Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Hardest Part about Loving Life

Follow Christ. Question culture. Love the church: Choices about life and death
John 6:35-40; Genesis 2:7; Psalms 104:27-29; Revelation 22:1

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This is number 8 out of 9, in our worship series looking at cultural issues
in light of our Christian identity and convictions.
When we were planning this series,
“Follow Christ. Question culture. Love the church.”
we saw that “All Saints Day” would come during the series.
And since on this day, we always remember those who died,
it seemed we should look at the cultural issue of death and dying.
But as soon as I started thinking about that,
I realized the real question is how culture views life itself.
What we believe about life determines how we view death.

So we have to look at some pretty deep questions here today.
But the point isn’t to wax philosophical.
It’s to ask how we live in this particular culture, here and now,
how we participate, or not, in the practices of our culture
the choices we make about life and death.
Of course, I didn’t realize I’d be preaching this sermon,
the day after I helped lead a memorial service for my aunt,
life-long missionary and servant of God, Esther Kniss,
who lived most of her life in another culture.
So I’ve had more reason than usual,
to think about the practices of our culture.
_____________________

But again, as we have every Sunday in this series,
let’s begin by confessing our faith,
clarifying where we stand as followers of Jesus,
and as Christians in the Anabaptist-Mennonite stream.

In your order of worship,
you’ll find a confession printed.
These words come from our Mennonite World Conference
statement of shared convictions,
and from the Confession of Faith
adopted by Mennonite Church USA.

God is known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
the Creator who seeks to restore fallen humanity
by calling a people to be faithful
in fellowship, worship, service and witness.
God has brought salvation and new life to humanity
through Jesus Christ,
and continues to sustain the church and all things.
All creation has its source outside itself and belongs to the Creator.
We believe that God created human beings in the divine image.
God formed them from the earth
and gave them a special dignity
By his death and resurrection,
he has removed the dominion of death
and given us peace with God. Led by the Spirit,
we witness to all people that violence is not the will of God,
including war among nations,
hostility among races and classes,
abuse of children and women,
violence between men and women,
abortion, and capital punishment.
We place our hope in God’s vindication
of those who take the narrow way that leads to life.
If we have died with him, we will also live with him.

These words are an interpretation of scripture,
according to the best discernment of the church.
They are shaped by scriptures like the gospel reading this morning,
where Jesus made the bold claim, “I am the Bread of Life.”
That is, “I am the source, the sustainer, the one who feeds life.”
But Jesus said he was only representing the Creator God,
from whom the life comes.

V. 38 – “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will
but to do the will of him who sent me...
[and] my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son
and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

Here, Jesus simply affirms what is already deeply rooted in scripture—
all life is from God, belongs to God,
and depends completely on God.
From the beginning of Genesis, in the creation account,
“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and the man became a living being.”
All the way to the end of scriptures, the last chapter of Revelation,
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life...
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.”
And everything in between, like Psalm 104:
“All [living things] look to you...
When you send forth your spirit, they are created...
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.”

Scripture is permeated with this affirmation:
“Life comes from God, and belongs to God, always and only.”
That’s really my sermon, in 10 words:
Life comes from God, and belongs to God, always and only.

So easy to say. The words trip off the tongue.
We say it often, that human life, and all life, is a precious gift of God,
that the one and only source of life is our loving Creator God.
We also say that life always belongs to God, from whom it came,
before, during, and after its time here with us.

Life comes from, and belongs to God. Always and only.
What a difference it would make,
if we regularly meditated on those ten words,
and pondered how we might live, if we believe they are true.

Western culture today does not believe those words are true.
And neither do we, much of the time.
At least our life and death practices
would indicate we don’t believe them.

So this morning, as persons who
follow Christ, question culture, and love the church,
let’s think more deeply, and ask some probing questions.
Questions have to come to mind
as we look at the culture around us.
But to be discerning, we need to ask the right questions.
Our questions should be framed by our particular faith convictions,
rather than by the values of the dominant culture,
like individualism,
materialism,
privacy,
autonomy,
and the unhindered freedom to pursue our desires.

