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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Life Is Precious--A Sermon

Life Is Precious
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 21, 2011

Everything has its predestined moment,
every affair on earth its appropriate time.
There’s a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to knock down and a time to build up,
a time to cry and a time to laugh,
a time to wail and a time to dance about,
a time to fling stones away and a time to gather them together,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to leave lost,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear apart and a tie to stitch together,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and time for peace.

Our days are few and fleeting,
and we are like shadows passing through them.
Who can tell us what will happen
in this world after we are gone?

Everything your hand finds to do, execute with all your might,
for in the underworld of the dead to which you are going
there is no working, no thinking,
no knowledge, and no wisdom.

For what happens to humans is what happens to animals;
they share the same fate.
As the one dies, so does the other;
the one breath of life is the same for them all.
Humans have no advantage over the animals.
For nothing they do has any lasting significance.
All go to the same place;
all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Who knows whether mankind’s breath of life rises upward to the heavens
and the animals’ breath of life descends downward to the earth?

So I saw that there is nothing better for people
than to be happy in their work, because that is their appointed lot.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 6:12; 9:10; 3:19-21; 3:22.


In the novel, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, is this scene about mortality. The character, Asher, is an artist and his art brings him in conflict with his father and his faith. It also becomes a vehicle for his faith. One of the themes of the novel is the tension between one’s tradition and one’s individuality.

The novel is written in the first person. Asher recounts a time when he was about six years old and he is sitting with his father. He is telling this story to show the reader what inspires him to draw.

I read this scene this morning to share the wisdom of his father and explain why my sermon is titled, “Life is Precious.”
And I drew, too, the way my father once looked at a bird lying on its side against the curbs near our house. It was Shabbos (Sabbath) and we were on our way back from the synagogue.

“Is it dead, Papa?” I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

“Yes,” I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“You too, Papa? And Mama?”

“Yes.”

“And me?”

“Yes,” he said. Then added. . . .”But may it be only after you live a long and good life, my Asher.”

I couldn’t grasp it. I forced myself to look at the bird. Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why?” I asked.

“That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom made His world, Asher.”

“Why?”

“So life would be precious, Asher. Something that is yours forever is never precious.”
Life is precious.

I need to be reminded of that every day. Even more often than that.
  • How often I fail to notice the fragility and the impermanence of life.
  • How often I fail to see in life its sacred beauty.
  • How often I fail to see in myself and in others the divine gift that we all are.
  • How often I fail to realize how amazing it is to be alive at all.
  • How often I fail to notice that I will die one day.
I know it, of course, intellectually. Everyone knows it. But I don’t always know it enough to live and love life as much as I might.

I am not suggesting that becoming aware of my mortality should put me in a panic of creating a “bucket list” of things I must do before I kick the bucket. It doesn’t mean I need to sign up tomorrow for skydiving lessons. The preciousness of life requires neither panic nor fear nor conquest. Just presence. The preciousness of life invites us to notice.

Maybe the preciousness of life is found in the advice of Kurt Vonnegut. In the last book he published before he died, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut wrote:
"And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
Religious language, ritual, and art invite us to experience the holy in the world. It exists to wake us and shake us. But it isn’t easy to embrace life with the awareness of our mortality. That is why we need to be wakened and shakened. Sometimes the very language that is supposed to make us more aware of life serves to put us further in denial.

I notice this particularly at funerals. At many of them, we are supposed to be comforted by supernaturalism. In the hardline form of religious literalism we are supposed to jump through systems of belief so our souls or our resurrected bodies or what have you will land in the right place after death.

In the softer forms of the same literalism, in those that don’t emphasize hell, for instance, we are to take comfort that the deceased really isn’t dead. We find little poems nestled in the four-fold card—the card that has on the cover a drawing of Jesus with praying hands:

“Don’t weep for me,” says the poem. “I haven’t really died.”

Apparently, our loved one has just traveled somewhere. Chicago perhaps.

I want to say,
“No, your loved one truly is dead. That is why her life was precious. It is OK to weep. It is OK to have regrets. It is OK to let those regrets go. Like hers, your life is precious too. As you go from this funeral home or church or wherever it is to live your precious life, it is also OK to notice when you are happy, and to say…

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
That is what I want to say. But I let it go. We all need to do what we need to do.

