Deut. 30:19-20, Ezekiel 37:12-14, Luke 7:11-15, Acts 9:36-40
I was making my usual rounds as a hospital chaplain when I heard the sound of someone yelling, and followed my ears to the room at the end of the hall. I walked through the door and saw my patient, Ms. T, sitting in a chair and screaming with all her might.
“I don’t want to live!” she yelled, hot tears streaming down her face, her clenched fists pounding a tray of untouched food. “I don’t want to live!” she said again and again, adding: “I might as well just lie down in the grave and die!”
It was a remarkable moment: There on a hospital oncology unit—where every day courageous patients endured chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery in the hopes of living a while longer—was a cancer-free patient begging to die.
I tell you this story because I have been hearing things lately. I have been hearing our society scream that it doesn’t want to live.
I hear it when I read the newspaper. I hear it when I pass a homeless person on the street, and when a gas-guzzler passes me on the road. I hear it in gunshots at our schools, in the persecution of African-American youth, the harassment of immigrants, and ongoing discrimination against gays and lesbians. I hear it in the drumbeat of war, in the silence of our churches and the emptiness of our streets, which should be filled with cries for peace and justice.
Sometimes I even hear this “I don’t want to live” scream in my life and the lives of people I love.
I hear all this, I look at the evidence, and I am tempted to despair—for our country and our neighborhoods, for our children and their futures, for our world.
You see, God’s command to choose between life and death is not a metaphor. It is not about walking the so-called straight-and-narrow versus having a good time. It is not even about the hereafter.
God’s directive to the children of Israel—and to us—concerns the oldest, most fundamental, most important choice there is: life or death. Right here, right now.
And yet when I listen and look, when I pray to God and search the scriptures, I feel that many of our national policies, cultural values and personal lifestyle choices lead to death rather than life. They declare, in ways both obvious and subtle, that we have rejected God’s path of life and chosen to follow humanity’s death-dealing ways.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we worship the God of Life—the God who created us to live and to love, the God who brings life out of death. What’s more, we carry the power of God’s death-defeating life within us, and we are called to share it with one another and our death-dealing world.
Our readings are just a sampling of what our scriptures say about this. In the “Book of Life” God is constantly pleading with humanity to choose the way of life, and then—when their choices lead to defeat, exile, suffering and death—God’s grace liberates, rescues, redeems and lovingly restores them. In the teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus, God promises and delivers abundant life. The early church continues this life-giving and life-changing work, and—by God’s Spirit—we too are empowered to breathe God’s life into dry bones, to speak the word of life even to those living in the grave.
I want to focus this morning on three facets of God’s word of life:
First: God’s word of life calls us to expose the ways of death;
Second: God’s word of life calls us to big-picture, meaning-rich living; and,
Third: We and our world will be changed when we “keep re-deciding for life” and devote ourselves to proclaiming God’s word of life.
We in the UCC are pretty good at recognizing some of the more obvious sins of our culture: poverty, injustice, war, racism, genocide, consumerism, greed. But our society lives in denial, and we, too, can fail to see how we are straying from the path of life. God’s word of life calls us to wake up to the death-dealing values of our society and to expose them for what they are: forces of death.
Our nation’s refusal to responsibly address global climate change, for example, has literal life-and-death implications. Unless and until we stand up and proclaim the word of life to a warming world, ice caps will continue to melt, some species and eco-systems will disappear, and humans will suffer extreme weather, dislocation and death.
And then there are those policies and values that disregard the least among us. When the president vetoes legislation that would provide basic health coverage for an additional 3.5 million uninsured children because he favors the private health insurance their parents can’t afford; and when lawmakers are more interested in scoring political points than in reaching agreement, it seems to me all of them have chosen the way of death. And when we block reforms that would offer health insurance to some of the 47 million Americans without it, we seem to be saying we don’t care about life and health—at least not for other people.
Unless and until we stand up and proclaim the word of life to an uninsured nation—not dollars and cents, not public or private, but the word of life—we will continue to reap preventable disease, premature death and medical bankruptcies.
Then there is our government’s unwillingness to extricate our nation from the Iraq war. More than 3,850 American soldiers have been killed; more than 28,000 have been wounded; and, as we learned this week, more than 4,000 Iraq war veterans have taken their own lives. Some 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, and 4 million Iraqis have fled their homes. Already, our nation has spent almost half a trillion dollars on the Iraq war, and current spending exceeds 3 billion dollars a week –which, by the way, is enough to finance six months of health insurance for 3.5 million children. While we worship today, the United States will spend another 18 million dollars on the Iraq war.
Our nation marches headlong into war and death—but, as Christians, we know another way. Our culture buys into the face-saving, anti-terrorist rhetoric that says we can’t turn back now—but we know right from wrong and good results from bad. Our government tries to destroy our enemies rather than love them and win them over—but we know peace from security. Many say Jesus is not relevant here—but we know the difference between following Jesus and worshipping the flag.
Still, the forces of death are strong, and our need to deny them is great. When the immorality of our policies becomes too much to bear and the tragedy hits too close to home, when the word of life feels naïve and irrelevant, we are tempted to join the masses who go shopping, work longer hours, veg out in front of the television or computer, or otherwise tune out.
We might as well be standing in the middle of the street and screaming, “We don’t want to live!”
Unless and until we stand up and proclaim the word of life to a war-weary but war-making people—not Republican or Democrat, draw-down or pull-out, but the word of life—the forces of violence and militarism will deaden our very souls.
