Murray Bowen, my teacher, speaks powerfully about death. “I don’t believe that any one subject occupies any more of a person’s direct or indirect thinking time than death. Every person I know is strengthened by an opportunity to talk to someone who can stay factual, unemotional and unbiased about death. In my early years (as a psychotherapist),” Bowen continues, “(my primary struggle was facing) my own anxiety about death. In my experience, the more I overcame my own anxiety, the more people talked to me.”
I remember a day in 2005. The nurse called me back into the consulting room to join my husband. He looked pale, frightened, shaken. The doctor joined us and wasted no time getting right to the point. “It’s a tumor. It is big and it is growing. It is life threatening. I will biopsy it, but I have no doubt that it is cancer. I’ve already contacted the surgeon. He is expecting your call; the oncologist as well. There will be surgery, chemo. You have to do this or you will die.”
We left the office and walked out into the hot and sunny day. We spent the afternoon in shocked silence. My husband had a work commitment at Wolf Trap that night he could not cancel. So we got into the car and drove out into the rolling hills of Virginia. Arriving early, we sat at a picnic table overlooking the lush meadow, the trees, the hills. Finally, my husband broke the silence.
“Did the doctor say cancer?” he asked.
“Yes.” I replied.
“Did he say that I could die?”
“What will you do if I die? Where will you live? Where will you work? Who will care for you?”
I had some questions of my own. “You have never been willing to talk about this, and now I wish that you would. Where do you want to be buried? Do you want me to take you home? What kind of funeral do you want? I know that you are not overly fond of all clergy. Whom can I ask?”
“Would you marry again?” he asked. “I would want you to be happy.” And then, softly, “I am afraid.”
Gradually, the conversation came to a gentle end. We sat quietly until the guests we had committed to meet arrived. Something between us changed. We have never been the same. And that is a good thing.
Later, I would tell my closest friends about this conversation. The strength of their resistance astonished me. “You should not talk that way. That’s giving up. You’ve got to fight!”
It isn’t easy to strike up a true and deep conversation about death. Yet, the right conversation can strengthen and free. My friends, pushed along by their own anxiety, could not comprehend that for me and for my husband, rarely had we spoken so deeply; loved one another more. The conversation felt sacred, somehow; and strangely filled with hope.
Sometimes now, when I see my husband across the room, I remember the grace of that day; strengthening us for the hard days to come.
A Lutheran pastor once told me that when his denomination revised their hymnal in 1978, they dropped the last verse of many hymns. Without fail, the verses they dropped spoke of death. “It changed the conversation about death in our church more than we could have imagined,” the pastor said. “The silence, the absence of language, the inability to sing death; has diminished our hope, sapped our resilience, weakened our faith.”
In our readings for today, God strikes up a conversation about death. Many of us prefer to avoid this conversation because in order to have it, we have to walk through a cemetery. Those who find themselves too anxious for this conversation stay away from church Palm Sunday through Good Friday, returning just in time for the joy of Easter. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Today, God speaks directly to death; promising to work through death with resurrecting power. God asks for our trust.
Ezekiel, priest and prophet, watches as Babylon tears his homeland asunder. Ezekiel and a host of God’s people are marched into exile. There, Ezekiel suffers a double blow. In the same day, Babylon destroys Jerusalem and Ezekiel’s wife—“the light of his eyes”—dies suddenly, unexpectedly.
Denying, despairing, Ezekiel and God’s people almost lose themselves. They almost forget who they are. They almost forget whom they belong to. God does not forget. God gives Ezekiel a vision; sits the prophet down in the middle of a valley full of dry, brittle, dusty bones. Then God strikes up a conversation; invites Ezekiel to converse with God in his own vision. (Peterson)
“Can these bones live?” God asks.
Overwhelmed with the number and dryness of the bones, Ezekiel thinks “They cannot.” Yet in order to keep the conversation going, Ezekiel says, “God, only you know.” God instructs Ezekiel to speak life to the bones. And as Ezekiel speaks; the bones rattle and shake; taking human form; gaining flesh and skin. Lacking breath.
God speaks again. “Ezekiel, call the breath. Call the wind.” Ezekiel speaks as God commands, and a great wind blows through the valley, bringing life, bringing breath.
Out of the depths, the people have called upon their God; have waited for the Lord whose word is their hope. From Darfur and Congo, from Afghanistan and Syria, from school shootings and drug wars, from spiritual wastelands and brittle poverty; dry bones fill cemeteries all around the world. God in mercy strikes up a conversation with a weary Ezekiel; with us in our anxiety. And in that conversation, God calls us to act; awakening life, awakening hope. (Feasting on the Word)
Can these bones live? Yes, Lord, they can. This we do believe.
Jesus misses the funeral; arriving four days late. Coming out to meet him, Martha chastises him for his tardiness. We may call this story the raising of Lazarus, yet Lazarus never speaks a word. At the heart of this story stands Martha, waiting and aching to speak to Jesus with directness about death.
Martha’s anger opens the door. “Where have you been? My brother is dead. If you had been here, you could have prevented it.”
Jesus answers her. “He will rise again.”
Exasperated, Martha replies. “I know, I know what the Pharisees say. He will rise again at the resurrection at the last day. But tell me Jesus, how does that help me now?”
Jesus says to a grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?”
It is not an idle question. Jesus challenges Martha with one of the most radical notions in all of Scripture. Jesus dares to move the day of resurrection; dares to move it from some unknown and distant day in the future to the here and now; present in him; manifest in his love. Jesus asks Martha to trust him, to trust that he speaks truth. (Craddock)
And Martha replies. “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And Martha makes a profound move herself: for she dares to believe that the mercy for which the psalmist longs, the morning long anticipated by the watchman, stands right in front of her, right in front of us. She dares to believe that eternal life begins in the here and now in the person of Jesus. Or it never begins at all.
Whenever Jesus appears, the dead come to life. In the bread and the wine; in the Gospel’s living word; in the dying and rising through baptismal waters; in his life manifest in the church; in the re-membering, the re-membering of this table, week after week, with all the saints past, present, and yet to come; in the human sharing of love and mercy: Jesus appears and the dead know resurrection. He has that effect. (Willimon)
God welcomes a conversation about death. It helps to talk about it. For together, God reminds us that in our grief and in our loss; in our despair and in our anxiety; in the darkest day we know; even on a day as dark as the Friday we call Good; God is working resurrection. As joy, as peace, as life, as freedom, as grace, as mercy.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. Do we believe that?
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Fred Craddock, Sermons Preached at Cherry Log, Lent IV, audiotape, 1999.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Can these bones live?” Christian Century, March 13, 1996.
William Willimon, “Lazarus, Arise!” Pulpit Resource, Vol 27, #1, Year A.
Bartlett and Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2.
Eugene Peterson, The Way, NavPress, 2003.
Murray Bowen, The Basic Series: #6 “Family Reaction to Death,” DVD.