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Dying, Grieving, Living Well

August 24, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on August 23, 2015.

John 21:1-17


“I am perfectly at ease with whatever comes.” That’s what former President Jimmy Carter said this past week when announcing that he has been diagnosed with cancer that it has spread to his brain.

How many of us could say that, if we were given a terminal diagnosis? It is an important question, because we ALL have a terminal diagnosis. We live in a culture that is not only profoundly unhealthy but also works hard to deny the inevitability of death, is “death phobic.” We live in denial, and that robs us of the life God truly intends.

“Everyone knows they’re going to die,” writes Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.

But the vast majority of people are caught off guard, unprepared even after having been given a terminal diagnosis. Doctors are so accustomed to holding out the chance of survival, that they often encourage hope where there is none – and that discourages patients from dealing with a difficult business of death. It’s an approach that arises from compassion, but it doesn’t allow the end of life to be what it should be: an important event, like being born or getting married. “We end without any ending,” writes Jenkinson. “We are gone without any leaving.”

When Jesus knew that his death was approaching, he didn’t keep going about his days as if nothing [was] wrong. He gathered his apostles for the last supper. He fed them. He told him he was about to die. It was a defining moment in Christianity – and a stark contrast to the modern expectation that dying patients should ignore the inevitable, stay positive, and, as Jenkinson puts it, “not let them see you sweat.[1]

In what all the newspapers have called typical Carter fashion, our former president and man of faith announced his diagnosis himself, talking honestly with the press from the Carter Center in Atlanta and answering questions about his life. He says he has “hope with acceptance.” That he has had a full and meaningful life. That he will slow down and, in the words of his son, watch more of his grandson’s baseball games. And that he will be with Rosalyn every step of the way.

Jimmy Carter has done more with his post presidency than any other modern president, and there will be time to talk about all of that. But it may well be the very normalizing way in which he talked about his diagnosis, his treatment, the medical procedures; the way in which he made it clear that no one is exempt from the details of dying, or difficult talks with their doctors; the way in which he spoke about the process of dying in a way we can all understand, candidly exposing his desire to continue making contributions while realistically assessing his energy and sorting out what is most important – that may be his final gift to us: dying well.

And we need models in this. Just yesterday my grandparents in Arizona, Leroy and Gertrude Sass, entered into hospice together. Their doctor of nearly forty years came to see them at their care facility in order to enroll them personally. That gave my grandmother such joy and peace that, even though it was very late, she had to call my mother and share the news.

The flip side of dying well is grieving well. And in this we need models as well.

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John, verses 1-17. We are told that “This was now the third time that the Jesus had appeared before his disciples after he was raised from the dead.” Let’s review the first two.

Recall that the disciples had given three years of their lives to Jesus, in order to learn from his life, to share his life, because what they thought they saw in him was real life, abundant life, new life. But in the end, Jesus died, and with him their hope. But more than that, he was taken from them, killed, and they had betrayed him, abandoned him, failed him. Rumor of the resurrection had reached them through the women, but they were not yet ready for good news, and so they were afraid.

And so week later, the gospel tells us, Jesus comes to his disciples who have locked themselves together in a room. He comes and addresses their fear, gives them peace, breathes on them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out to be his witnesses in all the world. This was the first appearance.

And yet a week after that, they are still in the room. Jesus had given them a mission, but still the hide. They have been given peace, but still they fear. They have been given the gift of the spirit, new life gently breathed upon them the same way God first breathed life into Adam, yet still the prefer a death-like fear, locked away in a tomb of their own making.

And so Jesus comes to them a second time. This time Thomas is there. Jesus again gives them his peace, his spirit, and his mission. He sends them all out to be his witnesses. . . . . (and now we come to the setting for this morning’s) . . . and what do they do? They go fishing. They try to go back to business as usual, life before Jesus. Back to where they first met him, and were called by him, and given a mission by him, and given life by him. As if nothing different had happened. But of course – when someone we love has died, there is no real going back.

The death of someone we love is a profound experience. It is life changing. And no matter how hard we try to return to business as usual, to normality, to fishing, we cannot, because the world within us has changed. The world around us has changed. Loss has entered not only into us, but into our world, and the absence of the one we love is present everywhere.

