Be Not Afraid

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on October 22, 2017.

“Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, ‘Yes,’ to life” (hymn #6 in Singing the Living Tradition). This is what we aiming for, right? To live our lives fully and well while we’re here. Easier said than done, of course. But as Thoreau said, “To live deliberately… to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

There will come a day when we will be gone from this life. Each of us is going to die. This is a fact. The question is, what are we going to do with this knowledge? How are we going to live, in the face of our own mortality?

We live in a culture that wants to deny death. That tries to pretend death is a problem that can be fixed, or, at least, postponed to another day. Thankfully this seems to be changing. Because to the extent you can come to terms with death, can accept the reality of your own mortality, the greater will be your capacity to love others and live your life while you’re here. “Tell them I said yes to life.” At the end, don’t we all want to be able to say that?

At this time of year, I remember words a young friend of ours once said to her mother. Struck by autumn’s beauty, this child asked, “Why are things so beautiful before they die?”

Sometimes death can be beautiful and peaceful and a blessing. And sometimes it’s not. It’s always an ending and a loss. The UU minister Forrest Church, who died of cancer at 61, said, “Death is central to my definition of religion: religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” 

I joked once that joining this church, you get a free funeral. No one’s ever told me they came for the free funeral, but isn’t there something deep inside you, that brought you here, that has something to do with this dual reality of being alive and having to die? Because this community is one where we can talk about death, and where we show up when others die. Where we practice facing death, head on. 

And that’s the invitation of these days of fading light, and the holy days that come at the end of this month, to draw closer to death, to become more familiar with it. To wonder, what are we afraid of? Is it that we ourselves are afraid to die? Is it that we are afraid of losing those we love, and the grief that will follow. All of the above?

Yes, these are fearsome things. Standing at grave, death seems so final. But that’s not the whole story. Death can offer unexpected gifts. Facing your own mortality can make you more aware of the beauty and blessing and gift that is this life. Death puts things in perspective; it clarifies what is important and what is trivial. Death can open us up to one another, and to the Love which holds us when it seems all else has fallen away. 

You know the power of people showing up in times of trouble, don’t you? You know how important these human connections are,. Julia Kasdorf wrote a poem about this, about showing up when someone dies, called “What I Learned From My Mother.” The lines that always get me are these two: “I learned that whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came.”

You know how to do this. How to be present and helpful to those in need on this horizontal dimension of life. I see you doing that so well here. What about the vertical dimension? What about the world beyond this one? What about God? 

Don’t you wonder about these things? People have, since the beginning of time. The great theologian Karl Barth wondered about them too. “Is it true,” he asked, “this sense of a unity in diversity, of a stationary pole amid changing appearances, of a righteousness not somewhere beyond the stars but in the events which are our present life?… Is it true, this talk of a loving and good God?”

Through the ages, people have turned toward a divine Source; and have called it by many names, Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, Brahman, Shangdi, Goddess, Lord, Great Spirit. Religion provided answers to the question, “What happens when we die?” And at least since the Age of Enlightenment, people have wondered, “Is it true?” 

Each Sunday we say, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” We affirm that seeking after truth is a holy act. It used to be that people mostly accepted the teaching of their religion without question. And some people still do. They are the ones with the bumper sticker that says, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Maybe it’s nice to live with such unthinking certainty, but I don’t know how that’s even possible. A healthy and life-giving faith is one that encourages questions and doubt too.

This doesn’t mean you have to throw out all the ancient wisdom. The invitation is work with it, to interpret and translate it, so it’s useful for the living of these days. Some of you did that last Sunday, when you gathered with Clare to reflect on death. Others of you will do it this week, as you take part in the Small Group Ministry groups that are starting up. This is not an academic exercise I’m talking about—it’s on the ground theology, done in the midst and the mess of your lives, working out beliefs and practices that will sustain you though the hard times, that will help you find hope and even joy. 

I spend a fair amount of time with death. There’s nothing more important in my ministry than being with those who are dying, and helping people to mourn a death and celebrate the life that has ended. I’ve seen how death can bring people together; can move the to let down their guard and open their hearts, to draw closer to one another and to God. I’ve also seen how the pain of death can cause people to close themselves off, to feel separated from life and love.

Being around death has, like nothing else, formed and tried my faith. And I expect this to continue! I am ever grateful for the companionship of those who, down through the ages, have asserted the hope that death is not the end of the story; that we are part of a great Love which will never let us go; a Source that we come from, and that we will return to. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way; he said, “God is at home. We are in the far country.”

The English poet William Wordsworth wrote,


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:  
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,  
And cometh from afar:  
Not in entire forgetfulness,  
And not in utter nakedness,  
But trailing clouds of glory do we come  
From God, who is our home. 

This is my faith and my hope, too, and I need it, for the living of these days. And I wonder about you. Whether you call that mystery by any name or none, can you open yourself to it? Can you consider the possibility that there is more to life than what meets the eye? 

I love the seasons of the year, and of the church year too. Times of light and darkness, times for joy and for sorrow; the reminder that, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).

And being part of this dance, the seasons going round and round, and people coming in and out of life, I am convinced that death is not the end. That we are part of a great Love that will never let us go. That life is change and loss and letting go, yes. And also being found, and touching joy and going home. That we have nothing to fear. 

I often call that great Love God, it’s a pretty common name for the Holy, but you can call it whatever you want. The other night I had dinner with the Crowell family. And before we ate, they turned to Griffin, who’s five, and he said the blessing. He said, with great enthusiasm, “Thank you, Spirit of Life!”  And shouldn’t we all be doing this? Saying, “Thank you, Spirit of Life!”

There are some older words, which for thousands of years has been a comfort to those facing death and loss. There are many translations and improvisations on the 23rd Psalm, but the King James version is hard to beat. Join me if you wish:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: 
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: 
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: 
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Death will come to each of us, and to those we love. But we don’t need to be afraid. For in the valley of shadow, we do not walk not alone. We have one another, and we have God, the very Source and Spirit of Life, who promises to be with us all the day long, and when the evening comes.

Jane Kenyon and her husband Donald Hall were both living with cancer when Jane wrote the poem “Let Evening Come.”

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.

May the Love that comforts and abides, the Love that is stronger even than death, be with us, now and forever more.