February 24, 2019
(1 Corinthians 15:35-50; Luke 6:27-38)
Across the United States, sidewalk cafés are booming. Back in 1964, only about 30 such cafés existed in all of New York City. Fifty-five years later, the count is at 1,300 and climbing.
In 1971, a little place called Starbucks opened in Seattle. Possibly you’ve heard of it. By 2018, there were more than 29,300 around the world, and in many cities they now sit on nearly every corner. People seem to enjoy iced coffee, handcrafted smoothies, pastries, sandwiches and free Wi-Fi in a relaxed and comfortable setting. Starbucks is huge, and so is café culture whether the café has a sidewalk option or not.
But how about the “Death Café?” Not so huge. Not so relaxed. Not so comfortable.
The “Death Café” began in England about fifteen years ago. Although it sounds like a place for dying, it’s actually the opposite — it’s a place to make the most of your life through a greater awareness of death.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? Finding life through a focus on death.
As unusual as it is, it’s in line with the thinking of the apostle Paul who said, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36).
Death Cafés are basically discussion groups, and they can be virtually any size and structure. About all that unites them is the presence of people, tea and cake.
Why, someone might ask, would someone go to a Death Café?
Linda Potter will tell you why. She is a pastor’s wife and she was drawn to the Death Café by personal tragedy. In a four year span, she lost an aunt to brain cancer, her father to colon cancer and a nephew to drowning. As she grieved these losses, she asked herself and others the question, “How do you want to live, knowing you are going to die?”
She began to lead Death Café discussions at First Presbyterian Church in Canton, New York, and recruited participants from nearby colleges. She discovered that “as we become more comfortable in talking about our death, we become more alive in our living.”
We need these discussions today, because we live in a death-denying culture. If we talk about death at all, we do so in the most general terms, and rarely probe too deeply into the future reality of our own deaths.
Americans tend to emphasize youth and beauty, and spend huge amounts of money in attempts to reverse or mask the aging process. People don’t just buy moisturizer — they purchase “age-defying” moisturizer.
When we take sick people to hospitals, we expect heroic measures to be performed, even when patients are very old. Death typically occurs in hospitals or nursing homes these days, far from the center of family life. And when it does happen, we don’t even like to say that a person died. We euphemistically say they “passed away” or have “gone to a better place.” Literary types quote Shakespeare and say that a person has “shuffled off this mortal coil.” I am no different; I have referred to my St. Bernard’s death in the same way.
Fortunately, our Christian faith gives us the language we need to accept death as a fact of life. And as we become more comfortable talking about death, we become more alive in our living. Paul makes very clear that death is an essential part of eternal life with God, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Paul uses no euphemisms when he talks about death. In fact, he is very down-to-earth. Paul considers the physical body to be “a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.” Just as seeds need to go into the ground before growth can occur, our bodies have to die before we can experience resurrection life. “What is sown is perishable,” explains Paul, “what is raised is imperishable. … It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
The reality of death is central to our Christian faith, but not to our popular culture. In fact, what we see in many movies is the idea that dead people continue to hang around with living people — as ghosts. In the classic romantic film Ghost, a young man played by Patrick Swayze — who himself died of cancer in 2009 — is killed by a mugger, and then his ghost stays close to his girlfriend to protect her from danger.
In a more recent film called A Ghost Story, a man played by Casey Affleck is killed in a car crash, and then spends most of the movie stuck in his house, unable to communicate with his partner. There’s no real death and resurrection in these movies, just a ghostly continuation of life.
In contrast, the Christian faith understands death to be the end of our finite, earthly lives. We really will die, each and every one of us, not just float off to a better place. But the good news is that after death, we are raised in glory and in power. The value of the Death Café is that it forces us to take both death and resurrection seriously.
For Paul, resurrection is not the reanimation of dead flesh. Resurrection is rather the creation of a brand new spiritual body. “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body,” he writes. “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” After death, in most instances, our souls do not leave our bodies and fly around like ghosts. No, our physical bodies die, and then God raises us with spiritual bodies. After the very real deaths of our physical bodies, we are given the very real life of our spiritual bodies.
All of this comes from God, of course — it is the gift of the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Resurrection is not a natural process but is a supernatural process, one that is grounded in our relationship with God and Jesus. “Christ has been raised from the dead,” Paul says to the Corinthians, “the first fruits of those who have died.” The resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection that we will all enjoy, through our faith in Christ.
So how does a figurative visit to the Death Café make us more alive in our living? We realize that we don’t have to fear the end of life. Death is a natural and necessary step on the path toward eternal life with God. Paul tells us, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” meaning that we have to let go of our physical bodies before we can receive our spiritual bodies. This knowledge helps us to accept death as a part of God’s care for us, in this life and the next.
