The Good News About Death – Living The Dash

Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 25: 14-21)

I want to begin this sermon by sharing a story with you about, of all things, the tie I’m wearing today.  It’s nothing fancy – your standard predominately-red-with-some-blue-thrown-in-for-good-measure tie.  I call it my funeral tie. The story I want to share might add a little levity to this sermon series on death and dying.  It’s the story of how I got this tie. 

It happened about ten years ago.  Our family was living in Mount Airy.  It’s this beautiful Tuesday spring day, and I had walked about five blocks down Main St. from the church to my favorite restaurant.  I’m finishing up my chef salad when the phone rings.

I look at my phone – it’s Bob.  Bob is a church member of mine, and also third generation owner of the local funeral home in town.  Bob is a great guy, but typically when Bob calls my cell it’s not because something good has happened.

So I answer: Hey Bob, what’s up?  Bob says, Hey Steve, I’m sorry to bother you, but I need a big favor.  Bob tells me there’s been a death, which is what I figured.  Bob tells me the deceased, an older lady, was not currently a member of our church, but had been in the past, long before I got there.  Anyway, she never really went to another church, so for all practical purposes our church was still her church.  And her family needed a minister to officiate her funeral, so would I be willing to do that?

Sure, I tell Bob, I’d be happy to.  I pull out my calendar.  When’s the funeral?

Bob says, In half an hour.

I say, WHAT?!

Bob says, Steve, I’m real sorry about this. This lady died nearly a week ago.  The family came in to make arrangements right afterwards.  And you know we always tell the family, we always tell the family it is their responsibility to secure the minister.  It’s their responsibility.  We told them that five days ago, and they were supposed to call you and ask you to officiate their mother’s funeral today.  But for whatever reason they thought we were calling.  Anyway, you see the situation.  This funeral is happening.  The family is here.  The casket is set up in our chapel right now. I hate to do this to you, I know it’s putting you in an awful spot, but is there any way you can come and officiate this thing?

Now I had four tremendous years of seminary education where I learned a awful lot about what it means to be in ministry.  But nowhere did I ever learn anything that would remotely prepare me for this!

I take a deep breath and say, Bob, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.  And I hang up.

You know, in moments like this, your mind does one of two things: it either goes to mush, or you are given the gift of clarity from somewhere outside yourself, that tells you what you need to do and how to do it. To this day, I thank God that in that moment I experienced the latter.

So the first thing I do is pull out my wallet and grab some cash and throw it on the table for my lunch and tip.

The next thing I do, as I’m walking out the restaurant, is call the men’s clothing store, about halfway down Main Street heading back to the church.  I’m calling because, see, I have no tie.  Just the blue oxford pinstripe I’m wearing.  And if I’m going to do a funeral in thirty minutes, I need a tie. 

This clothing store, owned by a good Presbyterian, is one of those wonderful old-school stores where the first time you go in, they pair you with an employee that works with you from then on; and they know your size, know your tastes, all that.  My guy’s name is John.  And John answers the phone.  John, this is Steve.  

Hey Steve, how are you? 

Kind of in a hurry, John.  Right now I’m about three minutes from your store.  And I need a tie, John.  I need a tie.  Specifically, a tie that goes with a blue oxford pinstripe.  I’ll explain later, but can you meet me outside the store in two minutes with two ties I can choose from that go with a blue oxford pinstripe?  He tells me he can.  Great, thanks.  Two minutes, John.  Two minutes.

The next call I make, still walking down the street, is to Lynn, our church office administrator.  Lynn, hey, it’s me.  Listen, I need a favor.  I need you to print me a copy of a funeral bulletin.  Can you do that for me?

Sure.  Which one?

It does not matter.  Just pick one.  Any one.  I’ll be there in five minutes.  Thanks.

I hang up right as I approach the men’s clothing store.  And sure enough, there is John, standing outside, arms extended, tie in each hand.  How’s that for service!  Without breaking stride, I grab the one I like most in that half-second of shopping, I thank John and ask him to put it on my account.  And I keep going. 

So now I’m walking down Main St. to the church, and I’m putting my tie on as I’m walking, which must’ve been quite the sight.  I finish the final Windsor knot as I reach the church front door; I head to my office and grab my robe and stole and Bible.  On the way out, I swing by Lynn’s desk, and there she is, random funeral bulletin extended.  I take it, thank her profusely, and head out the door to the funeral home, which is a block and half away.

Make it there with twelve minutes to spare!

Bob introduces me to the family, I tell them I’m terribly sorry for the loss of their mother, we say a prayer, and then we head into the chapel for the service.  It certainly was not the most eloquent or personal funeral meditation I gave, but at least I got her name right.  And in the end, a life was celebrated and death was not given the last word, and isn’t that what’s it really what it’s all about?

Anyway, that’s the story of how I got this funeral tie.  I wear it to all funerals now – the ones I officiate, as well as thoseI just attend.  I didn’t really plan that; it just happened – the next time I had a funeral (one with three or four days notice), when I was getting dressed that morning and it came time to choose a tie, I saw this tie hanging in the tie rack and thought, I’ll wear that one.  And I never stopped. 

I kind of like having a funeral tie, actually.  It reminds me as a pastor of the “holy ground” I get to walk on during occasions like this; reminds me of all the people I’ve walked with on that ground.

And in a weird way – or maybe not so weird – it actually reminds me of life. Because every time I reach for this tie and put it on, I ask myself: what have I done with my life since the last time I wore this thing?  As I prepare to walk on holy ground once again with folks grieving the death of a loved one,  giving thanks for how that person left a mark on their lives, I wonder: how have I left a mark on the people I love – my family, my friends, my church, even those I do not know?  What have I done – what am I doing – with this incredible gift of life?

It is something we only think about in those moments of clarity; moments that are few and far between.  It’s pretty ironic, actually.  We get so bogged down in the minutiae of life – all the errands and tasks and things we do – that we don’t always leave space to think about how are living.   

The parable Jesus tells in our gospel today is intended to help us with that.  He talks about three servants, each who’ve been given charge of a certain number of their master’s talents.  Talents, of course, not being skills and abilities, but large sums of money – around twenty years of a typical laborer’s wage.  It’s such a ridiculously large amount of money that we intuitively know it’s symbolic of something else, something of much greater value.

These three servants are given their talents disproportionately – one gets five, the other two, and the last just gets one.  The parable doesn’t really go into why there are different amounts given, which probably means it’s not something we need to concern ourselves with.  What the parable does draw our attention to is what the servants do with their talents – two invest them wisely and double their value; one digs a hole in the ground and, while nothing is loss, nothing is gained either.  

So when the master returns, while he is disappointed with the hole-digger, to the other two he says this:

Well done, good and faithful servant!
You’ve been trustworthy in a few things,
I will put you in charge of many things –
Enter into the joy of your master!

Well done!  Is there anything else that you or I would long to hear when our day comes, when we make the transition from this life to the next, when we finally meet our Maker and have them say to us, I gave my most precious gift to you – I gave you the gift of life.  And you took that gift and invested in it wisely.  You loved the people who loved you, as well as those who did not.  You lived a life of grace and humility.  You sought to be authentic in everything you did.  You did justice, loved kindness and walked humbly with me.  You weren’t perfect, but I never asked you to be perfect.  I only asked you to be faithful.  And you were.  So well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master! 

Is there anything else we could ever want to hear?

The psalm that Fran read earlier is this wonderful reminder of not just the gift of life, but the very center of that gift, the fulcrum point around which everything else revolves:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.

The Psalmist goes on to speak of the futility of life without this center, without this fulcrum point; and even draws a rhetorical circle around the gift itself: The days of our life, the Psalmist muses, are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.  Those numbers stack up pretty well with what current national averages tell us.  In other words: we’ve got this finite period.  Time is precious.  Death is coming to us all. 

What the Psalmist longs to ask, what Jesus’s parable seeks to delve into, is a very simple question: how much time do we waste, how much energy do we expend, trying to avoid the reality of death instead of focusing on the gift of life?  What do we do with the time we are given?  How are we “investing” the talents God has provided us?

This is what I ask myself every time I don this tie.  And it’s hard.  As we talked about last week, we are living in a culture of violence right now.  Death is ever-present, it seems.  But the gospel calls us to rise above that, to see beyond that, and most of all, to not be so focused on one day that is coming, at the sacrifice of all the days leading up to it.

There’s this poem I occasionally read at funerals; I read it this past week at the graveside for Curt Walden.  It’s called “The Dash,” and I want to share it with you know.  Listen:

I read of someone who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on his tombstone
From beginning to end 

He noted that first came him date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years 

For that dash represents all the time
That he spent alive on earth.
And now all those who knew him
Know what that little line is worth. 

For it matters not how much we own;
The cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash. 

If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel. 

And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before. 

If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while. 

So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?[1]

Death is a paradox, is it not?  Death causes us to look anew at life.  The fact that we have a limited number of steps with which to walk this earth, a finite number of breaths to fill our lungs, and only so many beats to our heart, all of that means we have to think long and hard about where those steps lead us, the words we speak with each breath, and what and who we give our heart to. 

Live the dash with grace and humility, people of God. Be grateful for the talents you’ve been given.  Invest them wisely.  So that one day, you too might hear those glorious words spoken to you:  Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.  Well done!

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] By Linda Ellis, 1996.