Toorak Uniting Church

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Only the Good Die Young

Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34 and John 12: 20 – 33
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
25 March 2012

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the stories that come from the Hassidic tradition from within Judaism. The Hassidic Jews emerged in the region around Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. I suppose the musical Fiddler on the Roof brought that tradition into popular Western culture thirty years ago. It is epitomized by a self-deprecating humor. For example:

Tevye: I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't you choose someone else?

Lazar: How is your brother-in-law? In America?
Tevye: Oh, he's doing very well.
Lazar: Oh, he wrote you?
Tevye: No, not lately.
Lazar: Then how do you know?
Tevye: If he was doing badly, he would write.

Mordcha: If the rich could hire others to die for them, then the poor, would all make a very nice living.

Perchik: I'm a very good teacher.
Hodel: I heard that the Rabbi who must praise himself has a congregation of one…. And so forth.

It’s probably the humour of Woody Allen and many other American Jewish comics and it arises particularly through the experience of suffering. I can honestly say that I have heard some of the darkest and funniest humour from those who have been facing death. Perhaps seeing your final ending, strangely, sharpens your sense of humour….well sometimes.

But there is also a serious and wisdom based aspect of the Hassidic tradition. The 17th century Hassidic, European Jews were story-tellers. They carried and passed on their tradition and their way of life through the stories they told; rather than through codes, creeds and regulations. While their stories often had a humorous edge, they usually just gave a fresh insight by using a twist of the plot or the introduction of a peculiar character. It was the 20th century Jewish scholar Martin Buber who brought many of these stories to the modern reader through his 2 volume work Tales of the Hasidim

I used one of his stories a couple of weeks ago and again it is very relevant to our reading this morning.

"A disciple asked the Rabbi, why does the Torah say, ‘I will write the words on their hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?" "The Rabbi answers, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in."

It illustrates both the reading from Jeremiah and from John this morning.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;

And for John’s gospel:

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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who let go of their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Both passages and the Hassidic story suggest that there is a breaking open of one’s life before the message; the truth; the way; life in all its fullness can enter in and begin its transforming work. I’m reminded of the lines from Leonard Cohen’s song, The Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Dying to Live:
One aspect of our theme this Lent has been dying in order to live. It is not an easy concept to understand but there is some profound truth in the idea that death is in fact a part of life and not just something that happens to all of us at the end of life. The American Poet Charles Bukowski said it a little deferently in his poem, The Laughing Heart:

you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.

He means of course a life that is not really alive; well at least not fully alive.

…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. But what does the author of John mean by that statement? And what could it mean for those of us living in the 21th century? I suggest that first it means you should know something about gardening and particularly composting. I brought some of my wonderfully rich compost to show the children at the 9am service this morning; rich and wriggly!

It was the psychologist Carl Jung, who gave us real insight into the fact that much of our creativity and the life of the soul are found in the shadow - our deep unconscious, the dark and dank places in your life…in the compost. In the places of death and dying, that’s where life emerges, grows and bursts forth into the spirit.

If the first thing one needs in order to interpret this passage is a knowledge of gardening, then the second is the courage to let go of your security blanket and to be open to new experiences and insights and that takes time.

There is a story that comes from the Quaker tradition that the founder of the Quakers, Matthew Fox was approached by a young soldier, William Penn who wanted to attend Quaker meetings. He asked, "What shall I do with my sword (knowing that the Quakers were pacifists) Fox answered him, "Carry it as long as you can…" Perhaps Penn had to carry his sword until his life was broken open and he could then fully embrace the vision of the Quakers. It takes time for the light to break into our lives.

Letting go of the things that sustain and support us may seem the most foolish thing we can ever do. Surely it is our gifts, our talents and our strengths, that make us the person who we are? …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. There’s a real truth in this passage that seems to say, you have to let go of what seem to you so precious in order to… grow and embrace more of life.

I recall watching my grandson Ben a few months ago. He was for quite some time obsessed with remote controls. He would find one and carry it around the house and no one could take it off him without a fight. Then he would find another remote control and another and again he would hold them tightly and treasure them. Then he would find a fourth one but he had a problem. He could hold three in his hands but not four. He would try but he would keep dropping them. Eventually he had to let go of some of them and be satisfied with what he could carry.

While the courage to let go of what we want so much and what we think gives us the security we desire, and to be open or to be broken open, seems to be almost the secret of the spiritual life, it is also the most difficult part of life in the Spirit. But it is the central metaphor or story, or symbol of the Christian life. It shaped the life of Jesus and it shaped his followers. Of course, it wasn’t only about the dying; it was in fact really about the living of life. If we follow the metaphor of the seed, then its purpose is to go into the ground and there it is incubated in that place of darkness, and ready to be born again. But not just as it was before but rather into new life and new growth.

Only the Good Die Young:
It’s a rather silly and untrue statement that "only the good die young." Of course we know that there is no connection between living a good moral life and the length of your life. There may be of course a connection between making good decisions and choices and living a longer life, but the statement is most often used because we feel that it isn’t fair when a younger person dies, so we remember them by giving them a good character.

However, if we take the statement in the way that I’ve been talking about it this morning, then there it does make sense that to die in the spiritual sense in the middle of your life, say as a younger person, then you will live more fully in your later life. Dying, meaning to let go of the things that clamour and clutter; letting go of an ego that needs to always be first or always be right; dying to a way of life that is only half lived, or not lived at all because of fear or failure or futility, is the pathway to life.

But it must always be into a new life, richer life, growing life, fuller life. That’s the story that has shaped, formed and reformed the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years; this paradox of holding these two truths together; both the truth and importance of death and the hope and joy of new life. It’s why we celebrate Good Friday and then two days later Easter Sunday. You can’t have one without the other.

I recall singing in my teens in my church in Upper Mt Gravatt in Brisbane, the hymn, Up from the grave he arose on Good Friday, because the minister was worried that some may find the subject of death distressing. But death is a part of life and when we allow our hearts to be opened by the pain of letting go, we experience the joy of resurrection and new life….but first, always first, comes the dying.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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