From Death to Life

Just like the doorknobs in our Portland house.
Just like the doorknobs in our Portland house.

(A sermon for Pentecost 3C — June 9, 2013 — 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17)

The house looked dead. Broken window panes winked at me as I stood on the other side of the otherwise attractive dead end street with its esplanade of maple trees. When we crossed the threshold, I pulled my arms closer to my body, not wanting to touch anything, shrinking as I passed through each doorway and letting the real estate agent touch all the door knobs. Perhaps they wore an age-appropriate patina, but given the condition of the rest of the house, I suspected the grime of neglect. The doorknobs and the moldings and the floors and the walls all cried out to be brought back to light and life.

So did I.

We were a perfect match.

For six weeks in the spring of 1998, I went to the sad, dirty house every day and worked with painters and carpenters. In terms of actual physical labor, I only pulled up old kitchen floor tiles so lightly adhering to the floor that I could get most of them off by hand. But for me, showing up every day somewhere *was* work. I came to it on the waning edge of a long postpartum depression complicated by the end of a marriage, the loss of a parent, and a confused sense of identity, all factors when I withdrew from seminary that year. I was no longer “wife” or “daughter” or “student;” the only label I wore was “mom.” I focused my attention on what would be best for my children. We needed a place to live.

A house in that good neighborhood close to everything would have been beyond my reach if the house hadn’t been … dead.

There was snow on the ground when I first saw the house in February, but a flowering tree in the backyard bloomed hopefully on the day I began working to bring it back to life.

Jesus brings about a resurrection from the dead in each of the gospels. In Mark and Matthew, it’s a young girl who comes back to life. In John, we have the story of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. In Luke, it’s the only son of a widow, a special category of beloved child because her widowhood means she will have no more. Now, talking about bringing someone back from the dead may feel far-fetched. We are inclined to explain these stories away. Elijah lies down on the boy three times – is this ancient CPR? Was he only “mostly dead?” Was the other widow’s son merely nearly dead, or really most sincerely dead?

Widow of Nain by Corinne Peters
Widow of Nain by Corinne Peters

I’m not going to pretend to know whether these things actually happened as written, but I’ll promise you this: no matter how broken and breathless and apparently all over being useful to anyone we may feel, God has the power to lead us from death to life.

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul shares his own history of being restored by a revelation from God, and we may remember more of the details from the Acts of the Apostles. The story starts with a faithful young man named Saul, advanced in his knowledge and maturity well beyond his peers. He imagined himself a perfect specimen of a healthy follower of The Lord His God. His zeal fitted him out for the job. He persuaded with his passion. He convinced – and convicted – with his confidence.

What a great guy! The trouble is he’s doing all this for the wrong side in our story. He has amazing, God-given gifts, but he uses them to persecute the followers of Jesus. He stands by holding the cloaks of his friends as they stone the apostle Stephen. He ravages the church by putting believers in prison. He devotes his life to killing Christ’s church. He devotes his life to death.

Every week near the end of worship we speak words from the World Peace Prayer, starting with the phrase, “Lead us from death to life.” We’re not talking about a literal death but about a dead state of mind, a dead condition of heart, a dead way of living. That ought to be an oxymoron, “a dead way of living,” but we see it around us all the time. We see it in the despairing and the hopeless, the misdirected and the unguided, the abusive and the destructive. Surely those ways of being are as dead as any physical death.

Like the fingerprints of passing children that gradually smudge the paint on a door jamb, we may not notice it at first. The more highly conscious (or nasty neat) never miss wiping them off; the average among us give them a good cleaning when company is coming. The apparent death of the little house in Maine took many years of unscrubbed fingerprints and unwashed stains and unacknowledged accidents. It required sustained and determined bursts of cleaning to be revived.

A dead way of living is like that. It takes time to build up and needs a blast of energy to be resolved. Sometimes the blast never comes. We remain covered in whatever is killing us.

Saul and his horse meet Jesus (13th century France)
Saul and his horse meet Jesus (13th century France)

For Saul the blast came directly from God, who intervened on the Damascus Road. His dead resolve could not be broken other than by a direct revelation from Jesus Christ. You know you’re in trouble when the intervention involves Jesus himself.

It’s a dead faith that feeds on persecuting others for believing something different.

Schooled in the Jewish faith, Saul was shocked that other Jews would be promoting the life and work (and death and resurrection) of an itinerant teacher from Nazareth. Saul responded vehemently. He threatened death. He lived death.

Now let’s be clear. Christians do this, too, even today. Here in the comfort of a progressive Christian denomination and a wonderfully accepting church, we probably do a pretty good job relating to people of other faiths and no faith. The trouble for us is the other Christians, the ones who use similar language but employ it to different ends. I find I am shocked that churches are disassociating with the Boy Scouts for their new policy about including gay scouts, but I have to admit I was not shocked, or even disturbed, by churches that made the same decision for the opposite reason.

When our understanding of God is so far apart, how can we talk to one another?

Lead us from death to life, please, Lord.

Lead us from death to life.

Saul took that journey on the Damascus Road as if it were no different from any other day spent fulfilling his mission. A brilliant light revealed a new vision, a light so bright it blinded him physically to show him how blind he had been spiritually. He took himself away to Arabia and back to Damascus, waiting three years before he showed himself ready to use his powers of proclamation and persuasion on behalf of Jesus Christ rather than against him.

My slow motion miracle came in the daily discipline of showing up at that dirty house. We would fill the house with fingerprints and paw prints, with kindergarten artwork on the walls and dinged-up paint on the stair risers, and with the happy noise of laughing until we cried around the dining room table. We celebrated birthdays, greeted girlfriends and boyfriends and opened our hearts to new ways of being a family. From that house, I returned to seminary and made my way into ministry, to use my gifts on behalf of Jesus Christ, too.

It wasn’t just the house God brought back to life.

The gospel tells us Jesus raised the young man because he had compassion for the mother. God did not smite Saul for having it wrong, but reached out and made him new. God loves us that much, too, and never gives up on us. We may not experience the blinding light. I know I didn’t. Sometimes the way back is as painstaking and ordinary as pulling up one floor tile at a time.

But hear the Good News:

No matter how broken and breathless and apparently all over being useful to anyone we may feel, God has the power –
And the desire –
to lead us from death to life.

In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

4 thoughts on “From Death to Life”

  1. Martha, thank you! I didn’t know that part about your formerly dead house…we have one, too. A wonderful illustration of how imperfection and decay can grow into beauty, warmth and joy.

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