One of the many remarkable truths about nature is that death is often a gateway to new forms of life. My favorite illustration of this process is the most powerful incident of death in the known universe: a supernova.
A supernova is how a star dies. Stars are born as hydrogen atoms are drawn to each other in the cold depths of outer space. These atoms huddle together in the dark until their bodies fuse into one. This fusion gives off a burst of energy that can be felt as heat and light. The end product is a new atom called helium. As more and more hydrogen atoms join the group, they start a chain reaction that results in a giant ball of gas that we call a star. Stars burn for billions of years, constantly making new kinds of atoms. You can look out the window on a clear day and see this process happening right before your eyes.
Eventually, these atoms become too big and heavy for this process to continue. When this happens, the inward pressure of gravity overwhelms the outward pressure caused by fusion and the star implodes. Because every action in physics causes an equal and opposite reaction, the star’s implosion results in a dramatic explosion. In that brief moment of tremendous destruction, the light of a single star outshines the entire galaxy.
I imagine that for you, the loved ones of those who have recently died, the pain of grief feels overwhelming in the same way. The felt absence of the one who died seems to outshine every other concern in life. This feeling is very normal and natural. You might wonder: Can my universe ever be the same again? Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? These questions are also very normal and natural.
Here’s how nature answers those questions:
Can the universe ever be the same again? No. A great star has been lost, just as the unique light of your loved one’s presence has faded from this world. We grieve this incalculable loss with you.
Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? Yes! The new atoms forged in the heart of that star get launched into space, where gravity draws them back together over billions of years. They form new bodies like other stars, comets, and planets. On our planet Earth, these atoms came together in just the right way to allow life to form and grow. Today, in the ground beneath your feet, in the air you breathe, and even in the atoms of your own body, you carry the remnants of these deceased stars. Quite literally, you are made of stardust!
The spiritual traditions of the world have observed this process and expressed it in various ways. Some believe in reincarnation while others believe in resurrection. Some believe that our physical life ends while our spirits live on in some mysterious way. What all of these beliefs have in common is the hunch that death is not just an end, but also a gateway to new life, just like a supernova.
I know that your world will never be the same again after the loss of this precious loved one. I invite you, in this time of overwhelming grief, to be patient and caring with yourselves and each other. May the gravitational forces of love draw you closer together and help you pick up the scattered pieces. May the blinding light of loss plant seeds of new life as it fades. And may you remember always the unchanging truth that fires your life with dignity: You are stardust!
Grief is an unpredictable thing. It tends to bring out the best or the worst in people. Everyone grieves a loss differently, so it’s not up to anyone else to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t cope with a loss. Some people want to laugh and reminisce about the best and favorite memories of their loved one while others might need to just be sad and have a good cry; some folks need to keep busy while others need to stop and sit down; some might need to be alone while others crave human contact. All of these are good ways to grieve and the best thing to do whenever someone you care about is grieving is to let that person deal with their loss in whatever way they feel they need to. You don’t have to say or do anything in particular, just be there for them, hug or give space as needed, and listen when they speak. After all is said and done, they probably won’t remember what you say, they’ll just remember that you were there for them.
The only exception to this, the only time that grief can go wrong or turn tragic, is when a person allows the pain drive a wedge between those who are left behind. This can happen in lots of unfortunate ways. In cases of sudden or early death, someone might start pointing the finger of blame at others, believing that the loss could have been avoided if only the situation had been handled differently. Even worse, some folks turn really nasty when it comes to dealing with estates and inheritances. I’ve seen tragic situations where siblings turn against one another over the distribution of property or money in the wake of a parent’s death. These are the only situations where I, as a pastor, want to intervene and suggest that they find another way to face the pain of loss.
In such situations, the issue at hand is rarely the money or the property itself. Most of the time, family members are simply overwhelmed with pain and are looking for some place toward which they can direct the energy of their sadness. In our culture, which glorifies strength and despises weakness, finding something to get angry over feels a lot easier and safer than just admitting that we’re feeling sad or lonely. So, we hide our grief behind fights over things and never really get to the bottom of what’s really going on in our hearts: the sadness we feel over losing a loved one. We’ve missed the point entirely and, in the process, damaged or sacrificed our relationships with the ones who might have helped us get through the pain and find our way toward healing together as a family.
The real trick in those moments is to stop, step back, and take stock of what’s really important and what life is really all about. Is fighting over money or stuff really going to bring back the dead or help us to deal with the pain of loss? No, not really. Life is not about getting money or stuff. In our better moments, we all know that. But we forget it sometimes when the pain becomes so great that we would rather think about anything other than the fact that we are hurting right now. I’ve seen this happen more than once and it breaks my heart every time.
In this morning’s gospel reading, the scene opens with just such a situation brewing. Two brothers have lost their father and a dispute over a contested will has arisen between them. We don’t know many of the details, but we get the basic outline of the situation as they bring their fight to the rabbi Jesus for a just resolution.
