“Fount of Life”
I won’t lie.
I found it easier to trust these stories before I stood by and watched people I love draw their last breaths. Before people I loved died and stayed dead.
Also, because I will not lie about this: I tell you that I know real people who have been raised from the dead—no, not in body, but in spirit and heart, truth and health, potential and possibility.
In fact, our scripture lessons for today, which come from the Year W lectionary, brought on something for a flashback for me. You see, two of these readings—the ones about the raising of Tabitha and the only son of the widow of Nain—were among the four lessons I used 14 years ago for my so-called “call” sermon to the fine people of the First Congregational Church in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Back then, I told you the story of Mrs. T, as I called her, one of my hospital patients during my chaplaincy training in Clinical Pastoral Education.
One day, while making my normal rounds, I had heard someone yelling, and followed my ears to the room at the end of the hall. I had walked through the door to find Mrs. 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 hear what you’re saying,” I told Mrs. T, “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.”
Mrs. T’s first response to my risky observation was stunned silence. But over the next few days and weeks, we talked a lot—or, rather, she talked and I mostly listened. She talked about her family; she told me about her life as an African-American; and we discussed the prospects for an 82-year-old diabetic widow.
Little by little, she rose from the dead.
And then one day, 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.
I’m sure Mrs. T’s discharge papers included lots of medical jargon, along with some notes from the social worker about treatment plans for her chronic condition. But to me it was clear: Mrs. T’s heart and soul had been delivered from death. Mrs. T had been brought back to life. Mrs. T had come home to the land of the living.
Back in November of 2007, amid the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and countless government policies and social conditions that felt to me like echoes of Mrs. T’s primal scream that she didn’t want to live, I wanted to remember that our God is the God who brings life out of death.
What’s more, I said then, we—the beloved children of God, made in God’s loving image—carry within us the power of God’s death-defeating life, and we are called to share it with one another and our death-dealing world.
Fourteen years later, I still believe all that—though I would hope that I’m less glib about it now. After all, I know how many of us have lost loved ones to physical death and mental decline—some very recently—and that we will never stop grieving those losses. I know, too, that we’re all well-acquainted with the death-dealing forces of our world—everything from the climate crisis to white supremacy to the dehumanizing hatred that rips children from their parents’ arms, the misplaced focus on individual “freedom” that leaves individuals and their loved ones vulnerable to a deadly virus, and the thousand and one little and big things that divide us from one another.
So I was thrilled to discover that someone else had chosen to present together these stories of Jesus and his followers miraculously restoring the dead to life. In her Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Wilda Gafney also includes the 116th Psalm and another life-from-death story, that of the prophet Elijah working hard to raise to life the only son of the widow of Zarephath.
I was thrilled because I believe God’s passion for life—life renewed and restored, life rediscovered, life shared, life abundant—is at the heart of the gospel message. I was excited to consider these lessons again, because I know how how easy it is for us—as caught up as we are in the details, drama, and demands of the day to day—to lose sight of this fundamental, life-giving truth. I was challenged, too, because many of us have lived such relatively easy and privileged lives that we don’t fully appreciate a God who saves, the Holy One who has delivered our souls from death.
And I was encouraged, because I know some of us live every day with dear ones whose wounded souls and weary hearts suggest that, like Mrs. T, they have decided they no longer want to live. They have given up because they think the best of life is not available to them. They have given up because they don’t know the God who is love, the Holy One who is the Fount of Life. They have given up because they haven’t encountered a church that understands that one of its greatest reasons for being is to bring the dead back to life.
I know, too, that some of us here are struggling even now with questions about life and death—what life is for, whether it will ever get any better, if we want to continue, and what, if anything, happens not only when we die but also when we are diagnosed serious illnesses or our strength and vitality begin to decline.
We study these accounts of the dead being raised to life not because new life is easy to come by but because life is so often hard, and the forces of death are so strong and real.
So, to anyone who is struggling with how or whether to live: Please know that just as the Fount of Life loves you with an ever-lasting love, just as the God Who Saves longs to deliver you from your pain, we, your church, will never give up on you. Even when it seems that you have died—to depression or despair, to discouragement or defeat, to aging or addiction, to decline or loneliness or grief—we, like the church of Lydda, will call on the power of the Spirit of Love to raise you up.
I don’t know how many of you know someone whose life has been turned completely around, whose soul has been delivered by the love of God and the love of a church community. Sadly, our faith tradition does not encourage testimony, the God-praising telling of these stories. But those who were once all but dead do walk among us, here in the land of the living. Their new lives are as real as those of Tabitha and the unnamed sons of desperate widows. Their restored lives are testimonies to the power and love of a God who specializes in deliverance.
I was planning to tell you some of their stories, but I’ve decided that’s not what we most need right now. Instead, I want to encourage you to take some specific, concrete actions to become part of God’s deliverance and life-restoring business.
First, I invite you to think about your own life. Remember the lowest points of your life, the times when you hit bottom yourself or life hit you so hard that you didn’t know if you would ever get up again. Consider who and what delivered you from those circumstances. I’m guessing that your transformation didn’t happen all of the sudden, but rather over weeks or months or even years. Know that the passing of time doesn’t make your new life any less miraculous. Know that you are a living, walking miracle.
Second, tell someone else the story of how you were raised to new life or, if that sounds too dramatic, how you got your life back and how it became a richer and more meaningful life.
Third, newly convinced that this life-raising thing is for real, look around and consider those you know who might be struggling to live. Because we are here—as individuals and as a church—not only to love and be loved but also to love one another to life—whether that’s loving someone back to life or onward to the fullness of life.
And, friends, if you are struggling to live, please tell someone. Tell me, tell someone else in our church, tell someone else in your life.
And, friends, even if you just think someone might be struggling, reach out to them. You don’t need to be all dramatic about it; just hold space for them to be honest and real. Let them know they are not alone. Pray for them.
Finally, beloveds, let us all together praise the Fount of Life with the gifts of our lives. Let us join the psalmist in saying: For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. [And so] I will walk before the LIVING GOD in the land of the living.