In his book The Eyes of the Heart, Presbyterian author Fred Buechner describes how in writing about his own brother’s death he finds he must write about his own grief, or he will not get his brother’s story right. About his brother he writes

Jamie, died as I was writing these last pages. He was 2 1/2 years younger than I am and would have been 70 on his next birthday. We were the only two children in our family. I can’t imagine the world without him. I can’t imagine him without the world.

I want to get him right… I want especially to get his way of laughing right. I want to get it right about how on his visits to see us in Vermont when everybody else was dithering around trying to decide what to do next, he would sit out on the lawn in his sweater and khaki pants reading the Times in utter peace as he puffed on one of the appalling little cigars he wasn’t allowed to smoke inside. I want to get it right about the way he took life as it came instead of like me brooding about the past or worrying himself sick about the future.

But in getting his brother right, Buechner does not want to neglect his own grief.

I also want to get it right about whatever it is that is going on inside me know. There is the level of feeling where, after moments when the clouds seem to be lifting a little, it is suddenly all I can do to see the hand in front of my face. And there is the level of thinking, thinking back especially over our last few conversations, including the one within only three or four hours of his death when we said goodbye for good. But deeper down still there is a level that I know nothing about at all except that whatever I am doing there, it is absolutely exhausting. It is as if great quantities of furniture have to be moved from one place to another. There seem to be endless cartons of God only knows what to sort through somehow. The earth itself has to be bulldozed and shifted around and reshaped. A whole new landscape has come into being.

Buechner describes grief as hard, exhausting work in which whole landscapes of life are reshaped formed. Death changes everything.

It was by reading our gospel story in this light, and in the wake of my own father’s death eleven years ago, that I think I first understood this encounter between the disciples and the strange figure on the shore. John’s story is a beautifully, richly written story about the necessary failure of every attempt to go back to normal. The disciples cannot forget the last three years. Long before he actually arrives, the disciples find Jesus everywhere.

They are, after all, on the Sea of Galilee. Was this not the very sea where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed 5000? The sea across which he walked during that terrible storm? Are they not doing exactly what they had been doing when Jesus first called to them? No matter where they run, no matter what they do – even if it’s the same old thing they did before they met Jesus, nothing will ever be quite the same. In a very nice irony, though Jesus has sent his disciples out to be his witnesses, it is the landscape itself and the things that they do that will not let them forget.

“Remember when . . . ?”

And then a stranger appears on the shore. The disciples have been up late. They have caught no fish. He suggests they try one more time, on the other side of the boat. Wham! Jesus again. They’ve been here before, done EXACTLY this before, with Jesus. Sure enough, 153 fish. While Thomas, Nathaniel and the others struggle with the fish, Peter crazily (is he thinking, not thinking, can he think?) – puts ON his clothes and jumps in the water. Wham! He has just responded to this stranger on the shore in the same way he responded to Jesus. And without even the pretense of faith, of walking on the water, he just jumps rights in and heads for land.

And the stranger? He has loaves and fishes. And now suddenly, the rumors of resurrection begin to take, to settle in their lives, to be part of life and not an interruption of it. Jesus presence, and not his absence, is everywhere around them. And then, just like the living Jesus and less like a memory, he moves inside them.

Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep? Do you love me? Feed my lambs.

Right to the heart. That’s Jesus. To Peter’s denial. The disciples’ failure. To a love that knows them so intimately it cannot be betrayed even when they let him down. That’s Jesus. That’s really Jesus.

I can imagine him asking them, “Did I really need to appear to you three times?” Maybe he did.

Maybe it took that long to realize that as profoundly as death changes everything, Jesus life changes everything, even death itself. That even Jesus death could not betray the gift of life he gave to them.

Have you noticed that all the elements of these stories appear in our practice of baptism. Memory cast out in deep waters, and then a call, a promise of peace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a naming of us at our most vulnerable, a crazy jump into the water, and a welcome to eat with Jesus at his table. Baptism is not the beginning of a journey of life toward death, or even life beyond death, but a crazy jump from life into life, real life, abundant life, new life.


[1] The citations are from an interview with Jenkinson conducted by Eric Hoffer in The Sun Magazine, “As We Lay Dying: Stephen Jenkinson on How We Deny Our Mortality,” Issue 476.

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