Those values create a culture that disconnects our bodies
from our total selves.
Our bodies become mere objects that we own,
and have the right to control and manipulate as we wish,
without anyone else interfering.
In contrast to the Christian conviction
that we belong, as one whole body, soul, mind, and spirit,
to the God who created us, in his own image.

It’s pretty easy to see the huge moral gulf
between those two sets of assumptions,
and the kinds of questions they elicit,
and the kinds of actions they lead us toward.

Medical and biological technology is advancing
at mind-blowing speed.
There are an infinite number of choices we now have,
both at the beginning and end of human life,
that our parents and grandparents never dreamed of.

And when people make these choices,
they are usually guided by values of
privacy,
rights,
autonomy,
and individual freedom.
guided by the view that their bodies are objects
to manipulate at will to their individual advantage.
It should come as no surprise that when making these choices,
the questions our culture asks,
and the answers it comes up with,
look a bit different than those of us,
who believe that human life is a sacred gift of God,
who believe that “Life comes from, and belongs to God.
Always and only.”

So let’s ask some questions,
that seem to me to flow out from our faith convictions
about the sacredness of life.
[I have a few of these questions listed
at the end of your order of worship, under “questions to live with”]
These issues I’m raising here are extremely complex.
I won’t pretend they have simple answers.
Some of you have faced these questions personally,
and I’m implying no judgment against anyone here,
who struggled with these questions,
and came up with a particular answer.
And I’m not suggesting there is only one possible
faithful response to these questions.
But I am suggesting
we should struggle with these questions together as Christians,
as disciples of Jesus,
as a community of scripture-shaped people.
I’m saying these are not best left to private personal preference,
guided by the individualistic values of our culture,
or the latest cause in partisan politics.

So here are some questions we ought to be struggling with,
talking about, as a church.

Assuming that we all believe
that the source of life is our creating, loving God,
that life belongs to God, and we hold it only as a sacred trust...
how does that shape our views on abortion?
I would think it would make a profound difference.
Beyond the heated battle in our culture and the church—
usually shaped by partisan politics,
over the right to choose, right to privacy, right to life,
and how laws either support or suppress those rights,
beyond those battle lines,
why aren’t Christians of different political stripes,
coming together and having reasoned discourse
around the belief that I think we all share,
that life is a sacred trust from God.
All Christians are “pro-life” in this fuller sense of the term.
And all would be deeply concerned, it seems to me,
that the most predictable indicators
of whether a woman will get an abortion,
are her age (the abortion rate is highest for girls under 15)
and her income level,
and her ethnic background.
Wouldn’t our shared convictions that life is sacred,
cause us to come together as Christians,
join our hands and focus our energy on eliminating the factors
that contribute so greatly to teen pregnancy and abortions—
like poverty, inadequate health care, lack of education?
Wouldn’t our convictions cause us to form
the kind of supportive communities,
that eliminate most of the reasons abortions happen,
and care for the children born of unwanted pregnancies?

And if we believe that life is a sacred gift of a Creator God,
I assume we’d have some serious questions
about some of the developments in the field of genetics.
Doesn’t it raise a few moral questions, or God-questions,
when we realize people are now able to choose babies,
practically off-the-shelf,
with the genetic traits they most desire?
That we can have precision control over the lab environment
where conception takes place?
That a mother unable to maintain a pregnancy,
can choose another body to do it for her?
That one company headed by fertility expert Dr. Levin,
boasts “Helping make babies since 1979”?
That’s on their website, www babies-by-levin dot com.

And if we believe that life belongs only and always to God,
wouldn’t we at least ask some questions
about how our culture deals with the end of life?
We say life belongs eternally to God,
but we behave as if right here and now is all there is...
as if the beating of our hearts,
and the breathing of our lungs
is the only thing that’s real and true.
And we better hold on to it tight,
control it,
extend it,
maintain it,
no matter what it costs us, or society.
We are afraid to rest in the life and love of God.
We are afraid to let go,
and walk into the unknown, into the shadows.

We are a death-denying and death-delaying culture.
If anything involves pain, or grief, or loss,
we push it as far away as we can, as fast as we can.
Our funeral practices reflect that.
We want everything to look as much like normal life as we can.
We’re pleased if our loved one “looks good” in the casket,
like they’re taking a nap.
Again, please don’t interpret me as pronouncing judgement
on anyone for the particular choices you’ve made,
or are planning to make.
Our funeral customs have a history, a reason they developed.
They serve a social purpose, and a psychological purpose.
But I don’t think they are beyond the scope
of asking careful questions of them,
in light of our belief that life comes from God,
and belongs to God.

As you know, my aunt Esther Kniss died suddenly last Sunday morning.
The doctors knew she had an aortic aneurysm.
They could have put her through a risky emergency surgery
at UVA.
But she was perfectly clear, and perfectly at peace.
She did not want that done. Nor did Paul.
Very soon afterward, she died.
The family who lived nearby gathered around in the hospital room,
to pay our last respects.
And what happened next, had long ago been discussed,
agreed upon, and signed off by them both.
Her body was donated for medical science,
so there was no casket, embalming, or viewing.
At some later date, there will be a cremation,
and her ashes will be buried
in a single plot at Weaver’s cemetery,
that is shared by eight people,
including Ruth Shenk, Steve’s mother,
whose ashes are already there.

That may not be for everyone,
but I have great admiration for the choices they made,
no doubt influenced by the 50 years they spent in India.
But even more, I believe it was influenced
by their deep faith that God gave them life as a sacred trust.
So they had no reason to cling to life beyond its reasonable limits.
And no reason to go to great expense
to dress up the pain and ugliness of death when it happened.
This was simply the natural next step in life,
in a simple, faithful, and grateful life.

This belief that life is a sacred trust from God,
that continues to be held by God,
is why we do what we do every All Saint’s Day,
when we name the persons in our congregation who have died.
It’s a way not only to honor their memory,
and the contributions they once made to our lives,
it’s a way to reaffirm what we’ve been saying,
that life belongs to God, always.
Even when a physical life that once was, is now gone,
that life continues to belong to God.
It remains in God’s hands.
So we honor those lives, and the God who still holds them.
And recognize that they still touch us, in significant ways.
_____________________

I obviously don’t have time to comment on the other issues listed here,
biotechnology, capital punishment, war.
There are an infinite number of other issues I didn’t list,
that we followers of Christ ought to be asking questions about.
Questions framed by our conviction that
life comes from God and belongs to God.

Maybe one way to summarize, is simply to say,
that our Christian calling is to love life.
Yes, love life enough to honor its true character
as a gift and grace of God,
rather than trying to own it, control it, or manipulate it.

It all comes down to control.
We seem to have this need to be in control of all the variables in life,
whether at the beginning of life, or at the end of life.
The hardest part about loving life,
is letting go of our need to control it.
We cannot love, what we control.

If we love life,
we will respect it,
we will protect it (without owning or manipulating)
we will treat it as sacred, treasure its beauty,
and we will hold it loosely.
So let us celebrate the gift of God which is life.
When it first is given,
as it grows and matures,
and as it passes on into the realm of the eternal.
It’s a gift to be both treasured, and held loosely, out of love.

Questions to live with:
  • What are some specific ways our culture’s practices deny that “life comes from and belongs to God...always and only”? How should we respond?
  • If we believe that life is sacred, and rests in God’s hands alone, how does that faith affirmation shape the way we respond to:
    • the consistently high number of abortions in our society
    • technological control of conception and birth (for example: cloning, genetic manipulation, artificial conception, surrogate pregnancy, others)
    • typical funeral practices in our culture
    • using technology to extend life beyond what is otherwise possible (and how to discern where to “draw the line”)
    • the continuing use of capital punishment as a tool in our justice system
    • broad social acceptance of the necessity of war
  • As Christians, what are some specific ways we can draw on the resources of the church when faced with choices concerning life and death?
  • Are there choices you can make now, that will determine the range of choices you or your family may need to make later?

—Phil Kniss, November 4, 2007

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