Taboo on Halloween

We worried a bit when the new guy proposed a memorial service, just a week before Remembrance, and our last month in our 175-year-old location and building.  Would it be maudlin, or hurtful to sensitive people?  What about children, getting bad dreams – isn’t Halloween dangerous enough, and banned in many schools these days?

Some had joined 200 people Saturday, for a wedding of Vi and John, 2 people in their 80’s:  ‘just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace’!  Later this Sunday, another dozen of us celebrated the life, and mourned the death, of Lorna, who very nearly reached age 95.   We seniors remember death daily – and yet we live!

I live next to the bells of St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, and hear the bells every hour, as I wake, as I end my day, and as worship services begin.  Like John Donne from his sickbed in 1623, though without his gender exclusive language, I wonder what individual person, or community, is marked and announced, invited and called, by those bells:

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Many of us learned this as young people, removed from its context in Meditation XVII in a book of Devotions written by the dean, or designated preacher, of St Paul’s church London in 1623.  I have printed the whole meditation at the end of this post, and encourage you to read it through, as a more mature person – and to read the whole book, in light of your experience of life, and of death.

Death is a taboo topic in our culture, and in our church.  Not long ago, sex was taboo in a similar way: we didn’t talk about it, and were sure that our parents had no experience of it.  We broke the sex taboo, at some significant price, for some significant benefit.  Perhaps it is time to do the same with death.  It turns out, like sex, to be a universal human experience, even for our parents. 

Today, we were invited to come light candles, during the opening and closing hymns in worship.  Those tea-lights became symbols of our bereavements, each one re-presenting a life we have lost, which we celebrate and mourn.   As we learned at a retreat yesterday, led by Betty Pries, there is an intention in each person lighting a candle, an act, and a meaning received.  It helps if you ask a person who lit a candle, who they lost, and better, to tell you more about it.

We tend to tell our stories of living and dying as a set of problems to be solved, not as mysteries to be suffered and shared.  We problematize, pathologize, catastrophize, as if each brush with death ends all.  The coward dies a thousand deaths, and our cowardly cultural taboo about death condemns many to live with anxiety and depression in response to imminent, unspeakable risks.

Torah does not share our cultural taboo.  The whole of Genesis is built on toledot, the ‘begatitudes’ or generations of summarized lives and deaths.    The next book, Exodus, takes 32 chapters to tell the story of Moses, then recounts his death with a matter-of fact recital: then he died, was buried, but nobody knows exactly where.  Sure, he is lionized as a hero, but not as a superhero, or an immortal.  He died in the desert, without reaching the Promised Land, just as every person who left Egypt died in the wilderness, short of the goal.

Deuteronomy will put words in Moses’ mouth about what he saw from the top of Mount Pisgah, overlooking the Promised Land, seeing beyond the Jordan River that he had not crossed.    Martin Luther King Jr. will preach on that speech, ‘I Have a Dream’ – but even that martyr dies without reaching his goal.  We are surrounded by a host of witnesses.  I have a list of over 3000 members of Trinity who worshipped in this place, and I know many thousands more were visitors in this building, soon to be demolished.  They leave us a legacy.

Too often, we think of ‘legacy’ in financial terms, particular at Trinity where we provide excellent care for Legacy I and soon, Legacy II, funds.  The terms means more, though it is inextricable from mortality, death, and succession.   What are you proud of, and what brings you shame, from our heritage?  We’ve borne some blame  and begun to acknowledge out regret about ‘good old days’  not equally shared, and we carry justifiable pride about what we have shared.  

As you remember today, and honour and hallow those for whom we lit candles, who and what are you celebrating?  Re-present them, with show-and-tell time, so that others know the intentions you bring in prayers of mourning.  As you remember, what are your regrets, provoked by those we remember?  What did we say, or not say?  What did we do, or not do?  How can we repent, or change in our own time and generation, so that their legacy makes a difference to us?

