Monday, March 18, 2013

Musings about death

Four friends are talking about death. One of them asks the other three, "When you're in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?"

The first one replies, "I'd like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and loved my family."

The second one says, "I'd like to hear that I was a wonderful parent and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children."

The last one answers, "I'd like to hear them say … Look, he's moving!"[1]

Today's gospel reading, which is unusual in that all four biblical accounts of Jesus' life include similar anecdotes, confronts us with the universal reality of death.[2] The incident, as John describes it, has a Greek or Roman flavor, with Jesus and the guests reclining at a dinner given in his honor, similar to a dinner party that our family or we might host for a visiting dignitary. Things are going well. The food is good, the wine palatable and plentiful, and the conversation pleasant. Then Mary, already infamous for not helping with kitchen chores, takes a pound of a special perfume normally used only for burial preparations, anoints Jesus' feet with it, and then, like a brazen hussy, unbinds her hair and wipes his feet with it. Her actions offended common decency and were, at best, a servant's task, not what a host did. She ruined the party, especially since the subject of death probably made people as uncomfortable then as today.

This strange incident highlights three important ideas.

First, nobody can escape death. Jesus had to die for the same reason that you and I have to die: he was born. Don't capitulate easily or unnecessarily to death. Yet denying death's inevitability is equally harmfully, although our culture often foolishly attempts it. The United States wastes enormous sums on medical treatments that increase a dying person's suffering without a realistic chance of improving that person's quality or length of life. Hospice care offers a positive alternative. Similarly, taking the initiative, while in robust health, to formalize your desires regarding end of life healthcare issues such as when you do or do not want to be placed on life support equipment, promotes the dignified dying and good stewardship appropriate to Christian living.

Jesus had no reason to believe that he would peacefully die in his sleep. Indeed, biblical scholars generally view this morning's gospel as a literary foreshadowing of Jesus' impending death just a week later. Anthropological and psychological research indicates that all humans appear to fear their own deaths.[3] Some scientists hypothesize that human spirituality developed because of anxiety stemming from an awareness of death's inevitability.[4] The transience of this life naturally makes us contemplate the possibility of another life.

Awareness of our own mortality points to a second insight in today's gospel: Mary's gift of nard to Jesus reminds us to cherish the time that we have with our loved ones and friends.

The Rev. David Roper has never forgotten a funeral that he conducted for a small child. While waiting for the family to gather, a little boy walked up to the tiny casket and gazed in. The boy was obviously distressed, and Roper wanted to comfort him. "Your little sister is with Jesus," the minister said.

The boy burst into tears. "I don't want her to be with Jesus," he sobbed, "I want her here with me so we can play!" They hugged and both cried.[5]

A person can only receive a gift – whether shared experiences, emotional intimacy, or something more tangible – while living. Mary's gift of the expensive perfume expressed her great love for Jesus and her fear that his death might be in the offing. She also gave Jesus the gift of an opportunity to speak of his death, a gift that many dying persons greatly treasure.

History, always written by the victor, gives Judas a bad rap. Assume that he genuinely desired to care for the poor, an aim consonant with the preponderance of the biblical witness; we generalize John's comment that we will always have the poor at great peril. Instead, the tension between Mary and Judas is one that we continue to experience: should we use our limited resources to love and care for our nearest and dearest or for our more distant, less well-known neighbors?

Third, carpe diem, i.e., seize the day! Few people ever have an accurate idea of when, much less how, they will die. Part of death's terror is its unpredictability. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the first psychiatrists to explore death and dying, reported that the greatest lesson to be learned, according to the dying, was to "Live so you do not have to look back and say, God, how I have wasted my life."[6]

In his book, Tuesdays with Morrie, journalist Mitch Albom shares the things he learned from his weekly visits with his former professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Many of Morrie and Mitch’s conversations centered on how Morrie was facing his eventual death. One day, Morrie remarked, “People see me as a bridge. I’m not alive as I used to be, but I’m not yet dead … I’m on the last great journey here – and people want me to tell them what to pack.”[7]
We Christians journey, not just through Lent but also through life, with Jesus as our guide, our bridge, the one who tells us what to pack. Today's gospel reminds us to pack our lives full of love for God and neighbor, experiencing fully life in the present and confident about life in the future.

(Sermon preached at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2013)

[1] Source unknown.
[2] John 12:1-8; Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50.
[3] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 132.
[4] Lee M. Silver, Challenging Nature (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 67.
[5] David Roper, A Burden Shared, (Nashville, TN: Discovery House Publishers, 1991), p. 29.
[6] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. xix.
[7] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 33.


Ted said...

An excellent sermon. I wonder what the response would be if you asked the congregation to raise their hands if they had DNRs or Health Agent desires to end life with dignity.
It is always amazing to pray every Sunday about the riches of Heaven and the peace that comes with the ever after, then do everything in science to stay alive regardless of the expense to the system and family. Never ever say you want one more minute, hour or day with someone when they are dying. You had your chance.
Giving up is NOT the worse thing people can do when near death with no reasonable way to maintain dignity or quality of life.
Who do we blame for our live forever attitude; the Government, doctors, family or church?
I saw a show where a guy thinks he can live for 120 years. He takes over 240 pills a day to extend his life.
During WW II many frontline fighters understood they were going to die and had to fight to live. I’m sure there were no Atheists during those times. So in today’s world we need to understand we have a limited time on earth and live every moment.
With all the advancements in medicine, we can live long after the brain or body has no response.
Should we?

George Clifford said...

Ted, Thanks. I think responsibility for our death denying culture has multiple sources, those that you list as well as the many individuals who fear death. The short answer to your question is that brain death (sometimes frustratingly difficult to specify) signifies death. Prolonging physical existence (respiration, nutrition, etc.) serves no useful purpose and wastes huge amounts of money.