Matters of Life and Death

I just finished a month as the Theologian in Residence at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh.  The focus of our “deep and wide” month together was the Incarnation.  Together we took a multilayered approach to exploring the embodied vitality that the Incarnation invites us toward.  Below is the sermon I preached one Sunday during my month there.  

“BUILDING A BETTER BELIEVER”

SCRIPTURE:  GENESIS 3: 8-15, 2 CORINTHIANS 4:13-5:1

WHITE MEMORIAL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, RALEIGH, NC

June 10, 2012

It has been a great first week of work here at WMPC as your theologian in residence.  Thank you for your warm welcome and for all the rich work we’ve done together so far—

At the Men’s Breakfast and Bible Study on Tuesday morning we explored Genesis 3 together.  How many times does a woman get the microphone in a room full of men at church when the topic is the story of Eve tasting the forbidden fruit?   It is a rare privilege to be sure.

Now one of the historical tidbits shared at the breakfast before I spoke had to do with it being Pancho Ville’s birthday and it was suggested that he is the first example of civil disobedience.

As I explained to the Bible study when it was my turn to speak, Pancho Ville is not the first example of civil disobedience.  Eve is.

Eve, this first woman, the mother of all things living, comes of age when she decides to take a bite of the fruit that God had told Adam (and then Adam told Eve) not to eat.  Keep in mind that Eve never got any direct instructions from God about this.  You can’t blame her for wondering if Adam hadn’t gotten the directions correct.

Now we have tended in Western Christianity to read this story of Eve’s civil disobedience through the eyes and writing of St. Augustine who found in this story a tale of shame and blame.

For Augustine, Adam and Eve, literally created and gave birth to sin—a sin that humanity inherits as a blight on our very nature.

This interpretation has had a tenacious effect on the formation of Western Christianity.

And no small by-product of this interpretation has been the way that women and women’s bodies have been cast as problematic, flawed, even dangerous.

As difficult as it may be, if we can remove the Augustinian lens from our eyes and take a closer look at this story, it really isn’t a story of a fall at all.

It is a story of humanity coming of age—of God’s creatures testing and discovering their limitations and possibilities.  And it seems that this stretching, this testing of boundaries is inherent in the very way that human beings were made.   Eating of the fruit of the tree does not make Eve and Adam like God—they were already made in God’s image.  What it gives them is knowledge of their own limitations, their capacity to choose wrongly, to be “uncovered” in God’s presence.

Eve’s civil disobedience almost seems bound to happen in this story.  In the fertility and beauty of Eden, in the blissful ignorance of paradise why would Eve have any reason not to trust the creatures that God had placed in the garden?  And if the fruit was so noxious then why did God put it within reach, indeed at the very center of the garden?

Bill Moyers puts it this way—“My mother used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over.  If she meant the temptation to be a test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked.  I think of this when I hear the story of the …Garden of Eden.  Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence? “ (Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation. New York, Public Affairs Television, 1996.)

Indeed there are lots of questions we could ask of this passage—but these same questions can distract us from what this story actually does tell us.

Instead of reading it as the reason we are the way we are, try reading it as a description of the way we always have been.

Adam and Eve remind me of my own children when God point blank asks them what they have done.  Adam first blames God for giving him this woman; then he blames the woman who made him eat the fruit.  Eve blames the snake.  Now God gives them animal skins to wear later in the story before they leave Eden.  If only paradise had had T-Shirts—this one that I bought for my son several years ago could have given Adam a great outfit for his entry into the larger world.  “It wasn’t me.”

“It wasn’t me.”  It really is sort of a mantra of humanity.  Taking responsibility does not come easily for us.  And not only that, but we grasp for more than what is rightfully ours.  We do not want to accept our place in the created order of things.

That combination—of “it wasn’t me” and “I want more” have proved to be a destructive combination.  Eve’s hunger for the fruit that told her the difference between good and evil created the conditions for human responsibility—which includes our terrible cruelty and limited vision as well as our life-giving love and generosity.

