Life or Death, the Choice is Ours – Rev. Joe Moore
February 12, 2017
I received an email this week from one of the members of Fries Memorial this week. It is always nice to hear from people like that, people who I have shared my life and faith with over the years. She was just checking in- to let me know how she was doing and to see how we were doing. She also mentioned how much she enjoyed, and now missed, our book club. Over the 5 years that I served at Fries, we had our book club sporadically. We would find a good book and spend a few weeks on it, then take a few weeks off, even a few months, till we found another book that we would want to do. We read a wide variety of books- from Henri Nouwen, to Harper Lee, to Peter Gomes, to CS Lewis.
Last summer, our weekly Book Club at Fries Moravian read a book called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, written by Nadia Bolz-Weber. I have to admit that I was hesitant to suggest it for our book club. Even though Nadia Bolz-Weber is an ordained Lutheran pastor, a lot of people would say that she is one of the “wrong people.” At least she would seem that way when judged solely by her appearance. Nadia definitely doesn’t look like a pastor. Even when she is wearing her clergy collar, she wears it with sleeveless shirts so everyone can see her muscular arms, which are covered with tattoos.
Despite her appearance and her rough language (she definitely uses language that I wouldn’t use in church or anywhere else for that matter), despite her not looking like we expect a pastor to look, or writing like we would expect a pastor write, we all really enjoyed the book. It inspired some very good discussion and offered some wonderful insights into our lives as Christians. Even though sometimes we still found ourselves talking about how she looks.
Towards the end of our study, we were talking about all of the tattoos that Nadia Bolz-Weber has, one of the members of the group said something along the lines of never being able to imagine a pastor with tattoos. It was not at all judgmental, it was more of a statement about how much things have changed over the years in the world and in the church. Hearing it, though, I couldn’t resist pointing out that I have a tattoo myself.
I was honestly surprised that it hadn’t been noticed before. It is pretty visible, if not obvious. My tattoo is right on the side of my left wrist and I got it on July 22, 2015, my wife’s birthday. And Kelly has one too, on the side of her foot. We went together to get them to celebrate her birthday last year. Honestly, I never EVER thought I would get a tattoo. And there was even less chance that Kelly would get one. But it just seemed like the right thing for us to do.
Our tattoos are both semi-colons and the represent the importance of not putting a period where God puts a semi-colon. A period signals an ending while a semi-colon is just a pause. Whenever a writer uses a semi-colon, it is a reminder to stop and pause, to take in and reflect upon everything that is going on. It’s not the end, it’s just stop and pause. As God is writing the story of our lives, he only uses a period once, on the day our life is meant to come to an end. But God uses semi-colons a lot.
Because as God’s children, our lives are a continuing story. A story that requires us to pause every once in awhile; to reflect on where we are and where we have been and where we want to go, and to reflect on who we are, who we have been and who we want to be. A semi-colon is a reminder to take time for that pause and that reflection.
Lots of people have semi-colon tattoos to reinforce that reminder. Kelly and I got the idea to get our tattoos from the Project Semi-Colon, which creates awareness of this need to pause by the symbol of the semi-colon. The Project Semi-Colon website describes it as a “movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project Semi-colon exists to encourage, love, and inspire.”
Since you are still getting to know us and especially getting to know Kelly, she said that it would be okay for me to share with you that she struggles with depression. It has been a battle she has fought throughout her life. It is not something she is ashamed of, having depression is no different than having diabetes or high blood pressure. But it does carry a certain stigma, some people are ashamed of it. Even though they shouldn’t be.
In addition to Kelly’s depression, we have both had family members who have suffered from addictions. So I decided (and amazingly Kelly agreed) that we should get semi-colon tattoos to remind each other, and everyone who sees them, of the importance of not putting a period where God puts a semi-colon; as a reminder of the importance of maintaining faith and hope; as a reminder of the importance of choosing life. It is a choice that we all face; to choose life over death.
As we read in Deuteronomy, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” So there it is. Life and death, blessings and curses are set before us. And the choice is ours. Certainly, for many people, it is very much a literal choice between life and death. Mental illness, depression, addictions, often lead the sufferer to consider taking their own life. They are unable to see life and blessings as belonging together. They see life as a curse, for them and for those that love them. They feel that the best way, the only way, to end that curse is to end their life.
