Sermon for 5th Lent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Last September I shared with you part of my story about my experiences on September 11, 2001. In that sermon, I shared how I spent much of that day on the telephone with the Rev. Stephen Bouman, then Bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of our church and a dear friend and how Kris and I were uncertain if the ELCA churchwide office, where we both worked at the time, might be another target since it was one of the tallest building near the O’Hare airport and how silly that sounds now but did not at that time. I also shared how Kris and I were able, several weeks later, to accompany then ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson on his first visit to “Ground Zero” in lower Manhattan and how we prayed from the Mayor’s viewing platform over the hole in the ground in the space where the Twin Towers once stood and how the hole still smoked and smelled of burning flesh.
Certainly the most powerful story I shared that weekend with you was one told to us by Bishop Bouman, the story of pastors and priests who, on September 11th, rushed to the World Trade Center site and began to anoint fire fighters with oil and the sign of the cross on their foreheads as these fire fighters entered both buildings. As the office workers came running down the stairs, fleeing the towers, the fire fighters went up the stairs to what we now know were their certain deaths, their anointed foreheads glistening with the mark of the cross. Similar to the last rights I shared this past week with Joan Fox, these pastors were literally sending the fire fighters on to heaven that day.
However, there is more to my story of that day that I did not share with you last September. After our delegation left the immediate Ground Zero site we stopped at St. Paul’s Chapel which stands directly across the street from where the Twin Towers stood.
St. Paul’s is one of the most historic churches in North America – built in 1766, it is the oldest church building still in use in New York City. Revolutionary War heroes are buried in its cemetery. George Washington may not have slept there, but he did worship there (and who knows if he might have slept through the sermon!)
St. Paul’s is now part of Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street and is an active congregation. But never has it been more active than in the days and weeks and months following September 11th. As we entered St. Paul’s we found it nearly wall to wall with people and buzzing with activity – St. Paul’s had become the center for Ground Zero workers and volunteers. Every inch of space was covered with respite and relief supplies and help – there was as clean sock station, a work glove station, a massage center, a work boot repair station. There was food and water and even chairs and a few cots for break time.
I was struck that in this historic place, where even the floors exude history, no one seemed to care about that history during those days – fire fighters and workers in heavy coats, helmets and dirty boots were everywhere. The floor was definitely going to need to be refinished after this rescue and relief operation was ended. The church, inside and out, was covered with ribbons and posters and letters and artwork of all kinds, from all over the United States and even all over the world.
And what struck me even more was that, in this place of death and deep sadness, there was great life: police and fire fighters working together, iron workers and crane operators forgetting unions and creating teams. Doctors and restaurant owners and Julliard students and even Holocaust survivors working together – ladling out soup, restoring tired backs and stringing music into the air. There were pastors and priests and rabbis and imams praying over the site and counseling volunteers with the pastors and priests also sharing communion. The Ground Zero site and St. Pauls became a place of hospitality, God-given hospitality that gave birth to hospitality among people. Death was no longer an enemy to be feared, but a community that brought people together. Facing a place of death, dying to the fear of death, people emerged even more alive.
What the workers and volunteers said, almost to a person, was that they were there to help and to show that we were united as a nation and united as humans. In the face of death, there was a gift of life. Everyone spoke of this as a life-changing experience.
Kris and I had both seen similar scenes in other disaster response efforts. It was also a scene similar to what I have heard described by many soldiers who have been in the midst of war and combat: Human hatreds and evil and the death they produce create the most stark demonstrations of our mortality and finiteness. But, if we let them, these situations also allow us to be transformed; in death we experience our common humanity with the entire world. And it changes us.
This is what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel lesson when he said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” If it falls into the dank, dark, steaming, humus-y soil, into the darkness of death, into the destruction and decaying remains of life, if it falls into the ground, it will burst open, find the light, and become so much more of what it was created to be. It will swell from a tiny seeds, a mere hint of what could follow, and explode into a life-bearing producer of food for the world.
Jesus tells us that death precedes life. Not the other way around. Death precedes life, not the other way around.
That is quite different from what we usually think, isn’t it? We usually think that life precedes death. And we live that way. The world only reinforces this view, too. We make super-human efforts to prolong our lives.
And, too often, we believe that fending off death will save us, but Jesus says that such an attempt will always destroy us. That’s why Jesus says in today’s text, “Those who love their life will lose it.” Jesus tells us to let go - If we give up our lives and even fall into the ground, we will find the ground to be God. Find the ground to be the place of new life.
This is not an easy-to-understand concept – it does not make sense in this world’s standards. Embracing our finiteness does not seem to be the way we would find infinity. But it turns out to be so and Jesus knows it. Because Jesus led the way.
Those seekers who, in today’s Gospel lesson, asked to see Jesus, did not get the response from Jesus they expected. But what they did get from Jesus was an important response and was what they really needed.
If we really believed that we have died with Christ and now have new life with and in Christ, we would not need Ground Zero responses to show us how divisions can be healed and new life in Christ is available to us and everyone.
You see, is it our calling as Christians to live as if each piece of ground were Ground Zero, as if every church, not just St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, stood alongside a place of death. Because, in truth, all ground is Ground Zero. All ground is a place of death, where new life is longing to be found. Every church stands alongside a place where human hatreds and evil create a world that desperately needs salvation. If we truly have been buried with Christ, our lives, our churches, our communities, will all become places where the hatreds of this world are absorbed and transformed. Where all those who gather in the shadow of death will fear it no more, where lives already dead in Christ explode into life for the world, where communities of oneness emerge, in the common recognition of our oneness in God and where death is swallowed up in life forever, because all of our own ground zeros have become the ground of our being.
Jesus knows this. Jesus wants you to know this also. Our deaths are not something to fear. Our finiteness becomes a place to receive infinity – when we stand in the place of death, we also stand at the gate of life. Falling into the ground is not an end but only a beginning.
In Jesus, our lives can become what they are meant to be. Death is not something to fear. Our lives can become all that they were created for and all the ground we walk on can become ground zero and holy.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Death and Life
Sermon for 5th Lent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Wednesday,March 21/22, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica