The Art of Dying

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2020

Psalm 90:1-12

Ten years ago Maggie and I visited Canterbury, England and worshiped there in the Cathedral. It was part vacation, part pilgrimage. That trip was right before I started here at Holy Comforter so, in a way, I was thinking and praying about you. 

Now, just a bit away from the Cathedral is St. Martin’s church. Christians have worshiped at St. Martin’s for fourteen centuries. And for fourteen centuries, Christians have been buried in the graveyard around that church. Maggie and I sat on a bench in that graveyard for a while and pondered all the souls buried around us. Fourteen centuries of the faithful. And while I sat there, and prayed, I thought about you. Yes, I was excited to begin my ministry. Yes, I was excited to meet you and get down to preaching and teaching. But that day in the graveyard has stuck with me. It has reminded me that all those souls buried there also lived, and laughed, and loved. And now, they are all forgotten. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone” (Psalm 90:10). That day has reminded me that we are all but temporary laborers, and one day, sooner or later, we too will be buried and forgotten with all the faithful who have gone before.

Death is the end: for us, for the people we love, for even the solar system, the galaxy, the universe; all will die. Although, we live in a culture that denies this. We try to fool everybody and we try to fool ourselves that we’re not aging. We fail to make plans for those who come after us. We try to alleviate the pain of death by coming up with all sorts of sappy things to say – “I’m sorry grandma died, God needed another angel in heaven.” Ugh. We’re even afraid of saying the “d” word. But as you’ve heard me say – milk expires, time passes away, people die.

Today I ask you to put yourself there with me in that graveyard. Consider all those who have gone before, and all those who will follow. Don’t run from it, don’t hide, embrace it, accept it, this is our fate. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.” Jeremy Taylor, the old Anglican bishop even goes far as to say that we are not fully living until we are ready to die (Holy Living, Holy Dying). This is the old Christian ethic of the “ars moriendi,” or, “the art of dying.” From that very first Easter morning, Christians have learned to embrace death because to God “life is changed, not ended” (BCP, 382). This is why Christians were comfortable worshiping in the catacombs. This is why we have a cross as our symbol, an instrument of death. This is why we have funerals, not because we run from death but because we offer our whole selves, even our mortality to God. This is why we continue to celebrate on Easter, why every Sunday is like an Easter, because God has put death to death. 

God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush as God of the living, not God of the dead (Mark 12:27). God commands us not to worship idols, not because God is threatened by them, but because idols are dead things (Sonderegger, Volume 2, 1). And God demands, God desires, us to worship the Living One. Both in this life and in the life to come. In order to accept that abundant life with God we must learn how to die to ourselves.

The art of dying. Now on the one hand, we are not to be flippant about death. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wear our seat belts, or take care of our bodies, or do what is asked of us for the public health. Every human person, every soul, was created by the Giver of all Life and is sustained by the Spirit of God. The art of dying means respecting, with great care, the lives created by God. On the other hand, the art of dying also means that we cannot live our lives just so we do not die. Living in constant fear is not living. You can do everything under the sun to live a long life but one day we will be turned back to dust (Psalm 90:3). Since the art of dying is an old Anglican idea, you know that it’s going to be right down the middle. It is the via media.

Now, I cannot tell you how to find the middle way. I cannot tell you exactly how to live so that you are ready to die and living life to the fullest for God. We Episcopalians have never been like that. We know that law will not make us righteous. 

Rather, we have practices that form us and mold us so that over time, the Holy Spirit makes us into a faithful people. Through these practices, we learn the art of dying which is the same as the art of learning the Life of God. Think of some of those practices we have in the Episcopal Church. We have Compline, that little service of prayer used at bedtime. Compline begins, “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end” (BCP, 127). Think of it, every time you go to sleep you are practicing how to release yourself into God’s hands. And every time you wake up, it is a fresh gift of resurrection. We have the practice of confession. We confess our sins, we unburden ourselves, so that we can meet our end with a clear conscience. The daily and weekly practice of confessing our sins is not intended to make us feel bad about ourselves – no, it’s intended to open ourselves up to God and to allow the Purifying Fire that is God cleanse our hearts and minds. It sounds mundane, but even the practice of preparing your will, writing your memoirs, telling your family what you wish for your last days, and where you would like to rest – that is holy work. While our culture might see it as macabre or depressing, we see it as life giving because we are preparing ourselves for service in the eternal sanctuary of the Living God. We practice our death, the ars moriendi because the psalmist reminds us, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.”

I know this is not the cheeriest sermon, especially as we are in the grips of a global pandemic. And I can imagine some awkward conversations coming out of this sermon at lunch or around the dinner table. And I see it in myself, too. I see my power alleys growing day by day. I have become a big believer in Icy Hot to ease my aches and pains. Every day I get closer to my own funeral. Be that as it may. Most of all, this sermon is about God. It is a reminder of the radical difference between us and God – the difference between the mortal and immortal, between we who are bound by death and the One who is Life. The ars moriendi, the art of dying, is nothing more than the path of discipleship; of preparing ourselves to meet our Maker and Judge. 

“The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” As I think back to all those forgotten souls buried in that simple graveyard, and all the people that have ever died and who are now forgotten, I think about us. One day, we too will be forgotten. So my friends, do not live your lives in order to be remembered by humans. That would be vanity. Live your lives and your death to God.

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