Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Strange King, Weird Kingdom

Sermon preached November 22, 2015

Texts: Jeremiah 29:10b-11; John 18:33-37

            So last week I preached about risk, vulnerability and courage.  I also mentioned that Julie and I did not do so well with the board game Risk.  Well, how can you speak about risk without taking a risk with Risk?  So we did, and we are still here together.  We managed it all pretty well.
            So you may be curious about the result?  Here is a song that sums up how I did: Seals and Croft, “The King of Nothing”  I ended up the king of nothing, not great for a game about global domination!
            Jesus is before Pilate, the Roman authority in Palestine.  He has been arrested and charged with sedition, with undermining the authority of the empire and creating a ruckus among the Jewish people, who were often problematic for the Romans.  Pilate asks him about the charge, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus eventually answers, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
            What kind of king is this?  What sort of kingdom is not from this world?  Strange king, weird kingdom.
            Isn’t being a king exactly about this world?  Isn’t the very definition of being a king that you accrue power and wealth?  Even the Cowardly Lion knows this.  “If I were King of the Forest…. I’d command each thing be it fish or fowl with a woof and a woof and a royal growl.”  Doesn’t being a king entitle you to command?
            Jesus doesn’t seem to understand.  To be a king is to consolidate power and to centralize authority.  He is kind of a strange king.  His kingdom is kind of a weird kingdom.
            Jesus is a king who is about sharing power, about empowering others, about setting people free.  All over John’s gospel, we read things like:  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (10:10).  You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (8:32).  If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (8:36).  Perhaps strangest and most audacious of all, Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these (14:12).
            What sort of king says such things?  What sort of king gives back power, sets people free, tells others that they will be even greater than he?  Jesus, strange king that he is.  Strange king, weird kingdom.
            And Jesus does not seem to understand consolidating authority, building a castle, a capital.  Yes, the Christian Church through the centuries has built magnificent cathedrals, and at least one pretty nice “Coppertop” church.  But churches are not like castles, they are more like missions – diplomatic establishments, with groups of people to enhance relationships and provide assistance.  We are here to extend the mission of this weird kingdom of Jesus, the mission of life, freedom, of creating beauty, of doing justice, of expressing compassion, of seeing the humanity of each person and finding ways to help it grow, of seeing where the world is going wrong and trying to repair it.  We invite others to join us in all this.
            That’s what we are all about here in this mission of the kingdom called First United Methodist Church, “the Coppertop Church.”  This is ultimately what our capital campaign is about.  Yes, we are doing building stuff, but it is in the service of being a mission, of following this strange king, of being part of this weird kingdom. 
            We are Jesus’ people.  We are a kingdom place.  Our purpose is to extend that kingdom.  It is to help all know God’s love, for all are welcome.  It is help all grow in God’s love.  It is to help all discover and use their wonderful and beautiful gifts to show God’s love in the world.  We are a people and a place of promise – the promise of new life, of freedom from all that gets in the way of new life.  We are a promise that we want to extend into the future.
            Once upon a time there was a man who had twelve cows, and he cared well for his cows.  Every morning and evening he would praise them for the amount of milk they were giving and praise them for their beauty.  One morning he noticed that the amount of milk was less.  Each day for a week he noticed the same thing.  So that night he decided to stay up and see what was going on.
            About midnight, he happened to look up at the stars, and he saw one star that seemed to be getting larger and brighter.  It got brighter and larger as the star came closer and closer to earth.  It came straight down toward his cow pasture and stopped a few feet from him in the form a great ball of light. Inside the light there was a beautiful and luminous woman.  Just as her toes touched the earth, the light disappeared, and she stood there like an ordinary woman, ordinary but extraordinarily lovely.
            The man said to her, “Are you the one who has been taking milk from my cows?”  “Yes,” she said, “my sisters and I like the milk from your cows very much.”  He said, “You are very beautiful.  And I am glad that you like my cows.  Here is what I would like.  If you marry me, we can live together, and I will be kind to you and you won’t have to take care of the cows all the time, we can share the chore.  Will you marry me?”  She said slowly, “Yes, I will, but there is one condition.  I have brought this basket with me, and I want you to agree that you will never look into this basket.  You must never look into it, no matter how long we are married.  Do you agree to that?”  “Yes, oh yes, I do,” he said.
            They married and lived together well for six or seven months.  Then one day, while his wife was out herding the cows, the man noticed the basket just sitting in the corner of the room.  His curiosity got the best of him, and he even rationalized it quite well, saying to himself, “Well, you know, now that we are married, her basket is also my basket.”  He opened the basket and began to laugh.  “There’s nothing in the basket.   There’s nothing in the basket.  There’s absolutely nothing in the basket!  Nothing!”  He kept repeating this to himself and laughing.  Even though she was herding the cows, his wife began to hear her husband’s voice and laughter from the house.
            She came into the house and asked, “Have you opened the basket?”  He began laughing again.  “Yes, yes I did.  There’s nothing in the basket.  There’s absolutely nothing in the basket – nothing at all!”
            She said, “I must go now.  I have to go back.”  The man began to plead, “Please don’t go.  Don’t leave me!”  She said, “I have to go back now.  What I brought with me was spirit.  It’s so like human beings to think that spirit is nothing.”

