A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 21, 2017
Psalm 18:1-7; Luke 13:4 GNT
I ask your indulgence, that I might share a personal story this morning. Because I feel privileged – no, I feel blessed – to be standing here before you today. Because, you see, I could have very easily been lying in a cemetery this morning. Four weeks ago today I had what I have been referring to as a “near death experience.”
Now I realize that the term “near death experience” most often refers to the experience of coding, or dying momentarily, perhaps seeing a bright light in the distance, and being brought back to life. I did not have that type of experience, and I want to make that perfectly clear.
No, when I say I had a “near death experience,” what I mean is I came as close to being killed as I have ever come in my entire life. I sort of feel like the psalmist who said, “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me” (Psalm 18:4 GNT). Here is how it happened.
It was that weekend four weeks ago when we had all that heavy rain. As I was driving home following church and lunch about 12:30 on that Sunday, it was pouring buckets as I drove toward the west end of town where we live. As I prepared to turn up Newport Drive, I thought to myself, With all the rain we have been having, saturating the ground, I sure hope our big trees don’t start toppling over onto our house. A minute later I pulled into our driveway, just enough to get off the street. Since it was still raining hard, I stopped at the mailbox to get my Sunday newspaper. I reached down and grabbed my umbrella, cracked open the door of my Jeep about six inches, pushed the umbrella open, and at that instant I heard a loud crack and saw my next door neighbor’s giant oak tree falling towards me. The tree took down power lines at the back of my Jeep, sparks rained down from the transformer right above me, hot oil from the blown transformer covered the side of my Jeep and even the sleeve of my suitcoat, and the top of the tree brushed the driver’s side of my Jeep just as I was about to step out onto the driveway. The utility lines from the pole to our house were sagging in front of me. The top of the tree was not only in our driveway, but it completely covered Newport Drive and even broke off a tree in the neighbor’s yard on the opposite side of the street.
Immediately I started trying to call Mary Lou, who was coming up the street behind me in her car, to warn her of the danger of the downed power lines. For a moment I just sat there in the Jeep in a daze, not knowing if I should get out or drive under the sagging utility lines to the bottom of the driveway. Finally I put my vehicle in gear and slowly eased down the driveway, holding my breath all the while.
No one recognized it as such, but our driveway was pictured on the front page of the Oak Ridger newspaper on Friday, April 28.
Now, here is the point: Had I been just a few seconds earlier or later, or a few feet this way or that, I could have been under the top of that tree, or I could have been under those power lines and sliced in two when they came crashing down. Or, had both Mary Lou and I been a few seconds earlier, it could have been her car under that tree or those power lines when they came crashing down.
For the next 24 hours, I found myself in a daze, in a very somber, pensive state of mind. A few seconds and a few feet one way or the other could have meant a quick and certain death. “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me.”
There have been only two other similar occasions in my lifetime that I can recall. Once – not long after Mary Lou and I were married – I was dead tired after a night of driving and stepped off the street curb at Myrtle Beach almost in the path of a speeding car I had not seen coming. I felt the wind of the car as it sped by me. The other time was just a year and half ago. It was just before Christmas, and I was walking through the Walmart parking lot, juggling several bags of canned goods for our Christmas food boxes. I looked down to shift some of the plastic bags from one hand to the other, and I heard someone shout “Stop!” and glanced up to see a car speeding backyards – in reverse – through the parking lot towards me, and I jumped aside just in time to avoid being run over. But the experience I had four weeks ago certainly was the most frightening experience of the three.
Someone remarked that if I have nine lives, I certainly have used three of them. But on a serious note, such “near death experiences” cause you to stop and think and ask questions. And I bet that some of you could recount such “near death experiences” of your own, perhaps even more unsettling than what I have experienced.
Such occurrences remind us of how very fragile and uncertain life is. In a split-second’s time (and that tree falling towards me and the power lines coming down all happened in no more than two seconds) life can change drastically. In the snap of a finger, Mary Lou could have become a widow, my children fatherless, my grandchildren without a grandfather, and this church without a minister.
The fragile and uncertain nature of life leads to a number of other ramifications; such as, be careful and cautious where you tread! In the case of the falling tree, there was nothing I did to cause it or might have done to avoid it. By mere chance I happened to pull into our driveway at the same instant that giant oak tree decided to uproot itself and come crashing down.
But sometimes by carelessness we can bring such close calls upon ourselves. For instance, driving a car 100 miles per hour, or climbing far higher upon a ladder than one ought to climb, or choosing to swim in swift-moving water can put us in life-and-death situations. So we do well to be careful and cautious so that we don’t bring unnecessary “near death experiences” upon ourselves.
The fragile and uncertain nature of life also says to us make every moment of life count. Live in the moment. Live in love, and let others know you love them. Whenever possible, when saying goodbye to family and friends, do so on happy terms. It could be your last goodbye.
The fragile and uncertain nature of life causes us to question. Why do such things happen in life? Why was my life spared by a few seconds one way or the other, while a woman in Lincoln County, Tennessee, was struck and killed by a falling tree in her yard that same week? Was my life spared by the grace of God? (I would like to think so.) Or is being spared or not being spared a matter of chance? We can find support for both positions in the scriptures.
Jesus and his hearers struggled with interpreting a disaster that happened in their day, when a tower fell on eighteen people, killing them all. Why did it happen? Was it because they were sinners and being punished for their sins? Jesus said, “No indeed!”
The day after that giant tree fell towards me, I walked in TN Bank and related my experience to the ladies down there, and one of them said, “Obviously you still have work to do.” Is there a reason why one is spared and another is not? Or is life bound up in mystery which we can never fully understand, at least on this side of eternity? As much as we would like for it to be so, there are not always easy, pat answers to life’s questions.
Well, whether God, or the Spirit, or Jesus was looking out for me four weeks ago today so that I was spared from being crushed or electrocuted, I really don’t know. As I noted earlier, I want to think that it is so. But such an experience causes you to stop and think about how fragile and uncertain life really is, how important it is to live in the moment and to always live in love, and (in the spirit of the psalmist) how blessed it is to be alive. That’s my story; thank you for letting me share it with you and reflect upon it today. Amen.