Monday, April 09, 2007

Sermon: "Life's Victory Over Death" (Delivered 4-8-07)

When Christians speak about what I am going to speak about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day.

(The following story is adapted from Robert Fulghum’s book, Maybe (Maybe Not).) The year is 1992. The city of Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia has become a war zone. The region has erupted into a civil war, as warlords and political factions manipulate ethnic and religious hatred. Thousands will die or be maimed. The rest will live in fear, resorting to a kind of animalistic desperation that accompanies the instinct of self-preservation.

To live in Sarajevo at this time is to live amidst bombed out buildings and it is not to know if your building will be the next to be bombed. There is rubble in the streets, and walls are pock-marked with the evidence of sniper-fire.

In May of 1992, a line has gathered outside of one of Sarajevo’s few bakeries that remain open. The people in the line are waiting for a chance to receive some bread. A mortar shell strikes near the line, killing twenty-two people instantly.

The next day, or maybe a few days later, a man in a formal evening suit comes to the scene of the carnage. He rights a damaged chair and sits amidst the wreckage, takes out his cello, and begins to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. For twenty-two consecutive days he returns to this place, one day for each of the twenty-two senseless, tragic deaths. The man is Vedran Smailovic, an accomplished cellist who has played with the Opera and the symphony. A New York Times reporter asked him, during his three week vigil, if he was crazy to make himself an easy target for the snipers and to expose himself to the artillery shells that continued to rain down on the city. He responded, “You ask me if I am crazy for playing the cello, why don’t you ask them if they are crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

When Christians speak about what I am speaking about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day.

A year ago I was blessed to hear Dr. Paul Farmer speak here in Kansas City on disparities in global health. He began his lecture by telling the story a young man who came to his health clinic in Haiti who was wasting away with HIV/AIDs. When this young man arrived at Farmer’s health clinic, he was emaciated, skeletal. On the absolute edge of death, the anti-retroviral drug treatment he received from the clinic began to return him to life. He gained weight. He improved. Now he works as a health counselor working to prevent the spread of HIV and caring for those who are afflicted with disease.

When Christians speak about what I am speaking about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day.

One more story. If you’ve gotten to know me, you probably would not describe me as a “chicken soup for the soul” type of person. I don’t tend to get all choked up and teary-eyed and emotive at those daily inspiration types of stories. Give me a story about prophetic courage. Give me a story about a selfless person dedicating their life to the greater good. Give me a story about creative witness to a tragic truth. But don’t give me chicken soup.

Except for I had this vague recollection while thinking about what to say today. I vaguely remembered a human interest news story about a man who ran a marathon less than a year after undergoing a heart transplant. And, as I remembered this story, the family of the person who donated the heart came to cheer him on in the race, and the man who ran the race did so in order to raise awareness for organ donation.

I’m not a squeamish person. I’ve worked in the Emergency Room of a Level One trauma center and seen all manner of amazing things that make scenes from the television show ER look tame and ordinary. I’m pretty good with most of the scenes on ER or Grey’s Anatomy, except when it is the heart. When it is the heart, I grow faint and have to leave the room, and experience the shivering willies and the howling fantods.

It is normal for people who undergo heart procedures to face acute and severe depression during their recovery. While the medical reason for this is a mystery to me, it makes a sort of sense: there is something about the heart that touches the depths of the psyche. So, the idea of somebody running a 26.2 two mile race with somebody else’s heart inside of them is exciting.

I went looking for this news story on the internet and found that the person from the story I was remembering could have been Scott Brown of California who completed a marathon in 2004 a year after receiving a new heart. Or, it could have been Gary Blinn of Nebraska who ran a marathon in 1992, two years after receiving a new heart. Or, maybe it was Hartwig Gauder of East Germany, a transplant recipient who completed the New York marathon. Or maybe, it was Roger Bouchard, or John Fisher or Donald Arthur (to name just a few) all of whom ran marathons after having heart transplants. There is even a world-record holder for fastest marathon run by a transplant recipient; that record being held by Greg Osterman of Ohio. Who would have imagined? Speaking as one for whom the idea of running a 26.2 mile race is decidedly unappealing, I still cannot help but be awe-struck by all these people running marathons with other people’s hearts inside of them.

