I already had the order of service for today when I heard the news that one of our Beloveds, Carl Love, died. Sometimes the Universe just seems to work like that. Love has a way of getting to us… When it was clear that death was not far off and even long before, family and friends, our faith community showed up with cards and help and phone calls. And we also showed up in person, to the bedside, right to the end.
So Love appears in our liturgy this morning and in Carl’s legacy, his million acts of service and compassion have helped carry us to this moment right here.
Love has a way of getting to us.
Even in death.
In many ways, American culture is not just afraid of death but frighteningly obsessed with delaying it, at all costs, in all circumstances. Dying of old age, losing the self as we know it, is seen as something to fear.
Lawrence Samuel writes that in America, “death has surged way ahead of sex on a “forbidden quotient,” …it is now firmly ensconced as this country’s leading source of uneasiness, discomfort, and apprehension. The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly “un-American” experiences.”
Perhaps the result of individualism, Samuel goes on, “The rise of the self has made it increasingly difficult to acknowledge the fact that our individual selves will no longer exist. Death and dying became almost unmentionable words over the course of the last century, topics not to be brought up in polite conversation.”1
Death is more controversial than sex, really?
America’s avoidance of death was made abundantly clear, when Jeremy and I visited Varanasi India. It is known as the epicenter of death for Hindus. It is an honor to have your dead body brought there to be burned on the Ghats by the Ganges. For Hindus death is not just a name for God, it is one of the first manifestations of the Holy.
To be sure, I am not saying that death is always good and of course it isn’t always welcome, but this story we heard from the book of John makes me wonder if part of our call as people of faith to not be afraid of it, to not turn away from it.
In her latest book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life.”
She goes on, “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it. Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”
A few years ago, my father in law Tom was diagnosed with CLL, a chronic form of Leukemia. In his words, it is the best kind of cancer you can have. But it’s still cancer.
With time Tom used the experience to create an instructional for how to approach death thoughtfully with a comprehensive program called An Instructional Design for Dying. Over the course of the class, there are exercises used to gain clarity around hopes and preferences, while also cultivating a loving acceptance of the end of life. And here’s the whole point: Seeing what we value most in dying also shows what to value most while we're still alive.
Because death is right there from the start, for all of us and even if we try to avoid it. And today death is literally standing in the entryway of the story.
Jesus shows up to the home of Lazarus, a dead man who opens the door and welcomes him in. And then (as if no surprise to others in the room?) they all sit down and share dinner together.
We can easily get lost in the literalism of the story, losing our footing on whether and how Jesus, the radical, mystical teacher could bring someone back to life- instead let us not miss it- death is coming. Death shows up and demands a meal and a conversation.
And most of the room carries on as if all was well, as if each of their lives would not soon be unraveled and upended, as if death was no right there.
At least most of them sat at the table.
The text makes sure that the readers know that two of them are doing something different. Martha is serving food, making sure nourishment in body could be felt and Mary is rubbing Jesus’ feet, making sure the healing touch could be known.
Then the house starts to smell really strong, which strikes something in Judas who becomes enraged that this fragrant kind of perfume wasn’t used better, for some yet to be decided, more special occasion.
And Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
He knows that death is literally standing in the entryway of yet another story, one that will soon begin with protests and palms.
Jesus doesn’t want to avoid the truth. He needs people around him who will let him process what he needs to feel. He needs friends who will let him acknowledge what is real. He needs people who would not be afraid of death, who would not turn away from it or from him, knowing that things were about to go very, tragically, painfully, wrong.
Scholar Jae Won Lee writes with the oil, with the blessing, “(Mary) anticipates Jesus’ death…but she is no collaborator… Her anointing also anticipates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, evoking the anointing of Kings.” 2
Death is in the room. And she doesn’t turn away. In fact she takes the ritual of burial and blesses him now, while he is alive. That’s it: She let him live while he was still alive, fully, deeply, completely.
Even when it was about to get dark, even when things were getting uncomfortable and hard, even when it’s awkward and there are no words, the women carried on with delicious food and fancy perfume and lavish love. Mary actually says nothing in this story. She doesn’t need to. Instead, she doesn’t turn away, as if to say, Love has a way of getting to us, even in death, I will find a blessing, even here. We will live as we are called, right up until the end.
As Jan Richardson says,
“This blessing is in no rush.
This blessing will plant itself by your door.
This blessing will keep vigil and chant prayers.”
One of the gifts we offer one another, as fellow travelers on a spiritual journey, is the promise to steer ourselves toward being open to the wonder of finding blessings even on the cusp of this life, even in death. Richard Rohr, modern mystic and Catholic priest writes, “Death—whether one of many deaths to the false self or our final physical dying—is simply returning to our spacious Ground of Being, to our foundation in Love. Life doesn’t truly end; it simply changes form and continues evolving into ever new shapes and beauty.”
As people of faith and kindness, we hold fast to the promise not to be afraid of all that we do not know or of all that we do know is sure to be hard. We aim to be like Martha and like Mary, to turn away when things get harrowing and rough- to not wait forever before we extend and receive beautiful blessings, to not let that yet to be decided, more special occasion be one that never comes. Let this not. Turn. Away. For we might miss…this blessing.
“This blessing will bide its sweet time”
Love has a way of getting to us.
Even in death.
This blessing is an invitation to take it all in, to acknowledge what is real, to not be afraid, to not turn away, it is a chance to love this moment, right now, to put out the best china and use the best perfume. All of this, of that is, in its pain and power, whatever we have here, this, this is blessing, this blessing.
May it be so. Amen.
2 Jae Won Lee in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide