“Timor Mortis”

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on July 1, 2018.

“Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.” (St. Mark 5:21ff.)

Do you know how much human life has changed just in the last hundred years? I’m not thinking abut airplanes and television and computers and space travel, I’m thinking about human life: human life has changed. I’m thinking about Jairus and his little daughter and issues of life and death.

My father, born at the beginning of the twentieth century was the youngest of some twelve or thirteen children. I don’t think he knew himself how many. He was the youngest and several of his siblings had died before he was born and he never knew them. I can only account for five who were still around when I was growing up toward the middle of the century, only five who had survived into middle age. My mother was one of eight or nine of whom I also knew only five. Several of her siblings died in childbirth or infancy and she never knew them. My parents on the other hand, had four children and they all grew up and three are still around. My wife and I had four and they are all still here. with ages between 50 and 60. Life expectancy in 1900 was less than that, less than fifty; now it’s upwards of 75. Infant mortality over the 20th century declined by 90%. Our lives have changed that much just in the last hundred years.

I’ve just finished a book about a man who died in 1865. He and his wife had ten children of whom five died before the age of six. That was typical. Three of them died in the span of six weeks one summer in a cholera epidemic. Can you imagine having four children and losing three of them, not all at once, but one this week and one the next week and a third several weeks after that? Six months later he wrote to a friend, “The first sharp bitterness is past,” but “oh it is sad to have no children playing around the hearthstone. I try, and may God give me the Grace to succeed, to look into other little glad eyes, and listen to other little glad voices; and I try to reason myself out of the selfishness that they are not mine. Oh that meeting hereafter!”

There’s a prayer in the Prayer Book that asks God to make us “deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life . . .” It was written in the 17th century I don’t think they needed it. If they didn’t know life was short and uncertain, they weren’t paying attention. I think we need it now more than they ever did. But Jesus lived in that other world and so did Jairus.

We heard in the gospel how Jairus “Fell down at Jesus’ feet” – this distinguished leader in his community fell face down in the dust to ask for Jesus’ help – and begged him repeatedly to come to his little daughter lying at the point of death. I think we an understand where he was coming from. Yes, it was common for small children to die, but that made it no easier for their parents. To lose a child is never easy, whether to death or American border guards. These days neither should happen and thank goodness the threat of disease and death at least is greatly diminished. Or has it? What about our world? I remember Fr. Schmidt talking about how the AIDS epidemic hit this parish not that long ago and killed so many. What other virus is lurking out there that might hit some other population or all of us?

I went back to Connecticut last week to dedicate a gravestone for my wife – and me – and I preached at the small country church that I served for the last four years before I moved here to California. The gospel last Sunday was the story of Jesus and his disciples in a storm on the Lake of Galilee and when they woke Jesus up, he asked them, “Why are you afraid?” Why? They were afraid of dying, that’s why. It’s normal to fear dying.

So death and the fear of death is a common theme this week and last, and if you get on the subject of the fear of death in the northwest corner of Connecticut you can’t help think about Sandy Hook and the twenty children and six teachers and staff gunned down one morning five and a half years ago. I think it’s like Pearl Harbor and Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11: if you were alive at that time, you remember where you were. I was in my car between my home and the church I was serving when the first reports came in. Sandy Hook was about 25 miles from that church. People had friends there. I knew the parish priest who lost children from the church school. Since then there’s been Parkland and Houston and an average of one school shooting every week this year – to say nothing of non-school shootings like the one in Annapolis on Thursday.

Did you see the interview with the girl in Parkland who said she wasn’t surprised by the shooting She expected it would happen, she said; the only question was, When. Do your children or grandchildren go to school with that assumption, that expectation: it’s just a question of when? So mothers wonder when the phone rings, when the cell phone goes off during the school day, whether this time it’s their school, their child. Jairus’ world had no cure for disease and we have no cure for guns. It’s a sickness that leads to death. But maybe some ways Jairus’ world was safer. At least there were no guns. But one way or another, death and the fear of death have not changed that much over the centuries.

I remember an old Scottish poem I came across years ago with the repeated refrain: “Timor mortis conturbat me:” “Fear of death distresses me” Let me read you just a very short bit of a very long poem with the Scottish dialect cleaned up but the Latin tag line still in place.

