Lent always gives us the happy, cheerful readings, doesn’t it? At least it’s the last Sunday before the passion and Easter! But this Sunday, we sit with Jesus talking about death. In a few days, the church calendar will commemorate the deaths of many Salvadorans during their civil war, including the death of their archbishop. There is a Spanish artist, very popular in Latin America, named Cerrezo Barrado who draws line drawings for each of the gospel texts in the lectionary. The picture for this Sunday is deeply provocative.
It is a drawing of three bodies, lying under the ground. Above ground, the hills are covered in crosses. But over the bodies, flowers and wheat and corn are growing out of them. In typical Latin American art, it focuses on death—people die just like Jesus did every day—they die of poverty, of starvation, they die because they are killed by their governments or shot in the streets.
And yet, as Oscar Romero said before he died; “If I die, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
“Unless a corn of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it brings much fruit.”
Unlike El Salvador, perhaps, we in the U.S. don’t like to talk much about death in our culture, do we?
Sometimes we don’t even like to mourn, if we can help it. We grin and bear it. We try to hide death away in sterile hospitals and pretty funeral homes and out of the way homeless camps, but we avoid the topic if we can.
I have stood at many deathbeds in my life, personally and in my ministry. Most of us have lost people we love.
And death is a terrifying, mysterious, devastating thing.
And it is made all the harder because, in our culture, we never talk about death. Because we all walk around with this hidden pain and cannot talk about it. Now, I know that this sounds morbid, and I know that I am young and perhaps least qualified to talk about death. But, after all the years that I’ve seen it, I’ve come to a realization.
We never want to believe that death is a part of life. We live in a constant denial of death so often in our culture.
This Lent, one of my practices has been to think about death as holy. This is a holy thing. Death is a holy thing. It is not just terrifying, not just mysterious, not just devastating. It is also holy.
Now, in our text today, in John, Jesus talks about his death. These stories are unique to John and in this text, Jesus compares his death to the natural processes of seeds dying. Only after a seed is dead can it be planted and bring flowers and corn and wheat.
If life is sacred, then death is sacred too.
If we thought of death as sacred, perhaps we would allow ourselves the time to mourn, because mourning is a sign of our great love for the person who has died. It is how we honor the dead.
If we thought of death as sacred, perhaps we would feel less guilt as our loved ones leave us and we are powerless to stop it.
If we thought of death as sacred, we could allow ourselves to be angry at the dead too, especially at those who once wronged us, because God can hold the person who is gone, and we don’t have to.
If we thought of death as sacred, we could better remember that those we love who die live on in the hearts of those who loved them and in the arms of the great Creator.
If we thought of death as sacred, we could one day welcome death ourselves and ask what it means to die a good death. Maybe we would be less afraid to live.
There is more to this too.
If we thought of death as sacred in our world, we would work to insure that everyone could die a good death. That is why Jesus’ death—an unjust death, a death by execution at 33 years old, was a death that entered into judgment with the powers of the world.
John Steinbeck, in the Grapes of Wrath, tells the story of how poor and hungry migrants, fleeing the dust bowl to work in California, watched all of this food—potatoes and oranges and vegetables— food that could not be sold being destroyed. He wrote; “In the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” God, through the poor, enters into judgment with a society that allows people to die unjustly.
A society that denies the sacredness of death does not prioritize that people live abundantly and die well.
I think about this in Grays Harbor—where, although we do not see death as close and intimately as El Salvador did during that terrible war, we are still struggling. Nearly 50% of our people in this county are poor by DSHS standards. That is quite the crisis— We do struggle far too often with unjust death—
And, yet, the people of this county still hope for and fight for a better life. Flowers bloom from the bodies of our dead and those who have died alone speak to us from beyond the grave. God counts their deaths as sacred even if the powers of the world do not. And their deaths enter into judgment with greed and power and apathy.
In the mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico, one of the Zapatista leaders said; “In the mountains of Chiapas, death was a part of daily life… Death becomes a daily fact. It loses its sacredness. ..Death, which is so close, so near, so possible, is less terrifying for us than for others. So, going out and fighting and perhaps meeting death is not as terrible as it seems. For us, at least. In fact, what surprises and amazes us is life itself. The hope of a better life.”
I think about this right now in Aberdeen. Last week, people who camp out by the river were given notice that they had until March 31 to leave their camps. The city has nowhere for these folks to go. It is one more step that displaces people even further. Now, for the growing number of people homeless in this county and in this country, death is very near all the time.
Displacing people like this adds one more layer of complication, one more layer of danger.
The people of the camps in Aberdeen have asked me, have asked us to stand with them. They are struggling for life and for survival in a world that does not see their bodies, their lives as sacred or as holy. This week, I am speaking to city council—and we ask for prayers and even your presence—asking them to either halt the eviction or give people somewhere to go. We are asking for people to be treated as sacred, as human, as people. We are asking that this city, and this county, prioritize the common good.
We want unjust death to end in this county. We want all lives to be valued. We want people have access to abundant life and a good death. We want our towns to come alive again, even in death, and the prophet Isaiah tells us that the only way that that happens is to care for the common good. To end injustice. To end homelessness. To care for each other and rebuild together.
This Lent, for ourselves and in our own lives, and for people struggling in this county….
we pray that all bodies and all people, in life and in death, will be honored as sacred, as holy.