The Readings (New Revised Standard Version) and Psalm (ELW) for the Day:
Psalm 126 Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. (Ps. 126:5)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is something awesome yet terrifying about being human. Think of it for a moment — in the evolutionary development of the homo sapiens we have become unique. We share biologically with the creatures of this world. Our pets—especially the mammals, like horses, dogs, and cats—are conscious beings. They are able to sense another object and to meaningfully label it or categorize it, you can even see how animals perform races in Tracks just like the humans do, with slightly differences.
To be conscious of that which is other than us is a remarkable achievement in nature, but there is one other feature added in the human genus. We are not only conscious, but we are self-conscious. We are conscious that we are conscious. We are able to evaluate that of which we are conscious. We are able to alter the way that we are conscious with additional experience. That means that we are conscious of the conscious relationship we have to other things, other creatures and other human beings. In this self–consciousness resides a whole other “world” for us to inhabit. We can use this world to avoid reality or engage it.
Take death for instance. Death is that thing of which we are conscious. Children are able to understand the consequences of death, if not its reality. Emily Dickinson composes,
I noticed People disappeared
When but a little child–
Supposed they visited remote
Or settled Regions wild–
Now know I–They both visited
and settled Regions wild
But did because they died
A fact withheld the little child—
Death is all around us. In the last few weeks alone we have gathered for the funeral of our fellow member Betti DeMendoza. We held a memorial service for Howard Pieper. We pastors buried our colleagues Eric Gritsch and Cliff Akerman. Doris Hannemann returned from home last Sunday only to find out that her youngest son died in his sleep. Bob Stone will travel to Kansas to bury his mother.
We have visited the hospital rooms of those battling cancer, trying to keep death at bay.
We are conscious of death, and we are conscious of our consciousness of death. The problem is that we don’t know how we want to live with this consciousness. Some want to suppress their awareness. Others want to obsess on it.
It does not seem to matter which way we choose. In both cases, running from death or running toward it, death remains the determining factor in life. This accounts for the generally fateful interpretation we have about death. Society does not want us to speak of it; and, if we do, we are immediately branded as morbid.
Our spiritual ancestors had a hymn, Media vita in morte sumus, that was chanted in Gregorian style with these words,
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Our own Martin Luther was not happy with this hymn and turned the words on their head from “in the midst of life we are in death” to “in the midst of death we are in life.”
For Luther, life lived under the law is life that is surrounded by death. Luther loved the law of God, but he also knew from his own life experience that to answer to the demands of the law does not have the power to put us in relationship to God. In fact, the law will always accuse us of having failed in some way. That is why if you and I live our lives by relying on our achievements in life we will not be in that good relationship to the Creator God. Alienated from God we will think ourselves to be truly alive, yet, haunted on every side by death.
Luther turns to the Gospel that declares in the death of Jesus Christ there is life. Luther then invites us to die. But not die falling into the nothingness of the pit, but to die in trusting Jesus who lives in confident trust in the heavenly Father. We can afford then to realize that we are mortal. We will die, but death no longer determines how we live.
For Luther “Death is not death; it is life?” “In the midst of death we are in life. Thee we praise as our Redeemer. Thou hast raised us from death and hast saved us.”
(Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 4: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 21-25 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (Ge 22:11). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived life surrounded by the death and brutality of Nazism. He lived his last years in prison. As he grew in faith and trust in the justice of God, Bonhoeffer knew that his days were numbered. He was able to face his own end with fear and trembling at what God was doing. He was not afraid of dying. The prison doctor wrote later
I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
Bonhoeffer’s last words were, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Dear brother and sisters, we have seen the example of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. The word is out that a death warrant has been issued on Jesus, and another has been placed on Lazarus. Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb. Now Jesus himself represents that relationship where life is no longer imprisoned by fear of death. Mary has no problem lavishing the ointment used at burial on Jesus’ feet. Mary loves Jesus so much that she takes her hair and wipes the fragrant ointment from his feet. Such intimacy, such freedom to bring to full expression the devotion of one person to another! Mary carries the fragrance of death on her body, but death no longer rules. She witnessed Jesus call Lazarus from the tomb. She knows that God has bigger plans for Jesus who is as good as dead, yet, surrounded by life.
There is something awesome yet terrifying about being human.