One of the gifts that comes to us in the midst of winter’s doldrums is the delivery of seed catalogues–Burpees, Breck’s, Springhill Nursery, to name only a few that are lying around our house. What a Godsend in the midst of endless days of gray and snow to be able to look at pictures of roses, hydrangeas, and peonies in full bloom; ripe, red tomatoes shining in sunlight, beans climbing up poles; and gardeners digging in warm, dark soil. I’d be content to just rake winter-blown leaves from bare beds at this point, but that will have to wait. I fear there is more shoveling of snow to be done.
But isn’t it amazing that even now, underneath all that snow and mud and frozen ground, even now seeds and bulbs are cracking open, sending shoots upwards at the first sign of warmth and sunlight? They were poking through just a couple weeks ago, during that warm lull.
Now, I’m pretty sure Jesus never saw snow, but he did study the ways of nature–the way the earth brings forth plants and food, the way birds nest and fly, the way clouds portend rain. He told time by the sun, moon, and stars; he read the direction of waves on the sea. He lived in and knew human bodies, how they are born and how they die.
He spoke about his own death this way–“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” “We would see Jesus,” a couple of Greek visitors to Jerusalem during Passover said to the disciple Philip, and when word finally reached Jesus, he told them about the seed falling into the earth, and then, “And when I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross], I will draw all people to myself. He said this,” John tells us, “to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
You want to see Jesus? Look at the way he died. To be honest, that’s the last place I want to see Jesus, hanging on a cross, beaten, bloodied, cursed. “Why do we call it Good Friday?” someone asked at our Deacons’ meeting this month. That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? You want to see Jesus? I’d just as soon look at his healings, his pointing to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, his taking of children in his arms, his kindness to prostitutes and tax collectors and outcasts, his compassion for all sorts of people, his kneeling down and washing his disciples feet, even his outrage at the Temple becoming a marketplace.
But to see him on the cross, “lifted up,” as John puts it? It’s hard to see the “goodness” there in that Friday. But for John’s community, the cross is indeed where the really “good news,” the real life, paradoxically, is found. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, isolated, alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It is on the cross, through his death, through his utter, vulnerable, openness to God, that Jesus creates a new community. “Woman,” he says to his mother, “behold your son.” And to the disciple whom he loved, Jesus says, “Behold your mother.” “And from that hour,” John says, “the disciple took her into his home.” A community of mutual love and care was formed, beyond blood family or nationality or clan.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This kind of love, this kind of death, of letting go of everything but God, creates new life. It is not just an ending, but rather also, more fully, a beginning. New relationships may be formed, or transformed. Has that ever happened to you at a funeral, when you re-connected with a long-lost family member or friend, and discovered that this death somehow gave life to a new or renewed relationship? That’s what happened with my older brother and I after our brother Bob died. God is able to make a way out of no way.
“I must let go of everything but God.” Letting go of even our lives, to fall into God. That’s the ultimate Lenten practice, isn’t it? And it is a practice. We can practice dying by giving of ourselves to others. Parents practice dying by countless acts of sacrifice and giving to their children. We can practice this kind of dying by practicing loving without grasping, by allowing our loved ones to grow and develop in ways beyond our control. We can practice not shrinking from the places that scare us, as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron commends to us. To confront and look at openly and lovingly the places that scare us or that we’ve pushed aside or suppressed. This is where that loving community comes in, as it is often wise to have a trained or mature companion to accompany us to those places. We can even meditate on our own deaths, a practice taken up by people of many different faiths. We can think about and plan the celebration of our lives, which I invite you to do on the forms found in the back of the sanctuary. What would you like us to celebrate about your life? How shall we do that? What shall we sing?
Stephen Levine, author, Buddhist teacher, companion and guide to many going through death, writes this–
Death, like birth, is not an emergency, but an emergence. Death is akin to a flower opening: It is nearly impossible to tell exactly when the bud starts to become the blossom, or when the seed-laden blossom begins to burst and release its bounty.
Those who know the process directly–from experiences shared with the dying, from decades of meditation, from moments of spontaneous grace, from eucharists of every description–do not speak of death as a single moment before which you are alive and after which you are not. They refer instead to ‘a point of remembrance’ in which the holding to life transforms into a letting go into death. It is, just a little way into the process, the moment when something is suddenly remembered that it seems impossible to have forgotten. We ‘remember’ how safe death is, we recall the benefits of being free of the limitations of the body, and we ask ourselves somewhat incredulously, ‘How could I have forgotten something so important, and what was it again that made me want to stay in a body?’ Death takes on an entirely new context.
