"Death (a.k.a. Moldy, Pea Green Shag Carpet)" – Matthew 5:1-12
Death has been on my mind quite a bit over the last month. Not in an unhealthy way; but rather in a “wow, there are a lot of things going on in my life that somehow touch on the concept of death” kind of way. Perhaps you feel, or have felt, the same way.
I’d like to share a few of the recent circumstances that death has crossed my mind because they are the illustrations that help set the stage for a new understanding of Jesus’ teaching about blessedness.
Every autumn our eyes are drawn to the vibrant yellow, orange, and brown leaves. Soon the leaves will be completely severed from their source of nourishment, at which point they will fall gracefully to the ground and decompose, offering their entire bodies as nourishment to the soil. This example of death is the one we find most palatable because it is death that is predictable and doesn’t feel final. We knew the leaves would change colors and die; in the same way that we know in just a few months new leaves will emerge along branches that have grown bigger and stronger. Any sadness that accompanies seasonal death is little more than a touch of nostalgia (or fear of a harsh winter!).
This time of year also heralds the coming of zombies, mummies, vampires, goblins, and ghosts as we celebrate Halloween. Halloween is our socially-acceptable attempt to make death into a caricature–to depict it as something thrilling, amusing, and even humorous in order to mask our fear. This is death that is not real, which allows us to play with the concept in ways that are otherwise inappropriate the other 51 weeks out of the year.
Death through the eyes of a child
My youngest son, Kyle, has experienced two seizures in the last month. He has no history of seizures so we were shocked when he had his first one sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game. Both occasions were hellish 60 seconds of full-body convulsions, groaning, and not breathing. Turns out that the seizures are not medically serious and he might never have one again; however, the two experiences were terrifying. Nolan, my oldest, was oblivious to the first episode (he was busy playing soccer); but he witnessed the second episode. As he was riding with family to the hospital where Kyle was being rushed in an ambulance, he turned to a relative and described what he saw, saying, “Kyle died but came back to life.” Labeling the experience as a “death” shows a recognition that death is something that is frightening, traumatic, and mysterious; but not final.
Death - the end of an actual human life
I was completely shocked to hear recently that the father of one of my friends had died unexpectedly in the middle of the night. When we hear of unexpected death our impulse is to think back to the last time we were with that person, often saying, “But I just saw him last week and s/he looked fine!”
And there’s my wife’s grandfather; our last living grandfather. For several months now he’s been receiving hospice care and we’ve been bracing for his impending death. Each time we’ve seen him he seems more and more weak and withdrawn.
In the first case death was unexpected and seems unfair. In the other, death will be partially understood as relief from suffering. Both are difficult to accept; both make us feel sad.
What Jesus says about death in a scripture passage that seems to have nothing to do with death
Today we join with Christian churches across the globe in observing All Saints Sunday – a day of remembrance and celebration of people who have died. Given this context, it seems odd that the Gospel text selected for today has, on the surface, little to do with death.
There is an all-too-common misunderstanding of today’s Gospel from Matthew (often referred to as “The Beatitudes”) that the list of promised blessings to those who feel anything but blessed are promises of a future reality. Or, more concisely, these are the blessings that await us when we die and walk through the pearly gates of heaven. This misunderstanding is likely rooted in Jesus’ words: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
But Jesus’ idea of heaven is much different that the one our culture has adopted.
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven (a topic that is addressed quite often throughout scripture) is a present reality that is only partially visible to (or, more often, completely hidden from) us. The kingdom of heaven is, paradoxically, both an “already” and a “not yet” – it is the source of life, peace, hope, and love that God uses to sustain the world. And it is available to us right now; we don’t have to wait until we die.
It’s a difficult concept to wrap our minds around, so I’ll rely on an overly simplistic image to help make sense of what I’m trying to say: Some friends bought an old home. The home needed a ton of work as it was in disrepair and woefully outdated. They decided the upstairs carpet (a pea green shag) needed to be completely replaced, as no amount of effort would clean up the stains, dirt, and mold (or bring pea green shag back in style). When they tore back the carpet they were shocked to find it was lain over a beautiful hardwood floor.
So often what we see in our world, what we take to be true (such as wars, obscene personal weath, political power, social media “friendships,” scam artists, insecurity, disease, prostitution, winning at all costs, polka music, and so on), is nothing but moldy pea green shag carpet covering up the real truth of our world – a beautiful hardwood of life, peace, hope, and love.
Jesus makes this clear when he says “Blessed are the poor…those who mourn…the meek…the hungry…the merciful…the pure…the peacemakers…the persecuted.” In the Greek text, the verb “blessed” is written in the indicative mood and the present tense. It’s the way to say “This is the way things are, now.”
On the one hand this is a warning: Those who oppress, fail to forgive, persecute, make war, allow others to go hungry, and lord power over others, are going against the way, the truth, and the life that sustains our world. They constitute the moldy, pea green shag carpet covering up the beauty of life.
On the other hand, this is a promise. Those who are oppressed, unforgiven, persecuted, victimized, hungry, and meek, the life, peace, hope, and love of Jesus will surround us. The kingdom of heaven is available to be experienced here and now and it looks nothing like what we’ve come to expect. “When we learn to recognize such people as blessed – to call them saints – we pledge our allegiance to that new world even as we participate in its realization.”
Which brings us back to death. To me, death looks a lot like a moldy, pea green shag carpet. Death is real, yes; in the same way as war, disease, and polka music are real. But death is not the whole story. There is something beautiful beyond death – a truth that so pervasive and beautiful that death simply cannot overshadow – the truth that life is what we were created for and what we are promised.
Death is terrifying; I’ll be the first to admit it. The times when death crosses my mind I feel myself getting unnerved. But I return to the promises of scripture, the promise that death is not the end, the promise that life is more powerful than death, the promise that God created us to live and love and nothing will prevent us from doing that, no matter if we’re on this side of death or the other.
Today we come together to commemorate the dead. We acknowledge the pain in our hearts as we remember their faces and voices but know we will not touch them again. We accept their death as a loss in our lives. And yet at the same time we give thanks that they are experiencing a world free from moldy pea green shag carpet; a world where they are free to experience blessedness without any of the barriers that our sin so often throw up.
And so, I wonder if my son has it right after all. I wonder if the way he thinks about death, as something that is frightening, traumatic, and mysterious, but perhaps not final, is actually the best way to understand death.
And so, I wonder if, by understanding death in this way, that will help me experience the blessedness that Jesus promises. That is certainly my hope and prayer; my trust and my faith.