death

Between Candle and Bell

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All Saints’ is about a community bigger and better, more surprising, more joyful and more inclusive than we could possibly imagine. It’s about lighting a candle for someone who has died, and honouring the fact that there are lines that connect us with them that go on despite death, lines we can hardly guess at, but that our Creator knows intimately. Why? Because they were woven with gracious intent into our very fabric of being.

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A Letter from College

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This last week one of those life milestone things happened to me. I came home, picked up the mail, and there was an acceptance letter for my daughter to College.

I stood for quite a while in the entry, my coat and boots still on. Looking at that envelope in my hand.

Wait a minute, I thought. Isn’t this the little girl for whom, not so long ago, I made up a white name tag, and decorated it with pretty rainbows, and put her name on it, so she wouldn’t get lost on the playground of the school she’s now going to graduate from? I remember so clearly the look on her face as she marched in behind all those other little bodies, ready to take on kindergarten and the world. That was yesterday, wasn’t it? At most the week before. Isn’t this the same child who sang songs in her car seat when we were stuck in traffic on the way to school, the imaginative child with whom I pretended there was a dragon castle on the island by the bridge? Isn’t this the child whose little fingers I can still feel on the back of my head as I knelt on the asphalt to help her do up her shoes?

Somewhere, somehow, a whole pile of summers and winters and falls and springs have slipped through the hands that now held that letter, and here I still was, and there she was, and there was a letter for her. From a college.

Very truly I tell you, says Jesus, 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.

It’s a shame that this verse generally gets read only at funerals. Because what Jesus says is so clearly true not just of death, but of LIFE. Unless something dies – that is, something changes – nothing new will have any space to come.

It’s a kind of death, every graduation, or every leaving of home, or every new job, or every time someone loses a husband or wife, or sells a house, or whatever it is. Something changes so drastically that we know, we just know, life will never be the same again. And we’re right. Life never WILL be the same again.

There’s so much here from Jesus, we could spend a lifetime just learning from this saying. Renunciation is, oddly enough, the path to growth. It is by changing – by giving up one thing and embracing another – that we become new. In other words, Jesus is saying that despite our airs, we human beings are not so different from the winter that is, oh-so-very-slowly here in Montreal, beginning to turn to spring, or the maple trees that will soon start running sap, or the crocuses that will someday soon, we hope, start to push up. We are part of the same world as them. They die in the fall. And then they come back. But they come back different. We need, sometimes, to have these life-changes, these markers, to be renewed. One door closes, and another opens.

In a movie, if you know something that the main characters in the movie don’t know, and some little hint of what is about to happen takes place, that’s called “dramatic foreshadowing”. It’s like watching the butler come in and pour a cup of innocent tea if you know that later, that same teapot will be used for the murder. That’s usually when the music swells up.

Well, the music should have been swelling for one little part of the reading from John. Because there IS some dramatic foreshadowing in this incident about the Greeks. It says that Jesus was at a religious festival.

At first glance the story seems a bit convoluted: some Greeks come to see Philip, then Philip goes to see Andrew, then Andrew and Philip go to see Jesus. Why so indirect? The Gospel never ever says this, but it does say that Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee, an area close to the Greek cities. So I think there’s a good chance the reason these people never went to see Jesus directly is this: they couldn’t speak his language. The people who came were not Jews. They were OUR ancestors.

And that’s dramatic foreshadowing. Because the Gospel doesn’t even tell us if they actually ever got to SEE Jesus. It doesn’t matter. What was important for the Bible was that this particular group came and asked. When all around him, his own people, including the disciples, were getting ready to deny Jesus, here’s this group of foreigners who go out of their way to meet him.

And of course, that’s how Christianity became Christianity. The outsiders – our ancestors, the non-Jews – became by far the majority of the new sect that eventually became a religion. So many Gentiles came in that eventually it wasn’t a Jewish sect anymore. Something changed.

Those Greeks who came to meet Jesus meant the death of the old. Peter – a Jew, and John – a Jew, and Andrew and Philip and Bartholemew and all the rest – if they’d known what was about to happen – would have been forgiven if they looked at these Greeks and shed a tear or two. Because those Greeks meant a death of one kind of expectation and the birth of another.

And so it still is. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.

In your life and mine there are almost certainly things that need to end in order for other things to begin. And as churches, far too often we hold on to that might be keeping us from new life. Jesus died partly because he dared to challenge the old ways, and it’s one of the more ironic parts of history that the church named after him is so reactionary. After all, Jesus was killed precisely by institutions trying to protect themselves. Seeds that didn’t want to go into the ground.

