by William Faulkner, he is describing life in 1910, just over a hundred short years ago, and says:

Besides that people took funerals seriously in those days. Not death: death was our constant familiar: no family but whose annals were dotted with headstones whose memorialees had lived too brief in tenure to bear a name even—unless of course the mother slept there too in that one grave, which happened more often than you would like to think. Not to mention the husbands and uncles and aunts in the twenties and thirties and forties, and the grandparents and childless great uncles and aunts who died at home then, in the same rooms and beds they were born in, instead of in cubiculed euphemisms with names pertaining to sunset. . .

It is an interesting question, has our sheltering from death by advancements in medicine, and the like changed our understanding of it, increasing our dread, but so much as it allows us to put it out of our mind completely, giving us the false sense that we will live forever. . . the distance allows us to ignore it, but at what cost. . . is it our compassion. . . is it our being alive?

I read a book this week called, Veronika Decides to Die, it was written by Paulo Coehlo who also wrote The Alchemist, his more famous work that we actually read a few years ago in Sunday School. The book was awesome. . . it is about this girl Veronika, young, like 25, beautiful, intelligent, educated, good job. . . decides she is going to kill herself, not because she is sad, but instead she gives two reasons, she says:

1.      Everything in her life was the same, and once her youth was gone it would be downhill all the way. . .  she would gain nothing by continuing to live, indeed the likelihood of suffering would only increase.

2.      Everything in the world was wrong, and she had no way of putting things right—that gave her a sense of complete powerlessness

So these are her two reasons. . . surely sounds reasonable. . . it echoes Hamlet, “who would bear the whips and scorns of time?” That’s it right, this is the best I’ll ever be, and the world is a sterile promontory, on which nothing good can be done. . . and she doesn’t see that as a sad thing, just a emotionless reality. . . so she makes the logical step to end that reality, or at least her place and participation in it. . . . but the thing is she fails, she takes sleeping pills, and they don’t in fact kill her, instead she wakes up in a mental hospital. . . but here’s the rub. . . the sleeping pills have done irreparable damage to her heart and she has only a few days to live. . . . and she will spend them in the mental hospital, interred against her will. Pretty good premise huh, and I don’t want to ruin the book for you because I actually 100% recommend it. . . but her Doctor is working on a theory, that there is this thing he calls Vitriol, but it is really bitterness. . . and it lumps up everytime you chose not to live. . . you chose to sell yourself short, you chose fear, and then you regret it, and it builds up. . . creating a paralysis. . . and he says that the only cure is “Awareness of life and awareness of death. . .” and the greatest line in the book is “What Dr. Igor had not counted on was the infectious nature of the cure. . .” That life, and an acute awareness of death, and the intensity of life that it creates is infact infectious. . . life breeds more life. . . and I do not know about you, but I have felt the most alive in my life when I have been inescabably faced with the death and loss of loved ones, and have seen others most alive too at those times. . . most alive, and since we are humans, most compassionate.

If I were to again go through my mental rolladex of those people I’ve lost, yes I get that tear, and the pit of my stomach and the tightness in my throat, but if I remember the surrounding days. . . I remember an intensity of life. . . of family. . . of love. . . of compassion that I just don’t see on other days. . . Maybe that is why human beings have throughout our existence taken funerals so seriously, as Faulkner attests to in that passage I read by in The Reivers. . . a professor who has a podcast that I listen to all the time believes that the attribute that has united human beings together is the rituals that we have always had surrounding death, these rituals transcend time and culture, and he says as we drift from them we have lost some of our humanity. . . perhaps that is the case.

Jesus comes up on Mary and Martha, and they each blame him, tears in their eyes, weeping and crying, uncontrollably so, and they accost Jesus, why were you not here, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died. . . and then Jesus Wept. . . so brief, so beautiful, so poignant, but why does Jesus weep. . . I have posed many different thoughts on this topic before, but the one I want to pose today is that Jesus weeps because they are weeping and what it means to be human and alive, when facing death is to have empathy, to have compassion and to cry and feel. . . this is to be alive and face death. . . to face death and to actually die is something completely different. You shuffle off this mortal coil, and come to know God, and love, and wonder and glory in a first hand way that defies and surpasses what we can even imagine. . . but yet it is the fulfillment of a longing we have always had. . . and it is more even than some kind of quest to live forever holding on to the status quo because it is all our finite minds can comprehend. . . yes so much more.

One of my favorite things to do is to give a homily at a funeral. . . I know that sounds strange, but it is true. . . its true because we get to do two things that we don’t often do. . . and facing the death of loved ones allows us to do. . . one is to celebrate life, and the life of the true saints around us, recounting their goodness, and how they did it right, whereas so often we preach on human error and sin and how we can improve. . . but at funerals we celebrate a life lived. . . and the other thing is we get to witness to the everlasting life that Jesus promises and makes real for us. . . even if it is beyond our comprehension. . . the memorial service gives us a chance to find comfort in the metaphors, that help us to imagine, though they of course fall short, of the amazing wonder that is union and life with God in heaven. Today we do so in memory of our beloved Tom Southard. . . until then. . . Amen.