Sermon: “Junebug in July” by Ana Levy-Lyons

2021 February 3

Junebug in July

Ana Levy-Lyons

January 31, 2021

First Unitarian, Brooklyn – online

My family recently acquired a pet fish – a small, reddish Betta fish in a small glass bowl with one token fake plant and some stones at the bottom. I would not have chosen to have this fish, or any fish really. But it was an act of charity. This fish belonged to some friends and in the days leading up to Christmas, the fish had stopped eating. They figured it was going to die soon. Betta fish only have a life expectancy of two years and it had been three. But my friend was very clear that her toddler son was not going to wake up to a dead fish on Christmas morning. So, she had hired an understudy – an identical reddish Betta fish in an identical glass bowl with a fake plant and stones at the bottom. The understudy was being kept in a cabinet until called to serve. But Christmas came and went and the first fish didn’t die. So we offered to take it and provide hospice for it at our place. We stealthily made the swap, the new fish was installed, and the toddler never noticed the difference.

Now, I can understand not wanting your kid to wake up to a dead pet on Christmas morning so I’m not criticizing my friend’s decision, but this story is emblematic of the anxious relationship that this culture has with death. Death is the ultimate taboo. We don’t talk about it. We go to such great lengths to hide it, brush it under the rug, or keep it in the cabinet. That’s assuming we can’t avoid it altogether. Western medicine tends to view death as a medical failure, at whatever age it happens. And this has resulted in generations of deaths preceded by desperate, extreme measures to prolong the quantity of life even at the expense of the quality of life in the final months or weeks or days.                                                                                                    

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to confront death in a way that especially the more privileged among us didn’t have to before. The statistics about the number dead – approaching half a million now – are inescapably real when we know people who have died from it or when we read the stories of funeral homes over capacity or the mass graveyard on Hart Island filling up. Death is not an abstraction when we are lying terrified in a hospital bed. It’s not an abstraction when its looming presence is shaping every facet of our lives. We’re all thinking about it now, either directly or indirectly. We’re recognizing the preciousness of our relationships and trying hard to not take our loved ones for granted. We’re struggling with the tension, on a social level, between quality of life and potential quantity of life. The pandemic is an unwelcome reminder of our mortality.

But when we zoom the camera out, this COVID moment is not unique. It’s a high-octane, compressed version of the human condition in the best of times. Much as we try to deny it, death is always looming in our future and the future of our loved ones. We live our lives in light of this reality. We make compromises and choices in light of this reality. Some of us run away from it; some run towards it; all of us grapple with it in our own ways. You could say that it’s because of death that we are here together in this worship space right now. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church defined religion itself as “the human response to being alive and having to die.” We turn to each other for comfort in the face of a truth that is literally unimaginable. It’s completely outside of our capacity to understand what it will mean to cease to exist. But our future non-existence is the defining feature of our existence.

We have so little time on this earth. Whether today you are a newborn with a life expectancy of 82 years or you are in the December of life, counting in single digits your remaining years, months, or even weeks, we have so little time. In this community we have people at both vantage points. When we are children the days feels like they go on forever and a week is an eternity. Older people tend to feel that it all goes by in a flash and every year feels faster. One elderly grandmother said that it feels like she has breakfast every 15 minutes. Each day zips by so quickly, it seems to tumble into the next. And then one day it’s all over. Our embodiment in this world ends. Our experience of this world – an experience that filled every corner of our consciousness and sat in the center of its own universe – just ends.

Religious traditions over millennia have taught that it’s spiritually healthy – even vital – to regularly remember this fact; to hold our mortality close and let it guide our lives. From our own perspective, our lives are enormous; but from the big picture God’s-eye view, each of our lives is just a blip. I believe that if we’re doing our job right, this is a subtext of what we do here every week in our worship service – life is short; you have a finite number of days left on this earth; live with urgency; show your love for others; leave this world better than you found it; don’t wait, don’t wait. I believe that consciously or subconsciously, we come here to be reminded of this.

