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Oct 31, 2021

Blessing in Death

Blessing in Death

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: October 2021

Today's Scripture: James 4:11-17

Today's Sermon


"Blessing in Death"


James 4:11-17

          11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?

          13 Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ 14Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Blessing in Death

Her body is disappearing, though her heart still beats, her breath still puffs a little in, a little out, her eyes are luminous, and she’s still making jokes. Jokes about dying, mostly.  Being with her now is like trekking on a beautiful new planet where she is an honored elder and you are a visitor.  This is the most hallowed space you have ever encountered.  Someone you love is leaving her life behind. What’s left of her is twisted with pain. And there is nowhere else you would rather be.  The rapture of the moment is thick enough to seal all the cracks in your own life. She is, with her quiet dying, bestowing an explosion of blessings.[1]


          This is how Mirabai Starr, author of Wild Mercy:  Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, begins an entire chapter she devotes to dying and grieving.  These are topics from which we are taught to run out of fear of the unknown, but today, on All Saints Day, we slow down enough to be caught by the blessings that can find us even here.

          Of course, not all deaths come so easily either for the dying or the attendant, so Starr continues.  She mentions a baby who is born and dies at the same time, the mother’s face aging “from 25 to 105.”[2]  Then there’s the piano teacher who, in some form, chooses to end his life or let it end. Deaths come in every shape and form, and Starr’s point is not to tidy them up, but rather help us to be open to them. It’s only through opening that other things can come in.

          Wrapped in a shroud of moral teaching, about not speaking evil, about keeping sacred law, even about sin, today’s reading from James holds a simple truth about our lives, “you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).  Similar passages appear in Psalms (103:15).  We tend to use such passages as prompts to suck the marrow out of life, but, as we spoke about last week, the point is not to hold on tighter.  The point is to honor the eternity within each moment, to move through our experiences with awareness, trusting each has something to offer.  Starr reminds us that in our culture, “We are conditioned to see death as a failure rather than as a pilgrimage.”[3]Today, we take an important step on that pilgrimage by honoring those we’ve lost and loved, sitting with the imprint they’ve had on our lives.  Later, you’ll have a chance to name them and share in a ritual of thanksgiving.

          The day also often prompts our own feelings about death.  Sometimes we turn toward denial or distraction.  We cling to the promise of something beyond the grave. “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” we say in the church.  I actually like the tension of the phrase, sure and certain paired with the less certain hope.  We have hope based on testimony and experience, on revelation, on Scripture, but not quite on proof, knowing in the empirical sense.

          Some would see this as a problem to be solved, to be conquered, an old temptation. Starr warns us about falling into the trap of certain ways of thinking about death,

From the ancient Maya to Vajrayana Buddhism, from Celtic Christianity to Greek mythology, many of the world’s great spiritual traditions suggest that when we die we must navigate the challenges of a liminal terrain on our way to everlasting peace.  This strikes me as a masculine paradigm, rooted in a martial model.  It depicts the soul as a warrior of light in a battle against the forces of darkness.  If the deceased prevails, he earns a ticket to a heavenly abode.  If he fails, he is consigned to a realm of suffering, or…becomes lost in illusion.

The way of the feminine is to soften into the arms of the unknown.  Death is the ultimate mystery, charged with awe, weighted by trepidation, redeemed by promises of deep rest and true seeing.  All we really know is that we do not know.  And knowing is not required.  Striking deals with gods is not required.  What we can do is meet what is with tenderness and curiosity.[4] 


            I love that.  Knowing is not required.  We just meet what is with tenderness and curiosity, words for death and life. This may be a feminine insight, but it is, of course, not just for women.  BJ Miller, a man, is a hospice and palliative care doctor at UCSF’s Cancer Center.  He had a brush with death in a tragic incident in college and since has seen death face to face in many of his patients.  I watched an interview of his recently and he offered wisdom similar to Starr.  Miller said he actually liked not knowing what happens in death, that it somehow comforted him that he didn’t have to know.[5]  Sometimes not knowing isn’t a failure of faith; it is the very basis for faith.

            Last Sunday, I had the sacred experience of sitting with member Mark Bewsher as he lay dying.   Thankfully, his process appeared more in line with the peaceful one I described at the opening, “no pain,” he kept reporting.  Mark was an extremely pious man, so when I asked if he had any Scriptures he’d like me to read him, he uttered a couple of citations through tired lips but still brilliant British accent. 

            I started to read at his request from the very first lines of the very first Psalm, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…” and then a beautiful thing happened, he started to finish my sentences from memory, finish the verses, in the King’s English of course, and so I in the New Revised Standardand he in the King Jameswent on together

            “…but their delight is in the Lord…and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”

            “…they are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season…his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”

            “…the wicked will not stand in judgment…nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (Ps. 1:1-3, 5).

            On and on it went.  After we read, we prayed, I anointed him with oil, and we just sat in quiet, waiting for his son to arrive to take over the vigil.  When they were settled, I told Mark I wanted to read one more passage, this one from the eighth chapter of Romans.

          “For I am convinced that death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present,” and then Mark again took over, “….nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come.  Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature…” I resumed, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            There we were two pilgrims not necessarily knowing, but not needing to know, two people from different continents, different generations, soon to be residing on two sides of the death/life divide, two different translations and accents yet speaking one common language of blessing.  It is waiting for us everywhere, even there, an explosion of blessings, if we can just meet it, all of it, with tenderness and curiosity. Amen.


[1]Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy:  Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Boulder:  Sounds True, 2019), 191.


[3]Ibid., 194

[4]Ibid., 212.

[5]See various clips of the interview on YouTube,  See also an interview with NPR’s Fresh Airwith Terry Gross,