Sermon Day of the Living for website Copyright Sarah K. Person Delivered November 3, 2013, First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
Day of the Living
Cousin Marian was a lifelong fan of her Chicago Cubs. As she was dying, she asked her husband and children to invite us to distribute some of her ashes in paper cups so that we could sneak around Wrigley Field, shaking a bit of Marian along the edges of the green. Luckily for us, the powers that be gave permission to distribute her remains in a proper fashion. Turns out, she wasn’t the only one with that wish, and every once in a great while, the Cubs grant it. I know Marian would have preferred the spill-by.
How can somebody like that just die? Her husband is still mad at her for leaving, still missing her, and it’s been years. She won that race and left him behind. How can anybody die, and leave us behind? Why do we have to? What’s the point of it all? I’ve had to wrestle with my own losses, my own thoughts, and, being a minister, I’ve had to wrestle with others’ expectations of me. The first time was years ago, fall of my first year of seminary, in the middle of a gala fundraising event, a man I knew came up to my table and asked me why God had taken his wife. He turned away before I could even answer; we both knew I couldn’t. Novice that I was, I felt I had let him down. Even my sister demanded on our mother’s deathbed that I tell her whether there was life after death. “You’re a minister,” she said, “you’re supposed to know these things.”
What things am I supposed to know that you don’t, I wonder? The apostle Paul in his letter to the Hebrews 11:1-3 said “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But it is hard to minister in truth when all we want is assurance; even harder when we want conviction. I can offerin truth that there is hope, and there are things not seen and that life is worthwhile anyway.
Death is change. Physically it is less a matter of being and not being than being one thing and changing into another. Mountains turn into sand, lakes into valleys. Living things break down into nutrients and single-celled creatures that will help to grow new life. And so it goes. But we are aware; we are sentient. It is our knowing that we want to keep intact, and it may be unbearable not to know. Perhaps our sentience breaks down as well into nutrients that help grow new thoughts and emotions. I do not know. I can hope and I can imagine.
What is it that I am supposed to know that you don’t? All I know are the real questions being asked, because I have heard them and asked them myself:
− Why do I have to hurt? Because it means you’ve loved, and because you’ve loved, the hurt will stop eventually.
− Why am I here on this earth when she is not? You are here to bear witness to her. She is still in your heart.
− Did my loved one ever love me? You loved and are loved and may love again, that is all that matters.
− Am I a good person? To figure that out, and to do what is necessary to figure that out, leads to peace.
− Is it okay for me to expect to live beyond the moment? Yes, it is not a betrayal, it is the nature of living.
− What happens when we die? − What will happen to me? Do I have to be afraid? − Will I continue, self-aware and conscious somehow? − If I don’t, what was the point of being awake and knowing and living?
We ask these questions because we are alive. The ones who stop asking these questions are the ones whom death has overcome. They are starving. They are surrounded by violence. They are surrounded by certitude. They are sitting in front of the television, or keeping busy or anesthetized in the thousands of ways we can every hour of every day. To stop wondering is a kind of death of the mind and heart.
To be alive is not to have answers; it is to wake up; to make life bearable, meaningful – even more, joyous – in the face of death. To find out what was the point. Death gives life context, lurking around the edges as it always does. Death’s perspective lends us a certain kind of urgency and clarity. Buddhists say that death is the greatest teacher, but why should you wait for days like today to feel the preciousness of life? As your minister, I say we can’t be morbid all the time. We can’t be constantly pressed in by death on all sides. Why should we have to be constantly aware of death to be able to appreciate life? We can and should expect to live beyond the moment. We can make a deep and rich and satisfying commitment to life in the present.
We are left behind by those we loved. They leave us behind as testament. We hold the memories; we hold the truth of them in our deepest marrow. I don’t know what happens to us after life has ended. Maybe we’re not supposed to have the answer. Maybe we’re supposed to hope. Maybe we are supposed to speak the truth of those who left us behind. They leave us behind as testament.
Ask different questions for the living: − What will give us comfort? − What will hold us accountable to truth? − What will make us awake to beauty? − What will help us expect to live beyond the moment? − What will hold us accountable for the way we lead our lives?
Forrest Church, in his book Love and Death1, said: “In each of our lives not only will some rain fall, but fires will burn, the
ground will shake, and one day, life itself will be exacted in payment for the gift of life bestowed. By wanting what we have, doing what we can, and being who we are, our cup will forever be half full, not half empty. Do these same things with reverence, humbled by awe, and our cup runneth over.”
What will wake us up to beauty? If you’ve read The Little Prince2 by Antoine de Saint Exupery, you’ll remember a passage toward the end when the prince is saying goodbye to the pilot:
“You– you alone– will have the stars as no one else has them–” [says the Prince.] [The pilot says] “What are you trying to say?” “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you– only you– will have stars that can laugh!”
… “It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”
They leave us behind as testament. So we need to leave something behind ourselves. And that is what the day of the living means. We can be who we are, want what we have and do what we can. When we do this, we leave something
behind. We need to plant something, to plant a garden of truths, a field of laughing stars, to mix our essence into the outfield.
William Patrick Kinsella wrote a reflection on baseball in 1981, the year of the strike. He imagined that reverent baseball lovers might gather in secret in the middle of the night to take up the astroturf and plant a field of grass to prepare for the return of the game. The Thrill of the Grass3, excerpt
Night after night, virtually no words are spoken. Each man seems to know his assignment. Not all bring sod. Some carry rakes, some hoes, some hoses, which, when joined together, snake across the infield and outfield, dispensing the blessing of water. Others, cradle in their arms bags of earth for building up the infield to meet the thick, living sod.
…Row by row, night by night we lay the little squares of sod, moist as chocolate cake with green icing….
What will the players think, as they straggle into the stadium and find the miracle we have created? The old-timers will raise their heads like ponies, as far away as the parking lot, when the thrill of the grass reaches their nostrils. And, as they dress, they’ll recall sprawling in the lush outfields of childhood, the grass as cool as a mother’s hand on a forehead.
“Goodbye, goodbye,” we say at the gate, the smell of water, of sod, of sweat, small perfumes in the air. Our secrets are safe with each other. We go our separate ways.
Alone in the stadium in the last chill darkness before dawn, I drop to my hands and knees in the centre of the outfield. My palms are sodden. Water touches the skin between my spread fingers. I lower my face to the silvered grass, which, wonder of wonders, already has the ephemeral odours of baseball about it.
How will you comfort? How will you hold yourself to truth? How will you wake to beauty? What will you leave behind? You have the rest of your life to find out. May it be so.