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
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
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.
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?
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
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.