Rev. Paul Sprecher

Second Parish in Hingham,

April 4, 2010

Opening Words

Charles F. Flagg, “Easter,”\Worshipweb

We seek life’s meaning in the wonder of morning

In the freshness of springtime,

And in each others hearts and minds.

Yet still we hope for something more,

      A break in the ordinary,

      An infusion of the unexpected,

      An explosion of glory,

A miracle,

      Revealing more than we hope to understand.


NRS Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.


“Love’s Tribunal,” Forrest Church, from The Cathedral of the World, pp. 181-184.

We can arrange the pictures on the walls of our mind in any way we choose. As I slowly die of terminal cancer, blessed with the op­portunity to rearrange those pictures more thoughtfully, I fill my memory wall with images of love. The pictures that adorn my mind illuminate my life. Past and future disappear. In time's eternal depth, through love's portals we enter heaven on earth. One with God, self, and neighbor, we are saved.

As I reflect on this life lesson, it grows in both clarity and power. I know how deeply love can hurt and how sensible it may seem some­times to rip its recurring promise from the tapestries of our lives. I also know how tempting it can be to cloak our hearts to protect them not only from the pain of betrayal but also from the abiding pain of loss.

The courage to die is nothing when compared to the courage of those who live on after us, their hearts bereft by loss. Yet it is precisely at these moments when we are invited to stand before love's tribunal to be judged. Are you guilty of love or not guilty? That is life's ulti­mate question. Again and again over the course of a lifetime we are brought before the tribunal of love, where those innocent of love are damned and the guilty are saved....

As categorized by the ancient Greeks, there are three types of love: eros; philia; and agape.... If there are three types of love, there are also three contexts in which love does its healing work. To explore each of these, I invite you to stand before love's tribunal. Here you must answer three sim­ple questions. Do you love yourself? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? And do you love God, or whatever you may choose to call that which is greater than all and yet present in each, the life force, the holy? ….

If but once over the course of a lifetime you find yourself presented at love's tribunal and can answer yes to each of these three questions, your life is redeemed, suffused with meaning and charged with purpose. Having made peace with life, you can make peace with death. By submitting to love's tribunal and answering yes to love's questions, you will know that your life has proved worth dying for.


This is a story told of the Buddha:

Kisa Gotami grew up very poor.  Her family had called her Kisa—meaning "frail"— Gotami.

When she gave birth to a child, Kisa felt proud and happy. Her new son was the light of her life. She cherished everything about him—his delightful laughter, his eager brown eyes, his toothless smiles.

But one terrible, tragic day, the boy was taken by a sudden illness. His death over­whelmed poor Kisa. She bundled him in warm blankets and held him tightly to her chest. Crazed with grief, she stumbled from house to house, begging for medicine that would bring him back to life. But instead of helping, people mocked her madness. "Crazy woman!" they jeered."How can a person be brought back to life?”

Finally, as Kisa Gotami stood in the street, wretched and disheartened, a kind man passed by and said, "Dear woman, the wisest of men, a man named the Buddha, resides nearby. If anyone has medicine for your child, it is he.”

When she stood before the Buddha with her baby in her arms, he observed the child's lifeless face.  "You did well in coming here for medicine, Gotami," he said, but before I can save your child, you must return to the city. There, find me a single mustard seed and bring it back.”

Kisa Gotami was overjoyed.  The Buddha went on, "But most important of all, the mustard seed must be from a family in which no one has died. Go now, make the rounds of the city and ask at every home. Bring me back just one mustard seed from such a family"

When she got to the first house, she was told, "My dear husband died six months ago."  At the next house, she was told, "We cannot help you. I am sorry. We lost our mother two years ago.  For many months I was so unhappy I didn't know how to go on.”

Kisa Gotami continued to the next house, and then to another, asking for the single mustard seed. But always, someone had lost a beloved—a brother or a sister, a grandparent, an aunt or cousin, a mother or father.  The list grew longer and longer.

When nightfall came, Kisa Gotami sat down, resting against a tree. She gazed down at her son in her arms. Studying him closely, she felt a gradual change in herself. Not a single household she had visited today lived untouched by death's sad hand. Many suffered just as she did now. She was not alone. And somehow, with these thoughts, her grief lightened just a bit, and she found herself ready to say goodby to her son.

She returned to The Buddha, who asked,"Kisa, did you bring me a tiny grain of mustard?"

"No, teacher. I am done looking for the mustard seed. I know that in the whole city, in the whole world, there is not one family, not one person, free from the certainty of death. It is the way of all living things—we must at some time leave one another."

Kisa Gotami, brought back to her right mind from her search for the mustard seed, became a very wise and compassionate woman. It is said that she never left the Buddha after her return to the monastery. And that from her experience, she was able to comfort many, many others in her lifetime.[i]

Everyone dies, some early, some in the middle, some late – but everyone dies.  Worse for us, we know we will die, and too soon.  As we grow older each new pain, each tiny misstep, each moment of unexpected forgetfulness, each loss of friend or family member reminds us that we are growing older, moving closer to the inevitable end of our lives.  So "Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die," as Forrest Church puts it so succinctly. 

During this season of the church year we reflect next Sunday on the triumphant entry Jesus had into Jerusalem, which we celebrate as Palm Sunday.  The following week we celebrate Easter, marking the resurrection of Jesus.  We religious liberals have a tendency to skip over the crucifixion, remembered on Good Friday, as though Easter could have any meaning without death having come before it.

