"Never Alone, or, Jesus Happens to Death"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Fifth Sunday in Lent
25 March 2012
Texts: Jeremiah 31.31-34
"I never had a felt experience of God...it seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice say, 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.' I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."
-Martin Luther King, Jr, on his "kitchen table revelation" in Montgomery
***(You can listen to a rough audio-recording via the youtube link at the end of this post! Still working on how to embed audio; thanks for your patience)
-Around holidays when I was a teenager, I’d often “volunteer” to go and play piano at nursing homes. Because nothing says “I’m a good Lutheran boy!” like unenthusiastically pounding out Joy to the World for an incapacitated audience of somebody else’s neglected grandparents?
-I really hated going to the nursing home. Because going to the nursing home meant coming close to the reality of death and dying. And not just any death; but dying, largely, without dignity and without control; dying, alone and forgotten. Dying, even while you are still alive.
-This one time, I was playing at Crest Manor Nursing Home in Fairport, NY. Thankfully, the piano was facing away from the people I was so “graciously serving,” so I could just focus on the music and ignore the moans and groans and strange odors and vacant expressions. Until a bony finger touched my shoulder, and I smelled “old person,” and a trembling voice whispered in my ear, “I gotta get out of here!” My first instinct was to ask, "is the music really that bad?" But what I really wanted to say was, “you and me both buddy.” But I was too terrified, so I just kept playing, heart heavy, back turned.
-So in today’s Gospel, I am so thankful that, in talking about his death, Jesus says, “now my soul is troubled. And what should I say? Father, save me from this hour?” I’m comforted that, even for God Incarnate, the idea of death and dying leaves him tongue-tied and troubled. Leads him to at least contemplate the advice of that old forgotten man at Crest Manor: “I gotta get outta here!”
-And I want to say to him, “Yes Jesus! That’s what you should say! Because Jesus, you’re about to get crucified! You’re headed for a painful, dishonorable, disappointing end. You are going to scream at the top of your lungs, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You are going to die utterly alone. Jesus, for the love of God, say it! Tell the Father: I gotta get outta here!”
-Except were I to say this to Jesus, dear brothers and sisters, you know that I’d really just be talking to myself. I prefer to keep death as far away as possible, whether it’s physical death, or the many forms of spiritual death we face: loss of meaning; loss of security; death of relationships; death of things “the way they’ve always been.” Because death means change. It means the loss of control. It means pain. It means the possibility of ending up alone.
-And all that pretty imagery Jesus usually conjures up, about seeds falling and dying and rising again, it’s all very lovely for a sermon. But when it comes down to living it, I’d really rather just not die. I’m kind of addicted to being alive. I’ll just keep singing my song with my back to the dying, thank you very much.
-Because then, see, I can treat death as something that can be kept at a distance. That can be managed and controlled. It can be avoided. I don’t have to undergo it myself. And while there may be a few of you, like my wife, who are truly able to face the reality of death without fear and spit in its face, I’d wager some of you might share my trepidation.
-No wonder death in the movies or opera or theater is so cathartic for the human audience. We can look, but never have to touch, or be touched. We can be people watching people watching children kill each other in the Hunger Games and feel entertained instead of disturbed. We can "Like" Kony 2012 on Youtube from the safety of our homes and feel like we are saving child soldiers in Africa. White folks in my neighborhood can feel outraged over the murder of Trayvon Martin in faraway Florida, while refusing to show up at the memorial for DeQuan Walker-Smith, 18, who was murdered in broad daylight six blocks away from my house at 29th and Franklin.
-The price we pay for keeping ourselves isolated from death, is very often the isolation and objectification of actual dying people. Which is exactly how the forces of death keep us enslaved to fear.
-But Jesus refuses to isolate himself from death. He actually walks toward it but as he does so His soul is troubled. Jesus has the chance to escape, and of anyone, Jesus has the right. But he doesn’t. Jesus chooses the road that leads directly to the cross. “It is for this reason,” he declares to the adoring crowds, “that I have come to this hour.” To die.
-Furthermore, Jesus claims that this willingness to face and embrace death, this willingness to follow the will of God is a death for the sake of others. Jesus promises that “when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” All people. Jesus promises that his death is not just a cathartic spectacle for our inspiration. Jesus‘ death breaks down the barriers of isolation created by a world bent on avoiding death, and creates the possibility of new community. He does this by his own isolated death, lifted up on the cross, in defiance of the death-denying systems of this world. Jesus dies alone so that no one - no one - will ever face death alone again.
-So deeply is Jesus committed to being involved with us in our death-haunted humanity, seeking such complete solidarity, that he walks with us, all the way to the end. Walks with Trayvon. With DeQuan. With forgotten nursing home guy. With you. And with me.
-And that means, whether we like it or not, we will also be drawn along the path that Jesus himself followed. Whether we like it or not, we too will have to face death, spiritual deaths, relational deaths , and physical deaths. Not just during the 40 days of Lent. But every single day of our Christian lives. As Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “when Jesus calls someone, he bids them come and die.” It’s what it means to be baptized into Christ’s death. It means death is no longer an optional part of new life.
-And we will have no control over this. Like a dead seed, we don’t get to decide what our deaths do, or even which deaths we'll face. Undergoing any kind of death is no guarantee that we will see the new life that springs up from within us. Knowing the love of Jesus is no guarantee of security. If anything, knowing Jesus pretty much guarantees the opposite. We are called to have souls that are also troubled by death, and the world of isolation and fear that death creates.
-But brothers and sisters, Christ promises this. Christ promises that his death will draw all of us into the dark places of death in the world. Our deaths have been taken up and hidden in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection. See, death will happen to us, but Jesus has also happened to death. And when we face death, Jesus promises to be there. We walk the way towards death. But always, Jesus walks with us. Because he promises: “where I am, there my servant will also be.”
-Which makes me wonder about that old bony finger that touched my shoulder back in the nursing home. Maybe it wasn’t actually the hand of death. Maybe it was the hand of Christ, reaching out from among the dying, urging me: you gotta get outta here. Out of the isolation you’ve created around you. Out of fear and avoidance. The only way through this death is through it. So turn and face us. And turning, see the face of Jesus, and look through the eyes of the monster into the eyes of the promise. That God has entered death and created new life. That in us outcasts, suffering, dying and alone, Christ bids you join us, bids you come and die. Let us be the promise for one another, the promise that Jesus walks with the dying. And, in walking together, let us find that, in Christ, together, we never walk alone.