We tend to tell the stories of our living and dying as problems to be solve, and some of you leapt on my references to celebration and mourning specifics with concrete suggestions.  If life is ‘nasty, brutish, short, and then you die, we wish we could do something to relieve the pain.  But we do well to simply sit with it, as the candle burns, celebrating lives, and mourning deaths. 

We don’t understand a Jesus who does not share our cultural taboo, or out compulsive need to fix everything.  We don’t understand when the gospel says that death is not the end, this crisis is not the centre of the universe, but an opportunity to look through and beyond to the glory of God. We can’t believe
that there is something bigger and greater than today’s crisis. John Donne did.

So, according to the gospel of John, Jesus won’t drop everything  and run away like the Roadrunner, when he heard news of Lazarus dying.  Instead, he spends another 2 days beyond the Jordan, where John was baptized, in the wilderness,
before he sets out for the West Bank – into the mess and murderous threats - from sanctuary into crucible. 

By the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead 4 days.  He was in a grave beginning to decompose, in the cultural practice of the time, ‘purification by putrefaction’ as Crossan called it, till the flesh fell off the bones, and the remains could be fit into an ossuary.  

Martha comes to greet Jesus, and says: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’  After all, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus, and Jesus would not let his real friends suffer, would he?  I have a T-shirt in my office from one of our kids: ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favourite’.

We all recognize Martha’s voice, in variations of our own, and others we have heard.  Jesus assures her, ‘Your brother will rise again’, and she offers a conventional, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Sure, sure, in the sweet hereafter, pie in the sky when we die style heaven.

Pollsters tell us 95% of Canadians ‘believe in God’, and almost as many, believe in heaven and life after death. The remaining minority are mostly members of the United Church. Even more pray regularly, except for UCC clergy.  Lots of us belong to that majority, and like to hear the choir sing about it, if we don’t have to say it out loud or defend it to our peers.  It is reassuring to conclude that someday, after death, somewhere, call it heaven, we’ll meet all whom we lost.
Jesus is quoted here in very different terms. ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’  That is an affirmation about us, here, now.  It’s now a vague assurance about them, there, then.  It ends, even worse, with a challenge: are you onside?  Trust me!

I did say on Sunday – it’s on the digital audio recording posted by Trinity – I do not think Jesus said this, or any of the ‘I am’ statements in the Fourth Gospel.  The ‘I am’ statements make sense to me as restatements of a community of believers, closer to the end of the first century, as a corrective to the postponing tendencies of the more popular form: ‘the kingdom of heaven will be like this’. 

We’re with Martha: ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’, since the kingdom of heaven is going to be like that – with Lazarus in it.  Safely postponed and relocated, it’s an easy affirmation.   Life after death, immortality in heaven is fine.  Does that give mortal life here ultimate meaning, the mundane touching the sublime, a present time with ultimate consequences?  

“‘I am the resurrection and the life.”   If you believe that, there is continuity  between this life and the next: death is less final, crises have different context, and we might have life now that matters. Taking that further, sharing an “I am” perspective in and among our community, may construe ‘here, now, with us’ as ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’ , in which living and believing steamrollers right through death.  Do you believe this? Could you trust that? Act as if it were so?

Martha says ‘yes’ to Jesus, just as the choir anthem sang today.  She buys in, naming him Messiah, Son of God, the one coming into the world. This only makes sense as a present tense affirmation of Jesus, there and then with her, retold by a community making the same claim for themselves.  This only makes sense as a denial of alternatives: that Jesus confirmed the ‘happily ever after, 
or might one day prove to be the predicted sweet bye’n’bye.  Which one prepares us to suffer bread for today, hoping for pie in the sky when we die.

Can we say yes to that: God is here, now, with us?  Look at the tea-lights. Yes.

John Donne
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. 

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.  If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.  The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.  Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?  But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? 

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.  No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.  If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.  Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.