“We want to see Jesus.” This is the statement that begins our passage today. Some Greeks have come well-intentioned and sincere, and they approach Phillip and tell him they want to see Jesus.
At some level, it’s what we all want, especially in this gospel where Jesus so often invites us to “Come and see…” for ourselves. But the question becomes, what of Jesus do we want to see?
We want to see the triumphant stature of one known for his power and might, majesty and miracles. We want to see the one who had been surrounded by celebration and shouts of Hosanna as he entered Jerusalem earlier in chapter 12. We want to see the one who in chapter 11 raised his friend Lazarus from the darkness of the cave. We want to see the one who will speak to us of light and life and resurrection.
But instead, what we see in this passage is one who is resolved, resigned, and just seems to want to talk about death.
We’ve seen enough of death. Just yesterday in this sanctuary, some gathered at the memorial service for longtime member and deacon Lee Barnett, while others of us from our congregation were in Ft. Mill, South Carolina for the memorial of Jeannie Jones – church member and mother of our Associate Pastor for Spiritual Formation: Rev. Courtney Willis. But whether we attended a memorial service yesterday or not, our lives intersect constantly with news and knowledge of death and loss, grief and suffering. We’ve seen enough of death. So we want to see that power and might, and those miracles that bring people out of caves. We want to see light and life. We want fewer funerals and more baby dedications and baptisms, more hymns of praise and fewer in minor key.
In many ways, in our contemporary culture and setting, we might be as far removed and insulated from death as any society has ever been. Often people die in institutions, bodies are taken away quickly, prepared by professionals, often not seen, or if they are, seen only in powdered and preserved form, and still many of us avert our eyes. Truth be told, funeral attendance seems lower than it has been in the past in most churches.
And yet, we Christians follow the Christ who speaks these resolved words about death. Jesus can see what all of us are beginning to see: the final bend in this Lenten Road straightens toward the hill outside Jerusalem. And so his words carry extra weight, and we lean in to capture them, as we do with someone we know is not long for this world, who is already beginning to know things we do not yet.
Jesus begins by stating that “Now the hour has come for the son of Man to be glorified,” as though the way to his glory is passing through death.
He continues, “When a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it becomes more than a single grain… it bears much fruit beyond itself,” as though even in death there is a resurrection.
And then later connecting this death to a life of discipleship and all of us who follow, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it; anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternity,” as though part of what it means to live in his way is to die in his way, too. As though the way we approach death is a vital part of life and faith. As though an essential practice of Christian faith is understanding how to die.
“Death comes equally to us all,” the poet John Donne once wrote, “and it makes us equal in its coming.” But how will we approach it, this reality of our mortality?
In recent years, renewed emphasis and reflection has been offered around the practice of “dying well,” a phrase that comes in part from the 18th century Christian leader and founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who once said of those among his congregation: “Our people die well.” It’s echoed in what a physician that treated members of Charles Wesley’s congregation once said to him of these churchgoers, “Most people die for fear of dying; but, I never met with such people as yours. They are none of them afraid of death, but are calm, and patient, and resigned to the last.” (1)
Some of you have seen such peace and resignation before. The notion of dying well always takes my mind to my first real experience of death: the death of my grandfather, John Sherouse, namesake of our Jack, whom everyone knew as “Doc.” It was the end of a long and full life, so Grandpa Doc found his ways to repeat a refrain to many he loved, “I’m all right about it.” He had transferred from the hospital to his home and a Hospice bed, appreciating all that medicine had done for him, but also courageously recognizing the limits of medical care, “ceasing to oppose death” in the words of one ethicist (2), and recognizing there are other kinds of hope – hope found in faith, in legacy, and in the trust your life has meaning beyond your death; hope found in family and community that surround. So Grandpa stopped shifting and settled into his breathing. In some of his last words he greeted me as he had throughout my childhood, “Hey, old buddy.” Family gathered, surrounded the bed, sang when he could no longer, prayed, and a family friend knocked on the swinging garage door with chicken saying he’d just had an urge to dust off his smoker. And we all released our notions of control as Grandpa died and slipped into the care of God.
