*Unfortunately, due to a recording glitch, no audio of this week’s sermon is available. The manuscript is below.
A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
March 25, 2012
Unless you die, you will not live. If you love your life, you will lose it. But if you hate your life, you get to keep it, which begs the question, why do you want to keep something you hate?
If you ask me, Jesus is shooting himself in the foot here. No one is going to buy into this flip-flopped philosophy where you lose what you love and gain what you hate. But that’s just the thing about Jesus—he’s not a bit perturbed if no one buys, because he isn’t selling. The Gospel isn’t a product up for purchase, and that frees Jesus from having to sprinkle it with glitter so it catches your attention. He just says it like it is, so that nothing short of the Spirit of God can move you towards it.
Nobody in their right mind buys into an outlook like this one. In the first place, it doesn’t make sense. In the second place, it doesn’t sound like a bit of fun. And while Jesus’ disciples were surely squirming uncomfortably at the sound of Jesus’ words, I reckon that what he said is even stranger for us 21st century Americans.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed the patch of dying cactus by the entrance to our labyrinth—white and gray and withering—but after the recent rains, there are now all sorts of other plant life pushing up through the rot—death being transformed to life right at our feet. But for the most part, this type of natural renewal stays in the peripheral for us modern folk, such that it is not only a challenge to relate to Jesus’ sayings about death; it is near impossible to relate to a kernel of wheat at all. What do we know of planting and harvesting? Jesus’ analogy isn’t helpful for people who buy their bread and veggies at HEB.
In our automobiles and air-conditioned buildings, we stay pretty far removed from nature’s cycle of life. We have buildings to shield us from the seasons. We have grocery stores to cushion us from agriculture. There are conveniences galore to absorb the shock of real life and hard labor, so we don’t have to feel things so acutely as our ancestors. We have machines and medications to artificially prolong life. And even in the face of death, we have gobs of entertainment to distract us from grief and make us feel invincible all over again.
What if all this self-imposed distance from pain and death cuts us off from knowing resurrection? What if we’ve blocked our view of regeneration? My friend Brett visited a primitive village in Southeast Asia where the native people don’t have trashcans, which is to say, they don’t have trash. At all. No waste. We would call that uncivilized—no technology, no gadgets, no appliances, no stuff. But no garbage either. That means nothing gets dumped forever. Nothing is discarded. Even dead bodies, I suppose, return to the ground and nourish it. Every single thing contributing to the cycle of life, nourishing the world even as it dies. Nothing pollutes life; everything feeds life.
Such a way of life is so entirely foreign to ours. Resurrection has become scarce in modernity. We’ve nearly obliterated it from our line of vision. Jesus’ words about life coming out of death make little sense to us in our pell-mell, fast-food, factory-run world where we no longer plant our own seed and patiently watch for the life that slowly emerges from death. Ours is a world where we throw out our trash rather than reuse it; where we hide things in the attic rather than give them a second life. I am not saying our modern conveniences are evil, but I am suggesting they have stunted our capacity for imagining and believing in the power of resurrection. Sometimes I wonder if we do so much shopping in this country because our imaginations have been dulled—we’ve lost the capacity to create something new out of something old. So we throw out the old and rake in the new, and the overflow in our garbage cans and storage units wail in protest that our actual lives are, in fact, empty.
Resistance to death is, in part, due to a fear of time itself. If you are anything like me, time is often a tyrant that rules me and squeezes me dry, demanding my servitude and punctuality, wearing me thin. Of course we’ve nearly solved the problem of time. We have artificial light to prevent the coming of night, and caffeine to prolong the onset of sleep. All we lack is a machine that could delay the arrival of Monday morning, and we’d be set.
But if the sun never seems to set because the lamp is on, then we won’t notice the sunrise either, and once again, we have obscured our vision. Nature has its ways of reminding us that night brings morning, that winter turns to spring, that death results in rebirth. But I bought a lamp, an alarm clock, an iphone, and a bag of coffee so I am well on my way to defying the constructs of Time. I can beat this thing, I just know it. Unless, of course, Time wasn’t meant to be a problem to conquer but a gift to unwrap, surrendering myself to a Rhythm wiser than I.
