The breath of life is the sovereign territory of God. Doctors and researchers have learned so much about how to preserve it, extend it, and repair it, but ultimately only God knows when and how life will begin and end. Jesus knew his time was coming because he was God in the flesh.
In our reading from Mark for today, Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for his death, but they didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t understand Jesus’ mission – to serve others rather than be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Jesus telling the disciples about his coming death reminded me of my pastoral visit with Violet years ago, and my regret that I had not discussed end-of-life matters with her. I didn’t because she’d only just been put on hospice a few days before, so when I visited that day, she had been intent on telling me how she got there. She hadn’t ignored the symptoms for very long, she said. “Doesn’t everyone have tummy trouble now and then?” But more than anything, Violet needed to tell me what it had been like to hear the doctor say, “There’s nothing we can do.”
As some of you know, when hospice moves into your house, there’s a flurry of activity. They bring in equipment – oxygen, a hospital bed, all sorts of things for making the patient more comfortable. And there are visits from all sorts of people – the one who comes to explain how hospice works, the nurse who will become a semi-regular, the chaplain who will check in periodically. Violet told me they gave instructions to her family and to the ladies who came in each day to cook and clean and do the laundry.
Violet had so much to tell me about what had happened. She also said, “My son wants me to move in with him. He even remodeled part of his house to give me my own suite. But I wanted to be here with my things.”
Violet gestured toward an ornate glass-fronted cabinet that almost covered one wall of the room. I could see figurines and crystal glassware. She had lots of beautiful things.
Then Violet looked out the large picture window to her right. Her condominium was as close to the beach as you could get in that part of town. Her recliner was set at just the right angle to gaze out the window and watch the sun rise up out of the ocean in the morning, and to see the pelicans flying by in their squadrons, and diving into the ocean to catch fish.
“I wanted to be here with my view,” she said.
As I got into my car afterwards, I chided myself for not having the courage to ask for her thoughts about meeting Jesus and making funeral arrangements. “Next time for sure,” I said to myself.
But next time happened when one of her caregivers called me and said, “You’d better come right away.”
It hadn’t been that long. Just a little more than a week. But the person I found at this visit could no longer tell me her thoughts or her stories. She was having visions of heaven, and her answers to questions had no trace of earthly reality. So I wasn’t surprised that my phone rang early the next morning with the news that she had died sometime during the night.
She died in a hospital bed that hospice had installed in a back room of her condo, the only room in the house (besides the bathrooms) that didn’t have a view of the ocean or the sky, and had none of her beautiful things.
In the end, Violet didn’t get to choose exactly where or when or how she died. She did get to be at home, and God took care of the rest.
I can still see Violet sitting up in her hospital bed gazing up to heaven, talking to someone that I couldn’t see. Was it Jesus? Or her beloved husband who had died two years earlier? Whoever it was, they made her smile.
I like another image of Violet better – sitting in her chair by the picture window, watching the cars come and go, and the joggers and walkers going by, gazing out at the ships sliding by on the horizon, and the sea birds gathering and dispersing on the rocky shore – quietly watching life happen as hers slowly waned. Her striving was long over. She was ready to go, and she enjoyed seeing how life would go on.
In our reading from Mark today, however, Peter was not ready for Jesus to go. Jesus was doing his best to prepare the disciples for his death, and Peter reprimanded Jesus for saying these things. Mark doesn’t tell us what Peter said, but Matthew does:
“Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22)
Peter had said just before this that Jesus is the Messiah, but Peter expected that to mean that Jesus would lead Israel to break free of the oppression of Rome, and restore their status as a sovereign nation. Peter didn’t understand that Jesus was bringing a different kind of restoration.
Jesus’ response to Peter is swift and startling.
“Get away from me, Satan! You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” (Mark 8:33)
Don’t we do this, too? We sometimes get caught up in focusing on earthly things, human things.
As followers of Jesus, we are to live differently. Jesus tells us how in today’s reading:
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Instead of living for ourselves, instead of trying to have everything our own way, we give up our selfish ways and look to Jesus to lead the way. Instead of putting ourselves ahead of others, we dedicate our lives to serving others.
I really like what writer and pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana says about this passage:
“I find myself both repelled and attracted by [this encounter]. Repelled because I know the challenging road ahead for . . . Peter, and Jesus, and I’d rather avoid it. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, ‘All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.’ Yet I’m also attracted to it, because what [this story lifts] up is the vision of a consequential life, a life that deeply matters.”
A life that deeply matters is one that accepts the cost of discipleship, and continually lives in the hope of the resurrection, accepting grace, and offering grace. Jesus demonstrates a life in which we do not glorify ourselves, or think that we are better than someone else or some other nation, but instead we live to serve and love our neighbors, helping each other to hold on to the hope of the resurrection. Practicing resurrection.