At the root of all of these questions is faith. On what is our faith based? If it’s based on ourselves and what we’ve built, then we’ll not willingly let anything die. We can’t. But – if our faith is based on the promise we’re given and the realization that all things – people and institutions – die anyway, then our faith will help us go through those changes – those deaths – to life.

It’s not easy for someone as sentimental as me to see a letter like the one that arrived this week. But the truth is, my daughter can’t go to College unless she graduates and moves away from the school I remember so fondly. You can’t take the memories away, but they are memories, not a future. A child cannot grow up unless they grow up!

Our faith doesn’t deny death. And it doesn’t deny the thousand endings that come in the course of a life either…just the opposite. Faith tells us we have to go through those changes, in trust. It’s like we spend our whole lives practicing what it is to give something up, in trust that we can embrace something new.

There is a miracle in that envelope that came. And thankfulness. And a miracle in our lives, too.

May God grant us the grace to see faith, not in what we hold onto, but what we are willing to let go. And may we be blessed in that letting go – so that ALL things might become new, and hopeful, and truly alive.

AMEN

What’s Unrealistic

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This Easter memory starts in a Montreal hospital, where I’m walking down the hall after a visit with a parishioner. A young man steps right in front of me, blocking my exit. I almost run into him. “Are you a priest?” he asks me in French. Non… Oui, uhhh…J’suis un pasteur luthérienne.” He looks at me a moment, and then grabs my hand and starts pulling me with him down a side hallway. “We need a priest,” he says in English. “You’ll do.”

“What? What’s going on?” I’m confused, but just as I’m getting my mind together, we come to a room with a small crowd standing outside the door. There are three or four well-dressed, middle-aged women, and two middle-aged men in suits. Most of them look like they’re crying or have been crying, or are about to cry. The young man who has brought me announces that he’s found a priest, at which they all look up in visible relief. S’il vous plait, Père, ici. C’est urgent….”I step into the room. There is an older man, Italian, I think, in a sweater, holding the hand of an elderly woman on the bed. Her eyes are closed and at first I think she’s already dead. Then I realize she’s having great difficulty breathing.

There are two younger men standing very near her bed too, and a young woman. They see me and the look in their eyes is not one I’ll soon forget. “Last rites,” I hear one of them say. “The priest is here. The priest is here.” They clear a place and with their eyes and their hands push me to the centre spot by the bed, right beside the woman, whom I can see is dying. They look at me with pleading in their eyes. “Priez. S’il vous plait mon Père…priez pour son âme.” I take her hand and look down at her.

Do not be afraid, says the angel to the two Marys who had come to anoint the body. Do not be afraid. In this world, things are not as you imagine them. There has been something that has happened. Something dangerously hopeful. Something unbelievably important. Do not be afraid. Something new has been done, out of love, for us mortals, not to stop the inevitable death and fear and pain and regret and loss. But maybe, just maybe, to pass through them to the other side.

Today is Easter – our celebration of the resurrection. That’s a great thing, right? “We are an Easter People” proudly proclaims the most recent headline in our church paper. I saw copies of it here at the church. Again, a great thing. Except that the problem that no one admits is that if you ask any Lutheran what it actually means to be an Easter people, we’re hardly able to tell you.

What IS Easter? It’s spring. Yes. But let’s not stop there. Spring is good – in fact, thank God it’s finally spring! – but that’s hardly enough. Easter is not just new life poking out of the ground after a long awful winter that didn’t seem to ever want to quit. And it’s not just holidays and time with family and pussy-willow branches hung with eggs and good food and chocolate bunnies.

Easter is more than that. But then what IS it?

Not long after that incident in the hospital, I was talking with one of my friends who is a non-Christian about it. He looked at me: “I can understand you wanting to give comfort in a situation like that,” he said to me, not unkindly, “but how can you participate in such a lie? You DO know how unrealistic this whole life after death thing is, don’t you?”

If I’d had my senses I would have answered him better. With the benefit of Easter hindsight, I might have said something like this:

The resurrection? Yes, it’s unrealistic. Of course. Like St. Paul said: resurrection is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to everyone else. No one comes back from the dead. No one rises – except in zombie movies and Greek myths and Gospel lessons. But life is our hope. And you want to talk about unrealistic? Let’s talk about unrealistic…..

What’s really unrealistic, even more than this story of the empty grave, is the topsy-turvy tarted-up first world in which you and I live. Many of you were poor immigrants to this country. You know. You know that this life that we now live is not sustainable, not ethical, too fast, too rich, too irresponsible for a small planet. Yet we say it’s normal. We say we deserve it. And we believe THAT.

