What Needs to Die?

November 4, 2018
Reverend Meghan K. Gage-Finn

Ruth 1:6-18

This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.

It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.

A few years ago I was talking with a member of the congregation whose parent’s name was going to be read and lifted up in prayer in the morning service. He had a very conflicted relationship with this parent and had long before let the idyllic, Hallmark card parent/child image die. He was feeling pained about what emotions might surface in worship, knowing feelings around his parent’s death were so complicated. There was sadness and grief still, to be sure, but the day represented something else, the reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.

This conversation caused me to think about All Saints’ Day in a new way and it has stuck with me since. It has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, “What needs to die?”

I know, it is an ominous question to have projected on an 18’ x 10’ screen.

An initial pass at the story of Ruth and Naomi will certainly surface a lot of death, first of Naomi’s husband Elimilech, and then her two sons. There is no argument to be made from the text that they needed to die, nor is it one I make, as the three women are left widowed and without any progeny and with no power or standing or support in society. Some of you may remember the end of this passage, after Orpah has returned home, when Ruth pledges her devotion to stay with and follow Naomi. It is sometimes read at weddings, though we skip over the death and hunger and separation and vulnerability for that joyful occasion. “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” These aren’t promises said between two married partners, but rather said by a daughter-in-law who now has no obligation to the mother of her deceased husband.

There are cultural and religious norms at play for Ruth and Naomi, which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship.[1]

Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, “The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which began at a time when congregations were leaving the denomination over theological differences. This organization seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT and it should be noted that the organization was started by predominantly large, influential, white churches with resources- like Westminster. And, yes, Westminster was one of the founding congregations. In 2015, the entirely white leadership team of NEXT Church set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.

I was in the meeting in Chicago when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.

I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization. And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together. We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.

As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life- sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.

It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.

On the recommendation of a good friend, I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day!

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, “‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.’”[3] I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: “It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death- losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.” For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.

Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, “We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day- we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.

To return to Gawande, a thread throughout the book is the story of his own father’s mortality. Both men, as physicians, had to come to terms with the elder Gawande’s battle against disease or taking the path of giving over to the relentless progress of the body’s decline. He shares the story of choices made and eventually of his father’s death at the end of the book. Through this, he comes to the realization that he has been wrong about his job in medicine, that it needn’t be only about ensuring health and survival, but that it must be more than that, it must be about ensuring well-being. He says, “Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

So once we name the things that need to die- racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?

What are my fears and what are my hopes?

What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?

And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?[5]

Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.

The leadership board for NEXT Church met in Seattle early last month for two days and it was the first time we had all been together in person since a meeting 6 months before, when many of our issues and concerns came to a head. During worship in Seattle, we wrote on strips of cloth the things we needed to let go of, in ourselves, within NEXT Church, in our faith communities…essentially we wrote out what we needed to let die. We dipped the cloth strips in a bowl of water to symbolize being made new in the waters of baptism, of being claimed by Christ and claimed by one another in community. And the next day we tied the strips together around a giant wooden cross in the center of the Chapel, and shared in a prayer that was a collection of what we had all offered, what we all named needed to die. While specific to the work of NEXT Church, perhaps some of what was shared might ring true in your circles and your walk of faith.

What Needs to Die?

Power & Privilege

Supremacy & Superiority

The privilege of being silent

What Needs to Die?

The desire to be innocent

Power that is not shared with others

The need to be right

Blindness

What Needs to Die?

Ego

Perfection

Comfort

Fear of being confronted with my own complicity

The church as it is

What Needs to Die?

Anger

Bitterness

Resentment

Conflict

My separation from my suffering siblings

What needs to die?

So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions- what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life?

Silence…

Let us pray,

This is the Good News we know- you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2616

[2] Nouwen, Henri J. Nouwen and Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55.

[4] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5243

[5] Gawande, 259.

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