How do we practice resurrection? By trusting deeply in the victory Jesus has won over sin and death, and holding on to the belief that evil does not last forever, and by holding on to hope even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.
God promised us this in Isaiah 43: “From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch anyone out of my hand. No one can undo what I have done.”(Isaiah 43:13)
In other words, when we trust in Jesus, our eternity is secure.
But wait, there’s more! Isaiah also reminds us how God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt: God says, “I am the Lord, who opened a way through the waters, making a dry path through the sea.“ (Isaiah 43:16)
But then God says, “Forget about all that. — it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
But sometimes new things feel more like death because we have to let go of the old to make room for the new.
Years ago I worked for a small ad agency. At its peak, there were 10 employees. But after the owner was offered a lucrative job as marketing director for a growing tech company, the employees gradually drifted away to new jobs. In the last few weeks of that company’s life, there was just me and the boss. I spent those weeks emptying drawers and clearing out cupboards. Some items got donated or rehomed, but most of it went to the trash. Every day I made multiple trips down to the parking lot, where I dumped armloads of files into the big green dumpster.
The job was fun while it lasted, but it was time to move on and see what new things God had in store for us.
In order to experience resurrection, we have to be willing to let things go. Then we can practice resurrection, “mini resurrections that sustain us through life until we reach that final resurrection and step into eternity with God.” We put our trust and hope in our God who is always up to something new. We keep trusting Jesus to show us the way.
In the video that our small group was discussing last Sunday, we saw Camden NJ with its abandoned factories and vacant lots full of trash. Our tour guide, Chris Haw, told us how he is practicing resurrection in Camden. He has taken a vacant lot full of trash and cleared it off to make room for planting tomatoes and vegetables. He put up a chicken coop and started raising chickens. He used the bricks from an abandoned building to pave a patio. And he is helping others to do likewise. They’re practicing resurrection, and as they work alongside people, they tell them about the power of Jesus and God’s grace to bring reconciliation and redemption.
What in our lives, in our community, and in our world needs restoration, redemption, and resurrection?
Twice this week I heard someone say that the church is in decline (not just one church, but American churches in general), and the biggest decline began twenty years ago as the western world experienced a major cultural shift. Some have even said that the church is dying.
Indeed several churches in our presbytery have closed. One of my tasks for the presbytery was to help facilitate one of those closings. That church building is now the home of a woman who plans to use the space to invite people to gather. Other churches that closed are now home to new churches that were looking for a larger and more permanent space. And so the death of one congregation gave new life to another.
To practice resurrection there first has to be a death, or a letting go or moving on. Like a seed that dies, in a sense, and is planted in the earth. Its coffin is its shell. Then the water comes to soften it and entice new life to emerge as it sprouts. And gradually the sprout becomes a shoot, and then a stalk, and then a trunk and branches and leaves, that provide food and shade and shelter for all sorts of creatures.
Jesus said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
Practice resurrection. If we aren’t willing to let things go, we don’t get to experience resurrection.
Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy. Actually, he says it will be hard, like carrying a cross.
One of the things I hope we’ve come to learn over this past year is that despite the challenges of the pandemic, people still have an eagerness to seek the Lord together, to let the Holy Spirit water our spirits, to grow in our understanding of Jesus’ ways, and a commitment to keep looking for opportunities to serve others and share the love of Jesus and to help people know God’s grace.
Jesus said, “What will it profit someone to gain the whole world but lose their soul?” Sometimes it’s easy to measure our faith by worldly measures like numbers of people, amounts of money, levels of activity. Jesus did draw big crowds but not all of them kept following. When Jesus died on a cross, most of his followers gave up on him. But then God raised him from the dead and showed us that not even death can get in the way of God’s love and grace. That’s the power of the resurrection.
Whenever we let go and surrender our selfish ways, and trust that God’s resurrection power is at work in us and in our world, the Holy Spirit helps us to see the world through God’s eyes. As we practice resurrection, we find new life in Christ.
Practicing resurrection is not the easy way. But it’s the best way.
God, forgive us for holding on to our selfish ways. Sometimes instead of putting others first, we put ourselves first. We confess that following you and serving others can be tiring, and that we get discouraged and want to give up. Help us to let go of our striving, and listen and watch for ways to join you in the new things you are doing, God. Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us to water and revive our souls and soften our hearts. Renew in us the joy of your grace and salvation. Give us visions and dreams of better ways to share your love and grace. Help us to practice resurrection. Help us to remember that we are the children of the resurrection through our faith in your Son Jesus. Thanks, God.
 Not her real name. The situation is real, but my memory of the details may be faulty.
 MaryAnn McKibben Dana, “A Life That Matters,” Sunday’s Coming (Lent 2B), Christian Century, received in email Mon, Feb 22, 2021 at 10:00 AM.
 Thomas B. Slater in Feasting on the Gospels – Mark
 The Awakening of Hope, Session 1 on StudyGateway.com