“We die the way we live,” says BJ Miller, a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco, “and all of us are dying.” I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and last winter I read a story about him in the NY Times.
When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches.
There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it.
Miller scaled it first.
When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes.
BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated.
Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days, but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history.
The brokenness of the ancient sculptures— the broken arms and broken ears and broken noses— helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful.
From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says:
“Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”
After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.
They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying.
For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games.
Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention:
“The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one- size-fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience.
Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.”
They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing.
They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough.
“The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.”
We die the way we live.
Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety.
It’s same anxiety the crowds by the lakeshore put to Jesus: “What ought we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?”
St. Paul says earlier in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike.
Therefore, you’re hard-wired to think that there’s something else you should be doing for God.
You’re hard-wired to think there’s somone else you should be for God.
In a way, it’s natural for you to think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out your debts upon the cross, but now it’s on you to work your way up to God, climbing up to glory one commandment at a time.
The Golden Rule may not justify you before God, but with the Law written on your heart it’s not surprising you think the Golden Rule makes a good ladder up to him.
With the Law written on our hearts, it’s natural that we live in the same exhausting manner in which BJ Miller says so many of us attempt to die.
Indeed St. Paul writes in Galatians that this way of living is a ministry of death— it kills us.
It kills us because tonight’s scripture, I believe, is the only empirically verifiable, objectively true claim in all of the Bible.
Paul’s confession here in Romans 7 is an indictment of us all. None of you really know the stranger you call you. The good you want to do is very often what you do not do and the evil and damage you want to avoid is very often the very evil and damage you wreak.
As Thomas Cranmer puts Paul here: What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.
We’re hard-wired to do, Paul says, but such doings end up deadly because we are all strangers to ourselves.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Tonight, we answer Paul’s question with ash and oil.
The way we live and the way we die— it’s natural.
But the Gospel is not natural.
The Gospel must be revealed.
Because the Law comes naturally to us while the Gospel does not, we can never take the Gospel for granted. We need to remind ourselves of the Gospel over and again. So tonight we make the Gospel message plain on the best ad space available to us, our faces.
Even though what we’ll say to you tonight, “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return,” sounds like a micro-aggression, the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick in a Romans 7 sort of way, it is the good news of the Great Physician.
What we make plain on your face tonight is the Gospel.
“Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” is Gospel because for you the only death that matters is the death you have behind you.
I’m going to say that again so you’ve got it: “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” is good news because for you the only death that matters is the death you have behind you.
Don’t let the props get in the way— what’s important about the ash-and-oil cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.
The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.
We mix up our metaphors on Ash Wednesday, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.
Or the sprinkling of water.
While the words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die, the cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you already have.
The cross on your forehead isn’t a symbol of your sin.
The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death.
Your death to sin.
That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism.
“To dust you came and to dust you shall return”—- you’re gonna die— is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died the only death that ultimately matters.
You will die, sure. From dirt you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the Medicare runs out or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely get planted right back there.
But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night— meeting God in the good you wanted to do but did not do and the evil you did not want to do but did— the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.
You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.
What you have done and what you have left undone— what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.
By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.
The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.
We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.
The dust on your forehead says: “You, wretched man, were dead in your trespasses.” But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been rescued, baptized, into his death for your trespasses.”
The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.
Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you.
The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.
What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures, is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.
What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything, the freedom just to play themselves out.
“My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.”
The Law comes naturally to us but the Gospel does not so tonight if the ash and oil doesn’t do it then let a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast remind: it’s the work of the Gospel to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations.
It’s the work of the Gospel to unburden you from the accusations of all the Oughts and Shoulds and Musts— the Law— written on your heart, a heart which— at best— you know only dimly.
The Gospel is that, though what’s inside of you is about as beautiful as what we smear on the outside of you— though you are every bit as broken and busted up as those sculptures that rescued BJ Miller— nonetheless you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.
The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question which the Law on your heart naturally compels you to ask: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”
The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful:
What are you going to do with this faith of yours now that you have the freedom not to do anything?
What are you going to do with this life of yours now that you can live— free—with death behind you?
What are you going to do for your neighbor now that— with death behind you— there’s nothing more for you to earn.
What are you going to do now that you have the freedom not to do anything?
It’s fitting then that crowd is always smaller tonight.
Like hospice, it’s not for everybody.
The ash and oil tonight is like palliative medicine for those who are already dead in Christ.
It’s a visible, tangible reminder that you who, lives with death behind you, you’re free to play yourself out. To learn the art of living posthumously.
The ash and the oil— it marks you out as one like those busted up sculptures without the noses and the ears, broken by the Law but declared beautiful by the Gospel.
And you’ll leave here tonight not practicing your piety before others— as Jesus wants us not to do.
You’ll leave here tonight like one of those broken sculptures inviting another broken person to discover themselves beautiful.