I that in health once was and gladness,
Am troubled now with sick and sadness,
And feebled with infirmity;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the dead go all estates,
Princes, prelates, and potentates,
Both rich and poor of all degree;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spares no lord for his presence,
Nor clerk for his intelligence;
His awful stroke may no man flee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quick Patrick Johnston might not flee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Since he has all my brothers tane,
He will not let me live alane,
It seems I may his next prey be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That’s just a few of the many verses that make the point, rub it in, insist we pay attention. Well, that was six or seven hundred years ago but in the largest sense nothing has changed: death is still out there, and still disturbing. There’s a more recent American litany of the fear of death that skips the Latin and says it in plain English. You can find You-tube recordings by Lead Belly and Johnny Cash. I used to have a CD of Paul Robeson singing it and I would play it driving back and forth between Sharon and Bantam, Connecticut, between my home and the church. There were other songs on the same disc, but this one speaks to the subject of death and dying. You may know it yourself in some other version.

“There’s a man agoing round taking names, taking names;
There’s a man agoing round taking names;
he has taken my father’s name and has left my soul in pain;
there’s a man agoing round taking names.”

There’s a verse for every member of the family:

“There’s a man agoing round taking names, taking names,
There’s a man agoing round taking names,
he has taken my wife’s name and has left my soul in pain
there’s a man a-going round taking names.”

Does it make it easier to deal with somehow if we make poems or sing about it? The first reading today told us, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” That raises more theological and philosophical problems than I can deal with in one sermon. All I tell you this morning is, it’s here and it’s real and we have to deal with it. That’s where the gospel comes in.

Death is real and we have to deal with it. Sometimes we encounter it early. My grandmother lived with us when I was small and died when I was seven. I remember the open casket in the living room. My best friend died suddenly not yet 50. That was hard. My sister was killed in a climbing accident, also not yet 50 And last October, my wife died. I’ll come back to that because that was different – that was qualitatively different.

I think it was fear of death that terrified those disciples on the lake: the boat might sink – and they couldn’t swim. They were afraid of dying. They were afraid of that ultimate border between the known and the unknown: the fear of death. You can’t fix that by voting or volunteering or contributing. You can contribute to cancer research and so on and postpone it but it’s still out there. Average life expectancy, as I said, is a lot longer than it was a century ago but there’s still an average number that includes everybody sooner or later. The bottom line death rate remains 100%. There’s a “sell by” date which I have already passed. and you can’t postpone it forever.

Of course, whatever happened that night on the lake was only background to what happened in Jerusalem. They had given Jesus their lives, left everything to follow him, and then he, too, was dead, gone, beyond reach, and they were abandoned, and alone, and hopeless, and afraid. They hadn’t been listening, you see. They hadn’t been paying attention. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them. Jesus shared their fear of death, but faced it for them and came again, rose again, to show them there was no reason to fear. And they went out with that message: He is risen; death is conquered; we are free of the fear of death forever. Christ has won the victory, conquered death, and offers us the gift of resurrection life.

Now, I’ve believed that, more or less, my whole life. But I’ve learned something more this last year. My wife died, as I said, last October. I came here not long after that for a funeral service and last week we dedicated the stone that marks her burial place and mine. As I said, I’ve lost friends and family members before, but this was different, this was qualitatively different. What I’ve slowly realized as the days and weeks have gone by is that death has lost its sting, lost its terror. Husband and wife, we say, “become one flesh in holy matrimony” I take that seriously. I experienced it. And it means that I was involved in her death in a whole new way: that where she is, I am already – and how can I be afraid of being there forever?

As I asked myself questions like that – came to that realization – I also realized in a whole new way, and at a deeper level what I have always claimed to believe at the very center of the Christian faith: that Jesus died, that he rose again to eternal life and that in him, I also have life. You see, just as I was joined in one body with my wife in marriage, so I was made one body with Jesus in baptism. And if they now live in resurrection life, so I also live that same life now, I begin now to share that life which is forever.

Now, I’m still planning to hang a round a good while longer. I’ve got lots of plans, lots of things to do, but when the time comes, as it will, a lot of the fear is gone, and should have been gone long ago because you and I are also one with Christ in baptism, and he also has passed through death into life and in him I share already the fuller, richer life still to come. And this life that we were given in baptism is the life we receive today at the altar: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Why are you afraid? You are the people of God in whom Christ is alive and in whom we live; in whom we have the gift and the promise of life both now and hereafter forever.

1 Comment

Frances R. BesmerJuly 1st, 2018 at 7:18 pm

Chris,
I’m very glad to see this again, having heard it last Sunday at St. Paul’s. But this is different, without the different kinds of fear, besides timor mortis.
I’d like to have been reminded that, “perfect love casts out fear,” a phrase which got me through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and life in Nigeria as a conspicuous minority in an all male-school.

And I’ve often noted that in the press, the precise number of deaths–at a school shooting, on the streets of Chicago each weekend, casualties of a terrorist attack or I.E.D.–is important to include. However, civilian deaths of “others”–collateral damage of military operations, earthquakes, mudslides, or of epidemics, cholera, AIDS, SARS,–are but vague estimates.

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