Why do you seek the living among the dead?

(I delivered this sermon for Easter Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 31st 2013.)

Reading: “Easter Morning” from Mark 16

Most scholars think that the Gospel of Mark, the second book of the New Testament, was written thirty or forty years after Jesus’ death.  It’s the shortest of the gospels and was one of the sources used by both the authors of Matthew and Luke when those gospels were written some years later.

As I’ve said before, Mark can be quite cryptic if not downright mystifying in places.  Two of the many curious aspects of Mark’s gospel, though, are how it begins and ends: while it emphasizes Jesus’ miracles, which even his disciples repeatedly fail to understand, it says nothing about his birth and next-to-nothing about the resurrection.  Though some versions of the Bible have alternate endings that were apparently written in subsequent centuries, the oldest known versions of Mark simply end, in fact, with the following words, in the version that forms reading 623 in Singing the Living Tradition:

“On the first day of the week, at early dawn they came to the tomb, saying:  ‘Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?’

“They looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back, and on the right they saw a young man.  They were alarmed.  But the man said to them:  ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.  And they said nothing, for they were afraid.”

If you want to leave your audience hanging, and probably begging for a sequel, that’s a great way to end a book!

Anthem: “Sicut Cervus” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Sermon: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

I knew I could no longer consider myself a newcomer to the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science when the memorial service we were going to conduct at the 2005 conference was to be for a friend.

I’d been attending those conferences since 2000.  They were held on Star Island, which basks in the Gulf of Maine about ten miles off-shore from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and is home to a conference center that is affiliated with both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.  All throughout the Summer, different groups have different weeks on the island for their conferences and retreats, on topics from art and music and natural history to world affairs and science and spirituality.

The conferences organized by the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science took place from the end of July to the beginning of August each year.  I first attended because I’d heard about one of their conferences a few years before on the topic of the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the modern creation story of the Universe, the Solar System and Life on Earth.  The conferences I attend in the following years had titles like “Human Meaning in a Technological Culture”, “EcoMorality: Protecting the Earth as a Sacred Trust” and “Varieties of Spiritual Transformation: Scientific and Religious Perspectives”.  Influential theologians, scientists, philosophers and other scholars were invited as speakers, and the conferences were attended by a wide range of individuals and families, many of whom were Unitarian Universalists.

The conference not only included lectures and workshops, though, but also morning worship and more meditative evening “candle-light” services each day, as well as a Catholic Mass the first afternoon, a Jewish service for Shabbat the last afternoon and, toward the end of the week, a UU-style memorial service for former conference members who had died during the previous year.  I was always in the choir we put together during the week of the conference, and as well as learning pieces for the banquet and talent show on the last night of the conference, we prepared something for the memorial service, too.  The first few years I was there, I generally didn’t know the people whose lives we were celebrating.  They hadn’t often come to the conferences since I’d started attending, or if they had, I simply hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know them in amongst the hundred or more other attendees.  That changed in 2005 when I heard that Philemon had died, that the memorial service would be for him that year.

I’d become friends with Philemon at the second or third conference I attended.  He had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution — and not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.  He was a successful children’s book author and had become interested in the Epic of Evolution, probably at the same conference a few years before that I’d heard about, but he hadn’t quite realized how much he’d bitten off in accepting the challenge to write a children’s book — in rhyme, no less — about some pretty involved science.  I was doing biomedical imaging research at the time, with a background in physics but starting to take classes at Hartford Seminary, and so Philemon thought I could answer some of his questions about the science he was trying to convey through poetry.  As it turned out, we’d both been to Princeton, me for physics and him for architecture.  I found out he’d designed a number of private and public buildings in Rhode Island before he changed careers to become an author.

I was living in Connecticut, and Philemon was always happy for me to stop by whenever I was in Boston, to have dinner with him and his wife or to go for a walk with his beloved spinonis — which are big, shaggy, truffle-hunting dogs from Italy.  They lived in a brownstone in the Back Bay neighborhood, a row-house that was only one room wide on each of its four or five floors, within walking distance of the Prudential Center and easy to get to on the T.  Our dinner conversations would be wide-ranging, covering science and religion, architecture and politics, the places they liked to visit and the people they had known.  I always looked forward to visiting Philemon and Judy Sue.

One Spring I was in the area, visiting the Andover Newton Theological School as a possible place for completing my seminary studies.  I let Philemon know I was in town, and he immediately invited me to visit.  He was hosting a party with some friends, nothing too formal or even for a particular occasion, but just for the enjoyment.  In the course of chatting with him that evening, he off-handedly mentioned that he was being treated for some illness.  Well, full of life and with his usual big grin and plentiful laughs, he didn’t seem sick.  He wasn’t very specific about what was wrong, and he seemed pretty optimistic about his treatment.  I saw him again later that year, at the conference on Star Island, and he continued to seem fine, but less than a year later he was dead.  An obituary on the website of the Princeton University Class of 1952 said he died of a lung infection.  Looking back I think he probably had some sort of leukæmia, like that which killed my father-in-law five years ago.

