The Gospel today, John 12: 20-33 is a powerful message on life and death. Yet, it is not easy for us to break the taboos and talk about dying and death even in the context of the risen Christ, since we know the end of the story. Facing death and suffering is never easy and no matter how strong our belief in Christ and resurrection, there is such pain in the loss of loved ones, and in suffering of any sort. The disciples did not want to hear Jesus predicting his own death and on some levels it made little sense to them. Yet he needed to share it and its meanings.
In my Grandmother’s day death was an accepted fact of life and reverence, utmost caring and peace were accorded to the dying. My Grandmother, Ella, a woman of great faith and charisma, was both a mid-wife and the one called upon when people were dying in our community. Long before the Hospice movement, she cared for the dying and taught me the concept of “tending” death and the dying with love, reverence, and care. Yet, she was not allowed to die such a death when diagnosed with terminal metastatic cancer in 1963. She suffered much and was hooked up to every invasive means possible to sustain a life that was full of pain despite morphine. And yet, miraculously, her faith prevailed. In this post- modern era when science and technology can keep us alive even if for all intents we are already dead, it is still not easy to talk about death and dying. The better aspects of Hospice care today can eliminate some of the torturous methods of sustaining life and denying death and can often allow death with comfort and dignity. Yet, the reverence for and holiness surrounding death may still be overlooked.
There is a trend in Christian theology today that explicitly avoids discussion of the cross and its centrality in traditional Christian beliefs. (Here I do not mean to endorse atonement theology although I have no problem accepting that there is sin and what horror it does in the world, for God does not want burnt offerings and living sacrifice but hearts that love God and love and serve one another in justice (Hosea 6:6). But it is undisputable that Jesus did suffer and die.) It is as if by using pretty words about stardust and the cosmos, for example, and not focusing on suffering and dying we can avoid both. We cannot. And, this is not what Jesus did. He faced it all head on and gave us the wisdom and courage to do the same. In today’s Gospel we see Jesus, the Christ, facing his own dying and teaching us about suffering and dying and ultimately about life and living. I am so thankful for this.
The context for today’s Gospel in John 12 is that six days before the Passover, after Jesus was ministered to by his friends in Bethany, Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus who Jesus had raised from the dead, Jesus spoke comfortably about his own death saying that Mary had anointed him with the perfume (probably the very expensive myrrh that was used for embalming) that was to be saved for his burial. He then proceeds to Jerusalem and the crowd welcomes him with cheers of “Hosanna!” (Save Us!) . They too know about his raising of Lazarus. (The raising of Lazarus is also a message about his own death and resurrection-death is not final, God will raise him and ultimately us up from the grave. And now while we live we are also raised from the million ways we can choose death over life). With the crowd’s acclaim of Jesus on what we now call Palm Sunday the religious leaders are getting more and more nervous-“See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him” (John 12:19). Jesus is not long for this world and he knows it. Then, in today’s Gospel, the Gentiles seek Jesus out and this is another unforgiveable affront to the religious leadership who believed that God’s promises/ covenant was only for them. So Jesus again predicts his death (John 12: 23-24,25b, 27-28, 32).
“Unless a grain of wheat falls onto the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain. But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest….Anyone who wants to work for me must follow in my footsteps…Now my soul is troubled. What will I say: ’Abba, save me from this hour’. But it was for this very reason I have come to this hour. Abba. Glorify your name!….And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself”.
Life comes after death and life comes out of death even as the most beautiful flower and the most delicious fruit comes from the seed buried deep in the soil. The world-wide church blossomed and grew from the death and resurrection of Jesus and later those who followed him to their own deaths. Following Jesus is life for us now and forever, beyond death, but like Jesus each one of us can say “My soul is troubled” in the face of suffering and death. Hebrews 5:7-9 notes that Jesus offered prayer with loud cries and tears. Jesus suffered emotional and spiritual pain as well as physical pain as he faced the ending of his mission and ministry. And yet somehow we think we may be immune to suffering. We are not asked to be Pollyanna and make believe there is no suffering in the world, or ahead for us and those we love and serve. We are asked to accept what may come in our lives, particularly as we follow Jesus in living a prophetic life of love, inclusion and justice. The more we act prophetically the more the chance of running into trouble from the powers that be. Witness the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many faith filled believers whose deaths fueled the success of the Civil Rights Movement. But even in ordinary life there is plenty of trouble. We can’t pray it away nor should we if we emulate Jesus. But it is how we deal with our troubles that shows what we are made of and who we are.
In the last two weeks we responded pastorally to the needs of two homeless women, one who we have known over seven years and the other new to the area, and a homeless family of seven. It is not only material needs for housing and the basics for establishing a home that such persons need, they need a welcome to community and a loving presence as they reestablish their lives. We were so pleased as the family and our old friend connected and reconnected to our church community and our people reached out with resources and services for them. The father in this large family thanked us for the food, clothing and beds, but he said that most of all he thanked us for inviting the children to the Sunday school. They love it and can’t wait to come back and the parents are coming with them. And our old friend, simply cried and said “My new start and new apartment is a miracle but mostly I’m so happy that I am home again.” Our community is providing her Security and Utilities deposits and all of her furniture and household goods and also cleaning up her new apartment so she can move in quickly. She loves meeting all of the people as they bring their gifts to her. One family even cared for her little dog while she was in a Motel that did not take dogs. The troubles that these families endured brought them to the lowest points in their lives. But at the bottom they found the love of a Christ following community and could rest at home in that love.
We have been supporting one of our formerly homeless mentally ill men as he faces both physical illness and a flare up of mental illness that threatens his life and well-being and his housing. We stand with his family and friends in not knowing how to help him turn this around, but we try. We also received two calls this week to attend to beloved elders who had very recently entered hospice care. One is one of our Roman Catholic Women Priests and the other woman is a member of our Good Shepherd Community. Both are in their late eighties and have sustained falls and much physical suffering. Each one is unique and faith filled and thinking about the world without her in it is very difficult for us. Each is planning her funeral and thinking about her family and friends, and about her own dying. It is an honor to be asked to “tend” these deaths as best we can and with God’s grace accompany them home and provide comfort for the families. And even as we do this we await news of tests regarding our own health and pray for the strength to carry out this ministry.
With Jesus I can say “my soul is troubled”. And with Jesus I turn to our loving MotherFather God to be there with us as we try to be there for our brothers and sisters. It troubles our souls to face the issues of poverty and mental and physical health issues that end in sickness and homelessness and sometimes death. It troubles us that there are still millions of homeless in the United States and so many more world-wide. We are troubled at the decision of the State Legislature in affluent Florida to turn down 3 Billion dollars of Federal aid to help the lowest income poor. We cry out in the wilderness that this is sin and people we serve are without any medical help because of it. Yes, this injustice troubles us. And it is a different kind of soul trouble to face dying and death with our beloved older sisters. It draws us into holy and sacred space with them and with our loving God.
Jesus, help us to find life in death and to serve your people facing troubles that are so great. Your death brings forth the new life of the kin-dom in each of us. It gives birth to and joins us with the beloved community. We pray that we will have your courage to risk everything including death to bring life to the world. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP
Rev. Judith Beaumont, RCWP
Co-Pastors Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community
Fort Myers, Florida