Sermon given at both Clusters of Assembly Mennonite, Oct. 21 & Nov. 25, 1990. Adapted later for Aunt Nellie Zook King’s Memorial Service.
This sermon appeared in Decades of Feminist Writing self-published by DYN, 2020, 288-92
What age will you be when you die? (Repeat) You might think how foolish to be asked such a question. I recall being seriously asked that question during Clinical Pastoral Education training. I recall what age I wrote down.
Next hear several quotes:
“We cannot know life to its fullest without knowing death.” Jack Kamerman
“If I am afraid of death, I cannot help someone to die with peace.” Kubler-Ross
Said one spouse to the other: “If one of us dies, I’ll go to Paris.”
Today I wish to share anecdotes and statements from varied resources to help us think about life and death. Our own living. Our own dying. I have been asked to be personal. Hopefully, you will be honest too. After suggesting the title “Dying We Live and Living We Die” to the planning committee, I began thinking that perhaps the topic was immortality, or living without end. Might that shift have been my subconscious trying to avoid that I am mortal—the fact that I have a body that will die? Death has been part of life for me; I was born into and lived in a funeral home for twenty years, a good heritage.
Just what does the title mean for me? To begin with, “Dying we live” expresses positive conviction. It suggests the on-going quality of life—in some form, not now fully known. It implies that to die is natural—the nature of living things. No child deserves being hidden from that truth. It implies growth. “Dying we live” expresses a faith statement for Christians who believe in resurrection. “Living we die” might be considered both positive and negative. It also suggests process. We reflect not only the physical—that our skin or toenails are replaced often or that many motor skills decline after age 35. Potential is often thwarted. To limit our own or another’s development causes partial death. To live entails life-threatening risk. Choices become critical.
Part of me suggests that I have lived long enough. I don’t need to have more breadth or depth of experience. I don’t need to consume more of the world’s shrinking resources. I have known enough joy and pain. However, living could enable more learning or skill development. Faith in God and neighbor could grow, along with multiple qualities. Creativity awaits. Justice lingers, unfulfilled as does a sense of purpose. But dying and living come somewhat intertwined.
Be in process, as I talk, with your own sense of wonder, truth, and hope; discontent, belief, and fear; laughter, questions, and pain. Be aware that both dying and living are active. Be conscious of God within and beyond. My content will not be highly organized. Like scriptures related to this theme, it appears for your chewing or digesting. I will cluster ideas; we will pause to reflect. We expect God to be with us on the journey. For ‘dying we live and living we die.”
Hear a portion from Psalm 6:
Yahweh, rebuke me not in thy anger . . .Be gracious to me for I am languishing . . . Heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is sorely troubled. But thou, Yahweh, how long. . . save my life, deliver me. . . For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can praise You? I am weary with moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears. . . through grief, my eye grows weak because of all my foes.
Hebrew people looked upon death as an “emptying out of the soul or vital force.” As a person gradually lost vigor, God took back the Spirit given at birth. Ancient peoples had a profound lack of hope. This psalm, a lament, pleas for pity, for healing. The psalmist knows that death is near. He gasps the normal questions: God, how long? When will relief come? Israelites thought of God as the God of the living, not dead. In life, God was present; death meant separation from God. Living, a person recalled what God had done; they praised God’s qualities within community. Dead, they could do neither. The psalmist thought of illness as God’s judgment. Bed drenched with tears and eyes wasted with grief, he was judged and cast out by foes. Isolated, the griever longs for God’s mercy. Then the last three verses express the wonder that Yahweh heard and accepted the prayer of lament. Still sick, suffering was transformed. Those who had ignored need were utterly shamed. “Dying we live and living we die.”
Hear a part of Russell Shull’s writing about a friend, followed by other anecdotes. A friend once said: “Some day you will hear that I am dead; but don’t you believe it!” Now, the word has come that he is dead; and—I don’t believe it! Such goodness does not pass beyond existence. He lives! He lives in the hearts of thousands of his friends. He lives in the deeds of the many whom he taught. And he lives in the lives of his children, and in theirs. But more—he himself lives on. . .Can God pass away. . .? Nor can my friend—for [God’s being was within my friend]—He can never die and be no more. . .
Also, a church member spoke to a pastor: “I used to be terribly frightened to be alone. When my husband went out of town on a business trip, I either went with him or took the children with me to a neighbor’s. But, the night that my eight-year-old child died of leukemia, I stopped being afraid.”
“Forgive me,” said the pastor. I don’t get the connection.”
“You see,” she explained, “once you’ve died, there is nothing left to fear, is there? When she died, I did too.” “Dying we live and living we die.”
Our dog Sandy, her hair raised across her spine, stalks or charges a squirrel, getting just close enough to sniff the tree trunk, fur well out of reach. But our dog Sandy is slowing down. She spends more time curled up on her mat. For ten dog years equals 70 human years.
This past week The Goshen News reported 36 births. This past week The Goshen News reported 33 deaths. Wrote John Donne: “. . . never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” I think of this quote whenever I drive by the nearby funeral home and the lot is parked full with cars.
Wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay: “. . . Life must go on, /though good men die./ Ann, eat your breakfast; Dan take your medicine. Life must go on;/ I forget just why.”
Songs also express longing and truth: “Soon-a-will be done-a wid da twobles ob de wold. . .I’m g-won ta lib wid God.”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, where is its life?”
Or, there’s the letter: “Dear Suzie, What a life we’re having! Can it get any better than this? What do some people mean who say— ‘Dying we live and living we die?’”
I’ll share a young student expression in a book titled If I Die and When I Do: “Death does not come sweetly nor does it come gracefully but it is there waiting to take you into its rough arms waiting to bring sadness to your loved ones. It is there don’t hide for death loves to take those who are fearful live for now don’t just run from death for life is worth more than death life is stronger and handsome to those who behold it.”
Let’s think of Simeon the devout man who was waiting to die until he could see the One sent to redeem Israel. (Luke 2:25) We often identify him as an old person. Just because he waited to die does not mean that he was old. He may have been terminally ill and relatively young. The question follows: When one is dying, what is youth? “Dying we live and living we die.”
Let me tell you a bit about my father, Herman Yoder, 1902-82. A mortician and ambulance driver, with 80 acres and a small insurance agency to fill in time between 15-20 deaths during a year. He was a compassionate man. A fine tenor. Generous. He knew how to meet people in their grief. His tear could accompany closing the casket for a friend. His first stroke occurred after embalming three children within a short period of time. I was with my father when he died. Until then, he had lived throughout my life. About four hours before his final death—perhaps when highpoints of his life paraded in a flash—Daddy’s eyes opened wide in surprise and a tear rolled down his cheek. He was a compassionate man.
After eight hours of heavy breathing, while five of us reminisced, remained silent, and then observed discoloration begin from the feet, my sister-in-law took another little sponge, saying, “Now I’m going to moisten your mouth again.” After which he closed his mouth and was “gone.” What an utter contrast—the calmness of death from the vigor of birth! Yet, writer Stringfellow said “The work of death begins at the very moment of birth.” “Dying we live and living we die.”
We briefly ponder humor with death. “We about died laughing,” you might say. “By laughing about death, we learn to laugh more in life.” I recall the suggestion, when at home, to put a chair beside an occupied coffin “for rigor mortis to set in.” A man wrote of the death of an acquaintance: “He fell into a comma and died.” A student contemplated donating his body to science after he died, saying, “I will donate my body to science as long as I have been proven clinically dead for a week.” “Dying we live and living we die.”
How then do we celebrate death? Well, we eat, don’t we? And how often do we note that whenever we eat in order to live, some plant or animal has died? Latvian people connect death and eating. When in Detroit we lived in an upstairs apartment of a home owned by a couple from Latvia. During that year Tony died. Custom required Lucia to provide a meal for friends. I could hardly stand observing how she ached with loss. Nor had I ever felt so lonely at a memorial service—ten friends gathered for the service and meal. For the rest of that year, Lucia drove to the cemetery weekly, and I spent a couple hours every Friday evening with her.
