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Choose Life
Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church


You may think you have many choices open to you; but, actually, there are only two, two basic choices. Moses challenged the Hebrews in the wilderness, following their escape from Egypt, Deuteronomy 30.19, “Today I have set before you life and death…Choose life!” Those are the choices: life or death.

There is an immortal line in Morris West’s novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman. The Pope, walking through a poor section of Rome incognito as a regular priest, is asked by a doctor to attend to a dying man. The Pope pronounces the absolution and after the man dies, asks if he might help the family. A woman answers, “They can cope with death. It’s only living that defeats them.” 

The women and men disciples of Jesus could cope with death. They went to the tomb to anoint his body with spices, the common practice of the day. Mary wept in the garden. They knew what to do with death and grief. But, when confronted with the resurrection, when confronted by life, they were uncertain and confused.

The ancient Egyptians had an obsession with death. Can you imagine the resources, engineering expertise, and manpower it took to erect the pyramids, which were burial tombs? Unduly preoccupied with death, the Pharaohs’ fascination with the after-life lasted for centuries.

Our culture also has a strong preference for death rather than life. We prefer to wage war and send weapons of destruction around the world, rather than providing health care, jobs, houses and schools. Pyramids of death take priority over basic necessities of life.

Samina Faheem Sundas, founder of the American Muslim Voice, in her speech at the Day of Remembrance pointed out the similarities between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Our country hysterically chose death when it incarcerated Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, and now, after 9/11 Muslims are forced to register, deported, and subject to racial profiling and stereotyping. I quote from her speech, “They have had us locked in different boxes. If you are Native Americans then you must be alcoholics, if you are African American then you must be drug dealers and hookers, if you are Chinese American then you must be a spy, if you are Japanese American then you are not loyal, if you are Latino Americans then you must be illegal nannies and gardeners and now the flavor of the decade if you are American Muslim/Arabs then you must be terrorists…I will do everything in my power to make our country peaceful and harmonious, where every one of us feels accepted, loved, respected and safe. We are all human beings with so much more in common than we realize. We bleed red. We cry when we are hurt. Our tears have no color. When we are afraid, we try to flee to a safer place. We all smile in the same language.” 

I like that: we all smile in the same language. Choose death means to stereotype, react in fear, harass, and discriminate. Choose life means to work together in mutual respect, cherish our diversity, and send a clear message that we are one.

Even the church emphasizes death. The major works of religious music and art deal with the passion and death of Jesus. There are very few works on the resurrection. The church through the centuries has not really known what to do with the resurrection. The weakest part of the famous Oberammergau Passion Play is the portrayal of the resurrection. The popular masterpiece, Jesus Christ Superstar, ends with the death of Jesus. The resurrection is ignored. It is easier to paint the crucifixion than it is to paint the resurrection. We really have not understood the meaning of resurrection. We have yet to learn how to live in the reality of resurrection.

In church worship and practice, traditionally we seem to enjoy wallowing in guilt. Fire and brimstone sermons reinforce how sinful we are. But, forgiveness, experiencing forgiveness is short-changed. Admitting our sinfulness and confessing it to God is a necessary part of the forgiveness process. But, let’s not stop with confession. Let’s not stop with the death of Jesus. Let’s move to the resurrection where we experience life. We all know how to feel guilty; it’s forgiveness we have a difficult time accepting. As I reflect on conversations with parishioners over the years, I find that what they find most difficult is forgiving others and forgiving themselves.

We know how to live with death; it’s life we have a hard time with! Have you noticed how much easier it is to tear down than to build up? Much time and energy are spent in complaining, griping, and criticizing, which are expressions of death, rather than life. Even when you do pay a sincere compliment, or an expression of appreciation, do you usually feel compelled to add a “but…” Have you noticed how some folks have a difficult time accepting a compliment? They don’t know what to do with an expression of life and affirmation. We are so death-prone we feel guilty when we make a statement or receive a statement on behalf of life?

The Easter message is life. This morning we proclaim, sing, and rejoice that Christ is risen! Life is the message. The risen Christ is alive, and so can you be alive! Therefore, choose life! When our granddaughter, Adrienne, was four years old, her dad found her "reading" the Bible. He asked, "What's the Bible about?" She said, "God and Jesus." He said, "Tell me about Jesus." She said, "He's invisible." She began walking around the room, pointing, "You can't see him, can you. But, he's all around. He's in heaven. I can't wait until I can go to heaven. But, I'm going to make my cookies first!"

Choose life for a Christian means that I can’t wait until I can go to heaven, but I’m going to make my cookies first. A Christian is not afraid of death; a Christian looks forward to heaven, but lives in the here and now.

Don’t let the forces of death defeat you. An old Chinese proverb says, “Man who say it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.” Don’t let yourself be interrupted, blocked, slowed down, hindered, hampered, deterred, or encumbered by negative forces. Michael de Saint-Pierre said, “An optimist may see a light where there is none; but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?” Don’t let that pessimist blow out your light.

Choose life! There are signs of life all around you, signs of hope, fresh starts, new beginnings, new dreams. My challenge this Easter morning is to choose life. Colossians 3.1-2, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…Set your minds on things that are above.” Look for signs of life. Look for the second chances, the fresh starts. It’s a beautiful world. Maybe a baby will smile at you. I recently renewed my driver’s license. A woman next to me had her baby girl sitting at her feet. I leaned down and asked the baby, “Are you getting a driver’s license?” She gave me a beautiful smile! When a baby smiles at you, it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds on a dark, dreary day. A baby smiles and death is pushed back to the sidelines; the negative forces are overcome.

Look around for signs of life. If you knock on the doors of households here this morning, you will find the forces of death behind many doors. Cancer, illness, grief, drugs, worries about children and grandchildren, alienation, divorce. But I proclaim to you this morning: Christ is risen! Choose life!

Choose life begins with Choose Jesus. Commit your life to Jesus. Let Jesus take first place in your commitments, goals, plans, dreams and then all the other choices will fall into place.

I have two friends currently serving long prison terms. One is older, a former parishioner; the other is a young husband and father. Praise God, they have both chosen Jesus. Rather than join a gang, use drugs, engage in battles; rather than choosing bitterness, anger or self-pity, they have chosen Bible studies, deepening their faith, witnessing to others, helping others with documents, etc. The young friend actually wrote that he is happy. In prison, he found the Lord!

Look carefully, and you will find in the midst of death, in the midst of the problems, tiny sprouts sticking their heads up through the earth, ready to grow, reaching for the sun, new life, new chances, new opportunities, beauty, joy, fun. Paul wrote, Philippians 4.8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…think about these things.” 

Choose life and, I challenge you, stamp out death whenever and wherever it lifts its ugly head. When you feel tempted to say something negative, when you feel the urge to gripe, to complain, to point out someone’s faults, when you catch it on the tip of your tongue, say out loud, “Christ is risen! When you begin to think negatively—doom, gloom, depression, counting the problems; when you find yourself choosing death instead of life, say out loud, “Christ is risen!” Claim the power of the resurrection.

Choose Jesus! Choose life! Become obsessed with life, not preoccupied with death. Christ is risen!

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris