George Burns once said, “Tennis is a game for young people. Until age 25, you can play singles. From there until age 35, you should play doubles. I won’t tell you my age, but when I played, there were 28 people on the court, just on my side of the net.”
There is the jokingly asked question of how we know we’re getting old. You know you’re getting old when you sit in a rocking chair and you can’t get it going. You know you’re getting old when dialing long distance wears you out; when your fortune teller offers to read your face. And perhaps the best one: You know you’re getting older when you try to straighten the wrinkles in your socks and find you aren’t wearing any.
Not that anyone here is old because old age, as we all know, is always 10 years older than what we are.
Since I’m turning 50 Tuesday, and AARP will soon come knocking, I thought I would say a little something about getting older. I thought I’d put things in perspective about age by bringing up Methuselah, sure to make anyone feel fairly young.
But of course the truth is like it or not, all of us grow older—the fortunate ones, that is. We age. Some enjoy joking about aging but growing old is something everyone at least at a certain level dreads. Many people are willing to do a lot to avoid aging.
Cosmetic companies are multimillion dollar businesses telling people how to do it. Exercise enthusiasts have sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of books and equipment, showing people how to do it. Health food manufacturers have built huge businesses producing special foods that promise it. Genetic scientists are researching ways to prevent it. But aging still happens and there’s no avoiding it.
Actually, there’s no way of avoiding it because there’s no way of avoiding the sting at the end of the tail of aging. It’s that other “little” issue that customarily arrives at the end that adds the insult to the injury of aging.
Before his death in 1981, American writer William Saroyan telephoned in to the Associated Press this final, very Saroyan-like observation: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” These days, that would make a great tweet.
Most people aren’t very good at accepting this. The truth is we very often refuse to acknowledge a certain 800 lb gorilla in the room. It’s like
we’re all playing Harry Potter, where the archenemy, Voldemort, is also the one who mustn’t be named, as if that’s going to deny him power. Of course this unnamed villain is the one who drives the whole plot and is the reason Harry Potter is even needed.
I hear Christians challenge other Christians with the thought: What if you really believed in the resurrection? How would that change you? I think that’s a great question. But I think there’s another really great question, and it’s our question this morning. What if you really accepted you were going to die? How would that change you?
A wonderful movie, Forrest Gump, is about a boy with below average intellectual capability that struggles like the rest of us to grow up in this world, find meaning, make friends, find love, make love, and build a life. The clip I want to show is after he finds out his beloved Momma is dying, when he comes running home as fast as he can.
I think we all know somewhere in here, somewhere floating around here, we’re going to die. But we cover it up with so much smoke and mirrors, we’re left living in a hall of distortions. I mean look how we even talk about it. Today we say we are going to pass. We can’t even say, “pass on.” Now it’s just “pass.” Does this mean we’re like gall stones? Life is going to pass us, like a kidney stone.
We should at least be able to say the word. I mean it is the way things are. Heck, even Methuselah died.
Death is the greatest, incredibly negative fact of our lives that is the least accepted and dealt with. It influences us and others a lot more than we ever let on.
Our greatest fears arise from it. Our craziness, that is, so many bad decisions, I believe can be traced back to it. Pain caused by people that were caused by other people that were caused by still other people, and so on and so on, come from the source of not just the experience of death, but the fear of death, and the lack of willingness to deal with it or our fear of it.
Look, when something so huge and important, and who can think of something as important as our dying and our loved one’s dying, is not a topic of discussion, isn’t raised up as something between people, is avoided and ignored, swept under rugs, laughed off, and let to fester, and grow, and become whatever it wants to, yeah, some not such good things will come of it.
So I want to let something come out right now, I want to let some aspect of this really gnarly and immensely troubling fact of our existence breathe for a moment or two among us right now, if you don’t mind.
The truth is, we’re stinking mad about it. That’s our true, number one response to death. We’re indignant about having to die, about how a loved one is gone for good. Death, from our viewpoint, is unmistakably and unquestionably the horrible terrible no good unfairness of our lives. And like all things that strike us as unfair, we’re not happy about it.