Death is a fact of this world, as common as the dust to which eventually we all will return. And though it may be common – universal – death is by no means equal. It can come naturally, as the inevitability of nature. It can come artificially through engineered human malevolence and strife. It can come randomly. It can come as the result of generations of social injustice. But even though death – in all its many guises and its multitudes of forms – is a fact of this world, so is it also equally a fact that sometimes, sometimes, life rises up to claim a temporary victory over death.

When Christians speak of life’s victory over death, they speak of the resurrection of the Christ on the third day. This morning what I am talking about is the same; the who, the where, and the when have changed. We need not locate life’s victory over death in one man, in one far off land, on one day 2,000 years ago.

When Christians speak about what I am speaking about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day. But we can just as easily speak about a new heart. But we can just as easily speak about a life saved. But we can just as easily speak about the will to create beauty amidst ugliness, the will to create meaning amidst meaninglessness, the will to uplift humanity amidst inhumanity. What we speak of is the same, even though the who and the where and the when are changed.

I want to tell you about one of the things I love about being a Unitarian Universalist: It is that we are encouraged to appreciate the “what” – the worth, the insight, the truth, the inspiration – without being limited to a single particular who, a single particular where, or a single particular when. Further, we are encouraged to appreciate worth, insight, truth, and inspiration wherever it is found without being exclusive of any who, where, or when.

Take out your hymnals and you’ll see what I’m talking about here. At the beginning of this service we sang hymn #61. “Lo, the Earth awakes again from the Winter’s bond and pain; bring we leaf and flower and spray to adorn this happy day.” This is a great hymn, containing a wonderful message about life’s victory over death. In this case the messenger is nature. But the message does not belong to the messenger!

Turn to #269. “Lo, the Eastertide is here, festival of hope and cheer; join you people all, and sing, love and praise and thanksgiving.” This is a great hymn, containing a wonderful message about life’s victory over death. In this case the messenger is humankind. But the message does not belong to the messenger!

Flip back a page, to hymn #268. “Jesus Christ is Risen Today…” What is going on here? Was the hymnal committee secretly a group of closet Methodists? Does your hymnal contain space-time continuum vortex on page 268 so that when you turn to that page, the book you are holding transmogrifies instantly into a Presbyterian hymnal? Or, maybe there is a simpler explanation. Maybe this is a great hymn, containing a wonderful message about life’s victory over death. “Soar we now where Christ has led, living out the words he said; Made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” In this case, the messenger happens to be Jesus. But the message does not belong to the messenger!

One of the things I love about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we are encouraged to see the what of the message – its truth, inspiration, and insight – without limiting ourselves to the who, where, and when of a single messenger. No messenger owns the truth exclusively, and our faith does not exclude any messenger who speaks the truth!

No messenger owns the truth exclusively, and our faith does not exclude any messenger who speaks the truth! 61, 268, 269. All three proclaim the message of Life’s Victory over Death.

The force of life is an inclusive force! The forces of death always seek to separate – to separate human relation from human relation; to separate the first world from the third world; to separate ethnic group from ethnic group and religion from religion. But the forces of life always seek to include.

When Christians sing about what I’ve spoken about this morning, they too sing of life’s victory over death. “Is risen today… like him we rise.”

When Humanists sing about what I’ve spoken about this morning, they sing of inclusion’s victory over exclusion. “Join, you people all, and sing!”

When worshippers of nature sing about what I’ve spoken about this morning, they sing of life’s victory over death. “Lo, the earth awakes again, and for dirges, anthems raise.”

Take with you this day a new heart. Take with you this day justice’s power to heal. Take with you beauty that dwells amidst destruction. Go forth and live victoriously.