40 years ago, on a bright Palm Sunday morning, I witnessed my brother die from a combination of alcohol and sleeping pills. He didn’t go off to die alone but came over to the house, where he collapsed and never regained consciousness. In retrospect he probably didn’t want to die – he just didn’t know how to live. And he didn’t know how to get help. It was my first true encounter with death – not death buffered by a funeral home, but in-your-face death – the electric presence of death, a black hole in the room, sucking out physical life, leaving gray-blue skin.
This presence is at the vortex where life and death overlap. It is what John calls the great disturber. This is the moving Spirit when Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. Ezekiel describes this presence as the Breath of God, hovering over the slain – surely as this same spirit swept over the deep in the act of Creation. It is a presence felt by both the living and the dead. By the dead as they embrace eternal life. By the living who have had their bones crushed by the sufferings of life; who cry out to be revived and are called out of their tombs and set free. Our texts today invite us to sit with this presence, especially as it manifests in death.
The topic of death, even for people who come to church, who believe in God and struggle to follow Jesus, is difficult to engage even as we trust in divine mercy and reject oblivion. Who would go around talking about death? Who wants to be with people who talk about death?
So we push death away. We have become successful: we live in an era that has seen the average life expectancy jump from 46 years to almost 79 years in just over one century. In our battle against death we have discovered vaccinations, procedures, surgeries and treatments, diets that have prolonged life considerably.
Yet are we prepared to deal with death? Are you? Am I? For all we have accomplished, we are, in many ways, less able to engage the universal reality of dying. In my seminary class, I was one of the few individuals who had extensive experience with death in our immediate families; most of my friends had not even lost a grandparent yet. Losing a pet can be a powerful but it is not preparation for the shattering loss of a sibling, the emotional insecurity of losing a parent or the dread loss of a child.
Consider the ICU and picture death there. How do we face the terror of dying when we lose our personal autonomy; intubated and ventilated, sedated institutionalized, often alone. On average, anywhere from 30- 50 percent of a patient’s lifetime health care costs are spent in the last six months of life. We spend a lot of money keeping dying people alive right to the bitter end.
So, as we approach our scriptures today, let us ask ourselves, does the experience of that spirit and presence of Death awaken in us the desire to imbue our lives with clarity, energy and purpose? God is not content for us to exist as a pile of bones. God’s breathe connects bone to bone, sinews with sinews, skin and flesh. And our bones respond to the call of God.
This may sound like a romantic view of death. Nothing is further from the truth. Dealing with death is hard and painful. Who ever recovers from the wounds that death deals to us? Most of us bury our mourning, grief and anger in the tombs in our hearts, blocked by stones of fear and pain. The reality is that people do die ugly, unjust premature deaths. People die alone and unloved. People die unreconciled to their family or neighbor with bitterness and fear. Death wounds us in ways that seem humanly impossible to recover – especially if death comes to a child, strikes in the moment of blindness of suicide, when it comes suddenly, comes often or arrives viciously through war or violence or murder.
We remember, dealing with life can be hard and painful. People live in ugly, unjust ways. People live alone and unloved. People live with bitterness, anger and resentments, consumed by fear. Life wounds us in ways that are hard to recover from. We entomb life and joy. Neither life nor death are for the weak of heart. We must come to terms with life as we must come to terms with death.
We see an intimate portrait of death in our scriptures today. These lessons demand we contemplate the broad face of death. In the gospel of John, we view a death that comes to a small village, a single family. Death that is fresh, raw, stinking and has a name, Lazareth. There is weeping and wailing. There are all those futile questions and comments: “Lord if you had only been here…” Why did you delay, Jesus?” If only I had done this… If only I had encouraged her more If only I had called….why didn’t I see the signs? Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? Where were you when I needed you God? Why didn’t you come sooner?
The horror of communal death illustrated by Ezekiel in his vision of the valley of dry bones. Bones, bones, for as far as you can see. Death that is out in the open. Uncontained. Reminding us of the horrifying film clips of the Holocaust with bulldozers pushing piles of corpses in communal graves – of the terrifying images of the killing fields of Cambodia. The elimination of first nation peoples…the Cultural Revolution, the Ottoman Empire, Rwanda, Uganda, Darfur, the gulag, the famines…there are valleys of dry bones everywhere on this earth.