So the memorial service at that Summer’s conference on Star Island was the first where we celebrated the life of somebody I’d really known, someone I considered a friend.  It was hard to get through the piece we’d picked to sing for that service, the same piece that our choir sang a few minutes ago, “Sicut Cervus” by Palestrina.  It was hard to say goodbye, as it always is, to someone who had been so full of joy in simply being alive.

And I realized something about what it means to be part of a community for any length of time.  When we held that memorial service for Philemon, I’d actually been part of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science for longer than I’d really been part of anything else, except for my own biological family.  Between graduate school and then post-doctoral positions, I’d moved around the country quite a bit.  I found myself an expert at moving, only not out of choice, as a friend once put it.  I hadn’t stayed in one place long enough to get to know enough people that I had become friends with one of them who had then died.  I realized, though, that that’s what inevitably happens when we become part of a real community.  It’s what we risk happening — and let’s just say “what we risk happening to us”, because that’s certainly how it feels — when we open ourselves to being part of a community.

And that’s true of this community, this faith community, as much as of any other.  I’m in the home stretch of my third year here at the Fellowship, and in that time I’ve led memorial services for, in chronological order: C—, who I had never met; D—, who I had visited a few times; L—, who I had gotten to know somewhat; and, most recently, J—, who I had gotten to know more and had worked with on our Sunday Services Committee.

Now it would be easy, in a more melancholy moment, to look back at those who have died and see not only the loss of those wonderful people themselves, but to see in them some loss of our sense of community, too, because they were parts of our community, even parts of our own identity.  Looking to reclaim what was, we are like those who went to the tomb that morning.  Like them, we find the tomb empty, because what was can never be again.  And whether or not there was a young man to the right of the entrance to the tomb, we are asked the same question:  Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Now in each and every one of those memorial services, I speak of our reasons for gathering to remember and celebrate the life we wish to honor.  One of those reasons I explain as follows:  We gather to remind ourselves that with our lives we continue to give life to the memory of our dear one.  We gather to remind ourselves that she or he lives on in us, challenging us to take what was best in her or his life into our own.

Mark doesn’t say what the female disciples did after fleeing the empty tomb in terror and amazement, other than noting that they were too afraid to talk about what they had seen.  The gospels of Matthew, Luke and John talk about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the commission he then gave the disciples to preach the good news to all the nations, but Mark’s gospel simply ends.  We’re left to grapple with that question by ourselves:  Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Taken at face value, most of us don’t seek the living among the dead — at last not very often.  Part of working through grief — whether or not that’s described by the model proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in terms of progressive stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — is coming to grips with the fact that life goes on, that dwelling in the empty tomb isn’t healthy and that we must return to the land of the living where there is joy to be found in simply being alive.  Being fixated on the past, going beyond nostalgia to obsession with what was but can never be again, means not living in the present, dismissing the possibilities for happiness now and the future.

And yet, forgetting our dear ones is generally not an option either.  To do so would be to deny ourselves, to dismiss who we are thanks to them, to pretend that we are something other than who they helped us to become.  Seeking the living while rejecting the dead is just as much as problem as seeking the living among the dead.  The better path is somewhere in between, a third way that balances what was but is no longer with what is and might yet be.

Kathleen McTigue, who until recently was minister to the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut and is now director of the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, wrote a liturgy of remembrance that takes that third way.  It’s one of the readings included in our grey hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and I’d like us to take the opportunity offered by Easter Sunday to read it together.  We’ll do it as a responsive reading — I’ll read the parts in roman type if you will read together the parts in italics — and at the very end, I invite you to call out the names of those we count among our beloved dead, both those who were part of this congregation and those we knew in our lives beyond these walls.  Together we shall name those who gave us and who continue to lend us strength in our lives.  So, please turn to reading number 721, “They Are with Us Still” by Kathleen McTigue.

“In the struggles we choose for ourselves, in the ways we move forward in our lives and bring our world forward with us,

“it is right to remember the names of those who gave us strength in this choice of living.  It is right to name the power of hard lives well-lived.

“We share a history with those lives.  We belong to the same motion.

“They too were strengthened by what had gone before.  They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.

“Those who lived before us, who struggled for justice and who suffered injustice before us, have not melted into the dust, and have not disappeared.

“They are with us still.  The lives they lived hold us steady.

“Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves.  Their courage and love evoke our own.  We, the living, carry them with us: we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.

“We take them with us, and with them choose the deeeper path of living.”

May we keep the dear souls we have named — and those whose names remain in our hearts, unspoken — in blessed memory.  May their words and their deeds continue to strengthen us, not only in our individual lives and in the daily struggles we face, but in this beloved community, where we aspire to live up to the promise that they bequeathed to us.  For we, the living, are their voices, their hearts and their hands.  Their memory calls us to live in the present, open to the possibilities of the future, one in history with them, and one in hope.

So may it be.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] few weeks ago I talked about someone I’d met through an organization called the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  Philemon had been […]

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