Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 22, 2012
DEATH, WHERE IS THY VICTORY?
Text: Jeremiah 9:10, 12-14; I Corinthians 15:54-58
There is the power of Death afoot in the world, and the power of Life. Death, biblically speaking, is more than a moment that ends your physical existence; it is a power that can take over our lives while we’re still living, or a nations’s life or a community’s. The power of Death demeans and destroys human life - - and desecrates and destroys God’s earth. The power of Life honors, cherishes and protects human life and cares for creation as a sacred trust. Parker Palmer writes that the heart of the spiritual quest is to discover the “rapture of being alive” then to let that alivenessness transform us into celebrants, advocates and defenders of life wherever we find it.1
The writer of Deuteronomy issues this charge from God to Israel:
I have set before you life and death.
Choose life, that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
And this choosing meant loving God, obeying God’s voice and cleaving to God as a husband to a wife, or wife to a husband.
The “Way” of God, which is what “Torah” means, captured in the first five books of the Jewish and Christian scriptures gave us our instructions on how to choose life. It taught us how to care for one another, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and how to care for the land God has given us.
Then came the second section of scripture, the Prophets, (Nebiim). The Hebrew prophets came to call us back to Torah, and to remind us in no uncertain terms how we had strayed from Torah and broken the commandments of God. This ignoring of God’s commands led not only to the destruction of relationships, communities and nations, but also to the destruction of God’s creation. So we have this vivid prophetic lament and denunciation from Jeremiah:
Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains,
and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness,
because they are laid waste so that no one passes through,
and the lowing of cattle is not heard;
and the birds of the air and the animals
have fled and are gone.
Who is wise enough to understand this? To whom has the mouth of the LORD spoken, so that they may declare it? Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through? And the LORD says: Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, or walked in accordance with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals, as their ancestors taught them. Jeremiah 9:10, 12-14.
Who were the “Baals,” or Baalim? They were and are the false gods that lead us away from the true God and the way that leads to life. Roger Williams named them. He was the beginner of the Baptist movement in America. He befriended and defended Native Americans (and learned their way of farming); he championed the separation of church and state; he was banished by the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony; he founded Rhode Island as the first colony of religious freedom. He wrote:
The truth is, the great Gods of this world are God-belly, God-peace, God-wealth, God-honour, God-pleasure, etc.2
Across the page from our scripture texts you see photographs of mountain-top removal in Appalachia. The one on the left is one such mountain now gone. Multiply it 475 times and counting. The Google photo on the right is of a 2 square mile expanse in southern West Virginia. You can Google and see the larger expanse of destruction. Wendell Berry writes in his poem “Dark With Power” these words:
Dark with power, we remain
the invaders of our land, leaving
deserts where forests were,
scars where there were hills.
On the mountains, on the rivers,
on the cities, on the farmlands
we lay weighted hands, our breath
potent with the death of all things.3
Bob Thomason who led our effort in our solar energy at church wrote to me:
Our great grandchildren will forgive us for many things . . . but not destroying their mountains and irreversibly ruining their climate.
The good news, the word of Life, is that since our church has gone solar we have avoided using over 1,600 pounds of coal and prevented over 2 tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. If you go to the Cornwell Center there is a T.V. monitor that displays how much we are saving in electricity and how much CO2 we are not putting into the air.
In 1934 the great American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay published a book of poems entitled Wine From Theses Grapes. Known as a lyrical poet whose main subjects were love and nature, she turned these poems to address the social and political issues of her time. Reading the book’s title I was reminded of the lament in Isaiah where God is sorrowing over what has happened to Israel. I paraphrase. God sings:
Let me sing for my beloved.
I dug a vineyard,
Cleared it of stones and planted choice vines.
But instead of sweet grapes it has yielded sour grapes.
I look for justice (mishpat) but behold bloodshed (mishpah),
For righteousness (tsedakah) but behold a cry of distress (tse-akah). (From Isaiah 5:1-7.)
(The prophets were also poets!)
From Millay’s 1934 collection of poems comes one named “Conscientious Objector”:
I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter
on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Bal-
kans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell
him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not
on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to
any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with
me; never through me.
Shall you be overcome.4
She will not be Death’s accomplice!
But we are here not only to say no to Death but also to say yes to Life. And again we are led by Wendell Berry, from his poem “Look Out”:
Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grass, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.5
We are saying yes to the manifold gifts of God. We are singing psalms and giving praise. And we are saying no to anything that diminishes or destroys the gifts of God, human, animal, plant, mineral.
The Apostle Paul saw the Resurrection of Christ as the inauguration of God’s New Creation. Death is no longer victorious. (We might say that Resurrection and the New Creation have been in the heart of God from the beginning!) Life is now winning, Paul exclaimed, and Death is losing.
O Death, where is Thy sting?
O Grave, where is Thy victory?
(I can hear the alto and tenor singing these words in Handel’s Messiah. Jubilation!)
So brothers and sisters let us be undismayed by the march of Death across our nation and globe. Rather let us join God as partners in the New Creation, a Resurrection community stopping Death’s march and hastening its defeat.
Let us do the small things which promote life: plant a garden, read to a child, feed birds, go solar, turn off the lights - - you may be able to see the sun rise or set - - driveless and walk more. As Mother Teresa said, “Do small things with great love.”
And let us join together in the larger things that promote life and change communities, institutions, nations. Let us say:
I will say no to Death
and yes to Life.
I will not bow down to Death
nor be its accomplice.
I will discover the rapture of being alive
then join that aliveness
to become advocates, celebrants, defenders
of life wherever I find it.
I will march, dance and sing praise to God:
(Join me, I’ll be the soloist, you be the choir echoing me)
O, Grave, (O, Grave)
Where is thy sting? (Where is Thy sting?)
O, Death (O, Death)
Where is Thy victory?
O, Thanks! (O, Thanks!)
Thanks be to God! (Thanks be to God!)
Who giveth us the victory. (Who giveth us the victory.)
Through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then Paul closes his song with a charge:
Therefore beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing, that in the Lord your labor is not (no never) in vain!
1 Parker Palmer, The Active Life
2 As cited in Mary Lee Settle, J. Roger Williams: A Fragment of Autobiography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 24.
3 Wendell Berry, “Dark With Power,” The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Washington: Counterpart, 1998), p. 28.
4 Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Conscientious Objector,” Selected Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 103.
5 Wendell Berry, “Look Out.”