Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

I came across this story that seemed apropos of the scripture readings today: Al was trying to say some words of comfort to his friend Bernie. “I hear you buried your wife last week,” he said. “Terribly sorry.”

“Had to,” said Bernie. “Dead, you know.”

It seems to me that that’s funny because it’s not the sort of thing you should say out loud. It’s like Jesus’ statement, “You won’t always have me around.” That’s the basic, terrible, uncomfortable truth, and the disciples balk. Death is too enormous for us to speak of directly; we feel the need to say or do something that will make it go away (or at least make it more manageable).

The scale of the issue can lead us to react in some unhealthy ways to the idea of death. One of the most popular ways is through fear and denial that it will ever take place. Sometimes we try to postpone death as if that will truly prolong life. Our culture even hates growing older – as if this weren’t, as we say, “better than the alternative” – and we’re tempted to color, firm, and make ourselves up as if we wanted to convince the world that we skipped a few decades somewhere. I’m all for staying healthy and taking care of oneself, but I’m also a huge fan of crow’s feet and laugh lines and other reminders of time well spent.

We can miss the mark in another direction by cutting our connections prematurely. This will all end, so let’s move on, right? That’s like the woman whose husband is planning his funeral2 and he says to her, “If I die first would you re-marry?” She says, “Probably.” He says, “If you did would you sleep with him in our bed?” She says, “I suppose so.” He says, “Would you let him use my golf clubs?” And she says, “No – he’s left handed.” (And there are lots of less funny, even more unhealthy ways to cut off early.)

Or you can live with panic in your heart, as inspired by the email forwards you sometimes get with schmaltzy stories about making sure not to leave for work grumpy. It can feel like you have to do everything perfectly so you don’t leave things undone at your end or your loved one’s. The assumption is that for some reason the state of affairs at the very end of life matters so much more than the weight of relationship that has built up throughout your life. Of course, you’ll never regret saying “I love you” or nurturing your faith more than you absolutely had to, but do those things because you really feel them, not because you might regret not doing them.

A healthier way to deal with this is by making concrete plans for what to do when (not if) that mysterious passage comes. You probably all know about wills and trusts and other kinds of estate planning. I know I should have done this years ago, but Ian will finally make me take care of things for real. As a pastor and a hospital chaplain, I also can’t say enough about health care directives, where you put in writing what you’d like to have happen in case you’re seriously ill or incapacitated. The end of this life often presents serious care questions that the patient isn’t in a position to vocalize, so spouses and children find themselves making very hard decisions. If you can make and write down some of these decisions ahead of time, believe me, your caregivers will thank you. They’ll thank you again for writing down your wishes for a funeral or other celebration of your life. We’re happy to help keep these on file in the office, and you’ll be glad to have worked through some of the questions.

When you take these steps to “anoint your body for the day of your burial,” as Mary does for Jesus in our gospel reading, you’ll be rehearsing what this transition may be about. That’s difficult emotional territory for some of us. It may feel morbid to you, which is why we need jokes to go along with it. But what it is, is honest – and good jokes are always about the truth. I think Jesus is the ultimate comic figure because his life is completely ready for death (there’s a book to be written in there). Especially in John’s gospel, Jesus is always looking ahead to his death and resurrection, as if the true goal of his life were actually through the passage into death.

That deep readiness for death shaped Jesus’ life. Because of it, he spoke nothing but the truth; he did nothing but God’s plan; he spent his time always present to those around him, just as he was present to Mary’s gift, rather than imposing other “priorities” for the use of the common funds. There is a deep truth to Jesus’ focus on eternal life beyond death, but there’s a present truth there as well. Life today can be deeper and “more eternal” because that longer focus keeps today’s affairs in order and in perspective.

“Keeping our affairs in order” is an ongoing process. It’s the spiritual equivalent of updating your will and funeral plans if you move or have significant changes to your assets and survivors. Jesus kept himself in order by centering himself again and again through prayer and focused awareness. Otherwise, life pulls you off balance with all the good things it has to offer. It’s an ongoing process to love and cherish this life, but to be ready to lose it. As poet Mary Oliver has said, “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Letting go is our final gift to those we wish we could hold on to. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross tells us about four gifts you can give to a dying person. If you’ve been through hospice with someone you love, you know about these. The gifts are to say, first, “I’m sorry.” Apologize for the things that need apologies. Offer forgiveness for the things that need forgiveness. This opens the way for the second gift, “I love you.” You’ve said it before, and you may say it again. You might end up saying it in a way that you didn’t expect. Third, “Thank you.” Thank you for the many wonderful gifts you’ve shared with me, for the things I’ll remember about you, and for the gift of your life. And finally, “Good bye.” This one acknowledges that your loved one will die, but that you’ll continue to live. It says that you’ll be okay in their absence, even as you know it will be painful. That can be the hardest and most meaningful thing to say to someone you love.

We have to be invited to say these things because we don’t usually know what to say when we face the enormity of death. That’s what to say. And you don’t have to be within sight of the end of this life to say them, either. We’re all dying every day. I mean, don’t panic, it’s not particularly likely to happen today, but death hangs over us in such a way that you all are less comfortable than you were when I started talking. On a deeper level, I hope that talking about this has made you more comfortable than you otherwise would have been. That’s the great gift of acknowledging that we’re all dying. Reconciliation is reconciliation, and these four sets of words deepen our relationships even when goodbye isn’t goodbye forever. Reconciliation, precisely because it’s practice for death, is what keeps us ready to live as Christ lived eternally, then and now.