Many of you know what it is to turn the temperature down at night because there’s not enough money. Some of you, like Jesus, have lived through war and occupation. You know what it is to see dead bodies in the street because of hate. You know what it is to flee from soldiers, and you know what it is to face up to soldiers, just as the women did when they came to anoint the body of Jesus, that first Easter morning. You know bloodshed and hurt, and yet you remember how to hope, somehow, even so.

So let’s see: life, death, hope, and fear…. this story seems pretty realistic to me.

What ELSE I might say to my friend (we’re good friends; he could take it) is this:

What’s unrealistic is NOT Easter. What’s unrealistic is our death-denying, hiding the facts from ourselves society that claims we’re not getting older but better. OUR society denies resurrection but then goes on to swallow the big lie that there’s no death, period. What’s unrealistic is paying hundreds of dollars for creams and surgeries to hide our aging, ignoring the pennies needed for other good causes, and living in a world where the contents of a dumpster can be national television.

What’s unrealistic is a society that on the one hand celebrates little chicks and baby rabbits on Youtube while on the other hand stuffing 99.99 percent of those little chicks into tiny cages so far from the ground they never see a living thing, and live and die horribly as trapped, maimed, drugged and miserable creatures until the day someone looks at their remains through cellophane and haggles over whether they cost 98 cents or 88 cents a pound.

What’s unrealistic is consuming 80 percent of the world’s resources while being 20% of its population, and saying we can go on like this forever.

What’s unrealistic are low-fat, low-carb, stevia, spa bodies and minds that have turned to mush from never being challenged by ideas bigger than where to take our winter vacations or whether green or blue is the spring colour.

What’s unrealistic is buying water in plastic bottles ignoring the fact that Coke or Pepsi have taken it from the taps in the first place, and calling our wasteful, glittery, appetites healthy. What’s unrealistic is paying 6 dollars a day on coffee and muffins at a Starbucks, handing over the change to the barista while saying to the person beside us that we’re poor. What’s unrealistic is complaining about whether a politician swears or gets divorced but not what their record is on public housing, or education, or kickbacks. What’s unrealistic is saying that children are our future and it’s up to them now as some kind of sneaky way of admitting that we screwed up and now all we want to do is retire in peace and luxury and leave the mess to them.

In other words, I’d say to my friend, there are MANY types of unrealism. And the Gospel lesson today about life through death is NOT the most unrealistic, nor the most harmful, thing we believe. In fact, for those of us who believe, it’s actually a deep truth.

There’s a bit of text that’s unique to Matthew, which is the Gospel we’ve been reading this year. After Jesus dies, it says in Matthew’s Gospel that the city leaders come to Pilate to ask him for a guard for the tomb. Matthew’s the only Gospel to recount this request for soldiers. “We want to make sure that his disciples don’t come to steal the body,” the city officials say, in what is surely Matthew fending off later accusations, “Otherwise his disciples will claim that Jesus has been raised, so that the last deception is greater than the first.”

That phrase has always stuck with me. The last deception greater than the first. How can we, who celebrate this day, answer people like my friend, who believe that we ARE living a deception?

I think it comes back to the angel. Every year we change the Gospel lesson for Easter morning. But almost every year, in every different Gospel, the angel’s words are the same.

They’re the words I prayed in the hospital: do not be afraid. Death is still around. But do not be afraid. Its hold has been broken. The troubles of our lives – the hurts and pains and worries and lonelinesses, the grudges and deep aches and concerns and fears and stresses – all these are incredibly powerful. AND REAL. But so is life. Do not be afraid. That’s Easter’s promise. There is a spirit of hope. There is laughter in the pain. There’s a dance of life to which all are invited but not all answer. Death cannot be avoided. But it will be overcome.

We DO go through trials and tribulations. Yes. We DO have our times where no life is to be seen. Yes. We DO have depression and sadness in our families, and hurts that warp our very natures sometimes. It doesn’t matter how much we smile, what kind of car we drive, or what we look like. There is not a person here, as Easter-y as we all look, who is not hurting in some way about something, even this morning. I am sure of that.

But then, thank God for Easter all the more. The Marys were on their way to anoint a dead body when they were surprised by life. Easter is intensely realistic. That day in the hospital I was called to be a witness, not to death, but to hope. I looked down at that woman in the bed and knew that what mattered was not who I was, but the faith I represented. What they wanted was a prayer – for her spirit, a prayer for confidence, and a prayer recognizing their love for her. A prayer that life might somehow come out of death. I prayed that prayer with the family. And today we claim that prayer for each one of us. Do not be afraid. Life can triumph. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.