11-6-11 Value of a Life: All Saints Sunday

November 6, 2011

Value of a Life: All Saints Sunday

            Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 and died in 1951 at the age of 31. You might not have heard of her, but she has had an important influence on all of our lives. She went to the hospital at the very end of her short life and found out that she had cervical cancer. During the tests, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, took healthy and cancerous cells from her cervix without her permission. After she died and without the knowledge of anyone in her family, researchers began using her cells for all kinds of research.

They call her cells HeLa cells, after the first two letters in her first and last name. The researchers found that her cells had a remarkable capacity to grow, with minimal care, to multiply rapidly. The HeLa line of cells have been cultivated and grown until today there are trillions of HeLa cells all around the world. They have been used for research into cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, and every kind of research to extend life. Her cells have been in outer space. They have been tested in nuclear explosions and used to test human sensitivity to glue, cosmetics, and all kinds of products. Scientists have grown over 20 tons of her cells – which weigh next to nothing – trillions and trillions of cells.

Rebecca Skloot wrote a book about her life, death, and her life after death in a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Oprah Winfrey is looking into doing a film based on the book. It will be interesting to see how they play it.

Henrietta Lacks died at age 31. In her own peculiar way, she followed the advice we pray for in the liturgical prayer in our funeral service: “God, help us to live as those who are prepared to die and die as those who are prepared to live.” Without knowing it, Henrietta Lacks died as one who was prepared to live.

Whenever someone dies young, we are reminded that life is a near death experience. Just last month, my family celebrated the life of Elijah’s baseball coach, Bob Hyland, who died at an Eagles game. He was only 49 years old. Everything in his life was oriented toward his boys, and the other young men and boys on his baseball team.  As you can imagine there was a hoard of young men at his funeral.

Jesus in our scripture reading this morning implores us to be prepared for the coming of the Lord – for the coming of the end times, the time of a new beginning. In his time it was the job of the bridesmaids to prepare for the groom, so Jesus tells this story about 10 bridesmaids, 5 of whom are prepared for the groom and 5 of whom are not. They all fall asleep waiting for groom to come, but when they awaken, the ones who have prepared get to go in to the party, but the other 5 get left out.

So, are you prepared? Are you living as one prepared to die? Will you die as someone prepared to live?  That’s a tall order! Could you imagine people remembering you, honoring you, 60 years after you die, as some are doing now with Henrietta Lacks? Just this year, she was given a posthumous honorary degree at Morgan State University. A school that will open in the year 2013 is being named after her.

Most of us are not very good at a valuation of our own life. It is very hard for us to see clearly how valuable our lives have been to those around us, how important the love we have shared.  That’s why I love the All Saints Day service. As we remember and celebrate the precious lives of family members who died in the last year, we get a glimpse of how important their witness was in our lives – even if they won’t have a school named after them in 60 years. We get a renewed sense of the importance of everyday caring, everyday work for justice in the world, everyday contributions to the community. We get encouragement to work to be prepared, but we also get reassurance that even when we’re not, God is with us.

Not many us have much a claim to sainthood, do we? We come to life like those foolish bridesmaids – with our lamps empty, needing to be replenished. We forget to prepare ourselves; we don’t take care of ourselves; and so we provide less light for our loved ones around us than we might have hoped. We give thanks today for those who have gone before us: who provided a little bit of oil for us, who lit our way, and opened doors for us that maybe would have stayed closed if we really got what we deserved. They lived as people prepared to die. They died as those prepared to live! May their gift to us, inspire us to live with similar zeal, zest for life, preparedness, and grace-filled loving. They were a blessing, whether they knew it or not. We live our lives as a blessing, whether we know it or not!

This is God’s good news! Thanks be to God.

Responsive Hymn: Steal Away to Jesus

Widely known and sung by American slaves, probably inspired by 1 Corinthians: For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised.” The words ‘steal away’ masked a double meaning. It was sung as an invitation to the underground railroad – to steal one’s freedom or die trying