God’s word of life calls us to expose these and other forces of death—but not in a spirit of judgment and condemnation. God’s word of life is a liberating alternative to us-versus-them, fear-driven, scarcity-based living, and we—as bearers of that word—must proclaim the good news in love and compassion.
In the midst of this death-dealing world, God also calls us to big-picture, meaning-rich living. By choosing to follow Jesus, we have chosen life, and God knows we want life—but it’s easy to lose sight of the path.
You know how it is: Our hearts can be numbed by the overwhelming problems of the world; our souls can be deadened by the endless demands of daily life. We wake up one day and find we’re majoring in life maintenance rather than living, working not for the love of it but to pay the bills. And as much as we love our children, parenting sometimes feels like an endless cycle of sports, homework and carpools. Many young people, meanwhile, are losing their childhoods to activities designed to get them into the right college, high school—or pre-school. And then we have our aging parents to care for, church meetings to attend, e-mails to answer, relationships to nurture . . . We dreamed of changing the world, but it seems to be changing us.
I know how it is: Even after I went seminary, I saw how easily my passion for life, my love for God, could be curbed by the crush of classes, papers, and exams.
And between the demands of life’s good things and the pain of life’s normal losses and disappointments we sometimes find ourselves just going through the motions. We’re starved for meaning, for connection, for joy—and we may not even realize it. Before we know it we have arrived at the place where our actions, if not our words, say, “I don’t want to live.”
“Listen,” says the poet Mary Oliver, “are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
Another writer put it this way: “Our life is frittered away by detail.”
And if you think that statement describes your own harried, hurried, over-committed life, consider this: The writer was Henry David Thoreau, and the year was 1854.
So what do we do? How do we keep re-choosing and reclaiming life?
One thing we must do is practice big-picture living: Jesus promised that if we seek first God’s reign—a place of upside-down values where the poor are honored, the hungry and thirsty are filled, the marginalized are invited in, and peacemakers are praised—God will give us all we need.
Another thing we must do is consciously, intentionally, regularly put ourselves in the path of the Light—the same way Jesus was forever stealing away to pray, the same way the prophets, the apostles and the early church consistently called on and connected to the Source of Life.
There are many ways of doing that. For one person it might be spending time in prayer and worship, for someone else it might be listening to or making beautiful music, enjoying family and friends, taking a walk in the woods, kayaking a river, or watching a sunset. For all of us it should include cultivating a grateful heart.
Jesus also calls us to counter-intuitive, paradoxical living: It is in giving that we receive; it is in dying to ourselves that we are born again to new life. We can recover the fullness of life in feeding the hungry and serving the poor. We can rediscover our passion for living by taking risks, by walking the less-traveled road in faith and trust. I saw first-hand how the black people of South Africa found life by choosing forgiveness and reconciliation over bitterness and revenge. And I discovered a more meaningful kind of living when I invited my dying brother to share my home.
Finally, God promises that our lives will be enriched and our world will be changed when we proclaim the word of life.
The good news that is ours to claim and proclaim is that it doesn’t matter how old, young, sick, lonely, depressed, disillusioned, doubting, or tired we are. It doesn’t matter how dead we feel, how out-of-control our lives are, whether our kids or thriving or struggling, whether we have a job or a partner, whether we’re gay or straight or something in between. Whatever our station in life, whatever the condition of our heart or state of our faith, our God—the God of life—is still speaking the word of life—to you, to me, to First Church, to our entire broken, hurting, dying world.
Yes, the forces of death are real. Exposing and rejecting them can be dangerous, and choosing life can be inconvenient and scary. But God created us to live, and God empowers us to live. God’s word of life says, “Wake up! Come out of those places of death. Turn around and return to your God. Rise up and live!”
God’s love is stronger than the forces of death, more real than earthly powers and principalities, more important than our obligations, more powerful than our doubts and worries.
We believe it, but do we live it? Do our lives show the world another way? Do we ask the still-speaking God to show us the death-dealing places and patterns of our own lives?
What do we do when we hear ourselves, our friends, our families and our culture screaming—or whispering—that they don’t want to live?
Well, do you remember Ms. T, my hospital patient who screamed that she didn’t want to live? By the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, I heard and saw something else that day.
“I hear what you’re saying, Ms. T.,” I told her, “and I want to understand. But I have never seen so much life in you! I’ve never seen you out of bed; I’ve never seen you with your family; I’ve never seen you talking to anyone. What I hear is that you don’t want to live, but what I see is someone who is physically, spiritually, passionately alive.”
When we speak the word of life in the midst of death, we don’t know what will happen. I certainly didn’t. All I could do, all any of us can do, is trust that the Spirit of life will take over.
Ms. T’s first response to my risky observation was stunned silence. But over the coming days and weeks, she seemed slowly to rise from the dead. We talked about her family; she told me about her life as an African-American; we discussed the options available to an 82-year-old, diabetic widow. And then one day, in what felt like the blink of an eye, this woman who had screamed that she didn’t want to live left the hospital and went home—wearing a smile as wide as a house.
You see, Ms. T, like all of us, was made in the image of the God of life. The word of life was part of her. And I, no more than anyone else, was filled with the same breath of God that brought life to dry bones, empowered by the same Spirit that raised the dead from their beds.
Ms. T just needed someone to wake her up and help her to hear God’s word of life and love. She needed to realize that life was still there for her, that she had the power to re-choose it, that she could live.
God calls all of us, through Jesus, to live and love and be church in such a way that it leads our world away from death and back to the path of life.
As God’s Easter people, let us proclaim in love to ourselves, one another, and our world:
“Get up! Rise up! LIVE!”