It seems for Adam and Eve—their eyes were opened to limitation and realities that already existed.

And as usual, it seems that God took this painful turn of events and set about to build better believers from it.

Adam and Eve both grasped at knowledge that was too much for them and woke up to how much they needed God.  God is wise enough to describe to Adam and Eve what the consequences of their actions will be—things will not be so easy if you don’t know your place in the scheme of things.  Things will be a lot harder if you grasp for more than you really need.

And God is innovative enough to stay in relationship and find new and improved ways to help humans be who we were made to be—from the law and prophets to the Christ event, God seeks us out and loves us well.

In our passage today in 2 Corinthians Paul is also immersed in this puzzle of the human condition.  And Paul staked his life on God’s power to redeem us—every part of us.

And yet many read into Paul a damaging kind of dualism—that the physical body is a problem and the spiritual/unseen body is the location of our true redemption.  The irony of this common reading of Paul is that he seems to be radically crying out for a very different way of being alive here than one that disdains physical existence.

Paul describes the truth of physicality—we age, we die.  And he describes the rich gift of life in Christ—we die and live, we waste away and we are renewed.  This way that we are tangled up with eternity is a mysterious thing—and it gives us the confidence to be at home with ourselves in a way that is not fearful of death.

Christianity too often can be mistaken for a vision of some other world that takes away the sting of this one.  The strange solace of a “better place” is supposed to deliver us from the harsh pain that human life entails.  How could our Incarnational faith be so often distorted into an otherworldly promise?

Our faith does not set our gaze on some ethereal realm.  God calls us to our true selves right here, right now.

There is a beautiful incarnational symmetry between the Genesis story where God’s feet are cracking the leaves and twigs on the ground as the Creator looks for the beloved and the New Testament’s account of Jesus.  Jesus is born in a barn.  His ministry along dusty roads is a ministry of touch, of bread and wine, of story and friendship.  Jesus is executed by human beings who refused to take responsibility and grasped for more than they truly needed.  And Jesus invited his awe-struck friends to touch his wounds.

These incarnational book ends that define our faith call us to not only let go of our fear of death, but even more importantly to let go of our fear of life.

Melanie May wrote the introduction to her book, A Body Knows, while sitting vigil at her mother’s deathbed. She found in her brushes with death a realization that in fearing death it was actually life that she truly feared.

She writes:  “Too many of us are dead while we breathe: dead to feeling, to imagination, to truth telling.  Too many of us live satisfied with a shallow seriousness—sanguine or sober—since we assume what we now know is all there will be.” (Melanie May, A Body Knows:  A Theopoetics of Death and Resurrection.  Continuum, 1995.  p. 15).

If the church is to be about the business of building better believers, it seems to me this intimacy with the simultaneity of death and life must be a central part of how we live with ourselves and with each other.  We do not know all there is to know—and we embody at once the power of life and death within us.

We Christians have a bona fide phobia for death even though we are supposed to be those for whom death has lost its sting.

I can still remember when I was a little girl and the reality of death hit me—I was looking out the window from between the turned pieces of wood that helped decorate the headboard of my bed.  I realized that my parents would die and I would die.  The truth felt like too much to bear.

Yesterday was the 52nd anniversary of my oldest sister’s death.  Allison died before any of the rest of my three living sisters and I were born.  Her one-year old picture on the steps along with the rest of our one-year old pictures made me realize early on that a child, an innocent baby—14 months old could be taken.  Even as a child I understood the power of death.   And I felt helpless in the face of how ruthless it seemed.

But it was not until I sat vigil at my Great Aunt Elizabeth’s deathbed that I truly became intimate with some of the mysterious contours of death.  My sweet Aunt Elizabeth lived a dutiful life.  She never married and she never had children.  She lived almost every single day of her 90+years in the house where she was born.  She was there to care for her father in his death and her mother in hers.  She sang in the church choir and worked in an insurance office.  She loved her dog and she fed her biscuits with butter and jelly.

