November 8, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Mark 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12

Courage To Live, second in a series

A few years ago, Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a book called Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.[1] I have mentioned this book before in my preaching because I find its thesis extraordinary.

Now Jennifer Michael Hecht is a historian and a poet. Like many of us, she’s also a person who has been touched by suicide; she lost several friends to its grip. So she writes with an unapologetic agenda to discourage suicide. Her message is right in the title: Stay here alive with us. Please stay. Through this book, Hecht traces the history of the philosophical schools of thought that reject suicide.

What her thesis comes down to is this: Sociological research suggests that when a person completes suicide, their loved ones are at a higher risk for suicide as well, as though suicide is contagious. Well Jennifer Michael Hecht brilliantly poses this question: What if it also works in reverse? If suicide inspires other suicide, what if staying alive can inspire other people to stay alive?[2]… Amen.

Today we’re continuing our November series on courage with a sermon called Courage to Live. There isn’t anybody here who doesn’t know about this kind of courage.

Now I know many of us have made plans for our end-of-life care. Many of us can testify to the tremendous gift of partnering with hospice. Please know, making these kinds of end-of-life decisions is not at all the same thing as giving up on life! Our faith teaches us that death is part of life, not its opposite. It is not the case that life is good and death is bad, and both are somehow dreadfully required. Planning end-of-life care is part of making the choice for life.

One thing I love about the book Stay is it recognizes that living is not our default position, rather, staying alive is an incredible choice. The book ends with this invitation to anyone who considers giving up: “Know that people, throughout history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun… The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.” [3]

I’m guessing all of us here know someone who has died by suicide. All of us probably have considered or may consider suicide at some point. I also hope that all of us know somebody who made the choice to live when living seemed impossible. Maybe this person is recovering from illness, or addiction, or war… Maybe you are this person.

On several occasions in my life, I have lived in the same house with people who were working hard to stay alive. That they’d make it home at night or wake up in the morning was not a given. I suppose it never is for any of us. Here I learned there’s no way to share a kitchen with somebody who’s working hard to live and not have their courage get on you. I look at my own life differently because of the people who choose to get up in the morning when that choice is what seems impossible.

I know I’ve got to watch the ones who get up from the dead. Because maybe I can too…

Today we hear a favorite Sunday School Bible Story that comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. Here it is early in Jesus’ ministry, not long after his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness. He called the first disciples, set out preaching his way through Galilee, and now he has come back home. Maybe the people turn out because they remembered him from when he was little, or maybe they heard the rumors about his healing work. What happened was the crowds started showing up to hear him, and they did not stop. The whole house was full of people! You couldn’t even get through the door.

At the center of this story, right in the center of this house, there erupts a debate. See right in front of the scribes, Jesus looked at the paralyzed man and proclaimed that his sins were forgiven. Now we’ve got to understand, in the first century, it was believed that disabilities resulted from sin. Today we know this is not true. Illness, injury, disability —is not a punishment from God. But this is the mistaken assumption of this time and place.

In our story, there is a connection between forgiving and healing, and there is the question about Jesus’ authority. The scribes were whispering and wondering, “Only God has the power to forgive and heal. Who does this man think he is? What if he has the power of God?” Even more frightening, what if all of us have the power to forgive and heal?

Our human agency can daunting. Maybe it helps when Paul acknowledges our agency then quickly attributes our human power to God. He writes to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in clay jars so it may be made clear: this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus, so the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10).

Back to the crowded house! Center stage is the debate about our extraordinary human power. Um, does anybody notice the pair of miracles going on? While the teacher is talking, it’s raining plaster from the ceiling! There’s a hole right in the middle of the roof where the people have dug and they’re lowering this man down before Jesus. The Bible says Jesus sees their faith, and that’s what makes him say the words of forgiveness. Maybe the faith of these five people changed Jesus…

Then while the debate is underway, the second miracle is going on. The man on the mat does not wait for Jesus and the scribes to come to a resolution. He’s getting ready to make a choice, then when Jesus turns and says to him, “Stand up, take your mat, and go home,” he decides to go for it. The Bible says “the man was raised,” using the same Greek verb that means resurrection. This man gets up and Jesus sees him. And I wonder if there’s a moment when that man gives Jesus the look that says, “You know, you could do this too…”

We’ve got to watch the ones who get up from the dead, because maybe we can too. Watch the ones who help, because maybe we can too.

When it comes to watching those who serve, you know we don’t have to look very hard. This week our nation will observe Veterans Day which honors the service of the men who died, the men and women who died, the men and women who lived so others could live, all the people who live and give their lives for peace.

At its best, Veterans Day invites us to see actual veterans in our community, to see their efforts to dig through a roof to help a man in trouble, and to see them get up and go home. Of course, seeing actual veterans and hearing their stories is not the same as a glitzy display requiring them to be heroes or victims. It’s not about a parade, or a ceremony, or a bevy of American flags. It’s not even about an academic debate over war and peace that erupts in the middle of the house, when don’t you see, a miracle is afoot.

Apart from the patriotic fanfare, apart from debates over military policy, there are actual human people who serve and who carry the weight of war in their lives every day.

Near my former church in Ohio, there was a neighboring UCC congregation with an amazing ministry called Warriors Journey Home. This ministry is led by Rev. Dr. John Schluep, who is a veteran himself, and its purpose is to provide spiritual healing for veterans and their families. One way it does this is through a Healing Circle which is like a support group for veterans. They gather on Sunday evenings to tell stories of their pain and to listen and hold these stories as sacred. In Rev. Schluep’s words, “On Sundays, I don’t hear war stories. I hear love stories -an undying love for country and for family… and I listen through a broken heart.”[4]

What I have learned from this ministry is that no one whose life has been touched by war comes away from that experience unscathed. You may or may not be killed; you may or may not become paralyzed; but even if you come home physically in tact, even if you weren’t the one who was deployed, there is no way to avoid the spiritual and moral injury of war. When our world is at war, the soul of our humanity is wounded. You can see evidence of this in the staggering suicide rate of veterans and their families. The guilt from war is literally killing us.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We bear extraordinary human power that comes from God, the power to forgive and heal. By listening to each other’s stories and participating in the healing work of groups like Warriors Journey Home, what we’re doing is practicing and preparing for a world that has no need for war. What we’re doing is choosing to live. Please do not underestimate the courage this takes.

We’ve got to watch the ones who get back up from the dead again and again, because maybe we can too. We’ve got to watch the ones who help them, who climb up the building and dig through the roof, the ones who carry the stories of hell until they turn into love, because maybe we can help. Every time you choose to live, you don’t know who’s watching. It might be Jesus. It might be somebody who needs to see what resurrection looks like.

We’re always helping each other get up from the dead. Thank God. Amen.

[1] Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2013.

[2] Hecht 5.

[3] Hecht 234.


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