Today, I had the honor of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. Here is the sermon I shared.
Collect for the 5th Sunday in Lent
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (The Valley of the Dry Bones)
Psalm 130 (“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord”)
Romans 8:6-11 (“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit”)
John 11:1-45 (The Raising of Lazarus)
Note: Even if you are reading this, I would ask that you verbally agree (or disagree) when I ask for an amen. It’s about participation, after all.
I’m going to do two things unusual for me. I’m going to talk quite directly about resurrection, and I’m going to ask for participation from you. Nor are these two things separate. Participation matters. Can I get an amen? Let’s try that one more time. Participation in the Spirit of God matters. Otherwise, what is the point of us getting up on a Sunday morning. We believe that participation in the life of the church, in the life of the world, is a matter of life and death. And we put our hope in the Spirit of God. Can I get an amen? Rarely do all the readings fit so neatly together. Usually, some thought is necessary to see the connections, or to hear how the Spirit is speaking to us in our particular context. Today it is easy. Life and death. Or should I say death and life. Some of you have come to my talks on the meanings of life, you know this is one of my mottos: life in the Bible should be taken more literally, not less. It refers to concrete flesh and blood people. The Gospel of Matthew speaks of two deaths. Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear the ones who can destroy both soul and body.” (Matthew 10:28) The death of the body seems straightforward. The flesh and blood, tangible expression of ourselves, which needs food, water, and shelter, that body can and does die. On average, our bodies last 79 years in the US. When I speak of the soul, I mean only the self. I could wax poetic or philosophical, but for the purposes of today, I mean you, the you you are familiar with, the you that is known to your family and friends, the you that is a person. Christians believe that that self – that soul – exists because of two things: the dust of the ground – the material, tangible body – and the breath of God – that is the Spirit. The breath of God stirs the dust and makes it move. Notably, it is not your breath alone. Just as the same air that fills my lungs, fills yours – just as I breath with the same molecules you do – so we are all enlivened by the same Spirit. It is not mystical or supernatural or strange, though we may treat it that way. It is simple livingness. The bodily physical livingness and the psychological personal livingness – and neither one does well in a vacuum. To be a person is to be a person among people. So, we have a death of the body that ends our metabolism, and a death of the soul that ends our personhood. And we are promised that our personhood is more than our body. For the record, I do not claim it is less. I’m not telling you about how a self may exist without a body. You may believe in that – many Christians do – but that is beside the point. The livingness which is our body is clear and unambiguous. The livingness which is our soul, our self, is more confusing, and yet it is familiar to every living breathing soul on the planet. We come on Sunday morning to nurture our selves, to become fuller, richer, better people, in harmony with others, with God and with the world. This why you are here. Can I get an amen? There are, then, two lives as well. We can live to feed our bodies, or we can live to feed our souls, which are embodied. There is dust – which is not alive, and then there is the living dust, which has the breath of life the physical body and that body may become more alive through participation with others the soul. Life from death, souls from dust, all because of the breath of God. It is not my breath or your breath, but one God, one Spirit in Christ, moving us. The basic idea is not strange. I should not need to preach about the fullness of life, which is more than the fullness of the stomach. Anyone would agree that we must feed the body, but also the self, the mind, the soul. The great mystery arises in Jesus’ claim, and Ezekiel’s claim, and Paul’s claim, that once the body has died, the soul, like a seed, can be used to grow a new body. It’s not just that the dry bones can be ground up for mulch to fertilize new and different life. Rather, the very persons that appeared dead, can be brought back. It is true in this lifetime, as well as in eternity. Have you ever lost yourself – in grief or despair or addiction or just neglect? Have you ever started to wonder who you were? What happened? Did God bring you back? Or a friend? Did someone re-member your body, flesh you out, and bring you back to your self, your life? Just as we tend our bodies, so we must tend our souls, not because they are separate or separable, but precisely because they are together. In keeping the soul alive, we have hope for a fuller life of the body. And through the life of the soul – that is God’s Spirit within us, we hope for the resurrection of the body. Without a self – it does not matter if your body comes back. And so, I must give a shout out to Saint Thomas, patron of doubters, skeptics, and pessimists. Did you pay attention to him in today’s gospel? He thinks the locals will kill Jesus, if he returns to Judea. Thomas fears he will be killed as well, at least his body, but he is more concerned about the loss of himself, if he does not go with Jesus into the danger. Thomas is a pessimist, but committed. Who are you, in your heart of hearts? And what would cause you to lose your self? More than physical death, we fear this death of the soul. We fear that our love will atrophy, that that which binds us together will wither away. That’s the business we’re in, tending the life that is the body of Christ, made out of human bodies. We are one in the Spirit. We have one life in Christ – quite literally. This is what I’m doing with my life. This is what Jesus did, what Abraham and Sarah, Peter and Photini, did. We nurture a common life. More literal, not less. Planting seeds and watering. The bones are mulch – dead but with all the ingredients of life. Or perhaps I should say they are sea monkeys, the little shrimp that you can dehydrate and then bring to life by placing them in the water. We’re like sea monkeys, all curled in upon ourselves, until the Spirit of love revives us. We’re like sea monkeys, though we appear to die, still we can live. I know you’ve met people that “suck the life” out of you. And I know you’ve met people who “bring you to life.” It’s quite literal and quite prosaic, but it starts with admitting it can be done, and then giving your heart to doing it. Get excited about Christianity. Yes, we have problems, but we’ve been nurturing community for 2000 years. We came up with the university, the hospital, and inalienable human rights. We inspired Queen Elizabeth I and Martin Luther King. Nor do I think any of that would have happened because of an abstract commitment to an ideal or even an institution. Every time it was a about real people, struggling to live together, and to live fully. How can we live up to that? My advice is to be more literal, not less. Start and foster caring communities. Invite people over to dinner from outside your family. It’s a great way to become closer. Don’t wait until the house is perfectly clean, or the schedule is clear, or you know them better. Eat together. See what happens. Give unwarranted gifts. That’s a hard one in our society. We care to much about keeping score. Stop. Just see something someone needs, or something that would give them joy. If you can easily give it, do. Start a conversation with a stranger. This is, unsurprisingly, the only way to make them into a friend. It’s uncomfortable, but if you are willing to muddle through, you will find you’ve both grown a little bit. I’m going to pull rank and give you homework. You have one week. Do one of these things. They are not expensive, they are not dangerous. They take a little thought and they may misfire, but why not give it a try. Can I get an amen? I’ll list them again. 1) Invite someone over for a meal or out to lunch. 2) Give an unwarranted gift. 3) Start a conversation. Just one. These are things worth doing on a regular basis, not because they are disciplines, or abstractly good, or righteous, but because they give life. I have a strange relationship with Lent. I use it as a time of reflection, but Lenten disciplines rarely work out for me. I have trouble motivating myself. Which is funny, because I’m a bit of an ascetic; I love discipline. For me, though, the disciplines I love are joy and not hardship, I take them on because they flow out of my inmost self and draw me closer to God. So, I’ve often been more successful with my Easter disciplines, than I was with the same thing in Lent. How can I celebrate the life I have been given by making my life more full, more bright, more wondrous? Easter, after all, is a good season for planting seeds. Don’t be discouraged. Sometimes you plant a hundred seeds and only one springs up. That’s okay. We plant the seeds and water, but God gives growth. And even one tree is better than none. Prepare yourself for Easter by planting seeds. Don’t just prepare for this Easter Prepare for next Easter. Life is about planting seeds. Life is about participation.