            Pilate says to Jesus, “So you are a King!?”  Jesus has already told him, “My kingdom is not from this world.”  Strange king, weird kingdom, and we are a part of it.  We witness to something more to life and to something else about life – spirit, soul, the heart.  We tend that here.  We nurture that here.  Together we seek courage from the Holy Spirit to live with heart, soul and spirit every day.  We want to know God’s love thoughtfully and deeply.  We want to grow in God’s love, grow as people of heart, soul and spirit.  We want to show God’s love by living with compassion and seeking peace and justice in the world.  Some may consider this a kind of nothing, but we know that we are simply following a rather strange king and are part of a rather weird kingdom, and we are deeply grateful for here we find life at its deepest, richest and best.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Risk: It's Not Just a Board Game

Sermon preached November 15, 2015

Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20

            My wife Julie and I have been married for over thirty-three years.  I feel blessed that we enjoy each other’s company, that we laugh often, and that we have three pretty wonderful children.  It is our daughter Sarah’s birthday today.  It might not have been, however.  Our relationship struggled with Risk.  I’m not talking about taking chances, I am talking about the board game Risk, the game of global domination.
            Neither Julie nor I are the most competitive people I know.  I compete more with myself than with others, though, if I go golfing and am not doing so well it is some small consolation if I am doing a little better than someone else.  Mostly, I just want to do well.  Risk, especially when only two play pits person against person, and when one is winning the other is losing.  Early in our relationship, playing that game – well, they weren’t our best moments.
            I asked Julie permission to tell our Risk story, and we both are wondering what it might be like to play the game again.  If Julie isn’t in church some coming Sunday, well….
            Risk – it’s not just a board game.  Risk seems to me to be an important element in the life of faith in the God of Jesus, an important part of following Jesus, of living in the Spirit.  In his justly-celebrated book, The Road Less Traveled published now over thirty-five years ago, Scott Peck wrote: On some level spiritual growth, and therefore love, always requires courage and involves risk (131).  He goes on: All life represents a risk, and the more lovingly we live our lives the more risks we take (134).  If Scott Peck were alive today, he died in 2005, he might be on TED talks.  One writer who has become well-known through TED talks, Brene Brown ( ), in fact over 22 million people have listened to her TED talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown echoes some of the thoughts of Scott Peck in more recent writings.  To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain (The Gifts of Imperfection, 73)
            Risk, it’s more than just a board game.  To live life fully, to follow Jesus, to have faith in God, to live in the Spirit, entails risk.  Hannah’s story is a story about risk – and about vulnerability, and about courage and about love.  I want to reflect on this story and how it might speak to us of life, faith, love and risk – the importance of risk for life, faith and love.
            Hannah risks genuine feeling, complex feeling, and that challenges us in a relatively shallow age.  Hannah weeps, deeply distressed.  She weeps bitterly.  She weeps embarrassingly. Elkanah is uncomfortable with her distress, and makes a rather feeble attempt to close off her pain.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  Eli thinks she is inebriated.   She weeps from the depth of who she is.  She feels her pain, her deep anxiety. Later she feels joy. She is open to herself, even if it is painful right now.  She is open and honest with God, feeling deeply and complexly.
            Brene Brown wisely writes: We cannot selectively numb emotions.  When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions (The Gifts of Imperfection, 70).  Yet we live in an age of numbing, of keeping things shallow.  Are we willing to risk deep and genuine feeling, complex feeling?  In the wake of the tragedy in Paris, there is anger.  Are we also willing to feel all the feelings – anger, grief, sadness, compassion?
