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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on March 13, 2005

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A Sermon for Lent 5

Sermon preached by

The Right Rev. J. C. Fricker

March 13, 2005

I think the ultimate putdown ever directed to me occurred a long time ago, after I had been honored by my Alma Mater. I apparently exuded inordinate pride - no doubt obnoxiously - in having secured this honor, and so showed the diploma to some of my colleagues in the parish I was then serving. A mentor of mine, a retired bishop in fact, who was an honorary assistant in that parish, was fed up with my excessive display of pride, and snatched the diploma out of my hands - took it to his office - wrote something on the back of it - then returned it to me. He had written, "Fricker, remember this: the number of people at your funeral will depend more on the weather than on this."

I took his point, and have never forgotten it, for his words came close to scripture for me. I want to talk about death today.

One of the sad yet privileged necessities in the life and work of clergy is ministering to bereaved people on the occasion of a death in the family. I've had that experience countless times in my ministry, of being driven in the lead car in a funeral procession through city streets, from church to cemetery, while life outside carries on as usual: busses and streetcars still run, people hurry to work, shoppers gaze into store windows, cars whiz by. For them the passing funeral procession is of no moment. Yet behind me in the cars of the procession, are the mourners, enclosed in that isolating sorrow that cuts them off from the rest of the world. The world has stopped for the mourners, but life goes on for everyone else. I've thought those things while in a funeral procession as the officiating pastor, and I've thought them even more intimately when my Father then Mother died. I wanted the world to stop and mourn with me, - but it didn't, it couldn't - for I was in death in the midst of life.

In that portion of that masterpiece of Johannine Gospel we heard today, Jesus speaks of his own death, and in the context of his death - of ours.

We sometimes say the two things in life which confront us which we can't escape, are taxes and death! But today's reading implies that the two mysteries which confront us and which we can't escape are God and death! We Christians believe that the life and death of God's son Jesus Christ illuminate the darkness of those mysteries. But in our society, death is thought of as the ultimate disaster, to be postponed as long as possible. For us, life, dominated as it is by the principle of acquisition, is a matter of "hanging on" for as long as we can. But for Jesus, life meant "letting go". We will face this "letting go" once again when we gather at his cross on Good Friday.

I don't want to present myself to you as a spiritual sophisticate. Today's reading from John, I must confess, creates some degree of consternation for me, when I am told to follow this injunction of Jesus' to let go of life, to die, to go into the earth so as to bear much fruit! To lose selfhood through losing the possessions that define selfhood, is just not the world's way.

Yet if death in our society is the ultimate disaster, one wonders at times to what avail, for life prolonged does not necessarily mean life enjoyed.

But as I have confessed there is a part of me - in truth, a large part of me, in spite of who and what I am - that fears death. I think one of the reasons I am a Christian is because I want to learn how to die!!! Certainly, one of the purposes of the Church is to teach us how to die.

So Jesus speaks to us of his own death today. In another place in John's Gospel, we hear him make that great proclamation - words which have been repeated at every funeral liturgy for centuries in our tradition:
"I am resurrection and I am life. Everyone who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live - and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."

We hear those mysterious words, and Jesus' other words about his coming death, just as we prepare to journey and move into Holy Week, and observe Good Friday and Easter.

While the Gospel speaks of Jesus' death and resurrection, it also informs our faith about our own death and our rising again with Christ. In these Gospel words is the moving image of eternity - a promise of heaven itself - the foreshadowing for Jesus and for us of a belonging, of a homeland where there is no loss, where death is not the final disaster. I have faith that that is what awaits us when we die but knowing this should not make us irresponsible with life, or insensitive to grief, or starry-eyed fanatics.
Instead it can affect the way we live. If the Gospel teaches us how to die, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection, the Gospel also teaches us how to live. We're taught the necessity of the experience of death in life - of dying to the monopoly of earthly things in our life. We're taught to see the world with the right perspective. It is not morbid advice to say you should live each day as though it were your last. It is good Christian advice. It helps you to get your priorities straight. It places the highest importance on your attitude toward, and your treatment of the people with whom you live, and work, and play, and yes, worship.

My friend, come with me beginning next Palm Sunday of the Passion on the Holy Week journey. It is a journey into the mystery of Christ's death, and of our own inevitable death. The end of the journey - the destination - is not hopelessness; it is hope - the hope of resurrection.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York