In 2014, more than 41,000 Americans chose to end their life. They chose death over life. That means on average, 112 people each day make this choice for death over life. Some people believe it to be the “unforgivable sin.” I don’t believe that it is up to us to decide or determine what sins are forgivable and which are not. But it is up to us to help bring those numbers down. It is up to us to help EVERYONE choose life.
It is up to the church to be the place where those who are struggling with this choice, who are suffering so greatly from illness of body, mind and spirit that they are contemplating choosing death over life; it is up to the church to help them find ways to choose life. It takes more than simply telling them to pray more or read the Bible more. The church needs to be a place where these struggles can be talked about; safely, openly, freely. The church needs to be a place where these struggles can be addressed. Not with judgement or condemnation or exclusion; but with love and compassion and inclusion.
The church needs to be a place of the “Semi-Colon.” The place where people can come to pause; and reflect on where they are and where they have been and where they want to go; and reflect on who they are, who they have been and who they want to be. The church needs to be this place where not people can not only come to pause and reflect, but also a place where they can come to be reminded.
Reminded that they are they beloved children of God; reminded that they are created in God’s image; reminded that they are loved unconditionally. The church needs to be a place where the choice that is set before, the choice between life and death and blessings and curses, becomes much easier to make.
This is a place that we all need. Whether we suffer from a mental illness or not, whether or not we struggle to choose physical life over death, we are all still faced with that choice. Each and every day we are faced with the choice between life or death, blessings or curses. Even when we are not faced with the choice of whether physically live or die, we are faced with the choice of what kind of life we will live. Will we choose a life of blessings or of curses?
This may seem like a ridiculous question. Of course we would all choose a life of blessings. But while we may think that we (and everyone else) would choose a life of blessings over curses; our actual lives, our true choices, tell a different story. We far too often choose curses over blessings, or we just choose to focus on our curses and not our blessings. Whenever we complain about what we don’t have rather than rejoice in what we do have, we are not choosing the life God has created us to live. Whenever we allow our fear and anxiety rather than our hope and faith to guide us, we are not choosing the life God wants us to have. Whenever we judge and exclude others rather than love and welcome them, we are not choosing the life that God calls us to live.
The church does indeed need to be a “semi-colon place.” It needs to be a place where we pause and consider our choices, and resolve to choose blessings over curses. The church needs to be the place where we choose the life that God has created for us rather than the lives we create for ourselves. The church needs to be the place where we choose hope and faith, where we choose to be loving and welcoming.
The church needs to be a place where we can all pause; and reflect on where we are and where we have been and where we want to go; reflect on who we are, who we have been and who we want to be. The church needs to be THE place where we can choose life; where we can choose to live a blessed and abundant life; where we can choose to share our blessings and our abundance with those in need. The church, the Moravian Church, THIS church, needs to be this place. Now, more than ever, the church needs to be this place.
As I said last week, in a world that seems to be becoming more and more divided, in a nation whose citizens are growing further and further apart, the church, OUR CHURCH, needs to be a place where we can invite people to come together, to unify around Jesus Christ, and him crucified. We need to be caring, we need to be worshipping, we need to be encouraging, we need to be seeking, we need to be following. We need to be doing all of those things, we need to be BEING all of those things- caring, worshiping, encouraging, seeking, following- so that the world can look at us and see hope and peace and joy and love, so that the world can see Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
We need choose to live our lives in Jesus Christ. And we need to make certain that our church is where people who are struggling with life can come and have life and have it abundantly, to make certain that our church is a place where WE can come when we are struggling with life can come and have life.
Brothers and Sisters, it is time to choose life. It is time to choose blessing. It is time to choose hope and faith. It is time to choose love. God has set the choice before us. It is up to us to make it. So let us choose life and let us choose to be the people that God has created us to be; people of faith and love and hope. So let us choose blessings and let us choose to be the people that the world needs us to be. Let us make our church the place that God created it to be and that the world needs it to be; a place of life and a place of love.