Endings as Beginnings
“Endings as Beginnings” Luke 21:25-36
Thomas Lynch is a poet and an undertaker. In a collection of essays entitled Bodies in Motion and at Rest, he reflects on the deeper truths and meanings that have come to him through his work as a funeral director. He writes: “There is nothing like the sight of a dead human body to assist the living in separating the good days from the bad ones. Of this truth I have some experience. Many’s the day I would awaken in gloom… The moments spent before the mirror while tending to my toilet did nothing to lessen the lessons that Time is certainly not on our side… And whilst a fresh shave, a dose of toilet water pour homme, a pressed suit, new shirt and knatty tie, added to a cup of coffee and a toasted bagel, might quicken in us the will to live, it falls well short of a joie de vivre.” Lynch goes on: “And many’s the morning I would leave home for the long walk across the street to my office at the funeral home bearing the gloom with the round shoulders of the sluggard and poltroon, waiting for the worst to happen. It was there, in the parlors of the funeral home… that the darkness would often give way to light. A fellow citizen outstretched in his casket, surrounded by floral tributes, waiting for the homages and obsequies, would speak to me in the silent code of the dead: “So you think you’re having a bad day?” The gloom would lift, inexplicably.”
Lynch reminds us that there is something about contemplating our end that helps us to gain a new perspective on life here on planet earth, isn’t there? Though we spend a great deal of effort avoiding any talk of death in our culture, death puts our lives, our hopes, dreams, priorities, worries, cares, etc., etc., into sharper focus. What are we doing here, anyway?
At the beginning of Advent, this season of waiting for the beginning of all things, oddly, the lectionary passages invite us to contemplate the ending of all things. Poets before us have suggested that endings and beginnings are two sides of the same coin. T. S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” So in this season of hopeful expectancy, the writer of the gospel of Luke takes us by the hand and lets us listen in on a conversation Jesus is having with his disciples. Jesus sees Jerusalem with new eyes now. Always, it has been a city of beauty and hope and life for him, but now, it holds only the promise of his death.
Jesus speaks, we lean in close to listen, but soon we wish we hadn’t heard a word. The things Jesus says are frightening, for he is talking about the end of the world, as we know it. Our stimulated imaginations can see the end with its plagues and warfare and natural disasters. We think of these things as beyond us, out there, tragedies we can perhaps avoid if we are vigilant enough. What we often fail to notice is that such horrible circumstances have been-and continue to be- a part of many people’s lives throughout the history of this planet. The poor, the unfortunate, and those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time have always experienced wars that never seemed to end, famine, incurable disease, natural disasters, racial unrest, and ethnic cleansing. For those who suffer in this world, it’s not too hard to imagine an end to history. For those of us who are human, which I assume means all of us; a personal end awaits us. This should not come as a surprise. Why then, do we feel so stunned when we talk openly about death?
To contemplate the end of the world, or to honestly look into the stark face of our own human finitude could be a morbid and depressing exercise. Or, it could rearrange the way we think of ourselves and shed new light on our daily litany of complaints. Looking squarely at the end, whatever end may be in sight, just might make better people out of us.
In her classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor narrates about a selfish, elderly woman who is only transformed in the end by the threat of her impending murder. O’Connor writes of this woman: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Contemplating the end, whether it is global or personal, can wake us up. As one theologian says: “Events which surprise and terrify us can become moments of renewal.”
Jesus turns our faces toward the end, and we see it all: his ugly death on the cross, the end of our own lives, the slipping away of things familiar to us, the loss of our positions of power, the demise of our security, the list could go on. In the face of all of that, Jesus challenges us to stand up tall and lift our heads up. “Stay awake,” he urges! For in the times of chaos, loss, transition, defeat, and death, we can find ourselves very close to the transforming presence of God. As T. S. Eliot said: “To make an end is to make a beginning.”
Reflecting on these words about endings, I cannot help but think of the obvious endings a church deals with in a time of pastoral transition. Such endings can be instructive. The way we end things reveals something of our capacities and character and priorities. There are the endings around the leaving of your previous pastor. Everyone says goodbye in a different way. Some people pick fights when an ending is in sight because being angry may be easier than feeling sad or than dealing head on with unresolved conflict. Others feel sadness about saying goodbye, and use this as a reminder to reflect on other endings in their lives. There are those who do a good job of sharing with one another what the relationship has meant to them. Some have a delayed reaction to a goodbye, feeling the sadness of the departure months later or finding unfinished business surfacing in unlikely places. It’s my job as your Intentional Interim Pastor to keep asking the question: “What have you learned about yourself from this time of saying goodbye?”
Another ending in this transition period will come on the joyful occasion when you call your new pastor and I will leave you as I leave my position as Interim Pastor. Knowing that we will be saying goodbye to one another at the end of this process is instructive for me. Contemplating the ending of this pastoral relationship wakes me up to new possibilities in the present. Knowing that an end is in sight, I cherish each encounter I have with you, I pay close attention to what happens between us. Because I know we don’t have much time together I try to stay awake, to speak the truth, to name the dynamics between us, and to pay attention to what you have to teach me as a pastor and as an individual. I try to remember to tell you how much you mean to me. I am aware within myself of how much I shall miss you when I leave. The ending of this particular relationship as Interim Pastor and congregation heightens my valuing of the present. The possibility of endings wakes us up to the present. This is the gift Jesus gives us by forcing us to think about endings, although we would rather think of something else.
We are asked to trust God in the midst of all the changes and transitions of our lives, to believe that an ending is also a beginning of newness of life in God. As Jesus speaks of the swiftly gathering darkness, he uncovers our hunger for God, our longing to find meaning and connection in all of our losses and endings. Jesus says to us: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Or as the poet puts it: “In my end is my beginning.” AMEN