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Sermon for March 21, 2010

Jesus, Lifter of the Dead

These reflections were part of a service based on a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina. We listened to John 12:23-26 three times, and I offered three different perspectives on the passage after a time of rest and silence.

-- One --
As Holy Week approaches, the scriptures bring us near to the reality of death. Jesus has been predicting his own death and now reflects upon it:
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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The truth is parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. Each of our bodies lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, just a many cells are being reproduced in a healthy body. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years. This is an enormous relief to me. It’s the cells that refuse to die off that pose the real problem to us. These cells are related to diseases like cancer. Cells often destroy themselves if they carry a mutation. Or the cells might be recognized by the immune system as abnormal and killed. This means most precancerous cells die before they can cause cancer. The one’s that don’t die continue to mutate. They get in the way and block healthy development of the body. I am always dying, with each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second and the hundreds of thousands of cells that are dying off to make room for more. I keep dying so life may abound.

The healthy rhythm of existence goes like this: Life leads to death. Death brings new life. I believe this is true in the spiritual and emotional lives as well. Our failure to let go and let some things die is a primary spiritual disease, for new life can’t come without some death. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit like a cancer. Holding on to regrets strangles hope before it can lift us to new life. Trying to control events and other people leads to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. Let the anger go. Let the rage die. God has something new to take it’s place. I read about a study in which subjects were told to imagine forgiving those who offended them, The subjects experienced heart rates and blood pressure two and a half times lower than when they thought about holding a grudge. It appears that forgiveness could be a powerful antidote to anger, which is strongly associated with chronically elevated blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease. Forgiveness is about dying -- letting go of rage and bitterness and disappointment and revenge so that new life may abound. Today, there are emotions that are holding you back from living fully and well. It’s time to let these harmful emotional responses go. God has something better.

-- Two --
Salmon are amazing members of God’s creation – especially Pacific salmon. Leaving their fresh-water birthplaces they journey out to sea where they roam the salt-water oceans of the world. Studies confirm that the Pacific Salmon return to spawn near the exact spot they were born years—and thousands of miles--earlier. These powerful creatures may travel up to 4,000 miles per year in a primarily counter-clockwise orbit through the North Pacific. They stay at sea from one to five years. It is not uncommon for a fish to swim 18 to 30 miles per day without rest during its homeward migration. Some salmon born in central Idaho will make their way over 900 miles inland, and climb 7,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean as they return to spawn. How do they navigate their way home—and why? We aren’t completely sure. It may have to do with smell, or the stars, or some combination of these and other navigational cues about which we know little. Once they return to fresh water and spawn, their condition rapidly deteriorates, and they soon die. I’m sure most of you have seen the dramatic scenes of Chinook and Sockeye salmon making their way up roaring waterfalls to their native pools against tremendous odds, including foraging Alaskan Brown bears. Much more than food for bears, or ravens and eagles, or humans, salmon are in fact a metaphor, a parable of a deeply mysterious, complex, and life-giving set of inter-woven relationships. DNA from Pacific salmon has been found in groves of Aspen at the top of the continental divide. The trace minerals from their ocean journeys, such as nitrogen, feed the ecology miles inland. Over 137 species of animals in the Pacific Northwest rely on salmon as part of their diet. When salmon die they generate the most biologically diverse forests on earth, honoring future generations with the gift the journey that is at the heart of all they are. In a sense, salmon are born to die. They live to nourish others.

This gets me wondering . . . how might our lives change if we viewed our deaths the same way? How might life change if we knew our deaths could change the world? How would you feel if you knew for sure you were going to die this coming Friday, six days from now? In the few days that you had left, would the thought consume the rest of your life? Would you live to make a difference? Would you become philosophical about death?

In the passage for today, Jesus knows he only has six days left on the earth. He knows how he is going to die. He knows when he is going to die. Only six days left. It is Passover time, and hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Jerusalem. In this wild mass of humanity, there were a couple of Greeks in the crowd. These Greek travelers listen in on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. As they listen, they notice that one of the disciples has a Greek accent. And so they approached this disciple, Philip, and ask him in Greek, “Can we see Jesus?”

