When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “…Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting?” – 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
Recently, a person dear to me was out jogging when he was stung by a wasp. Severely allergic, he collapsed within sight of his home, and was found by a neighbor.
Within minutes, this vibrant, kind, smart, funny and perfectly healthy man was in a coma. He would never teach college students again. He would never make another bad dad joke. He would not, in this life, put his arms around his wife–a good second marriage after a first hard one–nor hold his first grandbaby, born just the week before. When it became clear he would not recover consciousness to any meaningful degree, his young adult children and wife decided to take him off life support.
When a wasp sting no bigger than an eyelash can devastate an entire family and community in seconds, life feels impossibly fragile. Paul, you were wrong. Death does still have a sting.
What is perhaps amazing in this is that we ever manage to forget how tenuously our breath is held inside our bodies. We go blithely about our business, driving perilous highways and jogging past venom-laden wildflowers as if we are not doing a high-wire act every minute of every day.
But then when people we love get sick or die out of the natural order of things, we are stung anew by the awareness that we’re only here for a little while. Even if we don’t believe that death is only a doorway into another life, one even bigger and unimaginably broader than this one, that sting has a gift embedded in it: it makes earthly life sweet as honey, igniting our senses with gratitude, deepening our loves, urging us to embrace.
My friend’s widow wrote, at the hour of his death, “We are mixed and blended and rock solid. We are devastated and OK. So how did we get there? We all took risks. We try our best to take care of ourselves and of each other. Hold those you love close.”
God of Imperishability, keep alive in us the sweet savoring joy of a life lived fully, and fully aware of the stinging reality of Death; a life of risky joy and perilous love. And when our days are done, welcome us into the Life to come. Amen.
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of the First Church of Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church and Standing Naked Before God.