            Hannah risks heartbreak in the cause of a larger heart, and that challenges us in a defensive age.  Hannah feels, and what she feels in this story is a lot of heartache.  Her heart is broken.  We may not quite get it, though if you have ever been in conversations with couples who want to have a child and are having difficulty, you know the depth of this heartbreak.  In Hannah’s culture, a woman’s worth was tied up in providing her husband with a male child.  Barrenness was considered something of a curse.  Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah, who had given Elkanah both sons and daughters, reminds Hannah of her sorry state.  Hannah feels heartbreak over the way things are.
            Parker Palmer writes insightfully about heartbreak.  There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken.  One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about – a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid.  The other is to imagine the heart broken open into a new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.  As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. (A Hidden Wholeness, 178)
            There is a Hasidic tale about the heart.  A pupil comes to his teacher.  “Rebbe, why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’?  Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The teacher answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.” (In Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, 181)
            Heartbreak, hearts broken open into new capacities, so new words can fall in – are we willing to risk having our hearts broken by the gap between what is and what could be in an age that encourages defensiveness against just such heart break?
            Hannah risks looking foolish, and that challenges us in a cynical age, when caring to the point of looking foolish is considered silly.  Hannah appears inebriated, at least to the priest Eli.  Both Elkanah and Eli consider her foolish, overwrought.  Then, toward the end of the story, Hannah, feeling assured that something is different, tries again with Elkanah.  If you are going to have a child, you need to do such things as might make that possible.  Hannah tries again.  She acts as if things could be different, as if God really might be at work in the world to make things different.
            We live in a time of great cynicism.  People don’t engage in the public arena because there are convinced that it will do no good.  People don’t re-examine the relationship that doesn’t seem to be working, convinced that nothing can be done.  To be sure, change can come slowly.  To be sure, that is true for individuals as well as for the larger world.  Yes, history is littered with nations blundering into war, and people oppressing people.  Cynicism can make sense – the closed heart, the shallow emotions, not investing too much of myself in others or in causes.  Yet cynicism is a kind of numbing, and we cannot numb selectively.
            Hannah risked showing up and letting herself be seen.  Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly writes: Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging….  Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.  Our only choice is a question of engagement.  Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measures of our fear and disconnection….  We must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. (2)  The story of Hannah is a story about a woman who engages her vulnerability and dares to show up and be seen.  Are we willing to do the same?
            It is asking a lot of ourselves to engage in such “risky” behavior – risk deep, genuine and complex feeling, risk heartbreak in the service of a larger heart, risk looking foolish in the service of larger questions and causes and personal growth, risk showing up and being seen.  It is good to remind ourselves of the promise of this way.  Brene Brown: Vulnerability [uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure] is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.  It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. (Daring Greatly, 34)
            It is good to have contemporary confirmation of the insights of ancient stories.  Hannah understands and lives risk, vulnerability, courage, and love, and in the end she finds life – literally and metaphorically.  Woven throughout this story, though, is a deep trust in God.  What makes the courage to risk, to be vulnerable, possible for Hannah, and for us, too, I think, is deep trust that God walks with us, cares for us, loves us, wants us to grow, needs us to work with God for a newer world.  The God of the Hannah story is a God of grace, goodness, surprises, delight – a God who delights in bringing those on the margins into the center of the story, a God who delights in bringing joy out of mourning, a God who delights in new life.
            Hannah’s story will echo in other stories we will read soon as the season of Advent and Christmas arrive – the story of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, the story of Mary, mother of Jesus.

