IV Lent, Year A
IV Lent, Year A
Psalm 23: 4
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The D word. A word to be avoided in our society at all costs. A taboo word and subject, which almost no one wants to talk about. The subject that causes everything from fear and anxiety, illness and despair, to embarrassment and gnashing of teeth. A subject that a lot of people wish would just go away. The D word I’m referring to is, of coarse, death. Over the wide sweep of human history, death and dying have been treated in a host of ways. Today, I invite you to explore with me some of the meanings and approaches that human beings ascribe to death and dying.
In the past as well as in our contemporary Western world, death has often been regarded as something to be avoided and feared. This attitude towards death comes out in a variety of ways. One is the way we soften our language by employing euphemisms like, for example: ‘he or she passed away/fell asleep and never woke up/has left us/shed this veil of tears/is at rest’—and the list goes on. Some people try their best to change the subject whenever death and dying surfaces in conversations. Some are in such denial of death and dying and fear it so much that any and every association is to be avoided or censured.
(For instance:) Louis XV, King of France, foolishly ordained and ordered that death was never to be spoken of in his presence. Nothing that could in any way remind him of death was to be mentioned or displayed, and he sought to avoid every place and sign and monument which in any way suggested death. Carlyle said of him: “It is the resource of the ostrich, who, hard hunted, sticks its foolish head in the ground and would fain forget that its foolish body is not unseen too.”
There is no reason why a brave and sensible person should not face all the facts of life, and one of these—the ultimate fact, so far as this world is concerned—is the fact of death. 1
Another way humans deal with death and dying is by speaking of death as the enemy. This approach, in its extreme, always regards death as something to be resisted and fought with. This attitude often turns to military language to describe death and dying. One wages war against death, one battles the enemy.
The Christian West has fought death to the very end of life. The Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal illustrates this well, picturing a medieval knight in a classic struggle against death; the image of death appears repeatedly in the film, demanding that the knight make a move in a chess match which death will inevitably win. In a similar vein, Dylan Thomas advised his dying father,
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Further, many have noted that Western medicine often goes to extraordinary measures to continue life, reflecting the Christian view that one must struggle against death as a great enemy. 2
This view, of death and dying as the enemy of humankind is, of coarse, certainly biblical too. Even though, according to both the Jewish and Christian faiths, death occurs because it is the result of sin—hence it is not only our enemy, but also God’s enemy because it causes suffering for God and for all creation. The apostle Paul emphasises this view of death in his letters. However, according to Paul, we as Christians live in the hope and confidence that God through Christ’s resurrection has ultimately defeated our enemy, and won the war against death. Paul, citing Isaiah 25:8, asks almost in a taunting manner where death’s victory is; then, with confidence and hope answers: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” who, as Paul describes it, has “swallowed up” death. (I Cor. 15:54-57) Thus, according to this view, we certainly need not fear death, since it is ultimately defeated.
Another way human beings have regarded death is by referring to it as a friend. This is on the very opposite end of the spectrum of regarding death as the enemy. In this view of death, nothing is to be feared. Rather, death is to be accepted as a natural end to this life. In fact, for people of faith, it is something to look forward to with hope, since it is viewed as a release from the sin and sufferings of this world. Those who have endured long-term sufferings view death as a friend, since it brings them relief and rest from their pain and agony. Death frees them from it all. Francis of Assisi, underscored death as a friend in his hymn: “All Creatures of Our God and King,” by describing it like this:
And you, most kind and gentle death,
Waiting to hush our final breath,
You lead to heav’n the child of God,
Where Christ our Lord the way has trod. (Lutheran Book Of Worship, #527) I’m not sure folks who suffer for years on end and die a slow, painful death would agree with Francis and call death “kind and gentle.” Rather, for them, it may be more accurate to say that death is “mean and cruel.” Yet, for some, death may prove “kind and gentle,” especially for those who die suddenly, at an appropriate time; after they have made all of their preparations for it and have said goodbyes to their loved ones; and then die quickly, without much, if any pain.
Another metaphor that some employ to describe death is that of a door. For many people of faith, they speak of death as a door that opens for them and then closes behind them at God’s appointed time. Death in this case is a new adventure, which the faithful walk into. Death as a door leads to a better life and is not to be feared. In this metaphor, we along with God are involved in the process of walking through the door. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus himself says: “I am the door.” He is the way into a life full of meaning without end, life eternal. By walking through the door when it is open to us, there is a sense of a journey completed; a new world, with new opportunities opening up for us. Christ the open door opens our hearts, minds and lives to his abundant life, with a new future.
Then, there is death as the darkest valley or the valley of the shadow of death, as our psalmist speaks of it. This valley that the psalmist describes is “a great unknown,” since it is too dark to see death clearly or understand it completely in our present existence. Yet, in spite of death being “a great unknown,” the psalmist remains confident in the LORD; not fearing evil; since God is with the psalmist; God is with us too as we meet death; as we walk through the darkest valley of the shadow of death. Notice those two little words, “walk through.” Death is not a permanent state, reducing us to a state of nothingness. No, we, with God’s help and presence shall be able to walk through death, into a better, permanent life with God. The psalmist goes on to find comfort in the LORD as a Protecting Shepherd, who carries a rod, a club like weapon used to defend the flock; and a staff, a longer pole, sometimes with a crook on the end, for the shepherd to lean on and guide the flock, herding them into a safe environment.
During the Lenten season, it is most appropriate to face “the D word.” Death and dying is not a taboo subject for people of faith. Lent assists us all as we focus on the suffering, dying and death of Jesus; we are better able to focus on and prepare for our own suffering, dying and death. From the faith perspective, Christ’s death and consequently our own death are not meaningless, but filled with meaning. As we accept and bear the cross that has been given each one of us; to live a life filled with meaning involves learning how to die. We are constantly in need of learning how to die to our selfishness, our sin, our propensity to choose evil instead of good. Every day of our lives involves this process of cross bearing; of dying to selfishness, sin and evil and rising to a new life of loving, sacrificial service of God by serving others; of rising to new opportunities to live under the power of Christ’s forgiveness; of rising to choose what is life-giving and good.
It is very instructive that the Hebrew word for “sacrifice” means “to draw close.” Jesus by willingly, lovingly, unconditionally choosing to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of the world has drawn everyone closer to God. He has called all of his would-be disciples to do the same, by bearing our crosses and living lives of loving service for others. So, we need not fear the darkest valley of the shadow of death. We can face death and dying; we can prepare for it; and in dying to selfishness, sin and evil, we are born into a new, abundant life with God; a life drawing us closer to God and one another.