Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wanted Alive

Sermon preached June 6, 2010

Texts: I Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17

Over thirty years ago, a book became a national best-seller with a very unlikely beginning. Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. Thus began M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. His words echoed words of others in his field of psychology – D. W. Winnicott: Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning (Winnicott, 31). A psychologist whose works I have discovered in recent years and have come to value deeply, Michael Eigen, expresses something similar. There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life (Conversations, 113). One cannot experience without suffering (Feeling Matters, 2).
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun whose writings on the spiritual life continue to shape my spiritual life. She has a couple of books out that use a single verse of Scripture as a springboard for a month’s worth of meditations. She begins each month with a longer story, and this month’s story is about loss and trauma. I have yet to meet a human being who is not in some way still dealing with traumas, most of them garden-variety incidents, perhaps, but traumas nevertheless. Every one of us goes through some kind of personal pain of psychic wounding in life that changes us. She goes on to relate a story from her life, acknowledging that it does not fall under the category of great tragedy, yet was traumatic nonetheless. Joan was ten years old, new to her school and eager to become a part of that community. But when acceptance came I was not available. The night before I was to be the angel who would lead the procession of first communicants to the altar is a sweep of white satin and glory, my appendix heated to the bursting point and all my dreams came to a crashing end. While another girl made the grand entry in my place, I was being prepared for surgery amid a flurry of tense doctors and the protective presence of anxious parents. They were all worried about my dying; I worried about having to live with such a loss. (Living Well).
We could each fill in here with our own stories of difficult moments, small sufferings, garden-variety traumas – and that is for the fortunate, because some of us may have deep tragedy and trauma as a part of our history - - - untimely death, abuse, deep physical pain inflicted, scarring war zone memories. Life is difficult. There are no trauma-free spaces in real life.
With each trying incident, larger or smaller there is the possibility of a kind of death. There is the possibility that we will close ourselves up, wall ourselves off from some part of our own life experience. Maybe we all experience a bit of that as well in our lives. If we can’t feel it it can’t hurt, though we forget that if we can’t feel it, it cannot produce joy either.
Mr. Y lived a charmed life. From childhood on he was good in everything; he was a star athlete, at the top of his class academically, and everyone liked him. His charmed existence continued through adulthood; after attending the best schools, he got the best jobs,, and people gravitated to him and made life easy. Yet he felt he wasn’t living his life; he wasn’t “in” it. It was as if his life too off without him…. Mr. Y felt good but complained of deadness. The good feeling he felt numbed and deadened him. (Eigen, Psychic Deadness, 41).
This morning’s texts speak to this feeling, this experience of deadness, which tempts us all, which is probably a part of most of our experience. Yet we risk dismissing these texts as fanciful. People raised from the dead – what has this to do with us? People die and we do not expect to see them walk among us again. Just Friday, world famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden died. We don’t expect to see him on the UCLA bench next March. Closer to home, two friends of mine died Friday – Jean Noren, former editor for the Minnesota United Methodist Reporter, who is also Mary Beamish’s aunt; Toby Horst, retired pastor – a kind person and role model. Jean won’t be editing more editions, nor will Toby preach again. What do these texts have to do with us?
I suggest we engage these texts with imagination, that we don’t set them aside, but risk letting them speak to us, risk letting them transform us. Let us listen to them with the soul and the heart.
When we do we hear something that speaks to us in those dead places in our lives, in those places that need healing if they are not to harden, deaden. God’s deepest desire for us is life – full, rich, abundant life. We are wanted – alive. The early Christian theologian Irenaeus put it succinctly and well: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” We are wanted – alive!
These texts also suggest elements of a life fully alive, the kind of life God desires for us.
Fullness of life is to be open to amazement. I am reminded of a short poem of Mary Oliver (Red Bird, 37):

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Each of the stories ends with people being amazed at the life-giving power of God – the widow of Zarephath, the crowds in Nain.
Fullness of life involves being willing to take risks. Some risks are foolish, but being unwilling to risk at all is death in life. Elijah risks traveling outside the holy land. He risks speaking to a non-Jewish woman. He risks staying in her home. He risks speaking to God in what may seem an ill-fitting manner. “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” What are you up to God!? This is reminiscent of so many Psalms, where the psalmist addresses God in remarkably bold language – like Psalm 35 where the writer cries out to God to look, to wake up (35:22-23). Jesus risks, too. In Haggai (2:13) we read that contact with a dead body makes one ritually unclean. Jesus risks that to bring a young man to life. In our lives, in our church life, we need to take some risks if we are to live fully.
Fullness of life means extending God’s work of raising the dead. God gives us the power to extend life. When we do that, our own lives are made richer. We raise the dead when we feed the hungry. We raise the dead when we befriend the lonely. We raise the dead when we work for justice and peace. We raise the dead when we share hope. We raise the dead when we love. We raise the dead when we act with courage to make the world better.
Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to be allowed to play major league baseball – the year was 1947. He was not warmly welcomed. Some ball players threatened to boycott. National League president Ford Frick helped by declaring that any player who went on strike because of Robinson would be banned from baseball for life. On the team’s first trip to Cincinnati, fans shouted racial epithets from the stands. When shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a man from Louisville, Kentucky. heard this, he walked over and put his arm around Robinson – demonstrating that this was his teammate. Reese later admitted that this action did not make him very popular with some of his own relatives.
Life is difficult. There are no trauma free zones – not even the green of a baseball field. We know hurt, pain, disappointment, suffering and we can recoil from life into kinds of death in living. But God’s deepest desire for us is life – full, rich abundant life - - - life where we stay open to amazement; life as an adventure where not everything will succeed, but where we keep trying, keep risking; life where we share life with others.
The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Be a part of the glory of God. I say to you, rise. You are wanted – alive! Amen.

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