Last night we stripped the altar. Slowly darkened the sanctuary. We turned off the light that shines through the Christ window. In silence everyone left the Sanctuary. Darkness descended. We began our wait for the inevitable the death of Jesus.
Today we face it. Gone are the colorful vestments. Jesus and the cross are shrouded. But we re here again. Drawn to confront the starkness of this day. To try and grasp just what is good about this Friday.
Some theologian once said the preacher should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
This is the day.
In one hand I hold the death of Christ as told in the Gospel of John. In the other I hold the life of Terry Schiavo as told in the newspapers, on the radio, and the television. The juxtaposition of the two, for me, seemed almost overwhelming as this week has progressed.
On Monday I fasted. I don t do this often. Several times during the year. Usually once or twice in Lent. I decided on this while I was at Roslyn last weekend at the Contemplative Retreat. I decided that I would fast on Monday and on Friday.
I thought of this as I imagined myself sitting at the foot of a tall wooden cross, and thinking of Christ s body hanging there. Thinking of Christ having no food, no liquids except a taste of sour wine. But it was really Terry that did it.
I think it was all those pictures of her face on TV. The same picture run over and over again. Was that a bit of a smile I saw on her face? Was that a flicker of recognition as her mother bent over her?
Where is Terry Schiavo really on this continuum we call life and death? Who s to say?
Well, multiple courts, several legislative bodies, dozens of doctors and experts, her family by blood and by marriage and millions of people have weighed in on this one. Millions of people have tuned in all over the country and they are forming a judgment on what we call death. They are watching, waiting, arguing, blaming, crying, pleading or turning away in disgust as a feeding tube is removed and hydration withheld.
Is Terry Schiavo in agony or euphoria as her body methodically and certainly shuts down? As her life appears to dim?
Her life s a spectacle. Her life hangs in a thinning thread amidst painful, blaming, raging controversy. Life or death? Which will win?
How ironic, how eerie it is to have her story weave through Holy Week. How familiar this sounds to a gospel story with a cast of hundreds, not millions. That is if we leave the story to the past. But we don t. We are within the crowd of millions who are bystanders to Christ s death. His death is an event that has life to it way beyond the first century.
I fasted from Sunday night to Tuesday morning just from food. I did have water and green tea and one glass of skim milk just before bed Monday night. And I tuned into my body how it felt, what was happening or not happening. And I tuned into my heart how it felt, what was happening in there. And thought of Jesus. And thought of Terry.
The fasting: it was such a small thing I did. It was the only thing I could think of. It was like praying in some space between their living and their dying. I felt closer to them.
I thought of times I have been in the midst of life turning into death. Times I have been a bystander during the thin time between life and death.
At MCV as a chaplain intern I remember sitting in sterile rooms under florescent lights with doctors and nurses and family members talking about withdrawing life support. Some families argued about what to do, some agreed. Some decided to withdraw support, some did not.
I remember sitting in the room with one family as the life support system was turned off for the one they loved, his wife, their mother. Holding hands and praying and then simply sitting there. Hearing the switches turned off, the respirator becoming motionless. Hearing a whisper of a breath and then silence.
I remembered the time I was a presenter at a seminar several years ago. I was speaking about mediation and end-of-life decision making. A man came up to me after the session, a lawyer who you would think would have things more together than he did. He asked me if I would be a mediator for his family. He and his brothers and sister couldn t agree on whether or not to keep their mother on life support. She was in a vegetative state after a stroke.
He bluntly asked, Torrence, would you be willing to mediate a pull the plug case? I backed off. All of them were in Florida except this one son in Virginia who wanted to keep Mom alive, no matter what. The family was falling apart in anger and bitterness. They ve got a lot of good mediators in Florida, I said. But I knew inside it wasn t simply the logistics that scared me off.
But I remember telling him. Whatever you all do, listen to each other, spend some time discerning how you re going to be as a family when this is over. Not just for you and your siblings, but for your children and their children to come. Anger and conflict can lodge in our DNA and its poison spread to the next generation and the next.
I remember a minister at Westminster Canterbury. He was dying. Or rather as I began to call it, he was in the dying process. We never really know exactly when death is going to happen, so it seems to make sense to call it a process. As the body shuts down.
