(Psalm 39:4-6; Ecclesiastes 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:42-44; Gospel of Thomas 18 & 51)
As the story in my family goes, my greatgrandmother Joanna had to go to Bismark, ND, for an operation. They didn’t expect it to be a big deal. So my great-grandfather, Erik, stayed on the farm in their tiny town to keep working. My grandmother happened to be a nurse at this hospital in Bismark, so she looked after her mother. It became clear, after the operation, that something was wrong. So my grandmother called her father to say, “I think you better come to the city to be with mom.”
So he got into the car with the kids who were in town and his brother, who was driving, and they drove off across the plains. Half of the way there, Erik suddenly got quiet and distant, and he took out his pocket watch, marked the time, and said, “Mom has left us.” That time he marked was the hour and the minute his wife died, in the hospital bed in Bismark, with my grandmother by her side.
This is a special story, about a special connection between two souls. But what is most amazing to me is how many people have stories like this.
Someone is asleep and in their dream their grandpa appears and says “goodbye.” They wake up and mark the time, and soon get the call that grandpa, hundreds of miles away, has died. Or a mother gets a jolt, “Oh no, my daughter is in trouble,” and soon she learns that her daughter has been in a fatal accident. There are so many precious stories like this that folks from all walks of life have had. You may have had experiences like this yourselves.
The time around someone’s passing from this mortal realm can be a kind of opening to a Mystery. We can have a heightened sensitivity to spiritual realms. There can be a kind of magic afoot. If you’ve ever had the privilege of being by the bedside of someone as they pass on, you may have noticed a shimmer in the air. The experience could be calm and peaceful or terrifying and horrific, depending on the circumstances. But there’s always, if you settle down in a prayerful way, there’s always something astonishing for us to notice, a way in which the the soul rises up like incense.
The ways that we are connected and interconnected with the ones we love and with the great Mystery Who is the Source and the Destination for all life, these deep connections can come to the surface around the experience of death. And it’s all so sad and beautiful and full and empty and liberating and simply beyond words.
Words don’t work.
Our usual horizons have blurred …
Jesus’ followers said to him, “Tell us how our end will be.”
Jesus said, “Have you discovered the beginning that you ask about the end? For, in the place where the beginning is, there the end will be. Blessed is the one who takes a stand in the beginning. That one will know the end, and will not experience death.”
The Realm that is beyond death, which we can only know through death, is a realm where the horizons of time blur. The more we go to the beginning the more we know the end. The beginning and the end circle back on themselves. Who were we at birth? Who were we before, before we were here on earth? What was God before Creation … when there is no when, where there is no there?
Jesus’ followers said to him, “When will the repose of the dead take place? When will the new world come?”
He said to them, “That which you look for has come, but you did not recognize it.”
There is a connection, interconnection – mysterious – between the spiritual realm and the physical realm, the realm beyond death and the realm where all is mortal. And it is here, now, for us to recognize.
Jesus, as the Christ, embodies this connection between heaven and earth. He is right there in the blurring of the boundaries. This is part, I think, of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, it’s part of the power of the image of Christ’s open grave and of the resurrected self … these mysterious images help us to recognize the way we all belong to the eternal.
This is a mystery, that’s hard to talk about, but it doesn’t mean that it’s only abstract riddles we have to work with. We have very real touchstones. Experiences like I described at the beginning, this profound connection to a loved one, beyond space and time, around the time of their dying, or after they’ve passed on, these are like comfort stones we can keep in our pocket, concrete reminders that we belong to a greater realm.
Images like Christ’s open grave at Easter or Christ’s resurrected self are touch stones that carry this insight. Images like the image on the cover of your bulletin – which is from the medieval period, the danse macabre, the dance of death – this reminds us that, yes, death is close to all of us, but that it brings a freedom and a joy in the release from the moral coil into the greater realm of the Eternal Spirit.
In our culture we don’t usually talk so openly about death. And I’m sure this is stirring up all kinds of feelings in all of us right now. But the more comfortable we can be with those feelings, the more comfortable we can be with death itself, and mortality, the more we can be aware of the broader reality that’s at play here, the realms of the Eternal Spirit, the more we can be free to be living fully as we can now.
And so I pray that the dance of death can help us to dance through life.
May we know, in a deep and mysterious way, that in the end all is well, so all can be well right now as we dance through this precious existence.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered October 30, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)