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Dying Well (sermon)

October 21, 2011

Texts:             Deuteronomy 32: 1-12 Matthew 22: 34-46

There’s a wonderful cameo moment of epiphany in our Old Testament reading today, in which Moses realises he is going to die. More than that, he is going to die without reaching the Promised Land. On the high mountain the Lord says to Moses:

“This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

Moses has spent his life on this Promised Land project. This is not just a car journey that finishes at the end of a day or two. This is a lifetime of wandering and living with a group of people. This is a life project. And his life is going to end before the project is completed. Is seems like the very definition of failure? A life project, where the life finishes before the project? Perhaps it feels like any time to die is too soon. There’s always more to do.

On holiday this week, before picking Chrissy up from the airport, we drove around the centre of Christchurch and had our lunch among broken buildings – deserted monuments to someone’s life project. And I thought about the amount of effort and life has been invested by people in building up beautiful gardens and houses, only to see them lost forever.

How does it feel to think that the future is not going to include you? That life will go on without you? That you can do nothing much about it?

Do you withdraw increasingly into a little world you can control? Do you start to shut down your horizons? Do you lose interest? Do you get angry with the world? Do you sit in front of the tele and vent your bitterness at the current crop of politicians or church leaders?

The bible doesn’t dwell much on psychology. We don’t know how Moses felt about it? We are just told that he died in sight of the Promised Land. Like Martin Luther King jnr he had a dream… and then died.

I wonder what it means to die well, as a Christian. What does it mean to follow Jesus (to be on a journey to a promised land) and on the journey you have to start letting go of things? Leaving things unfinished? When people you love start dying, and you don’t have the energy to do things you have always wanted to do… what do you do? The word Euthanasia means ‘good death’. So what is a good death?

I wonder how much depends on what you have done up to that point? Have you spent all your life avoiding death? Some would say we live in a culture of death avoidance – obsessed with cosmetics and security and health. If that has become our life project, if we’ve been avoiding death all our life, and this avoidance has dominated our life, then death, when it comes, is by definition a failure.

But perhaps there are more noble life projects, like getting involved in the church, teaching Sunday School, going on Session or Managers, or your vocation, or getting involved in the local bowls club, or raising your children and grandchildren… all sorts of noble and less noble things make up our life projects… and at some point you start to let go of things and your project winds down. And you face the great challenge of dying well.

What I really like about today’s story is that it reminds us that whether our life projects are merely a kind of selfish ambition, bound up with consumerism and an obsession with cosmetics and insurance and health at all cost, or whether they are more noble, what matters in the end is that the project is not really our project, it’s God’s project. In the end of the day it matters that it’s not all about me.

The project that Moses has invested his life in has a future. The future will happen with or without Moses… and this is the point that Moses realises that it’s going to be without him. Hi condition is terminal. But it’s not all about him. He can be involved right up to his death. And then he can die in peace, knowing his contribution has been valuable, knowing it will not be lost. This seems to me to be genuine “euthanasia” – good death. Not taking his own life, but giving it up graciously, without ever losing sight of the Promised Land.

Perhaps that’s where our Gospel text comes in… the scholars come in and ask Jesus

“What is the greatest commandment? Jesus replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

It’s interesting to compare the gospels on this great text. Where Luke, for example, emphasises the unity of the first and the second commandment as one single commandment in two parts where love of God cannot but result in love of neighbour and love of neighbour is bound up with love of God (and in Luke Jesus goes on to tell the Good Samaritan story as an illustration of this) Matthew, as we’ve just read, emphasises the priority of the first commandment. A life given over to God in heart and soul and mind is what the great commandment is all about.

Even in death the great commandment addresses us. Perhaps death is the culmination of a life under the great commandment. Because as we die it’s so easy for everything to be about me. From how we plan our funeral, to how we feel about who visits us and who doesn’t, how we face up to all the issues we’ve been avoiding all our life.

Moses lost sight of the Promised Land often throughout his life, and yet in the end he is given a vision in which he is reminded at the last, that God hasn’t given up on him, that it’s not all about him, it’s not his story, it’s God’s story. And he has been privileged to play a part in it. All that he has put his heart and soul and mind into, can now end in peace.

We talk about the “Law of Moses” and its greatest commandment, we talk about the “journey to the Promised Land”… but in the end of the day, for us these are shadows and anticipations of the central moment in God’s story. In the life of Jesus, God’s life enters history. The greatest commandment becomes incarnate. Jesus loves God with all his heart and soul and mind… and his neighbour as himself. And in his life, love of neighbour and love of enemy become the same thing.

In the end, learning to die well is like learning to live well. It’s a matter of following Jesus… and we don’t follow Jesus in isolation, we follow Jesus in the midst of neighbours and enemies (who are often the same people).

In following Jesus we see the Promised Land as clearly as we will ever see it…. And we can die with him knowing the promise of the Promised Land is secure, beyond any power that death might have had over us, or might now appear to have. We can die but death is powerless. We can die well because death is powerless!

Thanks be to God.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    October 21, 2011 3:58 am

    excellent and amazingly some a bit like I will be teaching at the cafe service on Sunday at St. Clair!!!!!!!

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