The author of Ecclesiasticus writes:
“Before each person are life and death,
And whichever one chooses will be given.”//
He is echoing the words the Lord spoke through Moses
in Deuteronomy centuries before:
“I have set before you life and death . . . . Choose life.”//
Every moment of every day,
each of us is given the choice between
the way to life and the way to death.
We have a chance to speak to each other in a way
that will invite life-giving relationship
or in a way to offend, to put someone on the defensive,
to wound and distance.
We have the choice to greet each new day as a fresh start
or to spend our days rehashing all that went wrong in the past.
We have the choice to open our hearts or to close them.
It is our choice – ours alone.
But we are creatures of habit
and our habits are shaped by the culture we live in.
If we live in a family, a neighborhood, a society
that habitually chooses the way of death
in any of its many forms,
then our first impulse is apt to be
the way of death – not the way of life.
Do you know what I mean by the way of death?
It has a number of forms.
We can start with the 7 deadly sins
but it doesn’t stop there.
One is the habit of self-pitying victim status.
Another is drowning our spirit in drink, work,
or any addictive distraction from life.
Another is using fight-flight conflicts about side issues
instead of getting on with a shared mission.
Another is living in old wounds, clinging to old grudges
instead of living today with a hopeful eye
looking toward tomorrow.
These are all ways to sabotage life instead of living it.
The most important thing a church can do for its people
is to be a culture of life
and so help them to form the habit of living.
But not all churches are cultures of life.
Far from it.
The great Catholic novelist, Walker Percy, asked,
“If Christ came to give life, why do the churches smell of death?”
Churches choosing death is all too common.
Churches choosing to wring their hands over division and decline
are all too common.
Churches sabotaging their own mission are on every corner.
Does that matter? I say “yes, it matters.”
It matters because when churches choose the way of death,
they instill in their members the way of death.
As if by osmosis, a dying church teaches its members
to choose death in their families, in their jobs,
in their neighborhoods, and in the world.
Churches of death can suck the life out of a whole city.
But other churches instill life in their people.
You know what it’s like to be in a meeting, a party,
a class or a social gathering.
If certain people walk into the room,
the energy level goes up.
If other people, walk into a room,
the energy level goes down.
The test of a church’s mission is what happens
when its members walk into a room.
The living church recharges people with life energy
that they share with everyone they meet.
They make the world a better place, a more godly place.
They are agents of the kingdom.
Choosing life is how we beat death in the end.
People who choose life can outlive their bodies.
In death their spirits still glow like embers.
The Holy Spirit can breathe on such embers
and restore them to life, make them blaze up
into a brighter flame than ever before.
We can be breathing our last breath and still choose life
because we trust in the Lord, the Giver of Life,
who is stronger than death.
That’s why it is so important that churches
be vital, energetic, creative places on the move.
Such churches nourish the part of us that does not die.
Some folks have the notion that the bishop’s visit
is some kind of inspection,
that I am here to see if you are “doing everything right.”
That is not actually what I have come to do.
If that were my purpose, I’d have an inspector’s clipboard
instead of a miter and staff.
There is, however, one thing I do need to check on
– not just when I visit but all the time.
I need to know whether a congregation is alive or not.
I need to know that because life is a gift of God,
a gift to be accepted or rejected,
and whenever it is accepted,
then it is a gift to be celebrated.
I am glad to report that St. Martin’s is very much alive.
I can tell -- because you are breathing.
You are breathing in and you are breathing out.
The in breath of a church is everything the church does
to strengthen and support the members.
It is fellowship and it is study like your Sunday School
and your weekly Bible Study.
It is prayer like your practice of Evening Prayer.
Some churches just show up on Sunday morning
and go through the motions.
But where there is fellowship, study, and prayer,
that is a church drawing in a good strong breath.
But we cannot live just by breathing in.
We also have to breathe out.
The outbreath of a church is its apostolic mission,
its service to the community, its engagement with the world
outside the walls.
You do that in so many ways.
You feed the hungry.
You care for the children, the youth, and the seniors.
You recycle everything from cell phones to bicycles.
This church is breathing out as well as it breathes in.
That is choosing life.
So I am not here with an inspector’s clipboard.
I am here to celebrate your life, your creativity, your energy.
I am grateful to you and inspired by you.
You give me hope.
I am here to say thank you
and I pray to God you keep being who you already are
– a living witness to the Lord, the Giver of Life.