The tension of living and dying well
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
It’s six days before the Passover, and you are on your way to Jerusalem. You stop a mile or so outside the city, in the village of Bethany, so you might have dinner at your friend Lazarus’ house. His sister Martha, known for her hospitality, has prepared a beautiful meal. One of Lazarus’ friends, Jesus of Nazareth and his inner circle of followers, are also at the table. As you break bread together, Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, retrieves a jar of what looks to be costly perfume and sits down at Jesus’ feet. She begins to anoint his feet with perfume, and then wiped them dry with her hair. It seems a profoundly intimate thing to do; it was almost as if she was anointing his body for burial. Then things grew even more uncomfortable when another guest, Judas Iscariot, challenged Jesus as to why he was allowing Mary to waste such an expensive jar of perfume on him, when they could have sold it for three hundred denarii and helped the poor. You consider stepping out for some fresh air while these folks sort out their business, when Jesus says something that stops you in your tracks. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).
What ends a dinner party faster than discussions of religion and politics? Death. Just as none of the guests at Lazarus’ table wanted to keep talking after Jesus spoke of his nearing death, our culture avoids looking at our own mortality head on. Instead we are inundated with messages from social media, news, medical professionals, and friends that tells us the things we must do to maintain our youth. And since it feels good to feel young, we buy in, often hook, line, and sinker. Yet, that is not what our faith asks of us.
Have you noticed that starting with Ash Wednesday, the readings in Lent have been focused on our mortality?
This theme continues today and all the way through Holy Week. We are being asked to consider our own mortality, to grapple with what it means to live well and to die well.
I hope that every week we leave here with a renewed sense of how we are called to live as followers of Christ. There is a reason you hear us end so many worships with, “My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us...” There is no time to waste. God is inviting us to live well now, as there are no guarantees of tomorrows. We have this day. We have right now. How will we live a life of love? Yet as important as living well, is planning well for our death.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on p.445 is a little known instruction that asks parish priests to talk to their community about planning well for death. It reads as follows: “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”
According to the Diocese of California, 50% of Americans die without a valid will, and allow the state courts to distribute their assets however the state thinks best. They also note that spring is a common time to write wills because of upcoming summer travels. I think it also makes sense that we would think about making wills, planning our burial services, our healthcare wishes, and any legacy gifts in the lead up to Holy Week. As we grapple with Jesus’ looming death, might we consider our own mortality.
A will or trust is a testament of our faith and values. Our will is one final chance to tell the people we leave behind what matters to us. It is a chance to ensure our children and loved ones are well cared for. It is a chance to give back to our faith community with a legacy gift. Alice Kells’ legacy gift allowed for the renovation of the lower level to include a three story lift, making our entire parish hall building accessible. Whitney Robbins’ legacy gift allowed for funds to sponsor our mission to the community, particularly Whitney’s Pantry. The John Whiteman and Richardson Trust made a legacy gift that subsidizes nearly 10% of our annual budget each year.
In my first year serving former St. James, we were celebrating our bicentennial. Our Stewardship Chair at the time, Dennis O’Rourke, asked that all of us become legacy givers, before we then ask the congregation to consider doing the same. On the church’s end, this meant we would fill out the legacy giving form. On Jason’s and my end, it meant we had to create a will. We met with Kate Downes, an estate planning attorney in Shelburne Falls. We made decisions about who would have guardianship of our children should something happen to us, we made decisions around our healthcare, we named our legacy gifts and our beneficiaries. It had been a task nagging at us since our eldest was born, and it was a relief to have this work done. In addition to estate planning, we made healthcare decisions, and used the church’s form to plan our burial services. Seven years later, Jason and I are now 39 and 35. We do not own a house, but we do have other small assets, and more importantly, we have children that need to be well cared for. My point is, you can neither be too old or too young to do this work. It is a gift for those you leave behind, and it is a testimony of your faith. It is a way for you to take seriously our call to live life well now, and plan for a holy death.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to do this planning.
My friends, remember that life is short, and we must live well now, and plan well for those we will leave behind. While this life may come to an end, eternal life in Christ will be the next chapter.
At the end of the burial service we say a prayer that holds the tension of living and dying well, together:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (BCP 499).
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