One, Two, Three Kinds of Dying
Sermon preached Good Friday April 3, 2015
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? This powerful question is posed by the poet Mary Oliver toward the end of her poem, “The Summer Day.” The words strike us hard, and they carry a ring of truth. But maybe they don’t tell all the truth. Doesn’t everything die at last? Well, there is no getting around that truth, much as we would like to. But does everything die too soon? I have watched people hang on for days, their death seeming to come excruciatingly slow, especially if their final days are painful and difficult. Perhaps just a little sooner would have been a good thing? When people were crucified, it was an agonizing death. The person executed in this way hung there out in the elements sometimes for a few days. Death often occurred because their lungs finally gave out from hanging there uncomfortably – death by prolonged suffocation. Hanging on a cross, being crucified, the less time there the better.
Yet even after such difficult deaths, there lingers the feeling that every life ends too soon in some way. Everything does die at last, and we often feel, too soon. Mary Oliver, in her poem, confronts us with the difficult realities of death.
Today’s story, the Good Friday story, also brings us face to face with the harsh realities of cruelty and death. But this death poses other questions as well. It always has. That is part of the power of this day. I want to ponder some of those questions by reflecting for just a few moments on three kinds of dying.
The first kind of dying is the kind we all face as human beings, the kind we have already been discussing. We will die. For each of us, life will come to an end. We don’t like to think about it much, and we think those who do think about it a lot are rather morbid people, not the kind of folks you like to have over often for dinner parties. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Mary Oliver asks. We know the answer, “Yes, everything dies.” But our death poses another question, a question that Mary Oliver asks at the very conclusion of her poem, “The Summer Day.” Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? We will die. Our lives will end, so what are we going to do with our one wild and precious life? It is a question we all have to ask, and probably ask more than once during our lives.
So we have choices to make about how we are going to use our wild and precious lives. When you look around, it is easy to see that some pretty bad choices are made. We probably make some of those bad choices. In a recent Facebook post, the writer Anne Lamott speaks of God. One synonym for God, besides the big Three – Love, Light, Mind – is Life. Capital L Life, life not squandered, awakened Life. We can squander life, let it slide by inattentively, mangle it. God invites us to life with the capital L, and we make other choices. In some ways, we can speak meaningfully about spiritual death. The twentieth century poet T. S. Eliot penned these lines (Choruses from “The Rock,” 1934):
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Where is the life we have lost in living? We make choices that hurt rather than heal, that squander life rather than create beauty with it, that close us off rather than open us up. Such choices are a kind of spiritual death. Being among the “walking dead” doesn’t have to refer to being a zombie! The writer of Colossians knew something of this kind of death. When you were stuck in your old sin-dead life, you were incapable of responding to God. God brought you alive – right along with Christ! (Colossians 2:13, The Message)
On Good Friday, Jesus is the one who is crucified, but it is those who chose to execute him that know a different kind of death. They have closed themselves off from God’s creative love in Jesus, from the new thing God was up to in him. They held too strongly to the way things had always been and they could not let new light shine into their lives. One might call them “sin-dead,” where that loaded theological word “sin” really just means those things that squander life. Putting Jesus to death is evidence of a kind of spiritual deadness.
There is physical death, which we all will suffer. There is spiritual death which is when we choose to misuse our wild and precious lives, and I would say, finally, about that, that there are degrees of spiritual death. Then there is what I would call “paradoxical death.” Here’s what I mean. If there is a kind of death that we live, a spiritual death that is a squandering of life, to live fully, to be more fully alive may mean that we need to put death to death. If there are habits and patterns in our life which close us off from being fully alive, then maybe we need to let go of those habits and patterns, let them die, so to speak. This is a death to death that leads to life – paradoxical. Again, the writer of the New Testament letter, “Colossians” puts it well (3:3, 5a, The Message). Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life… is with Christ in God…. And that means killing off everything connected with the way of death. And what is the alternative, the way of life? So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline…. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (3:12, 14, The Message)
Letting go of old habits and patterns can be difficult, even when they are not very life-giving. They are familiar and giving them up can feel like a kind of death, but it is the way of life. Life that is real life is life alive to God. It is life lived with creativity, courage, integrity, compassion, kindness, quiet strength, and love. The religion scholar Huston Smith wrote a book called The Soul of Christianity, in which he penned these words: Everything that came from Jesus’ lips worked like a magnifying glass to focus human awareness on the two most important facts about life: God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them in the way water passes without obstruction through a sea anemone (53-54). That’s life. Jesus’ death worked like a magnifying glass, focusing God’s love and the need to let that love flow through.
As we listen to the story of how Jesus lived his life with creativity, courage, and love to the very end, hear the question again, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”