At that moment, just before we feel the lightness lifting us from our body, while we are still trying to capture each molecule of oxygen just to stay alive another instant, we suddenly remember we are not [only]the body, never have been, never will be! Resistance vanishes into a glimpse of our long-migrating spirit. We cut the moorings and dive into the ocean of being, expanding from our body, the mind floating free.
I do not know if this is ‘the moment of death,’ but I do know this insight changes everything. No longer holding back, we feel ourselves dissolving safe and sound into an increasingly joyous, even youthful, sense of heading home.
From this boundless perspective we can appreciate, beyond all worldly reason, how perfect a teaching even death can be, and how immense and intricately woven is the miraculous process of our evolution. [from A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last]
To be so familiar, so intimate, with death allows a freedom to live more fully and to let our loved ones go. This isn’t a death wish. It’s not a condemnation or rejection of the body as somehow unholy or unworthy. We’ve already talked about that this Lent, being reminded that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the incarnation of Jesus is the ultimate sign of God’s embracing human flesh. This is not an other-worldly spirituality, for, as one Biblical scholar points out, all the verbs and participles here are present tense. When Jesus talks about “eternal life” here, it could just as easily be translated “eternal now living.” [Mark Davis, leftbehindandloving it, 2015] What is called for, one commentator writes, is a discernment between what to hold on to and what to let go of. [Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook] It is whole-hearted love of life, of others, of self, of God, but not a grasping or clinging. “I must let go of everything but God.”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, [Jesus said] it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit….When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself.”
To “see Jesus” by looking at his death on the cross, Debie Thomas writes, is to see the extent to which Love will go to “draw all people to itself,” to “willingly take on violence, contempt, hatred of the world and absorb it into his body, to refuse to waver in the message of universal love, grace, liberation, knowing it would cost him his life. ..He burst open like a seed so that new life would grow and replenish the earth. He took an instrument of torture and turned [it] into a vehicle of hospitality and communion for all people, everywhere. He loved and loved and loved, all the way to the end.” In the end, Thomas says, we don’t have to strive and strain to see Jesus–he draws all people to himself. [journeywithjesus, 3/11/18] We just have to let go.
This kind of death after such a life “bears fruit,” gives life to others. It doesn’t deny the darkness of the earth into which the seed has fallen, the darkness of the grave, the darkness of the grief and loss that we experience at the loss of a loved one; but it does, ultimately, create new life.
This week the great physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking died, after living an incredible number of decades beyond what any of his doctors predicted with the devastating disease of ALS. I saw a cartoon imagining Hawking in heaven, walking away from his wheelchair and leaving it behind. His “looking up to the stars” has now really begun.
A UCC colleague and pastor of St. Paul’s UCC in Chicago, writes of another man living with ALS, his friend and parishioner Del. Matt Fitzgerald wrote in a recent UCC Daily Devotional–
Our Book of Worship has a section titled “Order for the Time of Dying.” What wishful thinking. We can’t impose order upon death. All we can do is wait. Or be surprised. Death never comes on time.
The “order” contains a prayer I love. “Let death be as gentle as nightfall.” No gasping for breath, no terrified eyes, no morphine stupor. Just soft, soft nightfall.
But a good death requires more than a gentle end. I pay regular visits to Del, who is dying of ALS. He is an intense man. His anger at the world’s injustice won’t let him ignore the injustice of his own disease.
But Del is not content to spend himself despairing. He dives into dying. He’s read almost everything he ever wanted to read. When he could no longer hold a book, he switched to television. Del is the only senior citizen I know who watched “The Wire” in two weeks. “What did sick people do before Netflix? Probably had their kids read Dickens to them.”
He’s thanked his wife ten thousand times. He thanks God that he can still speak. He’s said goodbye to a parade of friends. He called the ones who are afraid to visit. He listens to sirens, using his grave to feel the pain of city streets. He is a Christian, not a stoic.
He told me he remembers his mother humming “I Come to the Garden Alone” while he slept in a laundry basket beneath her ironing board. When we sing it at his funeral, I’ll see a small boy in 1940, napping on folded laundry, safe in his mother’s embrace. Del is already helping me grieve.
If his prayers are answered, Del will have died by the time we’re reading this. And I will have said the “nightfall” prayer again. I don’t know if God will grant either petition, but I know that Del’s death has been good. May it be so for all of us.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it
bears much fruit.” May our living and our dying bear much fruit. Indeed, may it be so.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark