Monday, January 02, 2017

Sermon: Renewed to Life

Opening Words

The poet and priest John Banister Tabb composed these words about being renewed to life.

            Out of the dusk a shadow,
            Then, a spark.

            Out of the cloud a silence,
            Then, a lark.

            Out of the heart a rapture,
            Then, a pain.

            Out of the dead, cold ashes,
            Life again.

John Tabb’s incredibly brief poem is a poem of faith. In eight short lines it expresses the hope and the possibility of rediscovering life amidst devastation. But, the poem has always left me wanting more. So, I decided to try my hand at composing a few poetic variations on this poem. Maybe you’ll be inspired to try your own hand at writing a verse or two.

            Fearful silence, then a voice,
            Then a song.

            An empty street, then a group,
            Then a throng.

            Out of frozen ground, a thaw,
            Then a shoot.

            Into fire-swept land, a seed,
            Then a root.

            Out of sep’rate lives, a risk,
            Then a care.

            Out of scarcity, a trust,
            Then we share.          


Ezekiel 37:1-14. The vision of the valley of dry bones.

As the hymn puts it, “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer yes to life.” My sermon on this morning of this brand new year is about answering “yes” to life, about being renewed to life. The first part of my sermon this morning actually begins in the realm of public health. From there we’re going to move into the realm of theology and spirituality, but we’re going to start in the realm of our contemporary world. It is impossible to separate theology and spirituality from the world we’re living in, so that is where we’re going to start.

I read an article in the New York Times last month that grabbed my attention and possibly inspired me to preach on this topic this morning. The article’s headline read, Life Expectancy in U.S. Declines Slightly, and Researchers Are Puzzled. The article went on to say that in 2015, the average life expectancy of people in the United States decreased by about six weeks. To put this in perspective, to find the last year when life expectancy in the United States declined you would have to go all the way back to 1993, so nearly twenty-five years ago.

But 1993 was a very different year than 2015. If you were to ask a group of public health experts why the average lifespan decreased in 1993, they would all give you the same answer with a very high degree of certainty. 1993 was the peak year of the AIDS epidemic in the United States and the decline in average lifespan could be attributed to that single cause. But the public health experts quoted in the Times article are a lot more uncertain about why exactly life expectancy fell in 2015.

This time, researchers can’t identify a single problem driving the drop, and are instead pointing to a number of factors from heart disease to suicides... Dr. Peter Muennig, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University… said that popular theories for the decline… fail to explain a problem that feels broader… “If you actually dissect the data, neither of those arguments hold,” he said. “This report slams it home that this is really a mystery… A 0.1 decrease is huge. Life expectancy increases, and that’s very consistent and predictable, so to see it decrease, that’s very alarming.”

If school hadn’t been closed this past week I would have taken this story over to the Gillings School of Public Health and asked the professors over there what they thought about these findings. This claim about public health experts being puzzled and stumped really grabbed me. It speaks to the complexity of the problem.

I want to place this broad story about public health alongside a number of other public health stories I’ve been reading over the last couple of years, stories about a rising number of deaths in the United States from suicides, from alcoholism, and from heroin and opioid abuse. There have been numerous stories over the past several years chronicling this epidemic, but a New York Times story from a year ago goes a step further and breaks down the frequency of these deaths along racial lines.

The major causes of excess deaths are from suicides, drug abuse, and alcoholism… But while deaths from [drug abuse] have increased among middle-aged whites, they actually decreased for blacks and Hispanics. The same pattern holds for deaths from alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. The suicide rate for whites was four times that of blacks.

So, I’m going to ask for all of us to sit with this. I’m going to ask for us to resist the urge to explain this in a simplistic way. If this was simply a reflection of economic factors, you wouldn’t see results that are skewed by race the way they are. It’s not simply economic determinism; not all countries behave the same way when conditions are similar.

I bring up these news stories about this dip in life expectancy that our nation experienced in 2015, and about these current epidemics of suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse, in order to establish a context for my remarks about theology and spirituality. When I talk about being renewed to life, let me be clear that I am not just speaking metaphorically. I want to talk about life literally as well as figuratively.

My good colleague in eastern Tennessee wrote something some time ago that I find provocative and true. He writes, and here I’m loosely paraphrasing that he frequently encounters people who he describes as “the walking dead.” The walking dead. They are people whose life is centered on awaiting their own death. They hold an apocalyptic view of the world. The world is coming to an end. The world is about to be destroyed. And they hold an apocalyptic view of their own life. Their life is racing towards its end. Their own destruction is imminent. And so they choose to live in such a way that hastens this destruction, that speeds it along.

And, my friend says that his ministry is to show the world another way of being, another story, the way of the transforming power of love, the way that says that love conquers death, not in the sense of stopping death from coming, but of filling life up so full of love that love becomes the main thing and the power of death is taken away. This transforming power of love, embodied in beloved community, embodied in resilient relationship, renews people to life. Transforms them. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes.

So, what does it mean to come alive? What does being renewed to life look like in the context of our lives, in the story we find ourselves in? This image of the walking dead, is this image that my friend described familiar to you at all? Is this a reality that you recognize?

