On Living Close to Death

I am re-posting these reflections on John 12:1-11 in honor of my father, David Harader, who died three years ago today. This piece is a distillation of the sermon I preached on the Sunday after Dad’s funeral–which was apparently the fifth Sunday of Lent.


“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and the diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.


5 thoughts on “On Living Close to Death

  1. A meaningful and beautiful sermon and tribute. It reminds me of the song “Simple things are Holy” by Linda Breitag in her album ‘feet to the fire’. I didn’t find it on the web to link to. Here are the words “simple things are holy” by Linda Breitag

    brother sister take your time / go slowly listen very carefully / simple things are holy

    the shape of a cat and the smile of a stranger a loved one asleep in no fear of danger

    the careless glory of the young, the grace of old lovers the trail of geese across the sky and the hawk that hovers the painful apology, the welcoing pardon the first crocus of the spring, the overflowing garden

    the head sinking in despair, the hand on the shoulder the tear of the lonely one, the arms there to hold her good friends wrestling in the park, the wild shouting laughter the low moaning in the dark, the sweet silence after

    the sun on my winter bones, the slow summer thunder a last breath upon this earth, the eyes wide in wonder

    Thank you!! Lois


  2. I’ve followed your blog for a little while, but your post today really surprised me. I used to work with Ruth Harader at OPM in Wichita (about 1979-1982) I remember her as a woman of great faith and was not at all surprised to find her son and now granddaughter have been people of great faith also. I worked as a UM church admin ass’t for 28 years. I can’t remember how I found your blog, but I so appreciate your reflections on faith, home, family and God’s love for us. Please give my love to Ruth.

  3. Thank you, your reflection was spot on. I just lost my mother and brother-in-law within a week and your words reflect my own thoughts. A liminal space between death and the life to come becomes very apparent in this sacred time. I appreciate your words.

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