Learning from Death: Gathering Around 7-9-17

In our second reading, Jesus invites us to a deeper understanding of reality – one that makes hard work easier and one that makes difficult times easier to manage. The original meaning of the word disciple is student. When we become committed to Jesus’s teaching, we may learn this different way to deal with hard realities. Listen for the word of God for you today and consider this invitation to learn some of the most important lessons about life and death.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 “What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace. We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.  We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions. Then Jesus prayed, “Abba God, Creator of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise, for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the youngest children. Yes, Abba, everything is as you want it to be.” Jesus continued,  “Everything has been handed over to me by Abba God. No one knows the Only Begotten except Abba God, and no one knows Abba God except the Only Begotten—and to those to whom the Only Begotten wants to give that revelation. Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

July 9, 2017

Learning from Death: Gathering Around

Last week I told you about praying with my mother in the last three weeks of her life. This is key to everything I want to say this month, so I have to repeat some of what I said in my sermon last week. Praying with her at least an hour a day was such a powerful discipline, such a powerful chance to learn. Actually, at the time it just seemed like being with her. It seemed like the right thing to do, to pray and listen deeply to the Spirit. It’s only in hindsight that it feels more profound.

I was sitting on her bed with her, sometimes talking, sometimes listening, sometimes quiet. I told the story last week about saying a prayer with her where I started naming everybody we loved in our lives, everybody alive or dead. And after naming all her children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, I asked her if I had missed anybody, not knowing if she had been awake at all during the prayer.

She nodded her head, “Yes” and I asked her who I had missed. She whispered, “Amo,” my father’s best man at their wedding and best friend since they grew up next door to each other in Cleves, Ohio, Amo who had died a few years earlier. She didn’t want me to leave him out of this simple all-inclusive prayer.

So, what was amazing about that prayer, beside the fact that she was paying close attention when she seemed to be asleep, and what was special about the many prayers after that one, was the liminal space we had entered between life and death. “Liminal” is a term which refers to rituals like coming of age rituals, where the person in the ritual is between one stage and another, on the edge of becoming an adult or on the edge of some other status, or on the edge of this world and a spirit world.

It was only after her death that I realized that as I sat there with my mother, in the extended quiet, I was able a bit to enter her experience of transition, of no longer distinguishing between those who are alive and those who are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” we talk about in our funeral liturgy and in scripture. We prayed for them all. We felt their presence, in our memory, in our prayers, and in our spiritual connection.


Jesus, in our passage from Matthew today admonishes the current generation. When we read it, we may hear the passage as admonishing the people of his time, or the people of Matthew’s time, or the people of our time. (because we experience Jesus as a fairly liminal character himself.) Jesus is clearly not happy with the current generation, which is not receptive to John the Baptist, who they criticize for being too ascetic, not eating or drinking and living in the desert. Nor are they receptive to Jesus himself, who eats and drinks with immigrants and tax collectors and gets called a glutton and a drunkard.

In this passage Jesus is portrayed as a Wisdom teacher, appreciating the infant rather than the wise and intelligent, appreciating the one who is learning rather than the one who is accomplished and full of him or herself. The most familiar part of this passage is the part that says “find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This can be a little confusing because it isn’t always that easy to follow Jesus. But I think the passage is actually referring to how satisfying our lives are when we are on the right track, when we are committed to doing the ministry that Jesus really wants us to do. It’s like when you run or get into a sport and you are “in the zone,” you enter a different kind of time, chronos time, and a hard thing gets easier.

It’s the difference between being part of a church where the only ministry tasks are about how to take care of the building and finances, and one where ministry is about welcoming and sustaining God’s people. It’s the difference between sitting with my mother out of an obligation, checking my phone every 2 minutes, and really being with her, holding her head, fluffing the pillow, getting her a drink of water – being in between life and death with her.

It’s the difference between feeling like we have all the answers, not even noticing that they don’t always fit, and being open to being a disciple, a learner, thinking more deeply about how we live and expressing what we’ve learned. It’s the difference between being on our own trying to figure out how to live, and being part of a community of disciples, learning together and giving each other feedback to help each other see how our actions effect each other, making our lives easier because we are in a zone, within a community of caring.


At the end of my mother’s life one of the things I learned about her was about the community of caring that she had around her, that she had inspired through her caring tor them. It made her last days easier, even when they were hard. As with that prayer, I think she had a sense of support from all the people she loved, alive or dead. The great cloud of witnesses surrounded her and helped on the way.

The end started two years ago when we decided to have a party to celebrate her 92nd birthday. We invited all the cousins and all the families to a place in Kentucky. When Mom went to the doctor a few months before the party, however, they told her the reason she was having trouble breathing was a heart condition that was not going to get better. They offered to put a new valve into her heart through a vein and told her she would be ok for the party.

Two weeks before the party she was still not ok. She was having trouble breathing and she was sorry she did the operation. The doctor said she would have died without it, so I felt lucky to have her any way we could get her. She never fully recovered from that operation, and she sometimes regretted it, but I told her I’ve appreciated every extra day I could have.

She seemed to will herself to get better for that family reunion/birthday party. It was that important to her. All the family came, cousins from Maryland, PA, NY, and Hawaii. It was a great party with everyone to whom she had ever given one of her famous quilts. (which we’re going to unfold at the service in 2 weeks.)

So nearly 2 years later I was sitting with her in her hospice bed and she said something that at first I wasn’t sure came from a hallucination or not. She said, “you know, the wonderful thing about these last 2 years? Everybody came for my birthday and they never left.”

After thinking about it, I decided it wasn’t a hallucination. It was the truth. Almost all those people from that party had visited with her and stayed with her to support her sometime in those 2 years, and they all had been praying for her and rooting for her. Her commitment to them and their commitment to her put her in a different sense of time, chronos time. It was not an easy time, but her spirit and theirs combined made the yoke easy and the burden light. All those people gathered around her, that great cloud of witnesses returned her love and got her through.

This is the good news of the Spirit of God.


Responsive hymn 2158 Just a Closer Walk with Thee