Macrina Wiederkehr explains, “The ancients had a different relationship with time than most of us have. Time was not an enemy with which to do battle. For the elders of our historic past, time was more of a loving companion . . .They didn’t spend their lives trying to look eternally youthful. There was no such thing as anti-aging cream . . . dying was a celebration of life.”
There are benefits to modern advances, to be sure, but there is also a dark side. We’ve little vision left for resurrection, and Jesus’ challenge to fall into the ground and die like a seed is a tall order for withered imaginations like ours.
When Jesus says we must hate “life in this world,” I think he is referring to what Charles Foster calls “the complex raft of support mechanisms we wrongly call our lives and think we need.” We have schedules and planners that define us; gadgets, toys, and possessions that own us. There are the coping strategies behind which we hide from the truth about ourselves. There are the vanities and the violences we can’t seem to live without. None of these things are the “life” we gain if we follow Jesus. It will feel like death, pulling ourselves away from our treasures and crutches, but the end result is resurrection.
Easier said than done. We can’t just quit our jobs and walk away from all that is urgent. But we can die, bit by bit, day by day and find more of life along the way. Don’t ask me to explain it. I hardly understand it, but I trust it to be true. The only hope we have is that it worked for Jesus.
There is an age-old wisdom in Jesus words, but more than that, this is his testimony. Jesus is one who died like a kernel of wheat, and out of whom shot forth many seeds of righteousness. The one who gave up his life in order to gain life for himself and for the world. The one who was rejected by many but glorified by the Father.
The mystics tell us that we must be prepared to die if we want to live well. Someone once said, “It’s too bad dying is the last thing we do, because it could teach us so much about life.” The poets tell us there is an art to dying; “we are dying to live,” said one, “all things are passing, moment by moment, birth to death. Take off that cloak of fear, the divine strength you seek is here.” The Rule of St. Benedict instructs monks to keep death daily before their eyes. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “And if tonight my soul may find her peace, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.”
But what about us normal folks who still fear death and suffer grief and are not capable of producing poetry as a way to age gracefully? Is this talk of preparing to die something for the artists and the mystics, but not for us? If it all sounds too morbid, if it makes you queasy, you are not alone. Jesus himself admits to a troubled soul when facing his death, and he says, the logical thing would be to beg for deliverance, to ask God to save him from this hour. But he defies the logical response to death, and instead faces it with willingness, with clarity, with bravery. Death is an enemy, yet it is the gateway to life. If the mystics learned this about death from anybody, they learned it from Jesus.
It is not that death can be magically transformed into something cheery and rosy, warm and bright. Death is as scary and ugly and painful and disorienting as ever, but we recognize that avoidance does nothing to help us to gain life. All the constructs we erect to pad ourselves from harm only insulate us from life, and Jesus says we are stone cold dead inside our beautifully maintained shells. The only way to find life is to stare death right in the face, and tell it straight, “Death, you are ugly, but you cannot obliterate beauty. You are strong, but you have no power. You bring pain, but you can’t eliminate joy. You are only a shadow, and the Light is bigger than you are. You will come one day, and I will surrender peacefully, but even still, you will not have the final word. I accept you, and that only makes Life all the sweeter.”
As a Wise One once prayed, Lord, “Robe me with wisdom. Enable me to be at home with impermanence. Teach me the dance of surrender. O make of me a great letting go. May the sacred emptiness of my life help others to know fullness. May I never fear a death that brings me life. Let me rejoice in the harvest of each dying day.”
 Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses (Sorin Books 2008), 121-122.
 Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, The Ancient Practices Series, ed. Phyllis Tickle (Nelson 2010), 70.
 Robert Herford, quoted in Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiederkehr, 132.
 Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses, 125.
 Wiederkehr, 178.