But Jesus, as usual, declines to answer directly the question he’s just been asked. He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Once again, Jesus is not conforming to the role that would normally be expected of him as an itinerant rabbi traveling among rural villages. He continues, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
I hear something deeper in Jesus’ words to these disgruntled siblings. I hear him saying, in effect, “What you are asking is not what you really need. You’ve missed the point entirely.”
The key phrase in his response, which is also the central phrase in this entire passage, is, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
That one word, “life,” is super-important. Jesus isn’t just talking about life in the sense of biological survival, he’s talking about that rich, full, and meaningful (i.e. abundant) life that God intends for us as human beings. Jesus is talking about really living and not just getting by.
This is a particularly important (and particularly challenging) message for us to hear in 21st century America. We live in an extremely wealthy and powerful culture. Capitalism has given rise to consumerism in our post-industrial society. Our sole purpose on this earth, it seems, is to produce, buy, and consume products that keep our economy going and growing at any cost. The American dream is an ideal of security through economic prosperity. We dream of having a white picket fence and a car in every garage. We are inundated with literally thousands of advertisements every week, each one insisting that their product is the key to achieving true happiness in life.
Yet, one needs only look at those who occupy the top spots in the heap of consumption. Celebrity gossip columns give a regular indication that those who “have it all” are NOT actually any happier than the rest of us. They keep on spending their millions in the “pursuit of happiness,” only to discover that there are some things that money really just can’t buy. Or, as Jesus put it, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
For those of us who live in this consumerist society, I think Jesus wants to extract us from the cult of MORE and initiate us into the church of ENOUGH. And the first step in this process is to step back and really look at who we are and what we’re doing. The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this an “orthogonal shift.” That word, “orthogonal,” comes from geometry, where it refers to a set of lines that run perpendicular to one another. In the sense that Kabat-Zinn means it, an orthogonal shift is one where we step back and shift perspective in order to get a different point of view on our lives. Kabat-Zinn says this is like moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional point of view: we rise above the flat level of everyday existence, survival, and concern in order to get a clearer view of the whole chessboard on which our lives are laid out.
This, in a general sense, is what we do every week here in church (and hopefully every day in our private devotional lives): we take an hour to remove ourselves from our culture’s rat race of constant production and consumption and we remind ourselves of where it is that true life, abundant life, is really to be found. We remember that life is so much more than stuff.
The first thing we realize when we step back, make that orthogonal shift and get a three-dimensional perspective on our two-dimensional world is that we live on a planet of tremendous blessing and abundance. We are all already spilling over the brim with “enough-ness”. Most scientists believe that Earth has more than enough resources to safely support life for the number of people who live here, so there’s no real reason why anyone should have to experience starvation. I won’t bore you with the statistics, but I’ll just encourage you to take your spirituality outside with you.
I mean that literally: take a hike, sit by a river, fish, hunt, or even sit on a park bench for a while. Just get out there and appreciate the free gifts that Earth has to offer. From what I’ve seen, those who do so come back with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for just how lush and green life can be. That’s one way to make that orthogonal shift and get some perspective.
Another way is to keep a financial journal. This is a great exercise, and it’s an easy one too, if you’re used to keeping good records. The thing to do is keep track of every single penny that comes in and goes out of your bank account for a month. And I don’t just mean balancing your checkbook, I mean really take stock of where and how you spend your money. At the end of the month, add everything up according to category: rent, food, utilities, entertainment, charity, etc. Where does your money actually go? And here’s the hard question: how does that match up with the values you claim to hold as a Christian? Are you meeting your needs before satisfying your wants? Would a stranger, looking at this record of your earning and spending, be able to tell what your most deeply held beliefs and values really are?
Both of these exercises can be ways in which Jesus is able to lead us to that point of shifting our habitual perspectives and reminding ourselves that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Really living, according to Jesus, is about so much more than that.
One of the interesting things about this gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer for us. For example, with those two grieving brothers, Jesus doesn’t explain to them what their problem is or how to fix it. He simply refuses to get involved in their dispute. Instead, he challenges them (almost dares them) to make that shift in perspective themselves and see that the real source of their conflict is grief over the loss of their parent that has been misdirected as anger toward each other.
Jesus, in this situation, is drawing the brothers’ attention to the questions they didn’t even think to ask, initially. He tells a story about a greedy farmer with the same problem. This farmer had a huge bumper crop one year, but instead of looking to share the wealth, devised ways to build bigger barns to store keep his own massive profits to himself. This farmer never stops to think about his wider community. His focus is solely on “my money, my property, and my needs.” Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer, but says more in his silence than most people do in a thousand words.
The implication, which would have been crystal clear to Jesus’ audience of hungry peasants and should have been clear to the farmer in the story, is that an abundance of blessing is meant to be shared. We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for one another, not just through taxes and donations to social programs, but with our own time, energy, and resources. That, Jesus implies, is where life, real life, can really be found.