‘It’s difficult to talk about death, it’s difficult to talk about dying’ – April 4th 2022 – Passion Sunday

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22 04 03 Fifth Sunday in Lent Passion Sunday Eucharist

The Readings

Isaiah 43.16-21
Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
   a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
Psalm 126
A Song of Ascents.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
   we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
   and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
   like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
   reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
   bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
   carrying their sheaves.
John 12.1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Scripture Quotations are from: New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon
By Rev d Dr Beth Keith

This week as Passiontide begins, our church calendar shifts towards the events of Holy Week. We aren’t there yet, but our readings start to focus on the events leading up to Jesus’ death.
Like birth we have taken death and dying out of our homes, we may get through childhood knowing little of it, confined in hospitals, spoken of in hushed tones, and kept out of sight. In most cultures there are stories, ingrained in how we talk about death, which offer to keep death away from us. These tend to fall into one of four types.
The first type is the story of the elixir of life. In earlier times these were the stories of magical healing potions. Though we might laugh at these stories now, similar hopes are today placed in the discovery of a new medical cure, trials of new drugs, and of herbal remedies.
Many cultures have some kind of resurrection story, that death though occurring cannot hold us. This story of resurrection associated most strongly with Christianity is found in myths and other religions. And, if you’re looking for a more scientific resurrection story, perhaps cryonics may appeal.
Other options in defying death are to talk about the ongoing life of the soul beyond the death of the body. Whilst neuroscience has questioned this by locating the soul within the physicality of the brain, this view persists. The digital age offers us everlasting life in the potential to create avatars to carry on our existence after our physical bodies no longer exist.
And for those who find these three types too fanciful, there are stories of legacy. That we will live on in the lives of those who love us, in our children and the passing on of genes, or in the legacy of our work.
These death stories promise, to some degree, to keep death away, to protect us from death, to keep us from the inevitable. But in the last few years, death and dying has felt closer than ever before, as we have collectively faced covid. Our risks and vulnerabilities have become more apparent. The assumed safety of our daily lives questioned, and perhaps we have also lost loved ones.
During Holy Week we visit and replay the narratives of Jesus death. Whilst we cannot know the extent to which Jesus knew what was going to happen, the gospels suggest he knew about the inevitability of his death, that it would happen soon, and the manner in which it would occur. He seems to know he was dying, perhaps not that day, but that he was already on the path to his death.
Across the history of the church, as Christians have sought to understand Jesus’ death, different aspects or metaphors, referred to as atonement theories, have developed. One of these has been referred to as ransom theory, in which Jesus’ death is understood as an act of ransom or payment that bought the world its freedom from sin and death. Another is labelled the substitutionary or sacrificial victim model, in which Christ’s death is understood as the sacrifice necessary to atone for human guilt and sin. Moral influence theory, takes Jesus’ death as a model of moral behaviour, revealing to humanity how much God loves them. Aspects of each of these explanations and metaphors are found in the liturgies and hymns we will say and sing over the next couple of weeks.
Whilst each of these models are developed from scripture, the writings found in the Gospel of John do not fit easily into any of these. Metaphors of ransom or substitution are entirely absent from John’s gospel. And whilst the gospel talks of God’s love, unlike moral influence theories, John’s gospel emphasises human action to a much greater extent than the atonement theories suggest.
John’s gospel from start to end hangs in the tension of Jesus described as fully divine and fully human. In birth, life, death, and resurrection Jesus brings together as one, reconciles together humanity and God. Whilst other scriptures seek to explain how this reconciliation occurs and give metaphors and imagery for this. Jesus’ explanation of his death in John’s gospel is embedded in his body and in his being, in his humanity and divinity. In this drawing together as one, so God and humanity is drawn together as one.  God and humanity inseparably joined, in birth, in living, in dying.
Rather than explaining this reconciliation between God and us, John’s gospel offers this connection embedded and embodied in the Jesus. Not in explanation or reason but in person. In the living and dying and living of Jesus. In these last events and moments, when Jesus knew his death was coming, in his actions and words, as he connects with those around him, we hear his words of comfort and his words of life.
A few years ago, I read a book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler. Professor Bowler is one of the leading theologians writing about the influence of prosperity gospel theology in the church in America. This branch of Christianity that promises a cure for tragedy. At the age of thirty-five and having recently become a mother she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Her book charts her path.
She writes of her struggle in coming to accept her life and death and the unhelpfulness of the stories which try to protect us from death, in her case, the allure of magic gospel promises about faith and healing. She also writes about the how inevitability of death can open us to a brightness and beauty lost on us in normal life:
"When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved. At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God I was not reduced to ashes, I felt like I was floating. The feeling stayed with me for months. And as I spoke to theologians, pastors and nuns they knew what I was talking about because they had either felt it themselves or read of it in great works of Christian theology. St Augustine called it ‘the sweetness’, 
Thomas Aquinas ‘the prophetic light’. "
Her experience chimes with research on those who have near death experiences, that many describe the same odd thing: love. This was something I also felt, twenty years ago, when I was very ill with malaria, and it wasn’t clear I would recover. Though physically thousands of miles from home, and though my family had no idea I was ill, I felt held in their love, and held in God’s. In these moments somehow, we can be drawn further into God, further into love.
There has been lots of research done, particularly within the field of palliative medicine about dying well. These studies suggest that alongside the reduction of unnecessary pain, aspects of dying well include touch, connection, peace, and wonder. The importance of connecting through touch and the body’s other senses. To connect with others and feel the connection that lasts beyond death. To know you will be remembered. To feel peace, wonder and spirituality.
As I read Kate Bowler’s account alongside John’s gospel, I have been struck again by the humanity of Jesus facing his own death. As he allows Mary to wash and anoint his feet, as we heard in our reading today. As he draws together his friends and companions for one last meal, the familiar smells and tastes, the rituals of the meal. As he asks his friend to take care of his mother. As he asks them to keep meeting like this. As he asks them to remember him. As tragedy moves close, we see Jesus drawn further into connection and love with others and with God.
In John’s gospel we perhaps see this clearer than in other parts of scripture, that this inevitable tragedy is necessarily connected to the birth and life of Jesus. That in his birth, God is with us, that in his dying God is with us, and in his rising God is with us. There is so much in between that distracts and distorts that. That pulls us away from our connectedness to God. Things that break these bonds of love. In Jesus’ dying we are reminded of God’s promises, that there is no sin, darkness, or place, that God cannot find us in and love us back to life.
It cannot explain away the horror of tragedy or the depths of loneliness, the pain of grief, it cannot answer for the injustice, but that love persists, braves the horror of bodies broken and left undone. That somehow the world can become more beautiful when life is at its most bleak is the work of God. God with us, God present in our dying, present in our living.

