Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

We have read too much of drug overdoses and teen suicide in these past few weeks. The words that follow are an attempt to reach our hearts with God's invitation to Life.

A Matter of Life and Death

It never comes at a convenient time. John Lennon is reputed to have said; “Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.”

It was getting on toward late evening and I was settling in for a pleasant and restful read with a good book. That’s when one of our teen “members”, I use the word member advisedly, came to the door. His face revealed the panic he was in. He told me he was on a bad trip. He had taken some drugs. He told me his heart was pounding and he was scared to death he’d die. So we got into the car and I drove him to the Emergency Room at the Charleston Area Medical Center in the heart of the capitol city of West Virginia. It seemed like it took forever to make the half hour trip. I confess to you that I may have exceeded the speed limit along the way, but given the young man’s state of agitation, I felt that it might indeed be a matter of life and death.

The Emergency room was full of your normal quota of fallout from urban violence, a knife wound here, a gun shot casualty there, some sick with the flu, others milling about impatient with the time it always takes to be seen by someone. As it turns out we had some priority given the nature of the issue, and after the gunshot and knife wound, we were ushered into an examination room. Even then it took a while for some blood tests, and an EKG to tell the doctor what steps needed to be taken to deal with the young man’s ordeal.

The crisis passed on its own as luck would have it. The Doctor did come into the exam room and he seemed quite serious. He told Christopher that he was a lucky man this time. Moreover, he said he was playing with fire, as a number of his friends were. I had dealings with a number of teens from that congregation and community. Given the fact that our own children were at the same age, our social circles often brought these young to my attention. When they had their scrapes with the law they often came to me. They knew that the church was a salvage operation for them. I often spoke of forgiveness and salvation. And the “gang” even came to church on some of the high holy days and heard the message of salvation. Still they liked to push the envelope and see what they could get away with. As it turns out most of them made it. But there were a few tragic casualties along the way.

On the way back from the hospital, there was an awkward silence. After allowing the awkwardness to build some, I told Christopher what I have tried to tell all teens along the way; “There are only two ways to live: the way that leads to life, and the way that leads to death. Which way makes sense to you?” His answer was a rather quiet and penitent “life”. What I tried to tell these teens I try to tell us all: there are only two ways to live; the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death.

This is the essence of the Deuteronomic Law Code that Moses tried to teach the people during his farewell discourses. In the Book of Deuteronomy he reviews the amazing history of the Exodus event and of how God gave the people freedom. With this freedom, however, came a God given Law. This Law is the way that leads to life and prosperity. Disobedience of the Law leads to death and adversity. Near the end of today’s lesson, Moses repeats himself in no uncertain terms; “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” ~Deuteronomy 30:19 

This is how I spoke to Christopher. How hard I worked to reach his soul. I cannot begin to describe the joy I felt when he and about a dozen of his friends came to Christmas Eve services later that year. They were probably not all entirely in a state of sobriety, but all but one are still with us. There was the one I lost along the way. No matter what I said, no matter what I did, no matter how hard he tried, somehow the demons got to him. And now, he is in God’s hands, too soon he’s in God’s hands in the everlasting habitations.

This is what makes the message of the Gospel so urgent in my heart and mind and soul. There are only two ways: the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death.

Jesus engages us in the Sermon on the Mount with similar choices. In his teachings on killing and anger, adultery and divorce, swearing and oaths, he spoke of the old way and the way of God. In his approach to the ancient Laws of Moses, he delves into the heart of things. “You have heard that it was said of old”. Moses cut you a deal. Not so with Jesus. He goes to the heart of the matter. It is not just the matter of killing, it is more to the matter of holding onto the anger you harbor in your hearts. Guess who that’s killing? It is not just the matter of adultery, it is more to the heart of the matter of how you even look at one another. As to the matter of divorce, we know that Jesus had high standards, and that the only exception he cut for his absolute standard was for the woman actually caught in the very act of adultery. But that’s another sermon. Even then in the matter of swearing and oaths Jesus held out for the simplicity of “Yes” and “No”.

There really are just two ways to live. It is interesting to note that the earliest record we have of a written Christian document is what scholars call “The Didache”. You can look it up online. The word “Didache” means the teachings, and in this case the teachings of the apostles. The Didache was used by the early church in the Teaching of converts to Christianity especially the among young and the teens of the community. It applied to us all, but in our youth we tend to be more intense in how we look at life issues. The matter of teen suicide is so disquieting. So many of our young live rudderless lives and are so vulnerable to the demons that attack the radiant beauty of youth. That’s why it is a matter of some urgency that we impress upon one another how central a role the church’s teaching plays in the formation of Christian character. This is the way to life; Love God and Love one another!

And he opening line of the Didache? Yes, you guessed it; "There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways." The Didache goes on to spell it out. But in my confirmation classes I ask our young to spell it out in our historic and cultural context. As a rule, drugs comes out number one. Sex comes a close second. Education comes next. After all the misuse of drugs can kill you. Teen pregnancy can alter you plans for you life significantly. Education or the lack of it can spell out the difference in what vocational choices will be open to you. Our young people are not dumb. 

They know the stakes. We all know that the games we play in life we play for keeps. That’s why we read the wisdom of the ages in the Holy Writings. We glean from them so much wisdom for our lives. But foundational and fundamental to all life’s lessons is the choices we all make; the choice to follow the way that leads to life or the way that leads to death.

St Paul recognizes in his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth that there is a tendency to become a bit factious. There were those who belonged to the party of Paul and others who belonged to the party of Apollos. Partisanship as you no doubt know is nothing new in the conduct of human affairs. Partisanship can become deleterious to the building up of the Body of Christ. We, the church, are called to be Jesus to one another. Paul always points to Christ as the beginning and the ending of our unity with God and one another. This is the way that leads to life. For as long as we live according to the flesh there is jealousy and quarreling. But as spiritual people we look well beyond partisanship. As Paul puts it; “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.” ~I Corinthians 3:9. 

Yes, there are just two ways: The Way that leads to Life and the way that leads to death. May God give us Grace to walk The Way that Leads to Eternal Life.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr Paul.

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