“I have been half in love with easeful death,”
the poet John Keats wrote.
“I have been half in love with easeful death.”
It is an honor and a pleasure to speak to seminarians
to whom we will entrust the future of the Church
if we choose to have a future.
I am especially pleased the Gospel lesson speaks to
a subject that is of great importance to us – necrophilia.
“I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme
To take into the air my quiet breath.
Now (2017) more than ever seems it rich to die.”
My concern isn’t the sexual kink of intercourse with corpses.
The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that the sexual perversion
is rooted in a deeper, more widespread, and dangerous
character disorder that is all too fond of death.
Fromm called it characterological necrophilia.
It corresponds to Freud’s teaching that we are torn
between the life force of Eros and Thanatos,
the impulse toward death.
My old Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa,
called it “Setting Sun Mentality.”
He meant when you look at a painting of a sun hanging
half-way over the horizon,
you assume it is setting instead of rising.
We see this attitude in our Gospel lesson.
Jairus asked Jesus to heal his daughter,
but the people at Jairus’s house sent Jesus a message,
“She’s already dead. We don’t need you here.”
Despite them, Jesus insisted on going.
At the house the mourners were weeping and wailing,
Jesus said, “She is not dead. She is only sleeping.”
There are linguistic clues to when Jesus is using a figure of speech
rather than speaking literally.
The best reading of this text is that when Jesus says,
“She is not dead. She is sleeping,”
what he actually means is:
“She is not dead. She is sleeping.”
We might think this would be good news.
But that was not how they took it.
The old translation is stronger and more accurate. It says:
“They laughed him to scorn.”
These mourners did not want Jesus
raining any sunshine on their parade of grief.
You may not believe this now.
But after you’ve made a dozen death watches
and called on enough grieving families,
you’ll see it’s true.
The friends and neighbors gather to offer consolation.
It is a good and holy thing.
But if you look a 16h of an inch behind their sorrowing features
you’ll see something in them
that is enjoying this a little too much.
There is a seductive quality to grief.
Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
when Lancelot’s squire has been shot.
Lancelot launches into a soliloquy about avenging his death,
but the squire interrupts, “I’m not quite dead yet.”
Lancelot vows to avenge his squire who lies mortally wounded.
But the squire says, “Actually, I’m feeling much better.”
This cultural love of death, according to Freud and Fromm,
is the psychological breeding ground of racism,
genocide, war, totalitarianism and a plethora of social ills.
It is a short step from laughing Jesus to scorn
to nailing him to a cross.
A cultural bias toward death
leads us into deeply troubled political waters.
Christians -- as followers of the Lord of Life,
the one who breathed life into Adam,
who set before Israel the choice of life or death
and commanded them to choose life,
who sent his son that believers should not perish but live –
Christians are on the side of life.
We are against death.
That is what makes our current ecclesiastical necrophilia
so out of character.
Academics, clergy, and church journalists
are posting obituaries of the Church on every doorpost.
They persist despite Robert Putnam’s book American Grace
showing that that their grim statistic are misconstrued.
They write about life cycles of congregations
as if churches are all fated to die in a matter of decades,
though we know full well the world has churches
that have been around for centuries,
having their ups and downs.
but not doomed by any deterministic timeline.
There is a new clergy specialty in euthanizing congregations.
I assure you, any fool can kill a church.
The art, the wisdom, and grace are in stirring up
the energies of life and mission.
More and more parish clergy
are getting certified as hospice chaplains.
Dispatching dying individuals is simpler
than a nurturing relationship with a living community.
Ministry to the dying is a holy and worthy calling.
But, this is my one appeal to you seminarians,
if your basic clergy identity is Charon ferrying people
across the River Styx,
then be a hospice chaplain and keep away from the Church.
In Nevada, our urban parishes are growing.
Our rural parishes are holding steady,
but demographically, they are getting younger.
We are serving those in need and aggressively engaged
in broad-based community organizing
for social justice advocacy – important causes we are winning.
I don’t say this to brag – just to show you that Deuteronomy is right.
We have some choice between life and death.
Perhaps we are “half in love with easeful death.”
But Jesus calls us to life – abundant life.
If the Church were just a social club and not the Body of Christ,
the continuing Incarnation in a broken bleeding world,
then choosing to die needlessly might be our own business.
But, as it stands, we are feeding the characterological necrophilia,
the Thanatos Syndrome, the Setting Sun Mentality
of our wider culture.
We are doing it at a time when racism, homophobia, xenophobia,
warmongering, totalitarianism, and all the manifestations
of the death wish are running amok --
a time when the environment that sustains life
is under radical attack.
We are not choosing death for our Church alone
but for all those people God loves so much
he gave his only son that they might live.
So, if you will indulge me, I’ll close with a gospel story
especially for you.
An old man who loved his Church stopped Jesus on the road and said,
“My Church is dying. Come lay hands on her and she will live.”
Jesus joined the old man and headed toward the Church.
But those keeping the death watch outside the church door
sent a journalist who stopped Jesus on the road.
He handed Jesus the obituary – it was a print out from a blog post –
and said, “Do not come here, Jesus.
The Church is already dead. We don’t need you.”
But Jesus kept on going.
Outside the church door,
he found some bishops, priests, and a few seminary professors
all weeping and wailing that the Church was dead.
Jesus said, “Friends, don’t cry. The Church is not dead.
She is only sleeping.”
But the bishops, priests, and seminary professors
laughed Jesus to scorn.
That’s when Jesus looked a 16th of an inch behind
their sorrowing faces and saw that
something in them was enjoying the Church’s death
a little too much.
So, Jesus turned his back their self-indulgence.
He marched into the church house
bold as brass, as if he owned the place, and said,
“Talitha cum! Talitha cum! Talitha cum!”