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Lent 1: Mortality

February 23, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Lent, February 22, 2015

Mark 8:31-37

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Human was bound to suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scholars, and be killed, and after three days rise up. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Then Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me: for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the kingdom, will save it. For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? Indeed, what can you give in return for your life?                                                                                                                  (adapted)

* * * * * * *

On Thursday, Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine, announced in the New York Times that he has terminal cancer.

A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.[1]

Sacks is the author of several books, such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which have led some to call him “medicine’s poet.” He goes on to write,

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. . . . The cancer cannot be halted. It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. . . . I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential.

Jesus tried to say something like this to his disciples, and they couldn’t hear it. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was quite open about the fact that he was going to die, and that his closest friends responded with a resounding “No! No way. Not you. Especially not you”

But Jesus tells them that denial is of the devil. Or perhaps, it is simply all too human. Jesus is trying to prepare himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his own death.

But, like the disciples, we don’t want to talk about this. We don’t want to think about our own death, let alone the death of those we love. So thank God Jesus brought it up first.

We are all going to die. This church is a place where we can talk openly about it; and where we can be surrounded by others who do not avoid the topic, but can help us plan and prepare as best we are able.

I have been reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a profound meditation on the choices we face at the end of life, and what it means to live meaningfully in the face of our inevitable end. Gawande is a medical doctor who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and his New York Times bestselling book tells the story of how our society treats old age and the process of dying as a medical problem to be cured rather than a natural part of the lifecyle of all beings.

While medicine and nursing care can prolong life, and numerous options exist (if you can afford them) for (relatively) independent living, he writes,

Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new question arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?

This is not a book of easy answers, but a perspective shifter on a whole range of questions concerning the old age, or as John Timmons has taught me to say, seniority. Death by old age, or seniority, is actually a relatively new phenomenon. In Jesus’ day, average life expectancy was 30. Accident, illness, violence, childbirth, exhaustion – these were how people died. Perhaps all that courage Jesus had to confront all that was wrong in his world came from the fact that he was already an old man at 30. His mother, still living, would have been ancient of days, venerated in her village for her longevity. As the philosopher Montaigne wrote, observing late sixteenth century life, “To die of age is a rare, singular, and extraordinary death, and so much less natural than others: it is the last and extremist kind of dying.”[2]

But today, a life of seventy years is expected, and 80, 90, even 100 not uncommon. And this means anticipating a number of years in which we will either be in need of assistance or completely dependent on others. “We do not like to think about this eventuality,” writes Gawande, and “As a result, most of us are unprepared for it. We rarely pay more than glancing attention to how we will live when we need help until it’s too late to do much about it.[3]

Gawande’s book commends courage, the strength to face with knowledge what is to be hoped and feared, and still to be able to act. (Isn’t this what Jesus was trying to instill in his disciples?) We have many reasons to shrink from facing up to our mortality, and knowing how to act when we do is not always clear. This would be hard enough, but the book really aims to change to way our society treats the dying. In many, many ways, the institutions we have for dealing with the dying, from our hospitals to our nursing homes often seem designed to deny that facing death with courage is important to the dying. Instead, the elderly are left with a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems, a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.” There are better ways.[4]

In this church we acknowledge that life and death are intimately connected. Our ability to die well is connected with having learned to live well. And living well is connected with our readiness to die to all that stands in the way of the fullness of life God intends for all people. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not our own. We belong to God.

We practice these rhythms of living and dying in worship each week. Here we practice dying so that we can live. In our baptism, we die with Christ, symbolically drowned and drawn again out of the water. In confession, repentance, new commitment, we practice letting go of all that is inessential and redirecting ourselves to the life God intends. Those who cannot forsake THIS life will never find TRUE life. But this is not life denying. On the contrary. Our faith is life-affirming. In this same place, in the chancel of the sanctuary and in these pews, we baptize new life, we confirm faith, we celebrate and marry deep love, we offer our sins and wounds, our infirmities and perplexities, our desire and hope alongside our need and fear. Here we gather when loved ones die to weep and shout and grieve the their loss, to rail at the injustice of violent or unexpected death. We grieve unique lives, never to be replaced, even as we are reminded that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves. We remember that our truest life always has and always will belong to God, that, when we die, this community will continue to grieve us, and that as long as this community gathers, birth and life and hope and loss, death and new life will be celebrated here.

I invite you to take some time to think about dying in the moments that follow. To think about it not as something morbid, but as something natural. For what over the course of your life have you been grateful? How do you hope to be remembered? Are there things unsaid or undone that you believe are important for you to say or do? With whom would it be important to have a conversation about dying? Perhaps you’d like to take one of the pink prayer slips and jot some notes to yourself.[5]

As you reflect, remember this promise “in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. We belong to God.”

* * * * * * *

After the sermon, we sang “Go to Dark Gethsemene” which includes the line, “learn from Jesus Christ to die.” Then the Rev. Sarah Henkel offered the following prayer…

God, creator and shaper of our lives, we give you thanks for this present moment. We give you thanks for life and breath.

Our time here on earth is brief, filled with wonder, pain, ecstasy, loss. From the earth you formed us, breathed movement into our bodies, and when our breath is gone you lovingly receive us home.

We pray for release from the fear of death.

We pray for patience as our bodies grow older and our abilities change.

We pray for the grace to claim our dependence on one another.

God you created us, knit together our bodies and souls, the finite and infinite.   We give thanks that not even in death can we be separated from your love. This is our hope. It is our comfort as we mourn, as we age, as we, in our daily living, come face to face with death.

We pray for communities where grief is heavy, where death comes through violence much too early and too often: for communities living in the midst of war, for communities who don’t have access to the basic necessities for life, for communities broken apart by gun violence.

We pray especially for the family lost to gun violence last night in Harrison. For the grief counselors who will be the helpers there today, who will hold the space for questions and lament. For the friends and teachers who will be holding one another close as they mourn the loss of Alyssa and Deana and their father, Glenn, and struggle to comprehend what happened. In this Lenten season – in which we confess our sin – we grieve together the brokenness that Glenn faced.

God receive these prayers, the sorrow and rejoicing that shape our lives, and create within us praise that flows with every breath.

[1] New York Times, February 19, 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?_r=0).

[2] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. (Metropolis Books, New York) p.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. (Metropolis Books, New York) p. 55.

[4] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. (Metropolis Books, New York) Page 108.

[5] A description of various forms of living wills was included in the bulletin, as well as a link to a document called “Five Wishes.” Members were encouraged to use this or similar documents in planning for their own dying and talking with their loved ones.

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