The Prayers
Prepared by Lizzie I

God who listens
We pray for our church communities, particularly in our mission area of St Mary’s, St John’s and St Marks. We give thanks for the communities of friendship and love that have grown out of our Lent groups this year and the opportunity to pray, lament and reflect on the last two years.  Help us look forward with hope and not give up on looking for your transforming presence in unexpected places and encounters.  As Easter approaches may we continue to discern creative ways of sharing your extravagant and limitless Love.
Your Kingdom come
Your will be done
God who longs for justice
In the week of fuel costs doubling, we hold before you those who are making the stark and impossible decision between eating and heating, particularly in this community. Bring compassion to those who have the political power to support and help those struggling. Help those of us who can to discern how to give voice with those who lack agency or capacity to do so.
We continue to pray for and with organisations who  give voice to the sin of food and fuel poverty, and which seek to give agency to those living it,  particularly the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty.
Your kingdom come
Your will be done
God who feels suffering
We lament the loss of all life because of the violence of war. We hold before you the despair and desperation of those held captive because of the desire for control and power of others. We pray for those who are starving and dying in places that are besieged – Tigray in northern Ethiopia, Mariupol in Ukraine. As food and aid attempts to get to those places, be with and protect those who seek to provide help in the most dangerous of conditions.
We pray that we do not become numb to the horror of war – that we continue to bear witness to the suffering of others, even in places we do not know, and we pray for peace and reconciliation in all places of conflict.
Your kingdom come
Your will be done.
God who is present to the bereaved, the unwell, the dying,
We hold before you all those we know and don’t know who are sick at this time, and for those caring for them
We pray with the bereaved in this community and continue to hold before you the lives and families of
Sunita, Glenda, and Don
For all those we love, but no longer see.
Your kingdom come
Your will be done