For me, these stories about public health statistics, and the stories of the real people, families, communities, evoke that Biblical image from the Prophet Ezekiel, that image of the valley of dry bones. “O Mortal, can these bones live again?” Like the Prophet Ezekiel, how do we take those dry bones and knit the sinews back together, reconstitute flesh and skin, and breathe the breath of life back into the dead? How can we be renewed to life? How can we be renewed to life?

At about the same time that I was reading those alarming stories about diminishing life expectancy and epidemics of self-harm and addiction, there were other stories, happier stories, that I stumbled across and filed away for future use.

One of those stories was about a Harvard public health study of 75,000 people whose lives were tracked over a twenty-year span. One of the interesting findings was that attending religious services is correlated with longer life expectancy. The researchers found that among the people they tracked, those who attended services once or twice a month had a 13% greater chance of staying alive, those who attended every week had a 26% greater chance of staying alive, and those who attended more than one church function a week had a 33% greater chance of staying alive. See you all next Sunday.

What’s interesting is that this study did not show a correlation between spirituality and longer life expectancy. The correlation is with community. And then there was another study in which Harvard and Yale collaborated to study the effects of singing in choirs. They found that singing in the choir was correlated with better health and increased life expectancy. Another examination of the benefits of community singing claims that singing regularly causes you to appear younger in age. We’ll see who shows up for choir on Wednesday.

I share these stories about coming to church, singing in the choir, community not just to provide a more joyful counterpoint to those other stories about addiction and death, but because I believe that community – beloved community – can be one of the most important parts of being renewed to life.

How does this work? How does beloved community renew us to life? Beloved community, for one thing, diminishes our existential loneliness. Even if you one of those people who would never, ever come up and place a stone for Joys & Sorrows, you’re reminded that you’re not alone in facing grief, or dealing with a tough medical challenge. You’re reminded, as well, of the milestones coming up on the horizon.

Even more than that, beloved community helps to inspire us to live our lives for the sake of others. For the person we bring a meal to after their surgery. For the person we don’t want to miss. For the people at the soup kitchen who count on us being there every Wednesday at noon. My colleague Victoria Safford has a wonderful meditation about a man who comes to church every Sunday.

Why do you come, John? In all kinds of weather, when you’re well and when you’re not, when you like the guest speaker and when you know you won’t, why do you come every Sunday? I asked him. His answer was straightforward, just like the man himself. “I come, he said, because somebody might miss me if I didn’t.”

And, beloved community renews us to life by reminding us that others will show up for us, will keep showing up for us.

There’s another part of being renewed to life, which has to do with being willing to cast one’s own lot with the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the discarded, the disreputable. There is a spark of life that I recognize in those who do this.

Many years ago I had the chance to meet Sister Helen Prejean, the nun played by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking. Sister Prejean has spent her life working to end the death penalty and ministering to those on death row. When she entered the room it was like a spark of life had appeared. It was the same way when I met Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of an organization called Partners in Health that does AIDS work in rural Haiti. He carries this spark of life with him.

I was doing a little brainstorming about people I’ve met or learned about who I associate with this spark of life and one name popped into mind that was surprising, and provides an opportunity for a humorous digression if that’s okay.

One of my first religion professors as an undergrad was this professor of ancient Christianity who everybody loved. This professor had done his Ph.D. on the life of Shenoute of Atripe, a larger than life church father who led a monastery in Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries. And the professor would tell us these Shenoute stories during class. I think he must have convinced dozens of us to learn Coptic so we could enter this world. The stories he told us were of two kinds. One kind of story had to do with fistfights that broke out at church councils. Shenoute was a rough and tumble monk who attended the Council of Ephesus as the bodyguard of the Bishop of Alexandria and punched the Archbishop of Constantinople. (Yes, bishops came with bodyguards and councils frequently turned into brawls.)  

But our professor would also tell us these other Shenoute stories. Shenoute was famous for opening up the monastery he ran. He sent his monks out into the community. He assigned monks to monitor the dump and to rescue discarded babies; his monastery became an orphanage. His monastery ran a soup kitchen that fed thousands of peasants daily. And advocacy on behalf of the poor was the major focus of their communal religious life. It was these stories that my professor told that made this ancient figure feel so very alive to us. We’re renewed to life by entering the arena, by putting our own lives side by side with the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Remember, the Buddha had to leave the palace to discover life.

There’s a third part of being renewed to life that I want to talk about. That’s life in the sense that James Baldwin talked about life, of letting go of the stuff that keeps us from being truly alive. Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” When he wrote these words he was talking about race hatred, that racial resentment keeps us hidden from life, diminishes life. For Baldwin, being renewed to life involves facing the pain of confronting the ways racism has diminished us. Along these same lines, Balwin writes,

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”

In this New Year, may we be renewed to life:

May we find deeper and more fulfilling life by discovering the life-giving power of beloved community.

May we be connected to life by entering into relationship with the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

May we be responsible to life, not by denying the fact of death, but by facing the pain that we imprison our very lives in our attempt to avoid.