Dust and Funerals

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the First Sunday of Lent.

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About 12 years ago I sat down and wrote out my funeral service. Chose lessons, hymns, the organ prelude—the whole thing. When I told my friends what I was doing, some of them were distinctly uncomfortable, feeling it was a morbid thing to do. To be honest, part of the reason I did it is because I am something of a control freak and the last thing I want is not to be in charge of my own funeral, but part of me did it because, quite simply, I will die. As will you. It is an absolute certainty. And, not to boast, but my funeral is going to be something else. I’m sorry I won’t be there. It seems a shame that we don’t get to see our funerals. But, as it dawned on me during our services on Ash Wednesday, and watched those who received ashes at Market East, in a sense, we do. As we felt the grit of ashes wiped on our forehead, retracing the cross marked on us at baptism when we were buried with Christ in his death, and we heard, spoken to each of us personally, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” what we felt and heard was a foreshadowing of our own death. Remember that there was a time you were not in this world and that time will come again. Remember that the only thing standing between you and nothingness is God.

There are a few possible responses to this reminder of death and we probably don’t have to look any further than our own lives to find them. One response is to pretend death won’t happen, to live running away from death. Living as if in a padded cell, throwing ourselves against one wall then another in an attempt to find the way out. Those walls consist of things such as the worship-of-youth culture in which we live. Look young at all costs-and we collectively spend billions on it-because if we don’t look like we might be approaching death maybe it won’t happen. Another is amassing possessions. Store up for yourselves treasures on earth and maybe you can somehow buy your way out of death. Yet another is avoiding life in the hopes that we can eke out more of it if we don’t “use up” our allotment. So we turn our backs on relationships and turn to crutches like alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex. Desperately attempting to numb the lurking anxiety that the clock is running out. And God stands with us watching and weeping as we squander the precious gift we have been given, the gift of life.

William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, tells the tragic story of his best friend’s death in a car accident when they were both seniors in high school. At the funeral his mind he writes, was filled with angry thoughts. Then the pastor started down the aisle towards the altar and began to chant, unctuously, Job’s famous words, “The Lord giveth and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Coffin writes, “From the aisle seat where I was sitting, I could have stuck out my foot and tripped him up and might easily have done so, had my attention not been arrested by a still, small voice, as it were, asking, “Coffin, what part of that sentence are you objecting to?” Naturally I thought it was the second part, “The Lord hath taken away,” spoken all too facilely by the priest. But suddenly I realized it was the first. Suddenly I caught the full impact of “The Lord gave”: the world very simply is not ours; at best we are guests”.

That understanding, that view of life that none of this is really ours, that we are finite, may be hard to take—hard to view as good news. But it is, in fact, good news. It is good that we are not in charge but God is. Not in the sense that we are pawns on a chess board and God is moving us around, but in the sense that God is the ground, the beginning and the end of all life and that God is in essence merciful, gracious and good. We don’t have to be afraid because the One who created us in love is with us now and will be with us at the end. What that will look like I don’t know. People often ask me what I think heaven, meaning the after-life, will be like and I can honestly answer that I don’t have the faintest idea of the specifics nor do I spend much time worrying about them, because I may not know what it will be like but I am certain that each of us will somehow be taken back up into God’s being—and really, that is enough to know. Further, dwelling on what happens next deprives us of life now. Jesus did not dwell much on life after life but he spent an awful lot of time talking about the kingdom of God here and now, this life. He spent an awful lot of time trying to free us from all those things that distract us from God, that cause us to turn our back on God, cause us to sin. He spent an awful lot of time trying to convince us that life is a precious gift. God’s dream for each of us is that we live into it—live into the abundance of grace. And here is the best news of all—it does not depend on us. If it did we would not have a chance. Each of us turns from the abundant life God offers daily. We get distracted by our fears, our demons. We become self-absorbed. We worry about everything—what happened in the past, what is happening now and what will happen in the future. We are all sinners and we all have fallen far short of the glory for which we were created. But because God loves us God is not content to leave it at that. God moves towards us repeatedly and constantly, offering us forgiveness and mercy, an infinite number of chances to turn our back on our fears and dwell in God’s life. What God offers us, what Lent reminds us of, is the chance to be renewed, re-born as it were. Lent is not simply about repentance for each petty little act of selfishness we engage in, although God’s forgiveness is far larger than the collective sum of our petty sins. Nor is it about wallowing in guilt and self-recrimination.  God does not desire us to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves or to make a great public show out of our sinfulness. Sitting and wailing with a long list of our sins is in a sense a way of keeping the focus on us. God knows very well the list of offenses we have committed and it is true that in order for new life to begin we must be brutally honest with ourselves and with God about all that we have done and left undone. But Lent is not about a litany of petty sins. Lent is about something far more profound—an honest assessment of our own finiteness and the vastness of God and a realignment of our lives with God’s life. It is about nothing short of re-creation. God, that restless creator, desires for us to be re-created in God’s image. God desires for our old selves to die and for us to be re-born. Lent is not all about us—it is about God’s abundant love and mercy. It is about God’s ability to breathe life into the death of our fears and anxieties. It is about becoming new—transformed and remade into the image of God.

So, as Barbara Brown Taylor notes, Lenten ashes were plastered to our foreheads in exactly the same spot that the oil of baptism was applied for a reason-we remember that we were born, then reborn into new life at baptism, and yet we will die. Birth and death joined on our foreheads. That bizarre juxtaposition is liberating and instructive; we are dying, yet we live. We are alive in Christ, alive in one another and alive in the sure and certain hope that death does not have the last word. Live, then, knowing that this life is finite, it is a precious gift—a chance for us to dwell in the abundant grace of God. Live knowing that you are marked with dirt and grit, that you are and will be a sinner, marked from the beginning for death. And most importantly, live knowing that God will not settle for losing any of God’s precious beloved creation.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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