The phone rings in the middle of the night; never a good sign for a pastor. I recognize a familiar voice: a young neurosurgeon in the first year of residency. “I think I need to pronounce a man dead,” he said.
“You think?” I reply.
“He is dead. It’s just that I have never done this before. Someone is going to have to tell the family. It’s a big family, and they are all very upset; they’re all out in the waiting room. Who tells them?”
“You do,” I replied.
“Me, why me?”
“Because you are the doctor; it is your job. The chaplain on call can help you with the family.”
“But first, you really do have to pronounce him dead, don’t you?”
“And I don’t want to do that,” he said. “It feels wrong.”
A neurosurgeon; and yet nothing in this man’s training had prepared him for this moment. It were as if he had failed somehow. More to the point, it were as if his patient had failed him. Death represents an unanticipated and unacceptable outcome of his good care.
Have you ever noticed the lengths we will go to, individually and systematically, to keep death at a distance? Hospitals do not want patients to die on their floors because it works against their statistics. So they call in hospice to exit the terminally ill. Hospice reports that 40% of the people who enter their care have not been told they are dying. And it doesn’t necessarily help to call a chaplain. Surveying 60 recent seminary graduates, only one reported having been present with someone at death or even to have prayed with a family shortly after death in the presence of a body.
Increasingly people die in the company of technology, not family. And many of these deaths prove unnecessarily prolonged and painful because no one has the courage, faith, or will to face death and say, “Enough.” We excel at keeping death at a distance.
And yet to deny death, to think we can relegate it to the specialists or to face it only when absolutely necessary means to resist God’s invitation to mature in faith; to deepen our living.
William Sloan Coffin, whose son Alex died in a car accident, describes what can arise when we face the reality of death. “Life is limitation. It cannot be said too often. Nor can the positive side of the statement be sufficiently stressed; for just as a stream has no chance of running deep until it finds its banks, so we, until we discover our limits, have no prayer of becoming profound.”
Luke’s gospel presents us with a paradox. Entering the city of Nain, Jesus and his disciples—a procession of life bearers—meet a group of grieving body bearers. Life meets death on the way to the cemetery; and in that meeting, God opens up a space; a space of newness where God’s compassion rises and visits God’s people in the person of Jesus.
What Jesus does surprises. Unlike Elijah, who stretches himself out over the dying boy and prays and prods God to act, making death God’s problem, Jesus claims God’s authority over life and death for himself. Confronting death directly, he commands the young man to rise, and he rises, filled with new life; filled with new breath.
In Jesus, one comes to us refusing to ignore death; one who does not seek to insulate himself from death’s sting. Stretched out upon the cross, he brings the very life of God into our death, deep down into our graves, and rises as the promise of new life. He bids us rise.
Because Jesus does not flinch from death; because he confronts it, experiences it, conquers it, we dare to rise and sing with the psalmist: “You have brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; rescued my life as I was going down to grave. You have turned my wailing into dancing, and have clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings without ceasing, giving you thanks forever.”
In 1978, the Lutherans published a new hymnal in which the final stanzas of many hymns were purposefully omitted. The omitted stanzas proclaimed death’s profound connection to hope in God’s promises of risen, abundant life. A seasoned Lutheran pastor observed, “Something changed dramatically as congregations formed around the carefully edited hymns. In refusing to acknowledge life’s limits, we damaged our hope in ways we had not anticipated.” (Center for Family Process)
Sometimes death creeps into our lives before we recognize it. Our habits of deathliness have strength; often coming as the culmination of a pattern of decisions and choices that in the end simply fail to bring forth life. More than once, I have heard someone say, “My life feels like a body of death; worse than death really, because I can’t stop thinking about what could, should, might have been.”
If only I had chosen a different mate, a different vocation; given up alcohol, stopped smoking; had the abortion, not had the abortion; held my children closer, held them more lightly; offered forgiveness, received forgiveness when I had the chance; learned to pray, learned to listen.
Looking down into the Pit, and the limits and edges of life, the psalmist encourages us to see the reality, power, and faithfulness of God, rising up out of bodies of death, to meet us with astonishing newness. God creates a space. There we learn the shape of risen life. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Brueggemann)
Not long ago, I worked with thirteen dying churches. Located in the heart of the rapidly growing city of Austin, signs of their death lay clearly before them. No baptism or confirmations in more than five years; fewer than 125 people in Sunday worship and not one person or family of those attending came from the church’s immediate neighborhood; no money to pay fulltime clergy or to repair, maintain, or bring their building to code.
These churches had been given three years to show signs of life and vitality or they would be closed. One of the thirteen was a beautiful stone church, prominently situated on a grassy corner lot. They needed to remove ten rows of pew from the back of their sanctuary to create a flexible space for other ministries. Not all the pews: ten rows that no one had sat in on Sunday for decades.
Brad, the pastor, had reached an impasse trying to negotiate this change with Jim, an elderly gentleman and life-long member with the financial and emotional power to keep any plan from moving forward. When asked about his resistance to removing the pews, Jim replied, “Where will people sit when they come to my funeral?”
Encouraging Brad to visit Jim at home, I suggested they have a conversation about death. When and how had Jim’s parents died? What did he remember about their funerals? Had he lost other people in his life? Had he lost friends in the war? I encouraged Brad to explore with curiosity how Jim would go about burying the church; and to wonder with him what it would be like for more than pews to be missing the day of his funeral.
“I avoid asking myself those questions,” Brad said. “What could come from talking to Jim about them?”
While I can’t say for certain what a conversation about death might have revealed, what I can say for certain was that I knew if they did not have that conversation this church would close. The pastor did not make the visit. The church closed its doors. No one had the courage to confront death; no one had enough hope to choose life and to rise with newness.
Every Easter Eve, about 500 musicians leave Home Moravian Church and spread out across the city of Winston-Salem. They play hymns on street corners, hoping to arouse people from their sleep in anticipation of Easter. “The first time I heard the music in the middle of the night,” one woman said “I thought the world was coming to an end. Now my husband and I stay up and wait for them. So quiet, and then so huge and full of joy.”
Around 5 a.m., the musicians return to the church for breakfast and large, steaming cups of sweet and creamy Moravian love feast coffee. As the musicians eat, a crowd begins to gather in front of the church. Ten thousand people come to follow the musicians all the way to God’s Acre Cemetery singing hymns of life and hope.
The congregation has lovingly prepared the twelve acre cemetery for this moment: almost 7,000 perfectly aligned, uniform headstones scrubbed to a gleaming white; graves adorned with the flowers of spring.
“This is the church for the day,” one woman said, as she scrubbed the tombstones of her great grandparents. The cemetery is the sanctuary; it becomes a place of life.
Moravians have gathered in cemeteries since the 1700s to proclaim with joy and hope, “Jesus lives, and we shall live with him, and death has no power over us.” (Winston-Salem Journal articles)
Life and death meet on the way to the cemetery. God opens up a space if we are willing to confront death. Will we do it? With Jesus in our midst, God will lift us up to newness of life. Will we choose it?
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Winston-Salem Journal coverage of Moravian Sunrise Services.
Conversation, Center for Family Process in reflection to my presentation “O Death, Where is thy Sting: Death’s Differentiating Possibilities.”
Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life, Reflections of Prophetic Texts.
Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children, “The Widow of Nain.”