If we let go of fear, we can get more out of life. At Linda Potter’s Death Café in New York, people find release and restoration when they tell their stories of life and death. Two college students came to one discussion and were captivated by the story of a veteran with stage III cancer. They discovered that they had a great deal to learn about life from this man who was very close to death.
Moreover, by talking about the end of life, we prepare ourselves for eternal life. Now it’s true that none of us can predict exactly what it will be like to have spiritual bodies and live in the kingdom of God. But by discussing life and death in community, our faith in God gets stronger and we grow closer to one another as Christians. One leader of a Death Café in California says that the experience “pulls us back to the communitarian roots of our religion.”
There is a book written by Mitch Albom, Have a Little Faith. It is a true and moving story that I highly recommend for all to read. In Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom offers a beautifully written story of a remarkable eight-year journey between two worlds--two men, two faiths, two communities. Have a Little Faith begins with an unusual request: an eighty-two-year-old rabbi from Albom's old hometown asks him to deliver his eulogy. Feeling unworthy, Albom insists on understanding the man better, which throws him back into a world of faith he'd left years ago. Meanwhile, closer to his current home, Albom becomes involved with a Detroit pastor--a reformed drug dealer and convict--who preaches to the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof. Moving between their worlds, Christian and Jewish, African-American and white, impoverished and well-to-do, and observes how these very different men employ faith similarly in fighting for survival: the older, suburban rabbi embracing it as death approaches; the younger, inner-city pastor relying on it to keep himself and his church afloat. As America struggles with hard times and people turn more to their beliefs, Albom and the two men of God explore issues that perplex modern man: how to endure when difficult things happen; what heaven is; intermarriage; forgiveness; doubting God; and the importance of faith in trying times. Although the texts, prayers, and histories are different, Albom begins to recognize a striking unity between the two worlds--and indeed, between beliefs everywhere. In the end, as the rabbi nears death and a harsh winter threatens the pastor's wobbly church, Albom sadly fulfills the rabbi's last request and writes the eulogy. And he finally understands what both men had been teaching all along: the profound comfort of believing in something bigger than yourself.
Death, to me, is much like this story. We have little clue what comes with death, but with faith, we know that it isn’t something to be feared – in fact, we should embrace it as a natural step in our existence.
One vision of eternal life comes from the epic poem Paradiso, by the Italian writer Dante Alighieri. He was a required read in seminary. This poem is the third and final section of his Divine Comedy, which begins with a journey through Hell and Purgatory and ends in Paradise. Commenting on Paradiso, the Christian writer Rod Dreher says that “for Dante and the medieval thinkers, salvation consists in achieving unity with God. It is the end goal of all our striving: to return to unity with our Creator.”
When we talk about death, we prepare ourselves for eternal life. We focus on unity with God, and try to open ourselves completely to the presence of God. Dreher writes that “we reach our final end when we have let go of everything that separates us from God, which will mean by definition letting go of everything that separates us from each other.”
That’s the life that Albom learns from the rabbi and pastor. That’s the kingdom of God, according to Dante. In both literary pieces, in a way, it’s the place called Paradiso, where faithful people live in the light of love, eternally close to God and to each other. There we achieve unity with God, we yield our egos to the will of God, and we let go of everything that separates us from God and from each other.
We don’t move closer to Paradise by pretending that our lives won’t end, or that we’ll transition into ghosts. Instead, we prepare for it by talking about life, death and resurrection, and focusing on unity with God and with each other.
Let us pray.
We pray for the insight to listen to the words of Jesus and in our own lives to be patient, generous, forgiving, compassionate and non-judgemental. We pray most of all that we love our perceived enemies, do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who have been hurt and who find it hard to forgive. We pray that through the healing love of God and the guidance of the Gospel, they find peace and forgiveness in their hearts. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for tolerance in our country. We pray particularly for those who see the Gospel as a threat to liberty that their eyes be opened to the love and goodness of our Heavenly Father. We pray to the Lord.
For the insight to recognize those in need as our sisters and brothers and the courage to respond to them as friends. We pray to the Lord.
For conversion of our hearts: that God will free us from returning evil for evil and help us confront evil with love and mercy. We pray to the Lord.
That Catholic Christians will focus on life, not death; and focus on the resurrection and not the destruction of the body. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence those on our prayer list, our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Compassionate God and Father, you are kind to the ungrateful, merciful even to the wicked. Pour out your love upon us, that with good and generous hearts we may keep from judging others and learn your way of compassion. Father God, help us to understand and be less fearful of death and see it as a new transition ever-lasting life with you. Father, for your goodness, which we resolve to imitate in our way of living. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA