From Death to Life


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020

Texts: Hosea 1:1–10; Luke 7: 1–17

      One of my immigrant doctor friends told me how she just loved “ER,” one of the longest running series on television. “It makes the doctors so real and shows them feeling the pain of losing someone,” she said. “But then,” she continued, “there are those moments when doctors learn how Jesus must have felt when they have rescued someone from death.” Most of us view death as the ultimate enemy, the one thing in life that really is inevitable ––even more so than taxes. When we lose someone we love, we grieve, but we survive; however, when we die, we lose everything within and around us: our consciousness, the world, our families and friends, literally everything.

      Although our faith teaches us that in some way we do not comprehend death is not the end of our consciousness, we do not know precisely how that is the case. Each of us has a different image of what may happen i our death. Our image of life after death may be of a heaven where we will see all those people we knew in our lives here on earth and who had died; it may be of some sense of the presence of God overwhelming us, enveloping us; it may be a fear of judgment and we may be afraid we will be called to task for all those things we did––or did not do. 

      Very few of us do not fear death although for some, death is preferable to a life of shame, abuse, neglect, or even the pain of mental illness. The fear of being outcast from a family or society after being raped, for instance, has driven many women to suicide; the excruciating pain of mental illness or physical pain of constant abuse can lead a person to thinking that death is preferable. 

      Group pressure, such as exists in war, will enable soldiers to go into a battle with little chance of survival. How else could one account for such battles as D-Day, when the men who hit Omaha Beach knew that half of them would die in their tracks? Or if we go back in history, how else do we account for going into sure slaughter as did those in the charge of the light brigade in Crimea? Tennyson did not write “do or die” but do and die. It’s interesting how that line has been subtly changed to fit our time. 

       Then there are times when commitment to a cause is so strong that the fear of death is overcome. Our own church cemetery testifies to the commitment our ancestors had toward freedom in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and the struggle for the very soul of the Union in the Civil War. Those who fought and died did so because they believed in something larger than their individual lives. 

        There are also those who died for a cause or a belief without fighting and are remembered as martyrs. The Book of Acts has the story of the very first martyrdom, that of Stephen full of grace, who was stoned to death for blasphemy. Throughout history, people who have stood for freedom of conscience and justice have been martyred including John Hus, who translated the Bible from Latin into the common tongue, Michael Servetus burned at the stake by John Calvin for questioning his authority, Gandhi assassinated because he stood for Muslim-Hindu tolerance, Martin Luther King murdered because he was the face of the civil rights revolution, and Monseñor Romero shot in the middle of saying mass because he spoke out for social justice in El Salvador. For each of these, their cause was greater than their fear of death.

       Our reading from the Hebrew Bible is from Hosea, a prophet who lived in Israel, the Northern Kingdom, around 750–740 BCE. Hosea is not read much, especially the first several chapters, because it presents an order from God we find repugnant. 

       Hosea is commanded to take a whore as a wife. The NSRV translation does not soft-pedal the woman Gomer as “a promiscuous woman,” as do some translations. Most interpreters see the command as an allegory describing Israel’s turning away from the Lord.

       Hosea prophesied the destruction of Israel, something not popular with the ruling elite. The country was prosperous; its equivalent of the stock market was doing very well. However, within the ruling house, there was much dissension leading to the assassination of kings, some of whom held power for only a month. 

        The names of the children convey meanings indicating that the Lord will not save Israel when it all comes crashing down. Because Israel has not heeded the commands of the Lord, because the nation cared more about making money than justice, Hosea prophesied, it will come crashing down. 

        We’ve certainly had that equivalent with today’s health crisis. The stock market came crashing down. National leaders cared more about money than making sure that people were safe. This has resulted in the deaths of over 105,000 people as of today. 

       Most people fear physical death, but I believe there is even a greater death: the death of the soul and the spirit. That death kills us from inside like a cancer and eats away the very center of our lives. Mustering up the courage to face difficult decisions in our lives takes courage though it may be different from the kind it takes to face an enemy on the battlefield. 

        Courage may develop as the result of long deliberation moving us to make a hard decision; it may be a split second response to a situation based on who we are as individuals; but it is still courage. And it moves us from the death of our spirit and soul to new life even when it seems that all around us is lost. 

       During this crisis we now face, we have new opportunities. Eleanor Roosevelt, no shrinking violet, said we must do the thing that we think we cannot do. As First Lady during the Great Depression, she traveled throughout the country working with community organizations that were just being formed to address the enormous impact of joblessness and hunger. 

       As we in the East see a decline in new Covid-19 cases, at least during what some public health officials call the “first wave,” we can begin to mobilize our state and national leadership to address some of the inequities in our social system. 

        The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that the Governor signed prohibiting retaliation against employees who take sick time to quarantine in case of exposure to Covid-19. Our UCC New Jersey Association has learned that not all employers are complying with the Act. So we are asking for targeted outreach to employers. Lives should count more than money.

        In moving from death to life, we need to consider what constitutes real life for us as a society and a Nation. We need to build a new society to eliminate the inequities that existed in the old. In this way we are faithful.

        Let us pray: God of infinite grace and mercy, give us hearts and imagination, open to us ways we can share your grace with others so we may be instruments of your peace. Amen.