We’re continuing to work our way through our “Shhh… Things we don’t talk about in church” series. I preached on death.
May 1, 2016
Duke Memorial UMC
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
1 Cor 15:51-58
A couple months ago I was talking excitedly to a clergy friend about green cemeteries, a new kind of eco-friendly form of burial. (I have no idea if this is normal discussion for clergy women in their thirties, but there it is.) I told my friend that I had actually researched green burial and have written it into my funeral plan.
As soon as I said it I realized that I might have sparked some worry in my friend, who could be thinking my demise was imminent.
I almost said it. I almost said, “Don’t worry. I’m just planning ahead, I’m not dying.”
But I caught myself, because the reality is more complicated. In that moment I remembered the words of Richard Lischer: “we are all creatures of the gap, living out our days between the giddy promises of youth and the inevitability of death.”
So I rearranged the words in my head, and told my friend, somewhat awkwardly: “Don’t worry. As far as I know I’m dying at an average rate.”
We are in a culture that hopes to avoid death, a culture that refuses to engage in the difficult work of grieving, of saying the difficult truth —that, one day, we will all die. We’ve constructed a world that makes it very easy to get around the subject.
It wasn’t always this way. We used to be surrounded by aging relatives who were cared for at home until the end. It used to be that people died at home. Bodies were prepared at home, graves dug by hand.
This is where we get the language of a “wake.” Today a wake is an informal time separate from the funeral where family and friends gather to tell stories and be together. A generation ago the wake was the time when the body of the dead was at home for a final night before the funeral. Family and friends stayed awake throughout the night beside their beloved, in prayer and remembrance.
In a previous generation we saw death, we participated in the passages of time, we experienced it in our daily lives. Our world has changed. Now we live in an age of incredible opportunities for health care that prolong and enrich our lives. That’s also made it possible to keep death far from us. Our elderly almost always spend their final months or years in hospitals or nursing homes. Family care has been replaced by professionals.
I am incredibly grateful for the ways modern medicine has enabled people to live and die in more peaceful ways, how professional caregivers have come to the aid of loved ones who struggle to provide round the clock care. I am also aware that a consequence of these changes is that the end of life has become lonelier and more isolated. Because we interact with death less it’s easy to say, as I almost did, I’m not dying.
Removing ourselves from death so thoroughly has made it harder to talk about it with loved ones. This is often a scary conversation we put off longer and longer, sometimes until it is too late.
We are often so paralyzed by these conversations that new tools have been invented to help us start talking. One of my favorites is a website that will help you plan and host a Death Dinner. A Death Dinner is a time set aside to discuss end of life issues, in particular your wishes. Or it could be you feel the need to broach the subject with a loved one who is aging. The website includes dinner prompts, icebreakers to get the conversation going, a form email to send out to guests. You can attach film clips and articles to get everyone on the same footing. There is even a suggested menu for those so overcome by anxiety that they cannot decide what to prepare for the table.
The Death Dinner people are on to something. While 90% of Americans believe that it is vital to discuss end of life care with loved ones, only 30% have actually done so. While 82% say that it’s important to write down their final wishes, only 32% have put pen to paper with this important information.
Today’s Scripture talks about that sting, about the way we feel when we encounter death, those feelings and fears that make us put off these conversations. Here the Scriptures offer us a word of hope:
O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?
The theologian Jurgen Moltman explains that these are lines from an Easter hymn, one that should be accompanied with sarcastic laughter.
A couple weeks ago I told the Wednesday morning women’s group about Holy Humor Sunday. Each year, at the end of Lent, my clergy friends ask for my best knock-knock jokes. On the first Sunday in the season of Easter these friends follow the ancient tradition of the Greek Orthodox church. These days following Easter were times for laughter, of telling jokes, of being silly together – because Easter is a joke on Satan. Jesus’ resurrection is a practical joke played on death.
In Jesus the Devil got tricked. Death has no more power, no more power to rule us. O death, where is thy victory, we laugh. Sin, the brokenness of creation, the death-things at work all around us, the death that worked its way into the soil of our world has been uprooted and burned away. There’s nothing left to be afraid of, nothing left to hold us captive. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news.
That doesn’t change the fact that death is still painful and sad. After all, death isn’t natural. We are not built for death. We are not built for our bodies and spirits to be ripped from one another. We were made for God’s eternal love. With the resurrection, God has prepared another way for us, clothing us with the immortal bodies we heard Sarah read about in today’s Scripture. At the same time I can’t get over the fact that we know that something is not right. Death is not the way it was supposed to be.
I wonder if part of the reason we don’t like to talk about death is that most of us are aware that we start to feel the sting of death long before we’re facing our final hours. Those conversations conjure up all sorts of emotions, things we don’t like to think about. Death is a series of losses, an accumulation of little deaths over time.
It happens the first time you realize you’re scared walking through a parking lot alone at night.
It’s the time when your grandparents die, and you realize that you are only one generation removed from your own death.
It’s the slow amassing of doctor’s appointments for your parents.
It’s moving a loved one into nursing care, cleaning out a childhood home.
It’s forgetting more often.
It’s not understanding the technology, feeling left behind.
It’s not being as influential on that committee or in that job.
It’s going to funeral after funeral after funeral after funeral.
When I hear in 1 Corinthians that death has lost its victory I go back to these losses, the little deaths that come into our mortal bodies, into our lives. I want to believe that Jesus’ victory over death isn’t just at the end, but is present as we experience these other losses.
In Jesus’ resurrection we have been given the power to remove the sting of those little deaths along the way. We remove the sting of death when we invite others into our grief. We remove the sting of death when we trust others, when we see people beside us, listening to our story, caring for us, caring about the things we love. We remove death’s sting when we trust each other with new possibilities, when we make space for the dreams and hopes and plans of others, when we let ourselves hear in a new way. We remove death’s sting when we can name that death is the enemy.
One of the greatest privileges of my calling, what makes it a calling, is that I am able to be with beloved members of our church during those times when death has found them. But I have a confession. I never know exactly what to say. When you get the worst news, when your son has died, when we realize that you aren’t going to recover from this illness. All my words seem trite and silly. There’s nothing to be said, but something still needs to be said.
So I open my mouth and I pray for you. And I’ve realized that I always pray the same thing. I say that there is no place you can go from God’s love. I ask that God would make this real in your life, that God would help you to know that you’re never alone.
And then I ask you to believe that we are with you. I tell you that you don’t have to have it together when I come to see you, or when someone from church comes to visit. You can cry or laugh, or we can sit and watch TV. You can be angry or sad or resigned. I can take it. We can take it. We’re ready for whatever you have, ready for whatever you’ve got. And God is like that, too. God will love you no matter what. God will always love you.
It’s the thing I know that is most true. You are not alone, even at the end, past the end as we know it, past our knowing.
A friend of mine was telling me about the way he explained baptism to his Sunday school class. The children in his class did trust falls. Do you remember those? The kind where you cross your arms over your chest and close your eyes. You stand stiff like a board. And your heart beats fast as you say “falling,” but you can’t see who is behind you.
And then you hear voices. There are people there, waiting for you. You aren’t alone. There are people standing behind you with their arms open arms, waiting to catch you. “Fall” they respond. Go ahead and fall.
Go ahead and fall, baptism tells us. Fall into this life. Fall back into God’s love, into the church, into these people. One day you’ll fall into death and I will catch you, Jesus says. You died in the waters of baptism and rose into new life, into eternal life.
And we say that, too. Go ahead and fall. We’re here. You don’t have to uncomplicate the past or secure the future. Go ahead and fall. We’re all waiting here. We’ll catch you. Go ahead and fall.
 Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012)