A friend of mine studied Buddhism with masters throughout Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand. He met a monk who had been ill for a quite a while and had not been able to participate in the life of his temple or to teach. But this great and respected master decided to give one final dharma talk or sermon as a way of saying farewell to the community. It was a greatly anticipated event and the temple was packed with people for this special service. When the moment finally came for the dharma talk, everyone settled down onto their cushions, getting ready for their beloved teacher’s final words of wisdom. “You are all going to die,” he said, “SOON!” Then he bowed to them. The talk was over. That was his last teaching.
The universal truth of these last words is one good reason to talk about the Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying, while observing All-Souls and All Saints Sunday. Because the human lifespan is short and whether it’s later this afternoon or a hundred years from now, death will arrive for all of us – SOON! Ars Moriendi was a 15th century text that came out of the devastation of Europe’s Black Death. The priestly classes who had attended so many deathbeds had been particularly devastated by the plague and there arose a need for a DIY guidebook to having a good death.
I took a train to New Haven on Thursday afternoon. I was headed up to Yale Divinity School. My dear friend and colleague from my days at First Church Somerville, Rev. Molly Baskette, invited me to go to the Convocation dinner with her. She would be there to receive an alumni award for Distinction in Congregational Ministry, and I was more than happy to make the trip to celebrate her.
If you’re going to be honored in public, when all eyes are on you, when people say nice things about you, and give you a standing ovation, when you are recognized and thanked, it’s nice to have someone there in the room who really knows you. The victory is sweetest when a few of the eyeballs looking at you are in the heads of people who love you, people who get you, people who won’t forget what was said and done, people who will remember how awesome you are long after the etched glass trophy has gathered its dust and gotten lost at the back of the shelf, people who will be able to remind you how awesome you are, and why, when the day comes – and it will come – when you begin to doubt yourself.
Some people say that the first steps are the hardest steps to take. The procrastinator in me tends to agree. It’s hard to get started. It’s hard to find the time and the energy. Especially if it’s a big project, especially if it’s going to require some sort of conflict or change or pain in my life, it’s easy to find something else to do for a little while – or maybe for years. Do we have any procrastinators out there who agree it’s hard to get going?
This fall I’ve been running more. I try to get out three or four times a week. I run from my apartment in Crown Heights along Eastern Parkway to Prospect Park, around the park loop, and then home again. I manage 7 or 8 miles at a go. For the first mile, I feel like I’m still twenty-years-old. Around the second mile, I age a decade or so. By the fourth mile, I remember I am, in fact, forty. And once I finally get home, I lie down on the floor and tell my wife I think I’m gonna die. The miles get harder as you go. It’s the final stretch that will kick your butt, not the first steps. Any joggers agree – it only gets harder as you go?
It’s very likely that some of us here this evening have been through a divorce. And almost certainly everyone here has been touched in some way by divorce. For many of us, the divorces that have touched our lives have been deeply painful. And for many of us, the divorces we have been through have been incredibly liberating, life-affirming, and God-blessed events. Whether you feel traumatized by divorce or healed by divorce or a little bit of both, our scripture reading this evening is difficult.
It pops up in our lectionary cycle every three years, but I will confess I have never preached on it before. Most of the pastors I run with preach on something else on this Sunday, or edit out the divorce stuff and focus on the welcoming children stuff or World Communion Sunday or anything – anything really – besides this doozy. It’s a huge can of worms and big pain in the butt to preach on this passage.
I wouldn’t mind being great. I think I could handle it. I’ve got the right temperament for it, I think. I wouldn’t let it go to my head. I certainly wouldn’t start bickering about who’s greater than who. And I wouldn’t be on Twitter constantly shouting about how great my everything is. And I wouldn’t humble brag on Facebook. I’d just keep it to myself. I would be so great that no one would have any idea how great I was. Maybe that’s exactly what’s going on? Maybe I’m the GOAT (the Greatest Of All Time) at hiding how great I am. No one will ever know.
Well, hold on now. What’s so great about that? I mean if I am, in fact, great, and I hide it so successfully that nobody would ever suspect my greatness – how does that do anybody any good? Maybe if I am great, I shouldn’t brag about it, but maybe I should have some sort of drive to DO GREAT in some way, some sort of drive to grow in greatness, and put my greatness – whatever it is – on display so that the world can benefit from it.