April 7, 2019

2019 April7

Death As Our Spiritual Teacher
Lent 5 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Karen Siegfriedt


A few weeks ago, while walking on the beach, I came across a bird I had never seen before. He looked frightened and appeared to be stuck in the wet sand. As I approached the bird, he didn’t move but looked directly into my eyes as if he were pleading. The bird was very weak and the flies were buzzing around him. I made the decision to rescue him as it was apparent that he was cold and suffering. I walked home to get a cage, and by the time I returned, the seagulls had already begun pecking at him, even though he was still alive. I placed him in the cage and took him to the Pacific Wildlife Center where caring people were ready to help. As I left the center, I figured that if he didn’t make it, at least he would die in dignity rather than being pecked to death on the beach. In the end, this “surf scoter” (a large black sea duck) was too emaciated and too weak to carry on. He quietly departed from this physical world where there would be no more pain or suffering.


This experience of death and
dying motivated me to reflect on
my own mortality and how I
would want to spend my
final days.


One thing is for sure. I do not want to squander my final days in a hospital, attempting to extend my life for a few extra months, lying in a cold bed, being pecked to death by needles while surrounded by blaring noises and constant interruptions. Instead, I want to die with dignity, anointed with oil and prayers, being made warm and comfortable as I breath my final breath.


I have made these desires known to friends and family and have written out a detailed end of life plan because I know that I will die. How about you? Have you reflected on your own death and how you want to spend your final days?  Have you written out your desires and shared these wishes with loved ones? Or are you the type who is afraid of dying, believing that denial will delay your inevitable death? Today being the fifth Sunday in Lent, I would like to speak about death and will use today’s gospel as my text. In particular, I will talk about death as our spiritual teacher.


At this point in the gospel of John, the chief priests and the Pharisees have made a plan to kill Jesus. In today’s story, we hear that Jesus has just returned from the wilderness area to Bethany to visit the home of Lazarus. A dinner party is being held in his honor. It is now six days before the Passover, the time when Jesus will be arrested and put on trial. At this dinner, his dear friend and disciple Mary, takes a pound of perfumed ointment, anoints his feet, and then wipes them with her hair.  Jesus appreciates this extravagant gesture even though it was considered scandalous in Jewish society for a woman to touch a man in public. And to make matters worse, loose flowing hair was perceived as being sensual and thus had a sexual connotation. But for Jesus, women were more than just sexual objects and child rearing machines. He did not have trouble relating to women or treating them as equals. In fact, he enjoyed their company. Within a week, Jesus will be washing the feet of his disciples.


In ancient Palestine there were two events that would call for such an extravagant anointing: The coronation of a king and the burial of a person. In this story, Jesus affirms that his death is imminent and allows for the anointing. He will face his death head on and trusts that death is not the final word. Jesus was always acutely aware of death and dying, mindful that King Herod had tried to snuff out his life as a baby. During his public ministry, several attempts were made to kill him. For instance, Luke tells us that when Jesus preached in the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, the people were so filled with rage, that they drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. (Lk. 4:29) When Jesus healed a man on the sabbath, the religious hierarchy wanted to kill him (Jn. 5:18). When he claimed God as his father, they tried to stone him (Jn. 10:31). And now with the cleansing of the temple, the rising of Lazarus, his increasing popularity, and his challenging preaching against the religious leaders, Jesus knows that his days are numbered.

Speaking truth to power is
always a risk.


Jesus knew that if he was to be authentic to his calling, his life span would be shortened. So how did he respond to the ticking of the clock? Did he live in denial of his mortality? Did he run away from death? Did he diminish his life in order to extend it? No! Instead, he allowed death to be his teacher by living in the present moment, maximizing each day, and generously sharing his gifts of healing and preaching to make a difference in the world. Quality, not quantity was his preference. So let’s follow in his footsteps and take a closer look at how death can be our spiritual teacher.


The first principle to remember
is that life is not permanent.


Our death is certain. No one gets out of this world alive. We are reminded of our mortality each year on Ash Wednesday when we are anointed with ashes: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The purpose of this ritual is to remind us to appreciate the days we have left and to choose to walk in the Light. Death is really the only thing we can count on with absolute certainty so we might as well befriend it and let it teach us how to live in the here and now, how to get our priorities straight, and then how to let go. That is not to say that we don’t do our best to stay healthy and strong and make choices that will lead to a more vibrant life. But there comes a time when we need to say good-bye to this life and look forward to eternal life where there is no more pain and suffering. Those who are afraid to die, those who fight against this reality, those who deny their own mortality, will suffer tremendously from fright in the end.

I have been at the bedside of so many people who are afraid to die and who have fought against their inevitable death. Charles was a case in point. At 72 years old, he was diagnosed with end stage lung cancer and was given 6 months to live. He was encouraged to go home and enjoy his remaining time on earth. Rather than embrace this time with his beloved wife, he chose a course of chemotherapy, with the hope he could extend his life for an additional 6 months. Unfortunately, the toxicity of the chemo killed him after only 4 months. It was quite painful to watch him struggle in his final hours.

The second principle to
remember is that the timing of
our death is uncertain.


Some will die in infancy while others will live to a ripe old age. In my own life, a dear friend of mine was killed in a car accident in her 20’s. My brother and his wife died in their 40’s. My mother died unexpectedly at the age of 63. How many people do you know that have died unexpectedly “before their time”? Amidst the grief and the losses, these deaths have taught me that death can happen at any time and that I need to live my dreams now.  If I don’t smell the roses today, there might not be a tomorrow.  


In my last assignment, a parishioner came to me to arrange his wife’s funeral. She was quite ill and diminished, severely afflicted by Alzheimer’s. The husband was very anxious about the details of the funeral and demanded that her service be conducted in a particular way. A few weeks later, this very strong and healthy man died unexpectedly in his sleep, leaving his wife to survive him by a few months. When we allow death to be our teacher, we make the conscious choice of living not in the past or in the future, but in each present moment. We seize the day, letting go of old regrets and disappointments, knowing that each moment is precious.


The third principle to remember
is that when we die, we can take
nothing with us.


This means that we must let go of everything that is near and dear to us including family, friends, accomplishments, and even memories. When death is our teacher, we learn to hold onto things lightly because all things are temporary. To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom: Freedom from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter in the end such as material possessions, fame, power, and finally, our own body. Learning to say good-bye is perhaps one of the most important spiritual disciplines that can lead to inner peace, especially in times of separation and loss.


Given that you could die at any time, are you living life abundantly? Are you in tune with your deepest longings? Can you live your life in such a way that it will help you when it comes time to die? Maybe the answer is to simply love more fully or to be generous with your money. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (F. Buechner) If you do not know your deepest gladness or the world’s hunger, then make haste to explore before it is too late!


Finally, I want to say that as people of the resurrection, we believe that life continues after our body has expired.


Death is not the final word.


This promise should give us a sense of solace on our death bed and help us with our fears. While we really don’t know much about life after death, what we do know is that there is no more pain and suffering of the body and that “neither death nor life nor anything else in creation…can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)


And with that promise, I will end with the opening prayer that is said at all funerals in the Episcopal Church:


“I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever. As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger. For none of us has life in himself, and none becomes his own master when he dies. For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession.” (Book of Common Prayer, 491)

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