"During the season of Lent we are invited to follow Jesus on a journey out into the wilderness. Lent is a time to leave behind the safe and familiar and journey out into the wilderness of the unknown. The wilderness can be a frightening place. Unknowing is not a posture we like to adopt. The temptation for us sentient thinking beings is to fill the wilderness void of unknowing with words, ideas and stories that both comfort us and help us to deny our state of unknowing. But our journey, whether we like it or not is the kind of journey where the destination itself is not known and so the wilderness places that we encounter along the way can create in us the kind of fears that cause us to deny reality.
Earlier this week some of us gathered in this sanctuary for Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of Lent; the beginning of our journey into the wilderness. One of the things we do on Ash Wednesday is to remind ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In other words we were born and we shall die. This part of the journey will end for all of us in death and there is so much about death that we do not know and that not knowing can fascinate us, it can infuriate us, and it can frighten us.
Sometimes this not knowing can frighten us so much that we deny the reality that in the end death comes to us all. When death does make its presence known to us, we find ourselves tempted to deny our unknowing with ideas about what will happen to us when we die; ideas that some of us insist must be believed. We’ve crafted those ideas about what will happen to us when we die into all sorts of doctrines and dogmas that we’ve imbued with the power to determine how we live, before we die. You know if we believe and we behave, then when we die we will be rewarded or if we don’t believe and we don’t behave when we die we will be punished. The temptation is to believe that these ideas, doctrines, dogmas, beliefs, and behaviors can save us. The reality is that we simply don’t know what is going to happen to us when we die.
A while back, I was asked to visit a woman who’d been raised to believe that these ideas, doctrines, dogmas, beliefs, and behaviours could save her from her fears and anxieties about her eventual demise. For the purposes of this sermon, I’m going to call this woman Grace, not because that’s her real name, but because my encounters with her were so grace-filled that I know whenever I think of her I shall always remember how full of grace this life of ours can be. I was summoned to speak to Grace because she’d attended a baptism here at Holy Cross and based on what she heard that day, she believed that I would be a good person to help her drive away her fears about dying. Grace was in her early eighties and she had been raised in the Lutheran Church, baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church. But it had been quite a few years since she’d attended church on a regular basis; just the odd, baptism, wedding or funeral brought her to church these days. Faced with her own mortality, Grace wanted to get a few things straightened out before she died.
It was a long visit, a visit that some might actually call an exit interview. She must have sensed that she didn’t have all the time in the world and she wanted me to answer some important questions.
Grace explained to me that even though it had been quite a while since she’d been to church, but that her faith was strong. She wanted to know what would happen to her when she died. Now a lot of people think that pastors have some sort of inside track and I’m sure there are some pastors who would have given Grace the answers that she was looking for. I must confess that I was tempted to just try to alleviate Grace’s fears. I’ve been trained and I know all the right words and it would have been so easy to just talk about life after death as though I knew what lay ahead for Grace. But I resisted the temptation of the easy answers and I opted to tell Grace the truth. I told her that, I don’t actually know what happens when someone dies. But based on my experiences in this life, I trust that God is good, that God is love and that whatever happens when this life is over, it is enough for me to know that when I die, I shall die as I lived, in the embrace of God and that in God, all will be well. Grace paused for a moment, then she smiled and asked me what I though “well” would look like. So, I reminded Grace that Jesus often answered a question with another question and I asked her what all things being well would look like to her. That’s when Grace painted me a picture of the dwelling place of her dreams.
When we’d finished talking about what it would be like to live in a place where all things are well, Grace asked me to pray for her and for the people she loves. At that point, I asked if there was anything left undone, or unsaid. That’s when she told me that on the whole it had been a very good life indeed.
Over the course of the next couple of hours Grace told me her life story.
Grace was quite a woman with a lot of stories to tell. Several times she warned me that something she was about to tell me might make me blush. Grace had loved and been loved and after she’d told me about the loves of her life, she went on to talk about how very important it is to love and to be loved. Then she asked me if I’d been loved and if I had loved. That’s when I warned her that I might actually make her blush.
We laughed a lot that afternoon. Sure Grace had some small regrets, but on the whole she’d lived life to the fullest and squeezed about as much out of life as she believed was possible and she was grateful to God for all of it. She had lived and loved as fully as anyone could live and love and it had been sweet and good. She told me that even though life had been hard at times, she had been loved and she had loved, and she had enjoyed it all. I don’t know about you, but living life to the fullest and squeezing as much out of life as you possibly can, is a life well lived. As for what lies beyond this life, I don’t know any more that Grace knew.
Grace died this week. I don’t actually know where or what has become of the woman who lived fully and loved extravagantly Grace lived her life in the Embrace of her Maker and now I trust that she remains in the gentle Embrace of our Maker and I trust that in God all will be well. All will be well.
I am so very grateful for my journey into the wilderness with Grace. Jesus is reported to have said that he came that we might have life and live it abundantly. I have come to believe that death is one of the things that gives meaning to life. If it were not for death our lives would be infinitely less valuable. Death lies at the very heart of what it means to be human; for we alone among the creatures of creation are conscious of our own eventual death.
The knowledge that we shall die makes us human. This knowledge transforms us from mere dust into conscious beings. It is the knowledge that we will surely die that gives rise to hope in us. The knowledge that our time here is short drives us to fulfill our hopes and dreams for life here that is fuller, lovelier, more intense, vivid, grace-filled and alive; alive to all that is possible here and now. While some placate their fears with hopes that point to everlasting life, those of us who embrace the reality that we shall die, know that everlasting life would be everlasting punishment.
Life without death is life without change. Eternity is not just more of the same. Eternity has no beginning and no end. Eternity is beyond time. Here and now when we live fully, we can catch a glimpse of the eternal, when time and space fall away and we are conscious that we live and move and have our being in, and with, that which is beyond our ability to comprehend or to express, that eternal beyond
that we call Love, or God. When we embrace the limitations imposed upon us by death, we are compelled to live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we can be. By embracing our mortality we can become more fully human and in being more fully human we open ourselves to that which is eternal; here and now.
This week there’s article making the rounds on the internet that was written by a palliative care nurse who has spent a great deal of time at the bedside of a good many people who are about to die. Over the years this nurse has kept track of the regrets people have told her about. She has organized the list of those regrets into the top five regrets people confess on their deathbeds.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I didn’t work so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
If the life and death of Jesus teach us anything, let it be that he came that we might have life and live it abundantly, here and now. This journey in the wilderness has many temptations. Sometimes the fear of the unknown causes us to give in to those temptations and so we deny our unknowing and we make choices based on fear. I love it that over and over again the words “do not be afraid” are recorded as having been said by the Spirit of God and by Jesus. “Do not be afraid.”
We don’t know what we don’t know. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of death. Let death drive us not into denial but into life. Let us live it fully abundantly, loving and being loved, trusting that all will be well.
I love the words of Teresa of Avila, who wrote:
Just these two words God spoke
changed my life,
What a burden I thought I was to carry—
a crucifix, as did Christ.
Love once said to me, “I know a song,
would you like to hear it?”
And laughter came from every brick in the street
and from every pore in the sky.
After a night of prayer, God
changed my life when
We live in with and through God. We don’t know what we don’t know. We can but trust that God is Love.
Let us trust the ONE who raised us up from the dust, to enfold us into Eternity, trusting that in LOVE all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Let us enjoy this life that has been given to us. Let us live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we can be. Do not be afraid. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. "
Benediction: We live in with and through God.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
We can but trust that God is Love.
Let us trust the ONE who raised us up from the dust,