A Sermon preached at Emmanuel College, Cambridge Chapel 18 November 2012
Joy and Woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief and pine
Lies a joy with silken twine
It is right it should be so
Man was made for joy and woe
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
If someone was to ask you what was distinctive, attractive or even transformative about the Christian faith how would you respond? I want to open up one area this evening against the back cloth of these terms sermons about the way we live now. Here it is – faith helps to negotiate the geography of dying. Indeed it asks us to embrace this life of both joy and woe as the raw material for our wholeness. In the befriending of death there is colour and wisdom and truth.
It would be surprising if many of us have spent much time looking at death in the face. Most of us desire a life of peace and contentment where our anxieties contain and so the harsher or more fearful or more threatening aspects of life are either kept under control or just put off until we have to face them when they occur.
However, some have little alternative but to face the reality of loss and change and even death. The unexpected diagnosis of cancer; the loss of parents; adapting to life without dependent children; finding a partner and losing a partner; coping with transitions of older age. These and other life experiences confront us with a number of questions.
Our past experiences and memories shape us too. All aspects of our past combine to make this the kind of people we are today: for good and ill. We all have to live with the choices we have made and the experiences that shape our lives. So, perhaps, how we embrace our dying within our living is fundamental to our well-being, our hopes, our fears, our loves, our passions and in the end, our salvation.
This theme of living our dying is based on three convictions. The first is that death in itself is not important. It is not charged with meaning, though for those left it is often fraught with meaning: death is simply the point or moment when a person ceases to live stop. What then is important is not death but dying.
The second conviction is what we call living can in fact be rightly seen as dying. We are all die and embracing a range of changes and losses throughout our lives were all living in a dying situation, diminishing constantly and reacting to the experiences that make for diminishment. It is worth looking back at some of the key points of our lives and asking how these events or experiences have shaped what life means for us and how we drill for wisdom.
The third conviction is that our struggle to live in the light of coming or approaching death is always charged with meaning. In part, our salvation depends upon what sense we make of it all in the light of our faith in God. This is why this area of living is such an opportunity and challenge – worthy of all the attention paid to it by writers, poets, preachers and artists.
We are involved now in the contradictions between life and death. Our living is partly surrender and partly fight! Our lives are a wonderful and mysterious mixture of giving up and not giving up, of surrender and resistance. In these paradoxes, in both aspects, both living our dying and dying to live we encounter God.
Think for a moment about your lives. Our lives are made up of a complex series of losses changes, movements, partings and endings. The child’s in us has to die before we become an independent teenager, and we do not become such until we have put away some of the cosy privileges and protectiveness of the child. Another area of life where we successively die to be reborn is that of parting. I never get used to parting either from people or places. The places where I have lived and worked twined themselves around my heart like ivy around a tree trunk. Every corner has a memory that can target at the heart. Leaving people is, of course, even more difficult than leaving places.
Yet we know that unless we part from one place and stage in life cannot begin in another. Sometimes our affection for the old has to be released in purified before we can treat the new with seriousness and respect. So it is with colleagues and friends. However heartrending the breakup of a relationship it often has to happen quite brutally in order that we can grow and work seriously with other people, partners and friends. To refuse to accept the death of one relationship can hamper the making of a new one. Here is an example of where growth begins with a walking away and letting go. Indeed, love is often proved in the letting go.
Sometimes the parting is not of our choosing or indeed negotiated by us and that indeed is painful. Others may make the decisions that shape our lives and losses.it is very hard in these circumstances not to feel the kind of death and rejection. Failing to get a job, compulsory redundancy, bereavement, sudden death and failed love are all examples of the experiences of dying and loss that make up our lives. And you will know what shape these experiences take in you.
The Church is about to enter the season of Advent and next week’s Carol service will meditate on the themes of hope and expectation. When I reflect on my many years of listening to people there are many common threads that emerge – coming clean and facing facts honestly; encountering suffering, pain and loss; drawing close to people and refusing to be isolated; asking for and accepting help; confronting the reality and finality of death but above all being able and willing to be vulnerable.
One thread relates very much to our theme. We are perhaps conditioned to avoid confronting fear, to avoid the wilderness and the desert places in our own hearts world stop. We live under a kind of tyranny of certainty where strength, confidence, life, success and security dominate our emotional, social, ecclesiastical and political lives. In our healing, our growing we seek those things that we can control, that reassure us rather than face us with our fears doubts. And if we seek to control, avoid, deny then the way we live now will always be dominated by fear. Frightened individuals build frightened societies stop fearful Christians build fearful lives where uncertainty, contradiction, paradox and ambiguity are dealt with by going for false security, strength and certainty. Instead of drawing people together fear polarises and it separates and isolates people from one another and people from their very selves.
There can be healing and growth. When we accept our need of others, when we let go of our independence and our drive to succeed and be always in control. To give is to be powerful; to receive is to be vulnerable. The gospel demands that we are drawn out of this tyranny of certainty. Dying to self means that we help each other to hold together the paradoxes and contradictions between life and death, fear and faith, hope and despair, love and hate, alienation and relationship, fragmentation and connectedness.
Christ is part of the same offering, the same sacrifice, which is completed on the cross. It is for his self-offering that Christmas exhorts God’s gift in this lowly baby. Our discipleship affirms the trust and the death of Christ and its power to create new life, to transform all the fragments of our living and dying.
The gospel message offers is only a certain promise of uncertainty, of continuing loss and sometimes pain. It reminds as the comprehending mystery is the process of discovery and engaging with the struggle to manage these profound ambiguities or paradoxes as a condition of our living. It is about being in touch with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as the basis of our living, loving and dying.