Someone may say, “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it so stop you’re complaining, pastor.” Yeah, ok, true. But just because there’s no way to change the rules of this game doesn’t mean we aren’t deeply, passionately distraught about it. After all, we’re pretty good at ignoring things, and denial isn’t just a river in you know where. But we know that doesn’t mean everything is just fine and dandy.
Simply put, deep down we don’t accept our sentence.
Now if it sounds strange that a pastor says such a thing, that’s fine. I can understand that. But here’s the thing: My faith was never, well, was never a fairy tale faith. I’ve always been determined to be myself, to be authentically me and still be a Christian. I believe in authentic faith.
I don’t believe in a “Once upon a time” type of faith. This type of faith is imitation, a copying of people from another time who once upon a time had faith. This faith is usually coupled with the often unstated opinion that once upon a time there existed a golden era of Christian faith that has to be returned to again and again. This of course means everyone has to be preserved in the way things were done and thought and said at that time, which isn’t very good if we ever want to grow or get better. That to me feels like fairy tale faith.
Authentic faith can only arise out of one’s own life, not someone else’s. Authentic faith comes from your own fears, your own courage, your own challenges. It’s got to be based in what you are really about, not what other people were about. God doesn’t do once upon a time faith because the Lord needs real people with real authentic faith today, and each day. After all, God is the God of yesterday, today and tomorrow–not just yesterday.
This willingness to look life straight in the eyes, tell it like it is, and find God still, nonetheless, there, here, is exactly what scripture does. This is precisely why the Bible is so full of quirks and craziness, strange things and beautiful things and really real things. It’s full of humanity, and of course the
truly divine. It’s one outrageously reality-driven book, if you know how to see and read it. It’s not at all like a Disney fairy tale, nor was it ever meant to be.
At the end of his life, Moses is one hundred and twenty years old. He can no longer be the leader of the Israelites because he can no longer do what a leader needs to do. Joshua has already been appointed by Moses to succeed him.
Moses’ last act is to climb Mount Nebo. From there, the Lord shows him all the land, north and south, east and west, all the way to the Western Sea, or the Mediterranean Sea. This of course occurs in a vision because where he is standing that’s impossible. What Moses sees is all the land that someday the Israelites will live in and possess. And then comes the whammy: Moses shall not cross over there himself. Actually, Moses knew this years ago. That was his destiny—to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land but not go in himself.
The great Moses, the only one who saw God face to face, the one who freed Israel from slavery, the one who taught the Israelites God’s commandments, gave them the Lord’s instructions, and brought them safely through the wilderness for forty years, bringing them to the edge of the Promised Land, was himself never allowed to step onto that land.
Why? Scripture says it’s because Moses wasn’t 100% faithful, that he sinned at one or two times against God. But I gotta say, along with a whole bunch of others, these aren’t much. There’s something else scripture is saying here without shouting it out loud.
Because this is such a glaring injustice done to Moses, because this is such a robbery of what should have been given to him (just one step into the Promised Land to taste what his efforts accomplished), scripture has brought into focus how unfair our death, how unjust our running into the limit of our existence, feels.
We feel certain Moses should be able to see his life truly fulfilled. He should be able to have it all tied up in a nice red bow, with nothing missing. But like I said, scripture doesn’t do fairy tales. It sticks to the truth and nothing but the truth, so help it God.
In a life that was filled with the most amazing events and experiences, Moses came to accept the limit the Lord placed on him. By realizing there would be a valley he would not permitted to cross into, he had been freed to focus on the mountain he had been given.
The truth is, you can’t be a servant if you still believe you’re the king.
Don’t ignore the truth. Face the reality of your humanity and mortality. Come down to the level of a servant of the Lord your God, the one who was and is and who shall always be, take your part in God’s story, and find in this the peace and joy you seek.
The sooner we face who we are and who we aren’t, the sooner and the better and the more joyful and the sweeter and the more peaceful and the richer and the stronger we will stand.
It’ll be like we’re standing on a mountain, seeing the goodness of the Lord surrounding us and stretching out in front of us, immeasurably beyond our reach, and yet knowing we played our part. And for this we will be thankful. Can anybody say Amen?