As a people and a church, we must die to ourselves

The Rev. Bernard Mason is a retired supply pastor serving at Mann Memorial United Methodist Church in Augusta.

Isn’t it interesting that so many of our historical churches have cemeteries on their properties? My new place of ministry, Mann Memorial, has history in Augusta dating back to 1890, and, while it doesn’t have a cemetery on its property, its walls memorialize many who have been in this place.


I love walking the cemetery at St. Paul’s Church here in Augusta, and when I do, I remember that Virginia Woolf called London, “a city of tombs.”

When you walk into Westminster Abbey you walk upon the graves of the famous and infamous. Many churches today are being built with burial spaces called columbariums where those who have died can have their ashes and remains interred within the church. But perhaps no church in our country has had the kind of relationship to sacred ground that Trinity Church on Wall Street had when, on a Tuesday morning in September 2001, its cemetery was extended beyond its gates onto the 16-acre site of the World Trade Center.

The church opened its doors day after day in the ash heap of death and destruction, allowing itself to fall into the dust with those who were looking and mourning for their loved ones.

We must also allow ourselves to fall into the dirt. If we wish to see Jesus, then we must, like the seeds of wheat, fall to the ground.

Jesus says to us we must die before we live: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat … (John 12:24).”

We are those individual grains and we need to be free to die before we can truly live.

In my own journey, a good portion of my life was consumed by conforming and succeeding. The lies I told myself and others kept me from producing the fruit I could have. I was so tied up in my own fears: Will I be accepted? Will I be loved? Will I be successful?

I became a master role player early in my life. My teen years were terrible for me. I always felt like I was holding on by a slender thread.

At the age of 50 I was a workaholic with 30 years of service in the United Methodist Church, diagnosed with colon cancer and with a loving spouse who had suffered with me as long as she could bear it. After my divorce, and through therapy, I came to know and acknowledge my poverty of spirit. I had to die to my old self in order to live.

“Whoever hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life.” We are to hate not our true selves, but the selves the world has taught us to be. Measuring our lives out in coffee scoops, as T.S. Eliot put it, we are exhausted and burned out.

Stephen Sondheim, in A Little Night Music, puts it this way:

“Everyday a little death,/ In the parlor, in the bed,/ In the curtains, in the silver, in the buttons, in the bread./ Everyday a little sting in the heart and in the head./ Every move and every breath,/ And you hardly feel a thing,/ Brings a perfect death.”

This is not the life, this life of hardly feeling a thing, that we are called to, my brothers and sisters. We are called to die to all that and embrace our death like the solitary grain of wheat that falls into the ground.

Like the church that stands in the shadows of Sept. 11, we, the church, need to claim our presence next to the brokenness, right here on our streets in our neighborhoods in this city. How good it is that God has put us in this place! Let our grain of wheat fall where we need to fall in the holy ground all around us. Right here. Right now.

This is a day of new beginnings.