Death comes to a people, community, nation, and in this scripture Ezekiel points to the destruction of the people of Israel. In his vision of rebuke and warning, death has been a way of life for so long it no longer stinks. Flesh is gone. Sinew is gone. The Spirit is gone. There are no mourners, instead of weeping and wailing there is utter stillness and silence. Just death, alone.
Our Bible lessons don’t explain death, even as we, as do thoughtful people, seek answers in the face of such devastation. But our texts do invite us in, to sit in the valley or by the tomb. By keeping faithful company with death, we are promised by God that we come to know the Lord.
So we sit today at the tomb and the valley of death. The Spirit of this presence speaks to us. We learn about sorrow, unfinished business and broken dreams. We come to see more clearly the source of our suffering, the true “dis-“ ease. It is not death breaking our hearts. It is the lack of love and loss of love connection. Our hearts are broken by chronic isolation; love loss in our guilt, shame and despair. Our hearts break and mend for the love expressed in care for others, love for God and God’s ways of right living.
Death is not the problem. Life is not the problem. The problem is the conditions we place on love.
Jesus wept after he showed up in Bethany. When Jesus first received word that his friend Lazarus was ill, he had just had a hostile encounter with some religious leaders. They were ready to stone and kill him. Jesus had to flee across the Jordon River to safety. By responding to the call of Mary and Martha, Jesus placed himself at great peril. He returned to the territory where his enemies were planning to do away with him. As Jesus stood before the grave of Lazarus, calling him back to life, Jesus was signing his own death warrant. At the conclusion to Chapter 11, we read that the chief priests and Pharisees called a council to terminate Jesus once and for all. Jesus would soon be exchanging places with Lazarus in the tomb.
Everyone misunderstood Jesus. Criticized him. Blamed God. Everyone thought Jesus’ tears were proof of his love. But his Presence was proof -- proof of a love the shows up, despite peril; a merciful love that sacrifices; a love that willingly gave its life so that another might live. What is it that Jesus says later in his great discourse before his death? “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” John 15:13.
As holy week draws near, our texts prepare us for this mystery of love and death, suffering and sacrifice, mercy and resurrection. The Love that breathes on the bones and restores life. It is Love that opens graves. Love is present, unfelt, unsummoned, even when we are at our lowest. Love, through Death asks us: how do we really experience God? Is Love just a quaint title we give God that has a nice ring to it? Only death can make us sit and realize this is not an intellectual exercise. Death is not an abstract experience. And neither is God. Unless we have been restored to life while alive that we can have no idea what Jesus means when he calls himself the Resurrection and the life.
“Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” I’ll say that again “anything dead coming back to life hurts.” That’s how Toni Morrison puts it in her novel, “Beloved.” It hurts to have new life forced back in your body. It hurts when bone is rejoined back to bone, and the flesh is grafted back. It hurts to emerge from the dark tomb into the brightness of day. It hurts to learn to love without condition, to give of ourselves, to be vulnerable and to risk giving our lives to another or for a cause or righteousness. What does it matter to gain length of years if there is diminished capacity and quality to love – death would ask us.
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live." Let me say that again. “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live." Those words from author Norman Cousins remind us of all the different stripes of death in our lives. All those tiny deaths, year by year entombed away, that take away our ability to live abundantly as Jesus promised us. I have learned that the scars of death do not go away. At times pain resurfaces. But through God’s Spirit-breathed Love, these wounds become the place where light enters, love flows… .and connects to the wounds in others – bringing comfort, a presence, strength – even hope.. Our wounds become our connecting places –we discover -we are not alone. Through life and death we are connected – bone to bone.
Life and death are not the problem. It is whether we chose to love in life and death that makes all the difference. So this week prepare. Sit in the valley. Sit by the tomb. Jesus has come to awaken us. To life – to death --- to God’s glory – made manifest as we rise to the resurrection in death, but also in life. Amen.