            Trusting God, may we risk feeling and heartbreak and foolishness and showing up.  May we risk praying to this God of grace, goodness, surprises and delight: In grace, make us more sensitive to the stirrings of your Spirit.  Move us, shake us, shape us, embrace us.  Form us in your creative and responsive love.  Nurture in us songs of hope, audacious visions, essential questions, prophetic boldness, the strength to love.  Grant us the courage to live the way of Jesus.  It is a risky prayer, maybe just the kind of prayer God enjoys most.  It is a risky prayer, but a necessary one in a world so in need of songs of hope, audacious visions, essential questions, prophetic boldness, the strength to love.  Amen.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Naked as a Jaybird

Sermon preached November 8, 2015

Texts: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44

            Ray Stevens, “The Streak
            Some of you may remember the odd fad in the 1970s – “streaking.”  It involved a person or persons running through some public event, naked as a jaybird, with nothing on but a smile.  Years later, the tv show, Seinfeld, brought us a reminder of the fad.  George Costanza, trying to get fired from his job with the New York Yankees, streaks at a Yankee game.  George is too self-conscious to actually streak so he wears a body suit.  He becomes “body-suit man.”
            By the way, the phrase “naked as a jaybird” is a little mysterious.  Apparently the 19th century phrase was “naked as a robin,” but neither bird loses its feathers.  I did run across another explanation for the phrase.  In the 1920s and 30s in the United States, prisoners, “jail birds” or “j-birds” would often disembark a bus, strip down, and have to walk naked across the yard to the showers when they first entered the prison.  There is your Jeopardy moment for today.
            Wherever the phrase comes from, the idea behind being naked as a jaybird is pretty uncomfortable for most of us.  Streaking was not a long-lived fad, and it has not returned.  Recently I a friend told me that she had booked a hotel for a vacation, but was a little concerned about it.  Further research indicated that the resort was “clothing optional.”  She quickly cancelled that reservation and made a new one.  In Genesis 2:25 “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”  I am thinking that was probably about the last time people were not uncomfortable about their unclad bodies.
            But the focus of this morning is not on nudity, but on naked spirituality.  Brian McLaren, well-known author and former pastor, penned a book a few years ago which he entitled Naked Spirituality.  Early in the book he quotes another well-known Christian spiritual writer, Richard Rohr.  The goal of all spirituality is to lead the “naked person” to stand trustfully before the naked God.  The important thing is that we’re naked; in other words that we come without title, merit, shame, or even demerit.  All we can offer to God is who we really are, which to all of us never seems like enough. (McLaren, Naked Spirituality, 3)
            McLaren tells a story that is attributed to the life of Mother Teresa, though he admits he is not sure of whether this really happened to her or not.  Mother Teresa was asked by a reporter what she said to God when she prayed.  She replied, “Mostly I just listen.”  Asked what God said to her, Mother Teresa replied, “Mostly God just listens.”  McLaren goes on to comment, “Could it be that the loving, attentive, mutual listening of the soul and the Spirit constitute the greatest expression of spirituality?”  (223)  This is what McLaren means by naked spirituality.
            That kind of naked spirituality has deep roots in the Bible.  Now no one is actually naked in today’s gospel reading, but it is about naked spirituality.  In the first part of the story, the scribes are layered.  They walk around in long robes.  They like the honor and prestige of their position.  They make a show of their piety.  They are clothed not only with long robes, but with pretension.  Yet they don’t seem honest with themselves.  Underneath it all, Jesus notices that they “devour widows’ houses.”  These are folks who have wrapped layer upon layer around themselves, and their souls are dying.  If they could be honest with God, they would see they are not spiritually robust, but spiritually emaciated.
            Contrast that with the widow Jesus notices in the next scene.  He is watching as people, crowds, contribute to the Temple treasury.  Many wealthy come with their gifts, large sums.  This is impressive.  People would pay attention to this, and perhaps some of these folks are like the scribes, they like the attention.  Perhaps some are getting caught up in that.  Jesus also notices a nobody, someone with no status.  To be a widow in Jesus time was really difficult.  Women had virtually no economic standing, and few economic opportunities.  This widow was also poor.  She comes and drops two coins into the treasury, two coins of the lowest value.  Jesus notices her gift, and in the strange kind of math that often characterizes Jesus, he says that she has “put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”  He goes on, “All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
            Jesus is good at puzzling us.  This text is not really about giving it all away, emptying our pockets, wallets, bank accounts into the offering plate.  It has something to do with generosity, though, generosity in the widest sense which includes financial generosity.  It is about heart, soul, spirit, about naked spirituality.  This is about opening oneself, without layers and pretensions.  It is about allowing oneself to be vulnerable.  It is about trusting, trusting that as we open the whole of our lives to God, we will discover life at its best.  When we are open and vulnerable, our hearts grow, and it is giving from our generous hearts that matters most deeply.
            We cannot leave this text without noting some irony.  Jesus has just called out the scribes for being pretentious, for being spiritually layered, not open and vulnerable.  One evidence of this is that they “devour widows’ houses.”  Next we have a widow who lives on the margins giving, and who does her gift help support?  The scribes.  Jesus seems both to be noticing the widow for her naked spirituality – her openness, vulnerability and trust, and cautioning that such openness and trust can be manipulated.  Perhaps a naked spirituality requires both soft hearts and keen minds – wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
            Naked spirituality can also be found in the story of Ruth.  In that story there is literal nakedness, but more importantly naked spirituality – openness, vulnerability, trust.  It is helpful to recall a little more of the story.  Ruth is not an Israelite.  She is a foreigner who has married an Israelite.  Naomi is her mother-in-law.  Both women are widowed, thus put in precarious positions.  However, Naomi has a well-to-do relative named Boaz.  The story we read today is about how Ruth and Boaz eventually become coupled.  The entire story is one of openness, vulnerability, and trust.  The end is blessing.  Boaz and Ruth have a son, Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David – who will become king.  A poor, foreign, widow who is open, vulnerable and trusting, who stays with her widowed mother-in-law, is part of the lineage of Israel’s great king.
            Naked spirituality, openness, honesty, vulnerability, trust.  A widow giving deeply of herself, another widow refusing to abandon her mother-in-law but instead staying with her.  People on the margins trusting that their lives matter to God.
            The kind of spirituality to which we are invited in Jesus Christ is this naked spirituality in two dimensions.
            The first dimension is openness, honesty, vulnerability and trust in God.  Brian McLaren offers words from another Christian spiritual teacher that are again helpful (Kenneth Leech): True religion helps us to grow, but pseudo-religion hinders growth, for it creates and maintains obstacles and barriers.  Thus it is that much religion merely censors experience and does not liberate it, stifles human potential and does not allow it to blossom. Much religion is superficial and does not help the journey inwards, which is so necessary to spiritual health.  There has to be a movement toward the still center, the depths of our being, where, according to the mystics, we find the presence of God. (13)
            To grow as a human person, to grow in our relationship with God requires openness and vulnerability, the willingness to look inside.  We need to deal with guilt or shame we may carry.  We need to be honest with ourselves and God about our thoughts and feelings, our questions and quandaries.  We need to be honest about our wounds and scars.  We open all of our life to God, becoming vulnerable to God’s love and Spirit, and trusting that love to help us heal and grow.
            The second dimension is openness and vulnerability to others, trusting that God will strengthen us to do justice and engage in compassionate action.  Reflecting on the word “righteous” in her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes: The word “righteous” used to grate on my ear; for years I was able to hear it only in its negative mode, as self-righteous, as judgmental.  Gradually, as I became more acquainted with the word in its biblical context, I found that it does not mean self-righteous at all, but righteous in the sight of God.  And this righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms and gospels, as a willingness to care to the most vulnerable people in a culture, characterized in ancient Israel as orphans, widows, resident aliens, and the poor. (96)
            Naked spirituality is both about moving deeply inward, and about reaching outward in compassion and care.  It is about knowing God’s love and about knowing ourselves in God’s love.  It is about showing God’s love through compassionate living in the world.

