“I’m Not Dead Yet”
Genesis 2:1-4; Psalm 30:4-12
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
January 21, 2018
It’s a dreary medieval village and a man is pushing a cart down the road. On his cart are a few lifeless figures, and he is simply saying the same thing over and over again; in a hum-drum voice he is calling out to those around him, “bring out your dead.” To his left, a man comes out toward the cart, and he says, “I’ve got someone.” The cart pusher stops as the man begins to sling the body over his shoulder onto the pile. But this is different. The corpse is speaking. “I’m not dead,” the old man says. The other man who is carrying him begins to debate the old man slung over his shoulder as he negotiates with the cart man. “You’re not fooling anyone,” he says against the old man’s words. The old man replies, “I feel happy!” It goes on like this for a while before the cart man finally clubs the old man over the head. The man carrying him says “thank you very much,” and tosses the old fella on to the cart. If you have seen the classic piece of English satire, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then you are familiar with this classic scene. It captures the utter futility of the world in which brave King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table seek the Holy Grail.
And it also seems a fitting introduction to the words of Psalm 30. This month we are going to be talking and thinking about gratitude during our worship services, and Psalm 30 is most definitely a Psalm about gratitude. The heading tells us that this is a Psalm of thanks for recovery from a grave illness. Surely the Psalmist, having survived her ordeal, would have related to the man carried out by his caretaker toward the cart; having likely been written off herself at one point. It’s almost as if the Psalmist is negotiating with God midway through the Psalm, “what profit is there in my death…will the dust praise you?”
This is a description of a negotiation held between God and the Psalmist in the depths of her illness. She is making the case for her usefulness to God; arguing that should she depart this world, will she still be able to praise God? Would the dust take up her work after her? The answer she got from God was a resounding word of Life, and she survived. In gratitude and thanks, she wrote this Psalm and it arrives here, for us, today.
Now, in America, we don’t like to talk much about death. Rarely does it seem appropriate to bring up the subject, but it is kind of a big deal. I have largely given up speaking about it since people often complain that talking about death is a downer. I don’t feel that way, really. A downer is wrecking your car or losing your dog or having your team blow a 17 point lead in the Rose Bowl. Death is just a reality. It’s part and parcel of doing business in this world and our failure to wrestle with it and look at it realistically hinders, I believe, our ability to come to terms with the truth of our faith. After all, if we share in a death like Christ’s, how much more will we share in his life? You can’t skip Good Friday and go straight to Easter and have it mean the same thing. So death, no matter how unpleasant a subject, is a real thing.
Having said that, I want to remind you of two facts this morning. First, all of us will die. “Thanks, Phil,” you are saying. You’re welcome. But that truth is what makes the second point vital. We are not dead yet. And this is something for which we can be grateful. We are not dead yet. And that truth has real consequences for us. Let me tell you a story. This week we are reading a classic book with Krista, our resident pastor over at Clarksville, called Open Secrets. I read this book a long time ago, probably 15 years ago, and so I had forgotten lots of it. One thing I had forgotten was Erich. The book is a memoir about a young pastor’s first years in ministry. Richard, a Lutheran, is assigned the tiny, rural parish of New Cana in the middle of nowhere Illinois. It’s an insular church in an insular place, and he is in no way prepared to be their pastor. As he begins his ministry and gets used to preaching there, he encounters one of the church’s previous pastors, Erich. Erich is in church each Sunday and he, in many ways, holds Richard accountable. The presence of another pastor prevents Richard from taking his duties lightly or glossing over important details in his sermons. It grounds him in the continuity of the place and helps him to find his role. But here is the thing, Erich is dying. The congregation has made something of a chaise lounge for him in the Narthex so he can recline during worship, as it is too uncomfortable to sit. Richard writes that Erich’s skin was white as a sheet, and he could do little but lie there during worship. So each Sunday, it was like Richard had two congregations; the farmers who sat in the sanctuary, and Erich, tucked in the back, riddled with cancer, trying to get through one more worship service.
So, why did Erich go to church? Why drag himself out for something so physically unpleasant? The answer is obvious. He was alive. Like the Psalmist life and praise of God, for him, were likely synonymous. He was not dead yet. And his presence at the back of the sanctuary, whether he understood it or not, played a role in God’s continued work in this world as it shaped the young pastor who preached from the same pulpit where he had stood for so many years.
So what does this have to say to us, those of us who are still alive and still coming to worship? For me, the Psalm, the story, all of it highlights the link that exists between life and worship. If we are to think about gratitude, and in truth we are not nearly grateful enough, we should start here. Today we are alive and that means today we have the opportunity to worship God. More than that it means today we have the opportunity to be a part of God’s work in this world. People often lament to me that, as they age, they can’t be as involved in the church as they’d like to be and I understand. If you’ve had this thought, I get it, but I also offer you the person of Erich. Erich had nothing to contribute to the church at that point in his life, yet there he was because he believed, I think, that worship and praise of God in a corporate setting was a gift, and because he could offer it he should. And in so doing he shaped, in a small way, the future of a ministry.
Just because we are too old or too busy to serve a meal or go to a committee meeting or take a casserole to someone who is ill does not mean that we can no longer be of service to God. We are not dead yet, and that means that we have an opportunity to praise and worship God. As long as there is breath in our bodies, as long as we are engaged in the tiniest way with the world around us, we have the opportunity to praise God. When we are gone the dust will not praise God, it will not tell of God’s faithfulness.
So today, be grateful. Be so grateful. This day is a gift, an absolute treasure. It won’t come again, and today you have the chance to praise and worship the God who made you, the God who sent his son for you, the God who loves you, the God who challenges you. This is a great gift. You are alive, give thanks to God forever. Amen.