You would think that Jesus would have answered them directly, but he didn't. Jesus was distracted. Preoccupied. He was thinking about his death in six day. He says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.”

That’s a weird answer? All the Greeks wanted to do was to see Jesus, but Jesus was preoccupied with his death. But maybe there is a connection: That is, to see Jesus is to see the importance of dying in order to live.

There is a Cherokee saying, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Most of us don't know when we are going to die. Oh, it will happen. We just don't know the details. So, with the time I have left, whether it's many days or many decades, I have an intense desire to make my time on this planet count for something. I want the world to be a better place because I lived here, and loved here. I want to think that I had some influence, that I will be remembered, that I make a lasting impact. I want to know that my spirit goes on to nourish others – that my body will return to dust and feed this weary earth. Death will certainly come upon you at some point. You neither know when nor how. Life on the other hand is a choice to live each moment with intention. It’s an invitation that many people decline. If you accept the invitation to live fully and abundantly, your life will be worth dying for and it will survive you.

-- Three –
W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” That’s our culture in a nutshell. Talking about death is uncomfortable. So we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. The note to someone who is dying never gets written, the call never gets made, the visit is repeatedly put off. Or we do write the note, we do make the call, we do take the time to visit, but the anxiety is too much for us. Nervous, we say things like, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Don’t talk that way. Think positive. It will be OK.” Those who are dying want to know that they are still the person they always were to us and that we still love them. Instead, we may get fidgety in the presence of the sick, talk to others in the room like they are not there, stand or sit a little too far away. Those who are dying want a taste of normalcy in the midst of all the craziness. They want to talk about the weather, talk about politics, talk about neighborhood gossip. In our state of upheaval, we try to force heavy conversations about life, the universe, and everything. We just don’t know any better.

What might happen if you open your heart to your own death? Invite the thought of death in. Will it bring sadness. Absolutely. The thought of all the loss, the thought of leaving; how this will impact the people depending on us, how the party will go on without us. Inviting the thought of death will bring sadness, and it will also trigger fear: fear of losing control, fear of the unknown, the fear of the caterpillar who cannot possibly predict the great metamorphosis that comes next. As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” To the degree we allow ourselves to live with the thought of death, to sit on our very own grave and see ourselves from that perspective, our understanding and appreciation of what we have and of the life that is before us grows.

Sometimes I imagine how I might respond if I were told that I had a terminal illness. I think about how I would react if I were caring for my wife, refusing further treatment for my mother, saying goodbye to a friend. I think how I might feel, whether I could act, and what I might regret. I walk through the process, and as I do, I get very sad. This usually happens at night when I can’t sleep. Lying in bed, listening to my wife breath (very heavy breathing, I might add), hearing the little ones on the monitor in the other room, feeling the house creek. I roll onto my side and see the bright red numbers on my clock. Sometimes I go into the other room and turn on the TV, trying to avoid these thoughts – there’s nothing like late night television to numb deep thoughts. But sometimes, I creep upstairs, going from one room to another so that I can gaze upon my sleeping children. I listen to their rhythmic breathing, pull up the covers, rub their cheeks, and draw in their scents. Then I go back to bed, oddly fulfilled. Cold from the trek, I snuggle close to my wife, feel her warmth, love her enormously, and fall asleep. Here is my reminder that the end gives meaning to all that comes before. Even in the face of death, people’s worth and dignity remains. We affirm our worth and dignity by trusting the rhythm and flow of the life we are given. The poet May Sarton puts it this way:
But I am learning to trust death
As I have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment,
And a sweeter grace—
Learning to let go.
I am not ready to die,
But as I approach sixty
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open up to a far horizon
Over the floating, never-still flux and change.
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters….
There are no farewells.
Praise God for His mercies,
For His austere demands,
For His light
And for His darkness.
Jesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.”

Sources:
• Science Watch, March/April 2000 http://www.sciencewatch.com/march-april2000/sw_march-april2000_page3.htm
• http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2006/03/john_122033_lea.html
• http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_if_a_seed_dies.htm
• http://www.c3center.org/archive/life-and-death-in-perspective/
• http://www.uuca.org/making-peace-with-death

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