Sermon John 12:20-33; 5th Lent – March 18th, 2018

 

 

 

Last weekend, I had two concerts with the choir I sing with, Soli Deo Gloria. It was great, we did dramatic and rousing pieces by Puccini and Beethoven – but one piece, which was much more subdued by British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams continues to haunt me; it is called ‘Toward the Unknown Region’ and uses words by American poet Walt Whitman. And I think the reason why this piece still haunts me has a lot to do with the words by Whitman.

 

Walt Whitman lived from 1819-1892. In his poetry, he reflected on life in all its aspects – and on death. The violence of the Civil War and the memory of men dying – many among them merely boys – deeply affected and haunted Whitman. His post-war poetry reflects this. In 1868, he wrote ‘Whispers of Heavenly Death’, from which the words were taken Vaughn Williams set to music. In this poem, Whitman has a conversation with his soul about taking the step into the unknown: death. And here is the section of this haunting poem, titled ‘Darest thou now, O Soul’:

 

Darest thou now, O Soul,

Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,

Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?

 

No map there, nor guide,

Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,

Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

 

I know it not, O Soul;

Nor dost thou – all is a blank before us;

All waits, undream’d of, in that region – that inaccessible Land.

 

Let me stop here for a moment. As.Whitman describes the step into the unknown, the realm of death, we get a sense of fear, at least apprehension – darest thou now, O Soul, walk out with me toward the Unknown Region? Whatever we don’t know makes us at least uneasy, if not afraid. And death is one of those mysteries. We know it is real – we encounter it every day – but we have no idea what it will be like. All we can do is guess.

 

Whitman imagines the realm of death, the unknown region, as nothingness and loneliness – a vacuum of some sorts. And he is not the first one to do so: in the Hebrew psalms, we often have the word ‘Sheol’, sometimes translated as ‘the underworld’. ‘Sheol’ is a place of isolation, a place where there is no fellow human being, a place where there is no God- a place of utter nothingness. And so we have many pleas in the psalm, o God, save me from the ‘Sheol’, keep me among the living. There is a dread and fear of what death entails.

 

Jesus is not immune against this sense of dread, apprehension and fear. In today’s gospel lesson, he is in Jerusalem for the final time. He just entered the city triumphantly – that’s what we will commemorate next Sunday, Palm Sunday – and people are excited to see him, like those Greeks who come to meet Jesus. But Jesus knows what lies ahead. At the end of his earthly journey, there will be the cross, there will be death. And Jesus shares our human feelings about it. We hear him say, ‘Now my soul is troubled’ – isn’t it interesting that both Jesus and Whitman use the word ‘soul’ in the context of death? – ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?” And it is not only here that we find Jesus’ apprehension – later, in the Garden Gethsemane, just before he is arrested, Jesus will pray to the Father to spare him from what is to come. And on the cross, as he is about to take that step into the unknown region of death, he cries out in desperation, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

 

I don’t know about you, but it gives me a certain comfort that Jesus seems to have moments when he’d rather escape the inescapable, that Jesus knows that death is real and a horrible force. Whitman witnessed it first-hand in the Civil War, we witness it in our schools, on our streets, on our front porches and underneath newly constructed pedestrian bridges. Jesus knows about the power of death, the pain death causes – and not only for the one who dies, but also for those who are left behind grieving –, the feeling of loss, and the apprehension we as humans feel as we think about or approach this unknown region where there is no voice sounding, nor touch of human hand.

 

Jesus’ soul is troubled, and rightly so. But at the same time, he has words of hope and confidence beyond the fear surrounding death: Very truly, I tell you, 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.

 

Jesus knows that new life is at the core of death. Everything in this world constantly changes and transforms, and without this transformation, there would be no growth, no development, no new life. We may have figured out what happens as a single seed is put into the ground, how its cells divide, how it grows and finally bursts forth, through the soil, and stretches toward the sun, bringing forth new seeds, new life. We can explain that, scientifically. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it still is a miracle, awesome to behold. There is a mystery surrounding the death of a single grain as it transforms into a life-giving plant.

 

We have to trust that God has the power not only to transform a single seed into a stalk of wheat or a sunflower or an apple tree or a mighty Redwood Tree, a caterpillar into a butterfly, a tadpole into a frog – but to transform our lives through the mystery of our death into something that we can’t even imagine right now, a new life, life eternal, a life that is spent in community with God and with all that has a breath and a soul. That the unknown region of death, this place of nothingness, is but a temporary stop on our journey to our final destination.

 

Jesus Christ had to die a dreadful death and journey to and through that unknown region, but at the end, he emerged from death, opening to all the door to a new life. In his death and resurrection, we witness the amazing power of God, the power of love, the power of life.

 

The journey we are about to embark on – through Holy Week with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, before we reach the empty tomb on Easter morn – reminds us of the powers that still bind us in this world, powers that even the Son of God could not escape – but that there is liberation from those powers. And not only in what we like to call the afterlife, but already in the here and now: we are liberated by the grace and forgiveness of God to live out of this grace, and to share this grace with the world, to bring abundant fruit. New life – eternal life – begins in the here and now – it is at the core of everything. The transformation God intends for us has started the day we were baptized – and continues beyond our dying.

 

Walt Whitman may have had rather non-traditional views on religion and spirituality, but he knew about the transformative and liberating power that is at work in our living and dying. He did not end his poem section, ‘Darest Thou now, O Soul’, on a desperate note, but a note of hope and utmost confidence. Let me read you the poem in its entirety now:

 

Darest thou now, O Soul,

Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,

Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?

 

No map there, nor guide,

Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,

Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

 

I know it not, O Soul;

Nor dost thou – all is a blank before us;

All waits, undream’d of, in that region – that inaccessible Land.

 

 

Till, when the ties loosen,

All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,

Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds, bound us.

 

Then we burst forth – we float,

In Time and Space, O Soul -prepared for them;

Equal, equipt at last (O Joy! O Fruit of all!) them to fulfill, O Soul.

 

May God bring us to the ultimate fulfillment through death and life eternal, which begins in the here and now.

 

Photo by Ian Espinoza on unsplash.com

 

 

 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   

 

This post is also available in: German