Life and Death

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 19, 2017, the third Sunday in Lent.

Text: John 10:1-16


I have my eye on a little piece of land to purchase here in DC.  I pass by it regularly when I take our dog, Harvey, out to play.  Harvey is a member of the K9 Corp at the historic Congressional Cemetery—a dogwalking program whose annual fees help restore and maintain the cemetery.  The land I want to buy is a gravesite and I think it’s perfect.  It’s in this city I love so much and is in a nice spot in the cemetery where the walkways cross, where folks often gather to visit.  There are always dogs playing there.  It has lots of direct light.  I feel about this spot the way pastor and writer Robert Fulghum feels of the place he chose to be buried, “I like being there alive.  It’s a good place to be dead.”[i] 


Anthony (my husband) was a little thrown off when I first mentioned this idea.  But over time, he has gotten used to it.  Now he just wonders when I’ll actually make an appointment to find out how much a burial plot goes for in this absurd real estate market.  I’ll admit it does seem a bit strange to think about such things.  Some might consider me too young to give it thought.  How old do you have to be to die?  


American culture—very generally speaking—has a rather bizarre relationship to death.  Images and instances of death are all over the media and the news and a kind of desensitization to death happens as we push buttons on video games or watch scene after scene of stylized carnage in movies or see graphic iPhone videos on the news.  On the other hand, when it comes to our own lives, we have very strong feelings; death is seen as an alien invader—something wholly outside what is “supposed” to happen, something to be avoided at all costs, something unnatural and evil.  From wrinkle creams and botox to cryogenics, Americans invest a great deal in trying to outrun or control the appearance of age and the reality of death.  At the same time, we eat, drink, and work ourselves to death—and we don’t really have much time to ponder how to do anything differently.  We certainly don’t have time to contemplate death.  So when it comes, it is often treated not as a natural and normal part of life, but as “something that happens when the medical community fails.”[ii]  When we are forced to deal with death, it is “managed” in such a way that we tend to have little direct engagement.  “Death in our time is given over to institutions”[iii]—the body is visited not in the family home, but rather in the funeral home.  Everything is “handled” by hospital, hospice, church, funeral professionals who are often careful to shield us from the reality as much as possible.  The astoturf covering the dirt gets me every time… Some of us may be driven to great anxiety out of fear of death.  But for a great many of us in this culture we don’t think of death—not really, not as something that has anything to do with us—unless and until we are confronted with it personally. 


This is a very different orientation to death from that of the 3rd century Christian Ammas and Abbas, the mothers and fathers of the desert monastic tradition.  Upon rising each morning, they would greet death as a friend who would accompany them throughout the day.  This wasn’t to be morbid.  On the contrary, by acknowledging that their lives were finite, subject to illness and death, life was experienced more fully and with an abundance of gratitude.  Perhaps you have witnessed or experienced for yourself what can happen when a brush with death results—at least for a time—in a deeper appreciation for life and a commitment to live each moment to the fullest.  The wisdom of the desert spiritual tradition is that life and death are deeply interwoven parts of what it is to be human; that life as we know it is a precious gift—made even more so because it is finite.  The daily practice of greeting death as a friend was also a ritual of trust, trust in the love of God who is with us in such a way that even in the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear.


This is not to suggest that if you just take up the ancient practice of the desert mothers, the reality of death will get easy or be without sorrow and pain.  But it does suggest that our faith has something to say about life and death that can make a difference in the way we inhabit time and space and in the way we measure what life is really about.


The Gospel we heard today is one of those that gets taken out of context and twisted in all sorts of ways.  These words of Jesus are not a formula for Christians to exclude people (gatekeeper) or permission for the prosperity gospel preachers (abundant life).  Rather, they are a pointed response to some Pharisees who have kicked a man out of the synagogue because of the man’s testimony about Jesus.  In John 9, we read the story of Jesus healing a man who had been born blind.  When the man recounts the simple facts of how his sight was restored, how he listened to Jesus and followed Jesus’ instruction, the Pharisees toss the man out, reminding him that he is a sinner.  Jesus has something to say about that.  He uses the metaphor of the sheepfold to distinguish his ways from the Pharisees’ ways.  They don’t understand at first, so Jesus makes it plain saying, “I am the gate.”  Jesus is God’s love, God’s life in flesh (Jn 1).  Love is the gateway into a new kind of life with God:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)  The “gate” isn’t there to exclude anyone.  Rather, the gate provides a way to be alive that is flourishing, thriving, joyful; the Greek word perissós, most often translated “abundantly,” can also be translated as “exceeding expectations.”  It is a life that abides in and is sustained by God’s love. // Then Jesus assigns himself a different role in the metaphor.  Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:10-11)  A little later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:12-13)  The “hired hand” doesn’t really care about the sheep so runs off at the first sign of danger.  But the good shepherd is willing to face off with the one who would do harm to those he loves, even to the point of death.


We know from the rest of the story that Jesus did in fact continue to face off with those in power who banished people they considered “sinners;” he stood up to those who robbed others of freedom and life, who grew rich on the backs of the poor and vulnerable; Jesus did not run away from the fearful, controlling powers and principalities that sought to kill him because of the ways he cared, but rather stood in the gap, putting his own body between those death-dealing powers and the bodies of the oppressed. 


Jesus didn’t want to suffer and die (Mt 26:39), but he didn’t let fear of death keep him from living fully and freely with love and generosity.  Jesus didn’t let fear of death shrink his life.  Jesus didn’t let fear of death get in the way of his care for and solidarity with the poor and suffering in the human family.  On the contrary, Jesus powerfully reveals that abundant life is a life that knows itself beloved and is, therefore, liberated from fear of death.  Jesus reveals that abundant life is a life lived with and for others, the life willing to make sacrifices for the sake of what is loving and just.


This Lent, as we seek to align our hearts and lives with the way of Jesus, perhaps we might consider if or how fear is shrinking our lives, how fear is shrinking our capacity to be generous, brave, or creative.  Is fear of death or loss driving you to focus more on yourself than on your relationships with others?  Is fear of loss keeping you from doing the right thing at work or school?  I wonder what some politicians are afraid losing if they go against the flow or stand up for the planet, for immigrant neighbors, for the arts, or for school feeding programs or Meals on Wheels… Are any politicians or business leaders willing to sacrifice their position or their profits to advocate for what is needed in communities wracked by gun violence, opioid addiction, poverty, and hunger?  Who will put themselves between “law and order” politics and people with black and brown bodies, between hate-fueled laws and people who identify as transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer?   


The question that’s been buzzing around my head is:  “Who or what will we lay down our lives for?”  If we follow Jesus, it seems that’s a question with which we need to reckon.  Right now, almost every headline in the news is a matter of life and death.  So many of you are right in the middle of the struggle where you work and live...  And we at Foundry have claimed our call to at least try to stand in the gap, to try to listen for the voice of Christ and to follow where Christ leads, to try to be brave and strong and loving and wise, to practice sacred resistance.  We know we can’t do everything, but we’re committed to be and to do what we can.


What we’re reminded of today is that we are not alone and we don’t have to figure it out without a guide. Christ the gate has shown us the way into God’s life, into abundant life.  Jesus, the good shepherd, loves you and goes to bat for you, stands between you and anything that would do you harm, stands in solidarity with you in the struggle and in your suffering, and lays down his life for you.  And because of that and the greater Easter mystery of life that overcomes death, we don’t have to fear. We can be brave. We can take a break when we’re tired.  We can trust that we’ll be guided back onto the path when we go astray. We can be good shepherds for others.  We can allow God’s grace to fill us when we feel empty.  We can start over.  We don’t have to be afraid even of the worst the world can do.  We don’t have to try to avoid or deny or run away from death even when all the cultural cues around us tempt us to do so. 


Abundant life is not about avoiding death, it’s about loving God and loving each other.  It’s about being loved by God and trusting God’s love to lead you to green pastures in this life and in the next. Abundant life is loving, caring, giving, serving so that, when death comes—as it surely will—you’ll have few regrets.  You might even greet death as a friend.  You might even find yourself pointing to a spot and saying, “That’s a good place to be dead”—and, as a result, find yourself…living.


[i] Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives, New York: Villard Books, 1995, p. 32.

[ii] Ibid., p. 202.

[iii] Ibid., p. 201.