I thought of those moments in these last weeks at the side of Jeannie Jones, who died Wednesday morning and for whom a luminary is lit in our sanctuary today. In some of our last words, Tuesday afternoon, I leaned down to her Beacon Place bed and said, “I love you” and then “Would you like for me to say a prayer, or are you all prayed out?” And without hesitation, “I’m all prayed out,” she said with definitive tone and defiant faith, as if to say, “I’ve said what I have to say to God in this life. I’ve stopped asking ‘why?’ about the limits of my body and my health.” There was peace with what her life had been, and with that a release of what it had not been, and there was trust in life to come where all obstacles and limitations to our experience of perfect love disappear.
Near her was her daughter, our newest minister, Courtney, who so elegantly cared for her mother in these last days, adjusting her posture, offering her some jello or a straw to her mouth. And I told Courtney yesterday that whether she recognized it or not, they were sharing communion. Jello and ice chips can become sacramental, drawing us closer to the one who on the night he was handed over, called us to a table that recalls our lives are both blessed and broken.
Yes, when I consider “dying well,” my first images – maybe yours, too – are of such grace and blessing, as though the Christian hope of dying well is equivalent to having a good death. In fact, my original title for this sermon was “A good death.”
But you and I also know so well, that so many deaths are not good. Sometimes people don’t pass away, or exhale once more into the fullness of the presence of God. Sometimes people are wrenched away, sometimes in the prime of life, sometimes by violence, or tragedy, or illness, or disaster, or abuse, or the worst parts of humanity as we cry those tears that streamed from Jesus’ face for his young friend, Lazarus.
These are the sort of tears cried by LA Times columnist, Chris Erskine, who wrote this week of the wrenching recent death of his son, Christopher, at age 32. Just weeks ago it seemed they were breaking in his glove for another season of Little League, and now his son dead in an early morning highway accident. It recalls the name on our hearts and on our prayer list, Michelle Kennedy – community leader, Councilwoman and director of the IRC, friend of our church and former neighbor here in Westerwood – whose teenage son, Damian, tragically died just weeks ago.
Columnist Chris Erskine says people constantly ask what they can do. His reply: “How about a lobotomy? Or maybe a heart transplant? Could you maybe do that? Because the human body was not built for such debilitating grief. The lungs are too weak and the heart is too tender. We are not engineered for this.” (3)
It was the early 1980s when such breathtaking, unimaginable grief interrupted the life of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, minister of the Riverside Church, as his 24 yr old son, Alex, died in a car accident in January 1983. In July of that year, Coffin, who was a virtuoso musician, preached a sermon from the piano bench at Riverside – it’s title was “Preached from the Piano Bench” – and he played and sang favorite hymns of faith, interspersed with commentary and reflection.
He played the beloved hymn “Abide with Me” and then he broke from the music to share about his son, Alexander’s death. Coffin told how they sang this hymn at his funeral in Vermont. And when everybody had left the little village, Coffin knew he had to do at least one day of solid, solid grieving. He called a literature professor friend at Yale and asked for all the poems of grief his friend would recommend. Then he went to a little church on the green, carried all his unthinkable grief and anger into that sanctuary, and sat at a rickety old organ. And he just sang this hymn over and over again: “Abide with me, fast falls the even tide…”
This hymn text was written by Henry Francis Lyte, an Anglican priest in Bricksome Harbor in Devonshire. In 1847 Rev. Lyte was very ill and after service and tea one Sunday afternoon he went down to the harbor and sat on a rock around the time the “even tide” was falling, and as the sun went down behind him and the light of the evening began to cast across the waters, he wrote these words, about the end of day and the end of life. And within a very few weeks he died. All those years later grieving father, Bill Coffin sang the words in a church over and over, “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
And Coffin said he emerged from that little church sometime that night no less mournful, but strengthened by something new and unexpected. He described it as “a crescendo of hope” in his life. And he decided he would not be ashamed of it, would not distrust it, but instead would believe that even in the midst of all that loss he could become whole again – not in the same way, but in a way brought about through the Spirit of the God who makes all things new.