My Aunt Elizabeth always use to say things like “I never was very good at …” She told stories of the things that never were—she almost was engaged once, she never got to finish school, she didn’t get out enough, she felt lonely.  In her quiet way she never really befriended her life and she blamed herself for not being good enough.

When the nursing home called my parents to tell them my Aunt was not long for this world, they told them not to worry about coming because she was not conscious and would just drift away from kidney failure.

When my parents called to tell me I immediately felt I should go.  She had lived alone so much of her life.  It felt wrong for her to die alone, too.  So, as it turned out, my parents and my three sisters and I came from near and far.  Together we sang hymns and read scripture around her bed.  Her last hours were far from the peaceful passage they had told us she would have.  Aunt Elizabeth struggled to breathe.

Every once in a while she would open her eyes—they looked vacant and distant.

As the weekend unfolded, each of my family members had to leave to get back to their lives.  One by one they said goodbye in their own way.  Until it was just me.  I was supposed to have returned to Chicago by then, but instead I changed my flight.  I just had this feeling I needed to be there, that she shouldn’t die alone.

As the hours passed and she continued to struggle for breath, I told her “Aunt Elizabeth, it is ok to go now.  We love you and you have loved us so well.  It is ok for you to rest.  It is ok for you to go.”  Still she struggled.  It was so painful to watch her.  I prayed and prayed that she would let go and find peace.

A nurse came in and asked me how things were going.  I told her that I didn’t understand why Aunt Elizabeth was hanging on and fighting so hard.  Everyone had come who mattered to her.  Everyone had said goodbye.  Why was she hanging on? The nurse said, “Maybe she’s just not ready.  Maybe she’s afraid to go.  She always loved that picture there (pointing to a picture of my great grandparents on her bed side).  Maybe if you show her that it could help.”

So, the nurse left and I watched Aunt Elizabeth struggle and I felt my hand reach over to the table next to me and pick up that black and white picture of the parents she had lived with and for for most of her life.  I held up the picture in front of my Aunt and said “Aunt Elizabeth, it’s ok for you to go.  Look your Mother and Father are waiting for you.  They love you and they want you to come on.  They are waiting.”

That very instant, Mary Elizabeth Mount opened her eyes and looked right at that picture and breathed her last breath.  I will never forget the wash of release, of peace and energy, and joy and sadness that I felt all at once.  It was one of the greatest honors of my life to be a witness to her passing on—from connection and embrace to connection and embrace.

Aunt Elizabeth trusted death the same way she trusted life, through the relationships that defined her.  Just as she struggled to befriend her life, she struggled to surrender to her death.  If I hadn’t been there to witness this powerful moment of truth for her, I would not have fully embraced the mystery and wonder of what was about to happen to me.

In the airport on my way home I started to feel strange.  I figured it was fatigue or grief but it persisted for days. I found out a few days later to my surprise that I was actually pregnant.   As I had held Aunt Elizabeth’s hand and felt her body grow cold, cells were rapidly dividing in me toward a new life I hadn’t even yet imagined.  I decided then, if it was a girl she would be Mary Elizabeth—and she is!  And she has taught me more than I can say about being fully alive.

Now lest this story sound too easy, you should know that my pregnancy was no picnic—that’s another story though.  Suffice it to say that the struggle to embrace life folds out of the grace and courage to accept the mystery of death.  Life folds into death and death folds into life.

This truth is something we hold in every dividing cell in our bodies—we are living as we are dying—and we die toward life anew.

God’s unique power to knit eternity through the constant change of life is ripe for us to take in and believe.   God is at work, building a better believer in and through you even now.  Like Eve we hold the tangled up power to live toward life and death simultaneously.

Maybe being a better believer means trusting God enough to live while we breathe—to have the courage to feel, to imagine, and to tell the truth.   Being a better believer means taking responsibility for ourselves, for our lives—and finding peace in the created nature of things and our place in it.

Maybe in our time it is the wisdom and power of a woman’s body that helps us wake up to what has been true about us all along—life folds into death, and death folds into life, and we are made to practice resurrection even now.

Thanks be to God.



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