This business of dying is difficult, and talking about it is difficult.  We are more comfortable putting death out of our minds.  We hesitate in writing a will or formulating medical directives because they are reminders that we will, sooner or later, face the ending of our own lives.  We try to protect children from the reality of death, we use euphemisms when we refer to death and those who have “passed away.”  We do whatever we can to push the simple reality of death aside.

What is worse, we find reasons to avoid those around us who have suffered loss.  We feel that we don’t know what to say to give comfort, and so we avoid the occasions for saying anything at all.  This is most difficult when death has been unexpected, when it befalls a child or young adult or anyone dying untimely, and especially when the death resulted from suicide.  And yet it is precisely in the case of such a difficult death that a word of healing is most needed – and more, a listening ear, a friend who can serve as a container for the grief and rage and loss.  At times like this, no “right” words are needed or available to us; rather than easy words of supposed comfort, we need to be available just to listen and most of all to offer our presence, our pledge that all is not lost even in the face of enormous tragedy.

I have by now conducted a number of memorial services, enough to become accustomed to the grief and pain that accompany every death, every loss of a loved one.  It is part of my job to become accustomed to the reality of death, and I have come to see that the death of a loved one is one of the most intense times in our lives, a time when our hearts are completely engaged and when we understand most fully how precious is life, our own and the lost life of a loved one.  It is a time which reminds us of how much of living is not in fact in our control. 

The hardest memorial service I have been called on to do happened yesterday at Old Ship; I have been filling in for Ken Read-Brown during the two months of his sabbatical. The young man died of suicide just one year ago after an extended  struggle with manic depression.  It took that year for the family to come to a place where they could invite intimates and friends to share their grief and their sorrowful and joyful memories of the one who was lost so horribly.  There were abundant tears as his mother and sister spoke, and then, in a stroke of genius, we remembered him by singing one of  the songs he loved – “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John – odd choice for a hymn, you might say.  But as we struggled to join together and sing along with the music, we came to favorite passages in the song, words most familiar, and laughter began and continued as we sang.  Memories shared in laughter.  After we had let the grief show again – I was barely able to finish my own eulogy – we sang another song, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.”  Then, at the end, a friend shared a montage of memories.  She piled on anecdotes, each more outrageous than the last, until the laughter helped us to overcome the tears as we remembered why, before his death, the one we mourned had been so loved by so many people.  We were able to leave the memorial service holding on to fond memories even as we passed again through the valley of loss.

In the face of loss, as we face our own or others’ mortality, we may feel that our lot is unfair, that death is somehow wrong, a defect of the creation; we may wonder “What have I done to deserve this?”  With the poet Dylan Thomas we may cry out:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And yet death is a deeply embedded part of nature.  It is as much a part of life as birth and everything in between.  Indeed, without death there would not be the joy of birth, of new life.  It is in the presence of death that we are reminded how precious life is, and how important it is to live it as fully as we can.

There is living to be done.  It seems unfair that we must die and that those we love must die, but the real wonder is that we are alive.  Through an unimaginable series of coincidences, our parents and their parents and theirs and so on ad infinitum – and before them our non-human ancestors – all came together at just the right moment to bring forth the unique wonder which is each of us.

There is living to be done.  The story is told of a monk who was fleeing from two tigers, both ravenous to take his life.  They chased him to the edge of a cliff, and he climbed down gingerly until he found a branch to hold on to for dear life.  As he was hanging there, several mice came along and began gnawing away at the branch.  The story could end with a fall into the abyss, but instead it ends when the monk spied a beautiful, luscious strawberry within  reach, plucked it and ate it and said, “Ah, beautiful strawberry!”  Even in the midst of mortal fear, there is living to be done.  Even when liberty is taken away, even when the end seems near, it is possible to retain the joy of living.  There were those few in the concentration camps who managed to retain their dignity and live each day fully in the face of the horrors around them.  They drew strength from being able to love others by the care they were able to give, the food they were able to share.  Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for twenty-seven years, was able to emerge without bitterness or anger.  He said, “They were able to capture my body but not my mind,” and he went on to lead his country away from the darkness of  almost inevitable violence to the light of peace between blacks and whites, oppressed and oppressor, the way from death to life.

It turns out that surveys of how happy people judge their lives to be do not show that those who are wealthy perceive themselves as happier than those who have just enough to sustain their lives.  As wealth increases, the anxiety of losing what we have can undermine the satisfactions of growing riches, until the prosperous can become even less happy than the poor.  Imagining the worst that can happen robs life of real satisfaction, the potential loss of what we have, creates scenarios of dread rather than joyful anticipation of the sweetness of the lives we actually have.  There is living to be done.  As Forrest Church puts it, “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die, and the purpose of life [is] to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”[ii]

The stories of Kisa Gotami and of the monk fleeing from the tiger remind us that there is living to be done even after grave loss, even in the midst of great peril.  Live we must; the challenge is to live well in the face of unbearable loss, to live well even in the face of mortality, to find happiness in what is rather than to grieve for what might have been.  Here Church’s mantra might serve us well:  “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”

And in the end, our great task is to live through the losses we suffer and, in the end, to face the end of our living with courage and contentment.  The poets say it best; Mary Oliver:

Every year

everything I have ever learned


in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side


is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world


you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it


against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.[iii]



[i]            Taken from “The Mustard Seed,” Kindness:  A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents, ed. Sarah Conover, Spokane:  Eastern Washington University Press, 2001, 2005, pp. 7-10 passim.

[ii]            Forrest Church, “Forrest Church's Reflections on Cancer,”

[iii]            Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods,” New and Selected Poems:  Volume One,  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1992, pp. 177-178.