Because he realized that what was true of Rev. Henry Lyte, who in his illness slipped peacefully into the care of God, was also true of his son, Alexander Coffin, who died tragically on a bridge on a rainy, unforgiving night: In death, as in life, God abides.
“Those who love their life will only ever lose it,” Jesus says, “But those who hate their life in this world will find it in eternity.”
Jesus is telling us that the way to glory – no less for us than for him – is through release. Releasing a seed into the ground. Releasing a life lived in the trust of the abiding love of God. And releasing and dying to the notion that we are in full control of our lives.
It doesn’t come easily. Jesus confesses that he himself has his own fear, “I am troubled, ” he says to the inquiring crowd. “May this cup pass from me,” he will say later through tears and sweat in the garden. But his urgent question and pressing grief is ultimately not quite as loud as his confession, “Father, glorify your name…God, use me as you will…” And if we really want to see Jesus, to know Jesus, to follow Jesus, then in life, in death, we will find our ability to say the same.
It can come in all kinds of words and expressions:
“I’m all right about it,” which is to say, I’ve released all my notions of control, and trusted the enduring love of God.
“I’m all prayed out,” which is to say I’ve made peace with who God is, and what God does.
“Hold thou the cross before my closing eyes,” which is to say I am finding the abiding presence of the one who knew so fully brokenness and hope all at once.
“If a single grain falls and dies, it will bear abundant fruit, ” which is to say I am believing that death is not the last, not the definitive, and that the destiny of all of us who follow in the way of Chris is hope and new life.
Yesterday at Jeannie Jones’ funeral, I learned something about her that I had never known. We were gathered at the Unity Presbyterian Church, which had been her congregation there. Jeannie, you understand, had not found her kind of Baptists in Ft. Mill, South Carolina, so she had joined Unity Pres, a historic and classically beautiful church on a rolling hill, where sits a relatively new Sanctuary.
As we processed with the family from the Parlor in the old building to the new sanctuary, I commented to Unity’s pastor, Rev. Jeannie Bickett, “This is a beautiful building,” and she said calmly, “Yes, thanks to Jeannie.” Later in her service remarks she explained more. The sanctuary was built in 2010, and Jeannie Jones had been chair of the furnishings committee, and co-chair of the campaign committee. Every detail: the carpet, the mahogany wood stain, the fabric of the pews, the design of the chancel, and especially the 10 stained glass windows, bore her touch.
After the service, a gentleman from the church found me to shake my hand. “I served on the building committee with Jeannie,” he said. “You were talking about Courtney and Jeannie and communion in the service… well, come here, I want to show you her favorite window.” And we walked to the front window, where chalice and paten, cup and bread, a vine of grapes and stalks of wheat, intertwine. “Jeannie said we just had to have a communion window.”
Some Christian traditions celebrate communion at a funeral. How fitting. For whether it’s bread and wine, or ice chips and jello, it reminds us of the table that Jesus could already see. It’s a table that represents God’s promise of new life but never apart from the reality of Christ’s brokenness. And we gather there with our own lives where blessing and brokenness, hope and tears, resurrection and suffering intertwine all at once.
Today, the congregation of Unity Presbyterian in Ft. Mill gathers to celebrate the date of its 230th anniversary. Even now, sharing in worship. And in communion. And they will do so in the light of that window. Cause it’s in the light of a window, or of a flickering candle flame, that we remember who we are, we dedicate our babies, we welcome believers into the waters of baptism, we commune with Christ and one another to receive the bread and cup, and we acknowledge the blessing and brokenness all at once.
And as we do, it’s as though that single grain of wheat has exploded into something abundant.
As though the lives we release are found again, somewhere beyond us in the mystery of God.
As though somehow in dying well, we pass into resurrection and new life.
1. From Our People Die Well by Joseph D. McPherson, ed.
2. Paul Ramsey
3. “The Most Awful Kind of Grief…” (March 15, 2018)