We don’t like to talk about death. That’s one reason why so many Americans don’t have wills. For some reason we think that if we plan for death then maybe were kind of expecting to die soon. And most of us would rather not die all that soon. So, I guess we just have a problem with death, even we who believe that death isn’t the last word.
After telling us how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, John says that Jesus later returned to the house of Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary, for a visit. When Jesus arrived at the house, Martha was in the kitchen fixing the meal, and Mary, as usual, was nowhere to be found. Then while the guests enjoyed the meal Martha had fixed, Mary shows up with a flask of expensive perfume. Getting on her knees, she opens the bottle and pours the contents on Jesus’ feet, wiping the excess off with her hair. I’m thinking she’s doing this to say thank-you to Jesus for bringing her brother back to life.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that this extravagant act quickly caught the attention of the other guests. It was hard to miss since the fragrance of the perfume filled the entire house. Some guests, including Judas, clucked with disapproval: What a waste, he told Mary! "Don't you know that the master would want us to sell such a valuable item like this expensive perfume and give the money to the poor?"
I expect that by then Mary was feeling kind of self-conscious and embarrassed about what she’d done, but Jesus came to her defense. The same Jesus, who would get down on his knees and wash the feet of his disciples, tells her critics that Mary had acted honorably. Her critics might think that Mary's act of love was wasteful, but Jesus saw it as preparation for his own impending death.
THE REALITY OF DEATH
There are two constants in life: death and taxes. Since it’s tax time, we have pretty good evidence of one constant, but death is also an ever present reality in our lives. But, as Morrie Schwartz says in Mitch Albom’s best-selling book, Tuesdays with Morrie, "Everyone knows they're going to die, but no body believes it." Maybe that’s why the book became so popular, it opened the door for people to confront the reality of death.
Sometimes a death will leave a strong imprint on our lives. For some reason I still remember the shock of hearing that my third grade classmate, Jill Scroggins, had been killed on the way to school, when a train hit their car. I also remember hearing the news during my senior year, that my close friend Becky Smith had an epileptic seizure and drowned in her bath tub. Becky and I not only were members of the same church, we’d grown up together, almost like brother and sister. So, you can understand my grief when I heard about Becky’s death. Death stings, especially when it comes unexpectedly.
Now not every death comes as unexpectedly as these two, but even when we have time to prepare, death still has its sting. We’d rather ignore it, but as Morrie Schwartz said: maybe it’s better "to know you're going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time. That's better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you're living."1
Henri Nouwen wrote of "befriending death, "being "the basis of all other forms of befriending." He suggested that "many of our doubts and hesitations, ambivalences and insecurities, are bound up with our deep-seated fear of death." He writes that because "fear of death often drives us into death, . . . by befriending death we can face our mortality and choose life freely."2
My seminary classmate, theologian Amy Pauw, writes about dying well. She says that "when Christian practices are healthy, dying well embraces both lament and hope, and both a sense of divine judgment and an awareness of divine mercy."3 If we’re going to die well, it isn't enough just to recognize that death is a natural part of life, we must also recognize the complexity of death.
Preparing to die well means that we must recognize our need to lament and grieve. Grief is a reminder of how much we value God's gift of life. It means that we don’t take life lightly, but instead treasure it. Death may not separate us from God, but it does separate us from each another. Our grief honors the depth of our relationships.
And yet, in the midst of our grief, we can find hope. This is why a Christian funeral can and should be a time of sharing our grief and of celebrating a life that was lived. A funeral or a memorial service allows us to remember our loved one, and if this person has suffered in life, we can give thanks that those sufferings have ended. Such a service also reminds us of Jesus’ promise that death doesn’t have the final word.
On his death bed, Jacob Marley tries to confess his misdeeds in life and warn Ebenezer Scrooge that he needs to change his life. Scrooge didn't want to hear this death bed confession, but it reminds us that death involves judgment. Dying well involves taking time to straighten things out with God and with one another. There’s something especially redemptive about coming to terms with one's life and with one’s relationships. There are those who say that the death bed is too late to make amends, but is it really? But, if confession is redemptive, it is so only in the context of God's grace and mercy.
Dying well allows us to die in communion with the God we know in Jesus, and such a death can be faced without fear. By talking about death we don’t give up on life. Instead, we honor life and its gifts. If we allow others room to speak or not to speak of death, we allow them the opportunity to share in God's grace.
As our Lenten journey comes to a close, it is good to remember that Easter is preceded by Good Friday. That is, there is no resurrection without death. Lent reminds us of our finiteness and limitations. As we recognize our limits, we find strength in our faith in Jesus Christ. In Mary's act of anointing Jesus' feet, she affirms life, both the life restored and the life that is to be given. Perhaps unknowingly, she also acknowledges that Jesus's path of servanthood leads to the cross. Like Mary, Jesus isn’t afraid to take on the role of a servant, a role symbolized first by washing the feet of his disciples, and then by his willingness to die the servant's death on a cross.
Hope is found in the confession that death is not the end but only the beginning. Therefore, with Paul we can say: "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ." That prize, is the transformation of our earthly bodies so that we will be "conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil. 3: 13-14, 21).
1. Mitch Albom, Tuesday's with Morrie, (Doubleday, 1997), 81.
2. Henri Nouwen, "A letter of Consolation" excerpted in Seeds of Hope, Robert Durback, ed., (Image Books, 1997), 190.
3. Amy Plantiga Pauw, "Dying Well," in Practicing our Faith, Dorothy Bass, ed., (SF: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 167.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
5th Sunday of Lent
March 25, 2007