Communities do celebrate. People touch, listen, and sing. I recall the profound meditation at a friend’s father’s memorial—a recital of biblical texts that he had recorded in a notebook. I also recall certain people when singing certain hymns: Because sung at his funeral, “Lift Your Glad Voices in Triumph on High” reminds me of a high school fellow. And “In Thee is Gladness” reminds me of a certain song leader. Without denying a sense of loss through death, Christians do know comfort in Jesus’ resurrection following death. As William Stringfellow writes in Instead of Death, “. . . the resurrection means the liberation of human life from the meaning and purpose of death in loneliness, in sexuality, and in daily life.” Therefore, “The last word is not death, nor life after death; the last word is the same as the first word, and that word is Jesus Christ.” “Dying we live and living we Die.”
But before resurrection was birth: older Elizabeth was pregnant with child, while Zechariah was speechless. Young Mary was “highly favored” and empowered, but Joseph needed an angel’s assurance. Action was all a little confusing.
Having visited a friend a number of times during her bout with cancer, I stopped at her home on hearing that she needed to return to the hospital. In the course of our exchange, she said, “I think that this is going to be it. Will you pray with me?” A few nights later, I briefly stopped at the hospital. The next morning was her “Morning” after which others of us who lived mourned.
So, when do I most often think of my own death? When visiting an ill friend. When preparing a sermon like this. When flying, not in fear but with that tinge of sadness about separation, if. And on arriving, God and I reflect on tasks to do. My seminary clinical work focused on death and grief. After many home visits, I led a church’s weekly “grief group.” I have also led workshops, written articles, and prepared a folder of materials for a Mennonite Commission on the theme. Dreams have found me watching as my funeral service progressed. There, as Menno male leaders confessed willingness to turn from patriarchal patterns, I awoke saying: “How I’d been dying to hear that!” A seminary class on death also helped me to own it. The prof told of his pleasure dating in cemeteries and asking little children, “What was it like before you were born?” At times while teaching, he would lie down on a cot but continue to read his profound lectures—while a disease sapped his energy. “Dying we live and living we die.”
I conclude with thoughts of Jairus in Mark 5. Jairus’ position in the synagogue can be compared to a congregational elder. A lay official, he perhaps arranged the service. In spite of rank, we find him kneeling before Jesus as one unauthorized. In agony he cried for help, for another: “Come, lay your hands on my young daughter.” What care for a daughter! Perhaps not far from the age to be married. With solid faith, Jairus assumed that Jesus could make her whole. With her illness not described, we meet only the father in his suffering, request, and fear. To “lay hands on” was common as a method for healing. What was uncommon was Jairus’ confidence that Jesus could make a difference. Jesus’ response, not verbal, was simple action. He went with Jairus.
But before he arrived, a crowd gathered and there was a delay. An unnamed woman who had suffered and waited for twelve years—in faith also reached out to touch his power. By that time, messengers arrived saying that Jairus’ daughter had died. Having just observed a woman’s healing, what was Jairus’ response? Did he have any basis for believing in resurrection? Did the therapy of shock take over? We hear nothing further from him. In the presence of the living Jesus, might he have known something of despair? Jesus modeled deep care saying: “Don’t be afraid; only have faith.” From there on, Jesus acted. He stifled the professional mourners. They had already begun to dance, clap, and sing or wail. To Jesus’ word that the girl was in a sleep, to be awakened, they responded with scornful laughter. But Jesus brought a different dimension to death—his resurrection to come. The child’s parents and Jesus’ disciples were surprised as the girl rose to the Aramaic command “Talitha kumi.”
Are we prepared for both surprise and utter anguish? Are we prepared to talk about our death? “Dying we live and living we die.”