            Streaking, thankfully, is a fad whose time has come and gone.  Naked spirituality, however, is always in season.  Amen.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Living Dead

Sermon preached November 1, 2015

Texts: John 11:32-44

            The story begins simply enough.  “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany.”  It has a bit of a “Once upon a time” feel to it.  There is a connection between this man, his sisters, and Jesus.  Jesus loved Lazarus.  His sisters think Jesus would like to know about this, so they send word.  Jesus does not come right away, however.  He is on a mission, to share good news about God, to let God’s glory shine through him.
            His work done across the Jordan, Jesus determines to return to Judea, but Judea seems a dangerous place.  Jesus has already experienced threats there, but he does not let fear hamper his mission.  Judea, indeed, turns out to be a dangerous place, for just after our reading for today we would read about the conspiracy to have Jesus killed.  Fearing what Rome might do given Jesus work a decision is made that it is better for one man to die than for a whole people to be destroyed.
            The verses we read are in the middle of the sweep of this story.  Lazarus has died.  Jesus has told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”   This is not simply something for the future, but something for now, and soon Jesus will demonstrate that.  Jesus enters into all that is happening.  Seeing the grief, he feels “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  He weeps.  His friend has died, and he knows and feels something of the grief and loss people are feeling.  It is as he is fully present, emotionally present, that he is able to move forward with his mission here, as well, to share good news about God, to let God’s glory shine through him.  Jesus calls to Lazarus, “Come out!”  He responds and Jesus tells others “Unbind him, and let him go.”
            This can be a puzzling text for we moderns.  In our experience, dead is dead. Sure there are significant debates in bio-medical ethics about how we might define that moment of death – is it loss of cardio-pulmonary functioning, the complete and irreversible loss of brain activity, of higher brain activity?  But once death comes, we experience it as irreversible.
            To get too caught up in what happened questions, though, is to miss the point and power of the text.  The gospel writers, including the author of the Gospel of John were focused on the “why” more than the “what.”  They were not interested so much in journalism as in evangelism – sharing good news.  The focus of this story is Jesus as one through whom the glory of God shines and touches other lives.  In Jesus we find resurrection and life.  In Jesus we see God’s loving power even over death.  In Jesus, we discover God’s gift of new life, new existence.  One scholar wrote that what we have here is an “elaborate object lesson of God’s life-giving power.”
            And it is something that is present, not just something that is future.  Jesus’ words are not meant only to be assurance about those who have died, though they certainly are that, and I speak them at every funeral I officiate at.  Jesus’s word are also about life now.  Even now, Jesus enters into our grieving, our sorrow, our moments when we are greatly disturbed in spirit, and he feels with us and brings new life.  In Jesus there is a new way to live, and in Jesus we are deeply connected with each other.  In some ways this is a kind of love story – the power of love to bring new life, the power of love which strengthens connections – Martha, Mary, Lazarus, Jesus.
            We might say life in Jesus is about soul.  The writer and scholar Mark Edmundson distinguishes between the State of Self and the State of Soul.  In the State of Self “we live for our personal desires; we want food and sex, money and power and prestige.  We aspire to health.” (Self and Soul, 14)  Another kind of existence is possible, the State of Soul.  “Then we live not for desire but for hope.  We live for the fulfillment of ideals.” (15)  In the book in which he writes about this, Edumudson says that he “seeks the resurrection of Soul” (15). 
Essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson, who spoke at The College of St. Scholastica a few years ago, has written recently about fear.  “Contemporary America is full of fear….  Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” (The Givenness of Things, 125)  Paradoxically, she goes on to write, “As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (125).  To be too filled with fear is to lose our souls.
Life in Jesus is about soul.  It is about living with hope and living for ideals, ideals like compassion, justice, reconciliation, grace, beauty, kindness, and love.  It is about living with hope and for ideals in the messiness of the world, engaging that world fully, being fully present in times of grief, sorrow and when people are greatly disturbed in spirit.  That is the way of life and to find it is to experience a resurrection of soul.  Jesus offers us such resurrection and life.
Soul life is also connected life.  Jesus brings people together into community.  Jesus creates new kinds of connections that are like family.  And those connections remain even in death.  Death does not eliminate the bonds that connect us, the tissues that encircle us.  Here the dead are also the living.
Novelist William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, 80). In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which is, in part about his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, therapist Victor Frankl wrote: Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being (131).  Such statements are even truer in Jesus, true in an even deeper sense.  We remain connected not only with our own past, but with the people who have been part of us in Jesus.  This might more adequately be expressed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes of God as “a tender  care that nothing be lost….  A tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved” (Process and Reality, 525)  In Jesus we are a community, and a community that continues to include those who have gone before.
I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to remember.  Remember those whose names we will read.  Remember those who sat with you in this place.  Remember those who in their lives did soul work and helped you do soul work.
I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to hold grief and gratitude together and to “be stretched large by them” (Francis Weller, interview in The Sun, October 2015, p. 7).

I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to continue our soul work, knowing that we are connected to each other in Jesus, and always will be.  Amen.