Would you believe me if I told you that one of our members even paid $200 to be specifically reminded every week that he’s going to die? It’s true. Some of you may remember that a number of years ago Catalina Bertani, a longtime member of First U, offered this unique service as an auction item at our spring auction – that once a week for one year she would contact the winner and remind them that they are going to die. There was a bidding war for this service and the lucky winner was David Andrew, a young, healthy man whose life and career were going well; someone with no reason to think that this was something he was going to have to worry about any time soon. And yet, he had the wisdom and the foresight to imagine that living with greater awareness of the finitude of his life could only bear good fruit.

Over the next year, and I share all of this with their permission, Catalina sent David little notes each week – emails, texts, photos, the occasional phone call. Sometimes it was a poem about death, sometimes it was lighter fare, like a comic drawing of a tombstone that said, “I can’t believe I ate all that kale for nothing.” Sometimes it was personal – Catalina’s great uncle died during that year and she sent photos and described the legacy he was leaving behind. Meanwhile, David’s own life took a painful turn – he lost his job and decided to leave the city, spending the better part of that year without a permanent home or sense of direction. His grandfather also died during that time. The message of transience, coming at him from all sides, sunk deeply into David’s consciousness.

In the hard times, Catalina’s messages helped David feel connected and held; in the good times, they were a sobering counterbalance that reminded him to take his life seriously. Catalina, too, experienced this as a positive thing in her life – a small task every week that reminded her of what matters most. It seems like this was a spiritual practice in itself that others of us might want to emulate. David even told me that he would be willing to pass this forward and give this gift to someone else in the future. Maybe we could do find a way to support this here at First U and connect people who want to do this for each other. A morbid project? I see it as life-affirming. Our older members and those who have experienced serious illness may not need or want this so much. But some of us who are young and healthy might find it transformative.

To bring death out into the open in sensitive and compassionate ways is a spiritual gift that we can offer each other as a religious community. We can help each other face it with greater clarity and open hearts. We can decide that at least here, it is not a taboo topic, but one that we speak of and explore together. And we can ask ourselves theologically and politically why some people die before their time and others do not. This pandemic has reminded us that it’s vital that we do this.

This spring, we’ll be offering various workshops and conversations to help us engage all aspects of the end of life. Meagan Henry will reprise her class, “Hindsight, Humor, and Hope.” I’ll lead a workshop on planning our own memorial services, making decisions about what’s important to us and the legacy we want to leave behind. Ethan Loewi will do some teaching around end of life medical decisions. Catalina Bertani may be able to hold a workshop on green burial. And we’ll be inviting everyone to plan our financial giving for after we die to include bequests to organizations we value, including First Unitarian. This is one way that a religious community holds and cares for its members.

When we face a terminal illness, death feels imminent and it often is. But in fact none of us knows how long we have. Today could be our last day. It always feels trite to me when someone says to live as if today was your last day. We would never get anything done; we would do nothing to prepare for our future. We would forever just be eating our favorite foods and saying goodbye to our loved ones. I would replace that with live as if you’re a Junebug in July. We should feel as if we’re living on borrowed time, which we are. Or better yet, we should feel that we’ve been given extra time, which we have. All of us have. This whole life is “extra.” It didn’t have to be; we didn’t have to exist. And it’s so improbable –each of us is so improbable – when you think of all the string of coincidences that had to happen to allow for our birth and to bring us to this moment. This whole life is extra and we should live with gratitude for our time. Like a Junebug in July.

As for my family, we now have a fish, still going strong a month later. Here it is [show fish]. This fish, in its third year of a life forecasted to be two, is truly living on borrowed time. The fish is probably not conscious of this fact any more than an actual Junebug in July is probably aware of its good fortune. But we humans can be. With intention and practice and community we can live in light of the truth and give our lives the urgency and dignity that they deserve. We can count each moment with a loved one as precious and each day as irreplaceable. We can remember that we are made of earth and sunlight and water and someday to earth, sunlight, and water we will all return. We’re all going to die; may this simple fact teach us how to live.

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