Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
The Vermont legislature is considering whether to allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients. It’s called physician-assisted death and it is an issue that pops on to legislative agendas in various states from time-to-time, particularly as technologies become more available to prolong biological life. Last year during Lent, a group of us in our church met weekly to learn and talk about the many issues raised by physician-assisted death, including whether and how we might manage the circumstances of our own deaths. Should we be able to do that? Does this raise the possibility that society will come to value some lives as more worthy than others? Is it a slippery slope – opening the door to the inevitable abuses that could result in the killing of a person who wouldn’t make such a choice? Does this put too much emotional pressure on the loved ones surrounding and caring for terminally ill people, or on the terminally ill person him or herself? Not wanting to be a burden on loved ones, might not a dying person hasten her death to spare those loved ones from something they might actually want to do – care for her in her dying days? And what should the time frame be? If a person might have months more to live, albeit in pain and with a significant loss of physical independence, would that person be more or less entitled to life-ending drugs than the person with only a few days left to live? And if someone only has a few days left to live, why hasten that death anyway? Can a physician, whose entire practice grows out of that primary oath to do no harm, prescribe what she or he knows will kill someone? Is hastening the death of a terminally ill person doing harm?
Is allowing a person to choose death something we can stand, any of us? Well it depends, doesn’t it? We can more easily allow someone on death row to choose the death chamber than we can allow the terminally ill husband, or mother, or friend to choose a medically-hastened death. So, the value of human life is not absolute. Some lives have more value than others. Some deaths are deserved. And our society, collectively and individually, is always evaluating and choosing who should live and who should die. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are always choosing whether the cost in human life is worth the value of the goal? And here’s the $64,000 question – isn’t that playing God?
I hate that question. I hear it fairly often, mostly through my death penalty abolition work. Whenever matters of life and death are involved - in the death penalty, in the issue of terminating a pregnancy, in physician-assisted death - someone inevitably asks it, as if it’s the final and most important question, as if all listeners will understand that choosing to terminate life is playing God, except when it isn’t. I always wonder why the “playing God” card isn’t tossed on the table when government budgets slash aid to the mentally and physically disabled. Why don’t we talk about “playing God” when we send troops into war zones? Or when we genetically alter food sources? Isn’t sending aid to the suffering people of Japan playing God? After all, wasn’t the earthquake and resulting tsunami an act of God?
Depending upon one’s perspective, either all of us who do things to change the way things are, are playing God, or, God cannot be played because God does not cause things to happen in the first place.
The gospel writers all tell us that Jesus’ spent forty days in the wilderness to prepare himself for his confrontational, public ministry, and that while he was there, he fasted. The tradition of giving something up for Lent or using this period of time to be especially disciplined in prayer or in changing behavior has its origins in the stories about Jesus confronting the temptations Satan placed before him. He was hungry – who wouldn’t be after forty days of fasting – so, the story implies, he was vulnerable to temptation.
The story tells us Jesus endured and overcame Satan’s temptations. Each of the storytellers report that angels waited on him. Of course, all of these particular details of Jesus’ wilderness experience - his encounter with Satan, his verbal responses to the temptations, the ministering angels - all these are just stories. There was no one watching Jesus. There is no mention of his having recorded his experiences, nor, as far as we know from the Scriptures, did Jesus speak of his experiences in the wilderness, not even to his disciples. What we have is a powerful story about self-sacrifice and triumph over some pretty tempting temptations. Why, I wonder, did all three of the Gospel writers think this was such an important story to tell?
The answer may lie in the temptations themselves. How would you do against them, particularly at the end of forty days of no food? If God is really on your side, why don’t you use that proximity to make some things happen? Why don’t you satisfy your personal needs by turning that stone into bread? Why don’t you assume the power you could have and rule this kingdom? Why don’t you just see if God really wants you to live and throw yourself over this cliff? The temptations are all the same, always have been, always will be - can God actually do anything for you or not? Why don’t you find out?
If I were to ask you to list the things Jesus did for those who followed him, it would not take you long to add that Jesus empowered people who were powerless. So unfailingly did Jesus give power to the powerless, that it would not be an exaggeration to say that for this reason above others, the religious and political leaders feared him. Their power depended, in large measure, on keeping others powerless so, for this man to instill the concept in the powerless that they were not, in fact powerless, worried the persons who depended upon keeping that fact a secret. But in giving power to the powerless, might it not be said that Jesus was “playing God”?
Isn’t changing things from the way they are to the way they could be playing God?
Actually, it is. And frankly, I think it’s a good thing to attempt, because the way things are is not so great for a lot of people. The way things are is violent and harsh. The way things are makes some of us really, really, really rich and others of us so poor, we don’t know if we can even survive, let alone thrive. The way things are is fast and intense, and driven. The way things are tells us that an NFL strike will have more dire social implications than stripping Wisconsin unions of collective bargaining power. The way things are sends beautiful, young, healthy bodies to war and then abandons them when they come home broken in mind and spirit. The way things are is indifferent. The way things are are not, I’m pretty sure, the way things God wants them to be. Jesus wasn’t tempted to play God, except if you think playing God is actually trying to do God’s will!
So what, exactly, was so tempting and why is it such a monumental gift to us that Jesus overcame all three of Satan’s offers? It is this, I suggest to you, simply and only this. Satan tempted Jesus to be completely and totally selfish. And selfishness is not playing God. Oh no. I’m afraid it is being completely, stupidly, arrogantly self-obsessed, self-aggrandized, self-serving. The temptation Jesus overcame was the temptation to serve himself rather than God. Funny, isn’t it? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Amen.