The Strange Beauty in Death
Sermon by The Reverend Jodi L. Baron, Lent 5
Years ago, I had a group of high school students whom I met with on Sunday evenings to have conversations about virtues of God, like truth, beauty, and story. Together we explored the ways in which these things are present, if we are attentive to them, all over our daily experiences.
Our theme for this particular year was “beauty.”
On this one particular evening we were exploring the beauty of death.
At first, many of the students were creeped out with the prospect of even talking about death.
But really, I explained, it’s not something we get to avoid talking about.
In fact, the pain and sorrow that come with physical-literal death are good stories to talk with someone about.
Telling those stories heal us, restore us to community, and reconcile our hearts to God.
Death, so it seems, is so much a part of the human experience that even the food we eat (yes even the plant-based ones) must go through a process of death in order to become something else.
*more on that in a moment.*
This particular fall evening, my partner and I drove our students to one of the city cemeteries for a walk in the moonlight.
We were on a quest, of sorts, to determine if there was, in fact, a strange sort of beauty in a place that often times is seen as the epitome of sadness and pain.
Darkness has a way of revealing a different perspective on things, if we allow our eyes to adjust and embrace the little bit light from the sky, and ponder what, if anything, it is trying to show us.
As we stood among the tombstones of all the faithful departed, I could sense that the students were beginning to imagine the stories of the lives represented here based solely upon the inscription on their tombstone.
Some stories must have been extra sad, they determined, as they calculated the ages of some.
Others left us with questions about who their community consisted of that this is what was there.
There, in the darkness of night, the moon cast shadows from the trees that by day shaded those very graves we were standing among.
I remember noticing the light shone brightest along the stone paths between the plots of land filled with graves.
We were attentive to the holiness of the space we occupied that night and how daily when we drive by places like this we hardly take notice of their existence at all.
Death is one of those strange paradoxes of the human experience, isn’t it?
It’s necessary and unavoidable and yet we strive to find ways to stave it off or deny its presence and the ways in which it can teach us about God, humanity, and why we’re here.
That’s just the human side of physical death.
Our food was once living as well. Our bread was once wheat, our apples were once seeds, our hamburgers and hotdogs were once walking the earth.
The point is that all living things must go through death in order to bring forth life to something else.
In this morning’s gospel Jesus is explaining to us the meaning behind his whole program on earth and why he must undergo suffering upon the cross, and what is more, he links his pending death to the resurrection and finally ascension that will happen soon after.
He uses the metaphor of a grain of wheat and the death it must experience in order to bear “fruit” to talk to us about our faith.
That “fruit” that Jesus was referring to is the community of disciples who would come to follow him after he returned to heaven.
Jesus was speaking of the community of believers who would come to believe in him even though they had never “seen” him.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus honed in on the unique beauty that comes from the seed going through the process of death.
Of breaking open so that new life could sprout forth and fruit come to bear.
He uses this seed to reveal the salvific power that abides within this community that assembles weekly to remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his coming in glory.
When we do life in community, when we take the time to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness, it’s never truly void of light, not all together.
That is what Lent is about, I think.
That is what Christian disciplines are meant to create.
By my committing to certain practices for 40 days, I am offering those practices cultivated to strengthen our christian community.
When I give alms for the poor I am proclaiming God’s kingdom by attending to the needs of those most vulnerable.
We cultivate patterns for holy living so that when darkness comes, as it does every lunar cycle, we won’t be overcome with fear but will trust that God is there, just as always, until our senses allow us to see.
This morning’s gospel ends with Christ declaring, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
A universal call to salvation. restoration. reconciliation.
And the salvation that will come, and does come, through the assembled body of believers.
The community of us; you and me.
When we take on the task of following this Jesus, we do so not in isolation or a vacuum. but in community.
To be a follower of Jesus was to be like him, speak like him, love like him, and die like him. To be a “little Christ” in the world and to each other.
These seasons our church observes, they aren’t for show.
They aren’t arbitrary ways to mark time.
They are meant to help us order our common life together and retell God’s salvific act in Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The reason we retell the story of Jesus’ death is because without his death, there wouldn’t be the resurrection and ascension, and without the resurrection and ascension, there wouldn’t be this thing we call Christianity, our community of faith.
Ash Wednesday we were invited, as a church, to the observance of a holy Lent. We had the ashes from last year’s palms smudged onto our foreheads while the priest reminded us,
From dust you came and to dust you shall return.
We name the departed in our prayers of the people forever claiming them in the place among the cloud of witnesses.
We spread or bury their ashes or bodies as representatives of our community of faith and they point us to the promises of the nearer presence of Christ.
We sacrifice a little bit of comfort, a few of our desires, employ a bit more discipline and practice temperance to heighten our senses to the needs of others.
The gospel is emphasizing for us the ministry of reconciliation God set forth first in the incarnation and completed with his death, resurrection, and ascension we are about to walk through, together, with Christ, from Palm Sunday to Easter.
And so, beloved community of “little Christs,” be attentive this final week of Lent to what God is inviting you to be, do, or change.
Be mindful of the needs of others in your daily occupations and decisions you make with your time and talents.
And pray for eyes to see God in the dark hours of his Passion, for what it means for your faith and that of our community’s.