“The dying that bears fruit”

Driving around this week, I caught part of a conversation on Minnesota public radio about end of life planning. At the end of the program, Dr. Craig Bowron, hospitalist at Abbot Northwestern, offered an essay.

He said: ”there are two demographic factors that feed into our denial of death. First, our nation’s mass exodus away from the land and into the city means that we have antiseptically left death and the natural world behind us. Today, 80 percent of us live in the city. Now, the farmers I take care of aren’t in any more of a hurry to die than the city folks I see. But when death comes, they are familiar with it. The second demographic factor is that rising affluence has meant that we don’t have to live together anymore. The independence of senior living spaces and nursing homes has had the effect of sequestering away our elderly, creating a physical and emotional distance that hinders us as we make end of life decisions. Suffering is like a fire – those who sit closest feel the most heat. And a picture of the fire gives off no warmth.  

Our temptation to avoid the reality of death and dying is understandable. But clearly this denial is not helpful to us: the living, the dying, the suffering, the compassionate. Our scripture lesson for this morning brings us head on with the struggle of both Jesus and his followers to accept the reality of his death and understand its meaning. This text is situated in the context of Passover, during their final days in Jerusalem before the crucifixion.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus tells his disciples. I don’t know about you, but I wince a little at that kind of language. I don’t see death as an enemy, but it is a painful and frightening reality. I can accept it as a natural and difficult part of life. But how do we understand Jesus’ claim, that his death is a glorification? Jesus says that in death he will be like a grain of wheat that bears fruit only by letting go of its present form. He suggests that we not only need to welcome death, but to hate life. He asks us to serve him by following him toward the cross.

This is a tough message. It’s clear it didn’t make much sense to Jesus’ own disciples, as again and again, they engaged his predictions of death with argument and denial and outright betrayal. The text is honest in revealing that Jesus himself was in turmoil about these matters of life and death. ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” On the one hand, Jesus didn’t want to suffer and die. On the other hand, he knew deep down that his death, and the way he would die, was an essential part of his identity.

The cross, in other words, both expresses the meaning of Jesus’ life and fulfills its purpose. What sense do we make of this? The cross is a treacherous, dangerous symbol, to be sure. Over our Christian history, it has been terribly misused. As in Mel Gibson’s movie a few years ago, “The Passion of Christ” the cross has been held up as a glorification of suffering itself. It has served as a sign of God’s wrath, of a rage that is satisfied only with the blood of an innocent victim. The cross has been marshaled again and again as a tool for imperialism. In obvious and subtle ways, it fueled injustices such as the crusades, the bringing of slaves to this continent, the stealing of land and slaughtering of native peoples.

As we consider the meaning of Jesus’ words, it is critical to understand that even as the cross has, in the hands of the church, become a symbol of oppression, the early Christians viewed it as a sign of the undoing of such oppression. John portrays the cross as a kind of exorcism or casting out of evil. As Jesus anticipates the hour of his death, he proclaims: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” One commentator writes: “’world’ is not synonymous with God’s creation, but is rather the fallen realm that exists in estrangement from God and is organized in opposition to God’s purposes….” (Campbell, Charles, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.2, p. 141)

The ruler of that world is not any one person, but a death-dealing system of domination. Jesus isn’t talking about death as the painful but natural conclusion to a life well-lived. He’s talking about a living death, a suffering worse than death. The hour has come for Jesus to hate life in that world – specifically the world shaped by the powers that oppose God – violence, inequality, and oppression. The ruling authorities intend for the death of Jesus to make him into a symbol of submission, and a sign of the futility of challenging the domination system. Instead, Jesus’ death, the death which fulfills the meaning of his life, is one that drives out those ruling forces that breaks down the grisly power of its symbols.

I’ve been following the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen gunned down recently with skittles and a soda in his hand. Michael Skolnik, editor of the blog “Global Grind”, wrote an essay addressing this incident. He says: “I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only. The color of my skin. I am white. I was born white. It was the card I was dealt. No choice in the matter. … I have no guilt for the color of my skin or the privilege that I have. Remember, it was just the next card that came out of the deck. But, I have choices. I got choices on how I play the hand I was dealt….

[When it comes to Trayvon’s death] There are still some facts to figure out. There are still some questions to be answered. But, let’s be clear. Let’s be very, very clear. Before the neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, started following him against the better judgment of the 911 dispatcher. Before any altercation. Before any self-defense claim. Before Travyon’s cries for help were heard on the 911 tapes. Before the bullet hit him dead in the chest. Before all of this. He was suspicious. He was suspicious. suspicious. And you know, like I know, it wasn’t because of the hoodie or the jeans or the sneakers. Cause I had on that same outfit yesterday and no one called 911 saying I was just wandering around their neighborhood. It was because of one thing and one thing only. Trayvon is black.”

Just as much as in Jesus’ day, our lives are entangled with a whole “world” of evils that corrupt God’s good creation. We all play roles in systems of domination that exist in estrangement from God, that are organized in opposition to God’s purposes. The system of racism, for instance, offers privilege and advantage to some of us, even as it creates for others a living death, a suffering worse than death. This terrible tragic reality hurts, diminishes and dehumanizes us all. But only those with white skin have the privilege of choosing whether or not to look at this reality and acknowledge its toll on us. Only those with white skin have the luxury of continuing to deny the very existence and power of this wound. It’s like what Dr. Bowron said: “Suffering is like a fire – those who sit closest feel the most heat. And a picture of the fire gives off no warmth.”

I know we are all in different places with the idea that Jesus is God. Just as a matter of principle, I like to question the traditional doctrines of the church. And I see various problems and pitfalls with God’s incarnation in Jesus. But even so I hold on to the possibility of the divine made flesh. For me, it is an affirmation that we are God’s beloved – and that God’s love for us is the deepest truth of the universe. In the context of the incarnation, the cross is a glorification, not of suffering, but of love. God exposes our ways of death in order to help us reclaim our true selves – beloved ones, called to love. The cross is still with us, in realities such as the violence inflicted on young black men in our society, and the invisible cloak of protection and favor that surrounds white skin. And God is still calling us to join Jesus in the dying that bears fruit, the dying that exposes our denial and destroys our systems of oppression, the dying that restores us to life as God intends.

Easter is not a magic resuscitation, a slight of hand that erases the reality of natural death. The Easter message is spoken just as much from the cross as it is at the empty tomb. As we journey toward Holy Week, may we know the love of God proclaimed in flesh and blood and bone, love that is limitless and inexhaustible, love that is our reason for being. Amen.