The sermon for week May 03, 2015
Let me apologize for this sermon before I even start. The topic: DEATH is vast and hard to talk about. So I apologize for falling short of expectation or failing to say anything insightful about the totality of it. But that’s death. I often preach ahead of myself, but today I really am. I want to think this way and on my best days, I do. But not every day. I am also assuming a natural death, not a traumatic of violent death. So… without further commentary or disclaimer, John 10:11-18.
At the back of my house growing up in Dennison, Ohio, there is an alley. At the end of that alley there used to be a little convenience store. A stop-n-go we called it. Every Sunday morning around the age of 12, I would walk down that alley and pick up a ½ gallon of chocolate milk, a ½ gallon of orange juice, and a Sunday paper. I loved that morning walk, especially in the late spring, early summer.
I have that alley memorized as it was back then. Each pothole, each crack. I learned so much from those walks. One day, in the biggest pothole there were tadpoles swimming around. And I spent a long time just watching and being amazed at how life seems to spring up everywhere.
That day and those trips up and down that alley seem to have a golden hue around them. I always remember being eager to get out of the house and to make this trip. I don’t know if this was always the case, you will have to check with my mom on this. Yet those days are gone. The alley repaved, the potholes filled in and gone is the possibility of any more tadpoles. The stop-n-go is now a pet salon. Those trips are dead, even though they live on in my memory.
I find it interesting that we have the power to be in two places at once. Even as I speak about the alley here, I’m also there; walking that well-travelled path. I feel the weight of the milk and juice in my hands. I hear the crinkle of the paper. I look forward to seeing what Calvin and Hobbes are up to in the comic section. I’m there and yet I’m here. Maybe you’re taking your own walk to your own stop-n-go. This continues throughout our lives. Even on our deathbed, our minds can soar to the furthest reaches of the universe and span our history with our life flashing before our eyes. Maybe that’s what Jesus sort of meant how he’s able to lay down his life and to pick it back up again. We can pick up parts of our lives and examine them and relive them in our memory and set them back down again.
We can imagine and think of so many things, yet for all of this brain power we often shy away from the topic of death. We’ll talk about what causes death. We’ll talk about what we think comes after death. Yet rarely will we focus on death itself. That’s because death is seen as an enemy, something to be fought, something to be resisted.
But what if death is a gift? What if we changed how we viewed death and befriended it and saw it as a gift from God?
Jesus states that he’s the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus seems to have befriended death. In my mind, I read that verse and say “What kind of shepherd is this?! You’re going to die?! That sounds like a bad shepherd. When the wolf comes and kills you, there’s no more shepherd to protect the sheep! A good shepherd would stay alive and keep the sheep alive!” The wolf would be a symbol for death. And death appears to win in this case!
However, Jesus is on his theme of “those who lose their lives will gain them.” He says this in all four gospels a total of 8 times. What does this mean? How can he pick up his life again after he’s dead?
Connie Barlow gave a talk entitled “Death through deep time eyes.” She begins her talk by stating that we are expressions of the universe and without death, there’s no complexity of life. We’d still be slime if things did not die. I’d be a dinosaur standing here had there not been the mass extinction that gave the mammals room to rise up. Without death, there would be no tadpoles in that puddle because there would be no need for more toads or frogs.
Death can indeed be a gift from God. That doesn’t lessen the grief, and the loss that comes with it. I wish I could take Eve and Sam on a walk with my 12-year-old self and spend time together looking at the tadpoles and reading Calvin and Hobbes. I wish I could take them to meet their great-grandma. Yet that world is gone and rightfully so. That world had to die, my 12 year-old-self had to become my 33-year-old self for Eve and Sam even to exist. And I must lay down my life for them. I must perish to make room for their children’s children. For as the poet Wendell Berry once penned, “I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”
And it is a joy to be your pastor, to share our lives together even though many of you are going to leave me here holding the bag, so to speak. I will mourn your loss even as I celebrate your life. I would rather mourn you than never have known you. Or know Harry, Bill, Toshi, Bernie, Dick, Lil, Ila Mae and so many more who have died during my time here. It is hard, but it is worth it.
Maybe you already know this. Maybe you already know the trillions of suns that had to die for you to exist. Maybe you already know that life here began out there. That you are made of stardust, every atom. And that the calcium and phosphorous in our bones and teeth, the iron in our blood, the potassium in our skin and organs, every atom was forged inside a star that lived and died and recycled its atoms back into the universe before our sun was born. Perished suns prepared the atoms here in me and also in you (Barlow).
Maybe you already know that we are expressions of the universe. That you are no less an expression than the stars and whirling galaxies (Barlow). So when you recall a moment from your past, or find yourself in a moment of beauty where you are so happy you could die, and this thought brings on those bitter sweet tears, know that a salty sea, the same chemical compound of our great oceans, is spilling from your eyes.
It took trillions of years and so much death to produce this life we inhabit. This life which is a gift unasked for, and death too shall be a gift unasked for. Death is not our enemy but a mystery to be entered into. It’s a true human universal. When Jesus calls our name and we must enter into that mystery, it will be ok.
Everyone dies. Your friends, your pets, your enemies and rivals. Jesus calls us all home, and even sheep who don’t know Jesus, Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” So we must ask forgiveness when we think we are separate, for mortality is universal. I believe there is one shepherd, whether we call it the universe, God, Vishnu, Allah, Jesus, or whatever. For me God was never more God than when found in Jesus. I trust the great shepherd which guided the atoms from stars and minerals to us and from us to whatever gift comes after.
I look at the universe and there seems to be a golden hue around it. I feel like I’m eager to get out and experience this gift of life. And when death comes, I hope my life won’t be taken from me, instead I will be able, like Jesus, to lay it down of my own accord. And I trust that it will be taken up again in some form.
If there’s an afterlife, that’s awesome! If it’s just in the life of my children and friends, then that is sufficient. I used to think of nonexistence as being terrifying. Then I thought of all the years that I wasn’t around, and the world did just fine. I came from nothing, and that wasn't so bad.
Jesus went to what so many, his rivals and enemies, his friends and family thought was certain death to the wolves. Yet instead he lived on. He was raised. And he lives on in you and me who seek to follow his way of radical inclusion, peace, and justice.
May you go from this place today knowing who you truly are. You are made of a trillion dead suns, beloved by and at home in the Universe. May you be inspired to do no harm to your fellow travelers as we make our way together in this great flock of humanity on this spinning orb hung in a tapestry of stars.
May we give thanks to be witnesses. May we give thanks for our shepherd who has strung everything together like God’s building a telephone from a string and two tin cans. Everything is connected and the universe is talking with itself. Everything that has come before will come again. Nothing is wasted in God’s world.
God knows your number by heart even though it’s not listed. God will look at you and all the laws you broke and the promises you didn’t keep and read every second of your life like holy scripture. How holy are you! How blessed are you! How loved are you!
How loved are we that it took a billion dead suns giving of themselves and being recycled back into the universe, the formation of the earth and gravitational forces and Newton’s Laws of physics and the evolution of certain common ancestors of primates to get humans, to get a little boy, walking down the alley on a sunny spring day, looking at tadpoles.
Barlow, Connie. Death Through Deep Time Eyes. USB Flash Drive from thegreatstroy.org
Berry, Wendell. “The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” 1971.