One more thing about funerals since we are on that happy topic. I don’t think I have ever heard-- especially from those who claim that every word in the Bible is the Word of God--these verses from Ecclesiastes read at funerals. Here are verses 3:19-20 from The King James:
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Or as Lloyd Geering translates it:
For what happens to humans is what happens to animals;
they share the same fate.
As the one dies, so does the other;
the one breath of life is the same for them all.
Humans have no advantage over the animals.
For nothing they do has any lasting significance.
All go to the same place;
all come from dust, and to dust all return.
"Who knows," Qoheleth goes on to say, "Whether mankind’s breath of life rises upward to the heavens and the animals’ breath of life descends downward to the earth?"

Is death the end of us? For Qoheleth the answer is yes. His view made it into the Bible.

But who knows, indeed.

In 1984 Olive Ann Burns wrote the novel, Cold Sassy Tree about life in Georgia in 1906. The main character is a young boy named Will Tweedy. He is speaking with his grandfather about important matters, resurrection, life after death and so forth. Grandpa says:
As you know, son, jest believin’ we go’n live forever in the next world don’t make it so—or not so.”

I felt awful. “Grandpa, you don’t think Granny’s gone to Heaven? She ain’t Up There waitin’ on us to come?”

“I like to think so, son. If’n they is a Heaven, she’s Up There, I know thet,” he said softly. Then he laughed… “Ain’t but one way to find out if she is or ain’t though. And I’m not thet curious.” He sighed, spat, and said, “Havin’ faith means it’s all right either way, son. ‘The Lord is my shepherd means I trust Him. Whatever happens in this life or the next, and even if they ain’t alife after this’n, God planned it. So why wouldn’t it be all right?” p. 188-9.
That to me is some of the most profound theological writing that I have read.
“Havin’ faith means it’s all right either way…”
Life is what is. Trusting God or trusting the Universe or whatever words you use to touch on what is real, is acceptance that it and you are all right. There is no need to be anxious about it. There is nothing you can do or believe that will allow you to score points in the afterlife or to avoid the penalty box. There is nothing you can do or believe to make God love you more or less. You are already embraced. As Grandpa wisely said:
“The Lord is my shepherd means I trust Him. Whatever happens in this life or the next, and even if they ain’t a life after this’n, God planned it. So why wouldn’t it be all right?”
In the meantime we could do worse than to follow the advice of Kurt Vonnegut...who is in heaven now:
If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
One of the great theologians of the 20th century, next to Grandpa and Kurt Vonnegut, is Paul Tillich. One of his most famous sermons is entitled, “You Are Accepted.” His sermon is a good one for me to read especially when I feel anxious about life or feel anxious about whether I am good enough, or when I worry about the future or feel guilt or shame about my past.

The sermon is about an old-fashioned religious word, grace.

Even though my sermon this morning is about the reflections of Qoheleth on mortality, it comes back to grace, to the preciousness of life, of my life and your life, to the feeling of being embraced, accepted, and comfortable in our own skin. Whether we are religious or not, it is what we long for.

This is Paul Tillich, from his collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations, “You Are Accepted.”
“We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness.

• It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life.
• It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.
• It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us.
• It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying:

"You are accepted.

You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.

Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.

Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.

Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"

If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance….

….If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self- complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us.”
That was Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted.”

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced those moments.

Every now and then I am reminded that I am accepted and that life is precious.

My life is precious.
Your life is precious.
It really is pretty amazing that we are alive and here.
This moment.
This place.
Now.

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Amen.

2 comments:

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Another winner. Thank you.
"The preciousness of life requires neither panic nor fear nor conquest. Just presence. The preciousness of life invites us to notice."

A link to this is on its way to my atheist UU friends, as well as the UU Christians, and my CPE class.

This is especially useful for the CPE class, which works with Hospice patients, dying and death, in a very conservative, fundamentalist, rural scene.

Thank you again. I needed this.

John Shuck said...

Thank you! I so appreciate your kind comments!