Do you have a “bucket list?” What’s on your bucket list? Country singer Tim McGraw sings about one such a list in his song, Live Like You Were Dying. It’s full of fun things like skydiving and bull riding and Rocky Mountain climbing. But it also includes some more serious aspects like loving more deeply and speaking more sweetly, extending forgiveness more freely, and being a better friend and husband. I know I’d want to spend more time with my family and maybe do some traveling. What would be on your bucket list?
Our focus today is pretty straightforward: How do we live with dying? Death is a difficult subject for us to deal with. There was a time in this country when most people died at home, surrounded by loved ones. More often these days we have shut ourselves off from death by having people die in hospitals or nursing homes, by having funeral homes be in charge of the dead body, by having the dead person look like they are alive, so that death no longer seems real, nor part of the human experience of life. Death is a subject we reserve for funerals, but not for everyday living. And yet . . . we don’t have to look very far to see death and dying all around us. Veteran’s Day – a time to remember and celebrate the sacrifice members of our armed services have made for us. Death stares us right in the face, although our focus may be more on the freedom they’ve defended or the country in which we live. Members our church who have died this year. Their funeral services remind us how fleeting life is for us. And yet our focus may be more on the family members left behind. Afghanistan . . . the Middle East . . . and most recently
the incredible destruction of the typhoon in the Philippines;
even our own family relationships.
Whether near or far, death stares us right in the face, but we can do a pretty good job denying and avoiding this reality. How do we live with dying? It may be that we don’t. Maybe we avoid it in ways symbolized by the phrase Life is short, so eat dessert first! In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. We often deny death by our lifestyle and choices. We live as if can do anything we want because in the end, we all die, and it really doesn’t matter anyhow. Or perhaps, we live with dying in ways symbolized by Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh. I think Eeyore is perpetually clinically depressed. Everything is always doom and gloom. There’s never any joy or spontaneity in his life. Even when things are going well, he’s always on the lookout for when it’s going to get bad again. How do we live with dying? I think our ancestor in faith Martin Luther shows us another way. When asked what he’d do if he knew the world would end the next day, Luther is reported to have said, “Plant an apple tree.” In other words, don’t let tomorrow’s possibility paralyze us into inactivity. There is ministry for us to do that needs to be done today, no matter what else might happen tomorrow. How do we live with dying? We live in the shadow of a resurrection promise. Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees gives us some direction.
The Sadducees came to Jesus in order to trick him – at this late stage of Jesus’ ministry, the leaders are trying to come up with enough evidence to have Jesus killed. The Sadducees were a group of religious leaders who didn’t believe in the resurrection at all. They only read the first five books of the Old Testament and they only believed the teachings they could find there. In Jesus’ day, teachings about the resurrection came from later books in the like Daniel and from teachings imported into Judaism during the exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. Socially, there were also members of the upper class, so they had a vested interest to believe in the here and now, where God blessed the faithful and punished the wicked. Notions of an afterlife where there might be a reversal of fortune like the one Jesus taught didn’t sit very well. And so the Sadducees ask an absurd question about an absurd family situation involving 7 brothers and one wife. The Sadducees already knew what their answer was – since there is no resurrection, it really doesn’t matter which husband is hers because they won’t be together any way. As he so often does, though, Jesus takes a question from left field,tweaks it and then throws it back in the faces of the questioner to point out the more important issue. Jesus did this in his encounter with the lawyer
and the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Lawyer asked: "Who is my neighbor?"
as a way of trying to limit the definition,
to make clear who was inside and who was outside
the lawyers sphere of care and compassion.
Jesus answered: "Who acted neighborly?"
clarifying that it wasn't important who you cared for,
what was important was how you behaved. That was the more important question. Here, Jesus responds to the absurd question about marriage in the resurrection and tells them the big deal isn’t about family values in heaven. The big deal is look what kind of God we have – a God of the living, who raises to new life those who believe in Jesus. How do we live with dying? Well, no matter what our circumstances, we live in the shadow of this resurrection promise. As a result, we believe that this world’s priorities are not our priorities. We live lives that are focused differently. Money has new meaning. How we spend our time has new meaning. We live with a purpose that God has given us, not our bosses or the world or media advertisers. Our goals and concerns are not necessarily the world’s goals and concerns. The trivia of this life looses its importance, but the values, the important things take on added meaning. I am assured of heaven, and because of that assurance, I live differently, I live for God, I respond to God with my entire being. I rejoice in life as a celebration to the new life for eternity. We also believe that the seven last words of this church are NOT We’ve never done it that way before. One church leader, Bill Easum, spoke once of the three greatest sins of the church. One of them is that
We’re more in love with our traditions than we are with our missions. If we are intent on preserving the patterns of church life
with which we’ve grown comfortable, we’ll soon discover that God has moved on and left us behind. God is always out there ahead of us, leading us into the future, and if we want to be working hand in hand with God, we have to be willing to ask the right questions. Not, “What can we do to preserve what we find comfortable?” but “What can we do to be partners with God in mission?” The first question leads to a church that is dead and declining; the second to a church that is alive and dynamic. The same is true in our personal lives as well. How often we settle for what’s comfortable instead of what is true and life-giving. It takes no effort, demands no sacrifice,
involves no risk to simply go along with what the world says is important at any moment. It takes no courage, no commitment, no faith to just go on doing what we’ve always been doing. To go on working 60- and 70-hour weeks to provide for our family’s material comfort, but watch our families go down the drain because we’re too busy working to be present for them.
How crazy is that?!? It’s easier even to live with our addictions and compulsions than it is to confront and overcome them. Healing is hard work, and frequently, it is very painful work. Yet without the willingness to get out of the comfort zone, healing cannot come.
The poet T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Wasteland,” calls April the “cruelest month,” because the showers of April stir up the dull and dormant roots of trees and flowers to begin bursting forth with new life instead of allowing them to remain comfortably asleep in the frozen ground of winter. Yet the sleep of tree roots and flower bulbs is the sleep of hibernation, not of rest. Trees were meant to put out green leaves; tulips were meant to push up through the soil and produce beautiful blossoms. You and I are also meant to grow, to mature, to blossom, not to hibernate in the frozen sleep of habit or tradition or familiarity. Paul says that we were meant to grow until we attain to the full height of the stature of Christ (Eph 4.13). And that’s often the point of our fear. We’re more afraid of change, of growth, than we are of becoming stuck in our present level of spiritual development. Better a comfortable rut than the risks of the journey. Yet our God is a God of the living, not of the dead. God is always there nudging us to get out of our ruts, to leave false comfort and security behind, and to take the risks of faith by following him into the future. The future is only frightening if God is not there ahead of us. If God is there, then what do we have to fear? What looks from our angle like a risky business – growing, moving on, living by faith rather than by sight – from another angle is the safest of all possible places to be: in God’s company. Amen
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