Sermon: On Impermanence

This sermon was preached on All Saints Day.

Selections from Isaiah 40

We are made from this earth. God took the dust of the ground — adamah in Hebrew — and breathed into it to make us — adam. And one day, we return to it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our name — human — comes from the same root as humus, which means soil, specifically, the most fertile kind of soil made up of decomposed leaves and organisms, the kind of soil made up of dead things, the kind of soil in which something living can be grown. 

To paraphrase Carl Jung, “Only that which can die is that which can be truly alive.”

We are made from this earth, and we will all return to it one day. All of us here and everyone we love will return to it one day. Our abuela, our mama, our Dad, our siblings, our children, our friends and also our cat, that tree that breaks your heart every fall with its golden leaves, those wildflowers. Everything that is alive will return to the earth.

George Saunders recently wrote an incredible novel called Lincoln in the Bardo. Abraham Lincoln goes to the bardo — the Tibetan place where souls exist after death and before one’s next birth — he goes there because he is haunted by grief after the death of his beloved 11-year-old son, Willie. Lincolns’ 11-year-old son really did die of typhoid fever, and Lincoln really did regularly visit Willie’s crypt in the weeks after his death. In Saunders’ reimagining of this, Lincoln gazes upon the body of his son, trying to figure out how to bring him back to life. “If there ever really was a Lazarus,” Lincoln thinks to himself, “there should be nothing preventing the conditions that pertained at that time to pertain now.” He tries to will the body of his child to rise. But no. Finally, reality comes home.

I was in error, Lincoln thinks, when I saw (Willie) as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant. He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness. Only I did not think it would be so soon. Or that he would precede us. Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay. I am not stable and Mary (my wife) not stable and the very buildings and monuments here not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable. All alter, are altering, in every instant. 

There is perhaps nothing as countercultural as contemplating this kind of impermanence, really allowing the non-stability of everything to penetrate the soil of our soil. All flesh is grass, says the prophet Isaiah, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass (Isaiah 40:6b-7). We are grass, temporary energy-bursts, puffs of smoke. But so, too, are the buildings and monuments we build, the political and social and economic structures we build, our cities, our civilization. None of this will last forever or even, possibly, into the next century. We mistake them for solidities. 

This awareness of impermanence, of the swiftness with which buildings and cities and civilizations fall, is woven deeply into the fabric of the Hebrew Scriptures. The whole of these Scriptures is, in some sense, a story of a people coming to grips with the fact that their world collapsed when their capital and sacred city, Jerusalem, was destroyed, and they were forced into exile. From that point on, their overriding intellectual and religious agenda involved coming to terms with their loss of home and apparent loss of God. (These insights are from Walter Brueggemann’s article “Hope in the Face of Loss,” originally published in The Other Side magazine.) Just try to imagine: San Francisco lies in ruins, your own home and belongings are gone, many of your family and loved ones have been killed, and now you and what’s left of your community are in exile in a land far from here. You would know something about impermanence, about instability.

This awareness of impermanence makes us humble, which is from the same root as human, which is from the same root as humus. Says Abraham, as he prepares to speak to God, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). This awareness of our impermanence makes us reliant on a Creator who is not. The author of Hebrews says, “You, Creator God, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; and they all will become old like a garment, and like a cloak, you will roll them up; like a garment, they will also be changed but you are the same, and your years will not come to an end” (Hebrews 1:10-12).

But we in technological civilization, we are not humble, close to the earth. Who has, in the words of Isaiah, marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, weighted the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? We have! Or, if we haven’t, we will soon. We have conquered nature, broken the building blocks of life into bits and made them into bombs. We have altered the planet’s surface so much that we have become a geological force, like earthquakes, like volcanoes. We have dug deep into earth’s bowels to release energy that has resulted in steam engine and automobiles and rocket ships. We have stepped on the moon and dream of colonizing Mars. We no longer need God, for we have become one. 

We no longer need death, either. There are people in Silicon Valley who are convinced they can defeat death, and they are putting billions of dollars into research to “end aging.” Others are looking into how we can upload our consciousness into a computer and predict it may be possible by 2045. I say: If we no longer are made of adamah, of humus, then we are no longer human. If we no longer return to the humus, the earth, then we are no longer alive. “Only that which can die is that which can be truly alive.”

But let us be humble, close to the earth. If we could but stay here for awhile, dwell with death and impermanence, what would happen to the soil of our soul? Perhaps that dwelling, that lack of doing, could aerate our soul’s soil, loosen it, prepare it to receive the life-giving waters of grief, of tears. Grief for what has been lost; tears for what could be yet be lost. 

Grief is water, and water is life. Grief says: I loved something enough to hurt this bad. The whole point of being alive is to learn how to love, to be love, so if you are grieving, you did your job. Congratulations! You opened your soul to someone else, that puff of smoke, that temporariness. The soil of your soul was loamy and loose, it could receive that other person, that animal, that land, that boy that you loved. Grief is the price you pay for having loved. It’s always worth it.

Near the end of Lincoln in the Bardo, Lincoln begins to come to terms with his grief. He gives up the desire to stare at the body of his son and will it to rise. “I need not look upon it again,” he says. When I need to look upon Willie, I will do so in my heart. As is proper. There where he is yet intact and whole. If I could confer with him, I know he would approve; would tell me it is right that I should go, and come back no more…Though it is hard. All gifts are temporary. I unwillingly surrender this one. And thank you for it. God. Or world. Whoever it was gave it to me, I humbly thank you, and pray that I did right by him, and may, as I go ahead, continue to do right by him. Love, love, I know what you are.

Love, love, we know what you are. Because we have risked loving impermanent things, earthy things, unstable things, and we have lost. Praise be.