Sermon preached November 1, 2009
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
In one episode of the sitcom, Seinfeld, Elaine is ecstatic that John Kennedy Jr. has joined her health club. She lets her excitement lead her to consider the possibility of romance and marriage. She imagines what it would be like to be Elaine Bennis Kennedy Jr.
The later part of this week I was in Asheville, North Carolina for a meeting of The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order. Just outside of Asheville is Biltmore, the mansion and estate of the Vanderbilt family. I have been to Asheville three times but have never seen Biltmore, only pictures. It looks like quite a place.
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be a Rockefeller, a Kennedy, a Vanderbilt, a Gates? At times I could imagine it would be a gift of sorts. To be born into such a family would mean access to resources few of us can imagine. It would mean possibilities for professions that would be much more difficult to access otherwise. At the same time that being a Rockefeller or Kennedy or Vanderbilt or Gates might be a gift, it would also be a significant responsibility and task. We would be asked to uphold family traditions of public service and philanthropy. Mistakes would be magnified and so one would want to be especially careful.
Being a Christian carries with it that same sense of gift and task. To be a Christian is to be touched by God’s Spirit so that the Spirit continues to work in our lives to transform us. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ and the Spirit of Jesus into participating in God’s work in the world. In the words of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christians stand by God in [God’s] hour of grieving;” they participate “in the powerlessness of God in the world” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 349, 362). We are moved by the Spirit to be a part of God’s work in the world.
What is that work? Our two Scriptures for this morning characterize the essence of God’s work in the world.
God’s work in the world is new life. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is an extended parable. It is a story designed to evoke trust in Jesus as one through whom God gives life – not just physical life (though that is the setting of the story) but abundant life, adventurous life, interesting life. The call of God in Jesus to each of us is to come out of the tombs that contain us, to be unwrapped from the grave clothes which imprison us – unhealthy patterns of behavior that get in the way of true life, fears that prevent us from living more fully. When we open our lives up to Jesus, we, too, see the world through new eyes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to a friend once wrote, “Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 362)
God’s work in the world is transformation, the creation of a new world. Whatever else we find in the wild final book of the Bible, “Revelation,” we find the conviction that God is always at work “making all things new.” The vision in the book’s final chapters is one that inspires joy and awe. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” God is at work to create a new heaven and earth.
As Christians we give our lives to this work of God in the world, and it comes to us both as a gift and as a task.
The work of God in the world is a gift to us. New life is a gift. Sharing in God’s work of new life and a newer world is a gift. What does it mean that something is a gift – here is one definition: “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us.” (Lewis Hyde quoted in Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life, 228). New life in God is a gift in at least two important senses. New life in Christ is a gift we inherit from others. Think about it – we would not be here were it not for others. We would not have life itself were it not for parents. We would not be here in this church were it not for the work of countless church members through the years – those who began this congregation, those who helped build its buildings, those who shared the Methodist version of the Jesus faith, those who made lunches to raise money to move up the hill. We are surrounded by saints who helped share with us the gift of new life in God. Take a moment and name some of these people in your hearts and minds. Whisper some names quietly. On this All Saints Day, we remember those from whom we received faith as a gift.
New life in God, and God’s newer world is also a gift from God. God's presence in our lives brings with it new life. God weaves our work together synergistically, so that it always adds up to more than we did or might do. I am amazed at the number of times remarkable things happen in worship that none of us participating had planned – a song by the choir or Tapestry strikes a deep chord with the sermon in a way we had not considered, unexpected people arrive and share in communion. These are gifts of life from the grace of God.
New life and a newer world are also tasks. The fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once preached (quoted in Needleman, Money, 233): “that a person should receive God within is good. But that God should become fruitful in a person is better; for the fruitfulness of the gift is the only gratitude for the gift.” New life and a newer world are gift and task. Lazarus by himself in the tomb is not a model for our life of faith. We don't just lie around waiting for God to act - at least not most of our lives.
We have work to do to cultivate new life in our lives. Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices: An Altar in the World, 59: The only promise [spiritual practices] make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know – about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God. The great religious traditions of the world are so confident of this that they commend dozens of spiritual practices to their followers without telling those practitioners exactly what will happen when they do. New life in God needs tending, cultivation, discipline and practice. John Wesley consistently encouraged Christians to engage in spiritual practices including prayer, worship, Scripture reading, compassionate action to help those in need. We are not always sure how those practices will shape our lives. The promise is that they will, and that God’s new life will blossom within us.
A newer world is also our task, working with God to make God’s dream for the world more of a reality – a dream of justice and peace, compassion and care, beauty and love. God’s invitation to us is to join in this work of creating a newer world, and we don’t have to look far to find ways to join this effort – food shelves, mentoring, visiting the sick or shut-in, working for a fairer sharing of the world’s resources, caring for the planet.
The poet Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses” penned these words: Come my friends/’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It is never too late, my friends to seek new life, a newer world. It comes as a gift, and our response is gratitude – including gratitude for all the saints whose lives have enriched our own. It is our task, for which we pray for courage. Amen.