He was peaceful and quiet, not in a coma, but non-responsive, as we would say.
He s always loved the psalms, his daughter told me. And so one afternoon I sat beside his bed and started with the usual ones. You know the ones; you could guess them. The 121 st I lift up mine eyes to the hills. . . . The 103 rd Bless the Lord O my soul . . . . The 139 th O Lord, you have searched me out and known me . . . . And, of course, the 23 rd The Lord is my shepherd . . . .
As I spoke the old familiar words my voice dipped into the river of voices that have said or sung or prayed these psalms for thousands of years. And then I turned to the beginning and leafed slowly through them all, stopping and reading, literally, as the spirit moved me. I probably read about twenty or twenty-five Psalms.
I finally reached the last one, Psalm 150. It starts and ends with Hallelujah! and every other line but the last begins with Praise God, Praise him! I almost didn t read it. But, I did. And as I read the final verse of this final psalm, Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah! he drew one last breath and then was still.
And finally I remember a case at MCV.
It was a rainy night on a two-lane highway near the Virginia North Carolina border. The grandfather was driving. Grandmother was in the front passenger seat. Three grandchildren sat side by side in the back.
No one really knows how fast the truck was going when it slammed into them. But it did.
And in the days to come after the children were med-vaced to MCV, a mother and father made decisions no parent should ever have to make. Life and death decisions. Not once but twice.
Two of the children who had massive brain trauma were placed on life support for several days. Then, when that stretched-thin moment between life and death was reached a special surgical team harvested the organs and tissue from their small bodies.
I was on duty and in the room during the night the necessary staff and the Life Net representative were frantically coordinating the allocation of the 6 year old little boy s organs. Time was running out for the surgical team waiting to start the harvesting. But matches were found and confirmed and the team went into action. A dying process became one of life giving.
We face death today. I don t mean to glorify it with a string of stories. You and I can t take away its sting not today or any day. We ve all felt its pain as we ve lost someone we ve loved. But I do know this. Somehow, deep in the fiber of my being, I know that death is not the final word.
So I lay aside the stories and drop the newspapers and turn off the TV. I finally hold only the Good Book on this Good Friday. And I read and re-read the old story. I stand on the sidelines, centuries later. I hear a weary Christ say It is finished. I see Christ lay down his life, bow his head, and send his spirit back home. It goes, back into the river of eternal life which flows out of a tomb as the stone is rolled away.
I remember times I have sat with others at the entrance of a tomb, as darkness falls. And somehow I have sensed the power, the certainty and the grace of stones being rolled away and something new going forth.
We delude ourselves when we believe life rests in our hands. That we can be judge and jury of what constitutes death. At times we can say yes or no to physical life, satisfied or saddened that we may have that power.
Pilate asks Jesus, Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you? Jesus responds, You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.
Here rests the final truth the truth that Pilate and all the others couldn t grasp at the time of trial. That while we may think we have power to bring death, God has the final say.
We can cry out from the crowd, Crucify him, crucify him. We can wash our hands and turn away. We can stand at the foot of the cross with what feels like endless pain. We can cast lots for what we take away from the event. We can stay away in fear. We can withdraw feeding tubes, or put them in. We can order life support or pull the plug on it. But we do not have the final say over life.
No human, either alone or with others, is the final court, the court of last resort supreme or otherwise. No human system to which we appeal can render the final decision, Reversed or Denied Life or Death.
God is it: our Court of last resort. And Christ is our doorway to God. Christ is the ultimate advocate who pleads our case one who dies doing so that we might have life.
God will tear asunder any curtain we use to veil his love. And he will, as he wills, and in his own time, break us open break open our hearts free the spirit that He planted in us at creation. God has the final word. And he will bring life out of the mess we make of our existence.
As it is written, God s breath moves over his creation. He brings forth life out of chaos. He spoke at the beginning and he will speak at our last, Let there be light. And so it was, and so it will be forever and ever.
Leave the darkness of this sanctuary now, but return on Sunday to walk into the light and find the Promise fulfilled.
I came, that you may have life.