Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Day After the Day After Tomorrow

Sermon preached March 22, 2015

Texts: John 12:20-33

            Miles Davis, “Fall”
There has been some wondering about a song I might play given this morning’s sermon title -  “The Day After the Day After Tomorrow.”  Could it be REM’s “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”?  How about Badfinger “Day After Day” or The Kinks, “Til the End of the Day”?  What about Godspell, “Day by Day”?
            The song that I played was the first part of a song by Miles Davis entitled “Fall.”  The sermon title has nothing to do with the song, but it has a lot to do with the sermon.
            I was first diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis when I was in college.  I was 21.  Because people with this disease are at a higher risk for colon cancer, I have my colon scoped regularly, now annually.  If a cancerous polyp or even pre-cancerous polyp is discovered, it would probably mean surgery to remove my colon.  Over the years, we have had a couple of scares.  In 2001 when I went for my colonoscopy, the doctor could not even perform the procedure because of the inflammation present.  I was referred to a specialist.  It was that summer, when I was not feeling all that spectacular, that I rediscovered jazz.  It was that fall, driving to a retreat that this Miles Davis song penetrated my heart and stirred my soul.  It was a beautiful day and this song was as bright as the sun and as colorful as the leaves.
            Two years after that, the medications I was on to control my inflammation just gave out.  That was a scary time.  A couple of years after I arrived here, my colonoscopy revealed a suspicious polyp.  My doctor began to discuss with us potential surgical options.  Thankfully, when the test results came back, the polyp was non-cancerous.
            I share this history not because it is all that remarkable.  Many of you have had to confront more difficult medical issues.  While I have worried some about cancer, you have had to battle it.  I tell the story because it is part of my contact with and confrontation with the fragility of life, and with mortality.  I played the song because it centers me, and I wanted that this morning, and because it reminds me that even in the midst of dealing with fragility and mortality, there are moments when awe, and beauty and wonder and mystery break through.
            “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”  Jesus had been saying something about being lifted up from the earth.  Part of this passage is Jesus confronting his own mortality.  We all confront mortality.  People die.  Where is God?
            My experience with death goes well beyond the times I have had to think about colon cancer.  Within my first six weeks as a pastor, at age twenty-five, I officiated at three funerals – the first for a man who was about the age I am right now. He had a brain tumor.  In my ministry I have officiated at services for, and helped families deal with the death of children from months old, to a couple of years old, to people over age 100.  I have worked with families where parents have lost children, where young children have lost a mother or a father.  I have worked with two suicides, a thirteen year-old and a man in his seventies.  The first question his sister asked me was if her brother was in hell.  I officiated at the funeral of a young woman who was killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend in a drunken rage.  I have walked a lot in the valley of the shadow of death.  I look around this morning and see many who have also walked in that valley.  I look around and see places where people we knew and loved sat on Sunday mornings past.
            Where is God when people we love and care about die?  How is God with us at such times?
            First, I don’t think God plans our time.  I know some find comfort in that thought, and I want to say that I could be wrong, but I don’t think God has all our days mapped out, and that there is an appointed time when we will die.  Too many heart-wrenching deaths that seem out of time to me lead me to think this.  I have been helped in my thinking by my acquaintance, theologian Marjorie Suchocki.  In the chapter on prayers for healing in her book In God’s Presence, she writes that prayers for healing must take place in the full recognition of our mortality.  We will all die; it is not a question of if, but a question of when.  The wonder is that given our fragility, and all the illnesses we contract, all but one of these illnesses are irreversible. (58)  So we pray for healing and “prayers for healing make a difference in what kind of resources God can use as God faithfully touches  us with impulses toward our good” (59).  God does not know in advance which disease will be our demise.  God only knows when some disease reaches a point of irreversibility.  God does not know just how many days after the day after tomorrow we may have, and God’s work is always toward healing until healing as health is no longer possible.
            When that time comes, God welcomes the dying person into new life beyond this life.  I remember the first time I ever heard the ending of the statement of faith of The United Church of Canada.  I thought that this was a beautiful statement of faith.  “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God.”  God receives each of our perishing lives into God’s own life in ways that ultimately shade off into mystery.  God receives our lives when we die, and there is new life.  I think of the lovely image offered by Alfred North Whitehead, the image of God as “a tender care that nothing be lost” (Process and Reality, 525).  We hear such trust in Jesus’ words in John.  “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.”  We trust that in death God takes the grain of our lives and makes it part of something beautiful in a tender care that nothing be lost.
            I also believe God is with us when we face the death of a loved one giving us the grace of remembering.  In one of the prayers I frequently use at memorial services there is thanksgiving to God for that of the person who has died, “which lives and grows in each of us.”  We are so created by God that we have the wonderful ability to carry other people inside of us.  Many, many times I have quoted the poet May Sarton, “the people we love are built into us.”
            In the face of death, God is also with us to bring new life.  When we grieve, God shares our grief and seeks to bring us new life.  When we cry in sorrow, God shares our tears, and seeks to bring us new life.  When his twenty-five year-old died in a mountain climbing accident, the theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff penned a moving book, Lament for a Son, in which he describes something of this new life God seeks to bring in the midst of sorrow and grief.
            To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love.  If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. (92)  Such new life is not easy, and we are always marked by the pain of the death of those we loved.  Yet new life is possible.  The grain of wheat falls into the earth, and something new emerges.  As hard as it can be some days, with God there is always the day after the day after tomorrow.
            But I cannot leave this passage from John without also recognizing that it is saying something not just about how God can be with us as we confront death in the literal sense.  Jesus speaks using an image, a metaphor, and that image says something about our lives beyond our confrontation with mortality and death.
            In our lives, change itself can be a kind of dying, but change is also the path to new life.  Sometimes in order to be the kind of people we want to be and God invites us to be, we need to let go of old habits, old patterns of living that get in the way of being more loving and caring and concerned.  Such letting go requires a kind of dying and a kind of faith that on the other side there is new life.  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.  Faith is, itself, a giving of ourselves to something bigger – to love, to compassion, to justice, to a world not yet fully here or fully born.  Every moment used is a kind of death, the death of that moment.  Will we use our moments in ways that plant fruitful seeds for God’s dream for the world?
            It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.  (A. Bartlett Giamatti, from "The Green Fields of the Mind ")  Former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti penned those words about baseball.  They are also about life.  It breaks your heart.  Life will break our hearts some times, and never more than when we lose someone close to us to death.  God is with us – in life, in death, in life beyond death.  God is with us to comfort us.  God is with us as tenderness that nothing be lost.  God is with us as the grace of remembering.  God is with us to give us the courage of the soft heart, for the only alternative to a heart that cannot break is a hard heart, and that is not the way of life.   And God is about life, and about new life - about sympathy for the world’s wounds being enlarged, about expanding love for those around us, about gratitude for what is good flaming up, about deepened insight, about strengthening commitment to what is important, about aching for a new day, about faith and hope and love, about beauty, wonder and awe breaking through even when life is feels fragile, about using our lives for something bigger.

            In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone – today, and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after the day after tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

No comments: