Here is my sermon, preached this morning at Saint James the Fisherman Episcopal Church in Kodiak, AK. It is also my last Sunday at Saint James. I will miss every one very much. Tamie and I both felt so welcomed and comfortable.
Tamie is out on Bear Island, the site of our summer fishing. Commercial fishing, that is. Hard work. Seven days a week, 10-12 hour days, sometimes more if necessary. It will be intense, and I will be joining Tamie in less than a week. In the meantime, I am finishing the last week of substitute teaching and packing and cleaning our apartment.
My sermon this morning discussed the idea of “abundant life.” This sermon is a bit more personal that I am normally comfortable with, but that’s a good thing! The ending/conclusion is also a bit different in that I took it slowly and meditatively, diverging from the typical “summary approach” to concluding a message. I tried to make the ending something of a meditation or a prayer.
So, without further ado….
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild precious life?
– Mary Oliver
When we read the words of Jesus, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” we are reminded of an important truth about Christian faith–maybe it is not so much a “truth” as a hope, a dream, even a prayer. It is the prayer that each person, and indeed our entire society and world, might experience a rich, full life.
Our faith keeps a light of hope burning, the hope that each individual might experience a rich inner life. What is more, we long for the society that the Apostle Paul called “a new creation” and that Jesus referred to as “the kingdom of God.” It is a society that lives in harmony and facilitates an environment conducive to each and every person experiencing true joy and freedom. We get a real-life glimpse of how such a community might look when we read in Acts about how the early church shared all things inj common and daily gathered together for meals and prayers in their homes.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is the good shepherd, leading us all, both as individuals and communities, to live a full life. It is good to always be ever-mindful that our goal–as lofty as it is–is “to have life, and have it abundantly.”
Just what is “abundant life”? And what does it mean to “live a full life”? These questions could take us into conversations and discussions that go in many different directions, all very helpful and important; and perhaps these are discussions we don’t normally have. We could probably benefit from asking each other the simple question: “What do you think is keeping you from living a more full life?” And then perhaps we could just listen, sit and listen and see where the thread takes us. We each face unique situations in our one wild precious life.
This morning, I’d like to share from my own spiritual journey. If you are like me, you may have found that often we are kept from receiving the fullness of life because we are holding on to something too tightly. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is when we hold on to a grudge against a person or against a group of people. When we hold on to a grudge, the inner muscles of our spirit clench and tighten, and all of our internal energy concentrates on our grudge.
A grudge, however, is really no thing at all. In fact, the only reason a grudge exists is because we are griping with such veracious force. It is our grip itself that makes nothing into something. If we allow it to go, it will go; the pain of being hurt may return, and it is important to acknowledge that pain, but we can allow a grudge to evaporate if we can unclench and simply deal directly with the pain.
There are other things we hold on to, things less obvious than a grudge but just as harmful to our souls. We hold on to social networks and relational or political connections. For a sense of security, we might hold on to material possessions–bigger houses, richer bank accounts, or greater investments. Yet another object some of us cannot release is a particular image of ourselves that we have worked hard to cultivate and maintain.
An even more subtle form of clinging might be an attachment to optimism and positivity. Some of us only feel safe if we keep things loose and easy, fun and upbeat. This form of clinging brings with it its own kind of suffering for us because we end up missing half of life, the half that engages pain and negativity but emerges with a richer understanding of life.
For myself and others like me, there is a fond attachment to time and energy. Our vigilant watch over these precious resources is like the eye of Ebeneezer Scrooge as he counts the coals that Bob Cratchet tentatively places into the fire place.
In all of these and many other ways, we keep ourselves from appreciating the richness of our lives, the fullness of relationships with others, and the liberating awareness of the joy of God.
You know, if you are preparing a sermon and you let these things roll around in your head for a while, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself holding on to things and needing to address them. That’s kind of the blessing and curse of being the preacher of the week, because this is the kind of spiritual stuff that makes a person feel uncomfortable, fairly quickly!
I was intrigued this week by a theological discussion on Facebook. Facebook is one of those creations of the modern age to which we say, “it’s here, for better or worse.” Facebook is an Internet social network where people can share photos, talk about what they ate for breakfast, discuss current events, or broadcast anything that they find meaningful. People can also post short commentaries expressing their opinions or point of view.
I didn’t know the person who wrote the post that interested me–it was a short theological writing–but my mind was stirred, due in no small part to the fact that I disagreed with almost every word in the post.
I didn’t know the person who wrote the post. Using Facebook terminology, he was “a friend of a friend.” It turns out that the author of the post was a self-described “Bible-thumping Christian” who also happened to be an amatuer bodybuilder of some sort who, the last time I checked his Facebook page, had announced to the world that Jessica Simpson may or may not have seen one of the pictures of his muscle-magazine-like bare body. I won’t use his real name, so let’s just call him “Arnold.”
I left a few comments on Arnold’s post, kindly pointing out his errors and providing a helpful alternative to his current theological perspective. Although it would, in my opinion, have been perfectly appropriate for Arnold to respond by changing his view of God, the Bible and the place of humanity in the cosmos, Arnold instead responded by suggesting that I was spiritually blind, scripturally ignorant, rationally deficient, and a few biblical passages short of a Christian worldview. In addition, Arnold kindly dismissed me from the discussion thread, suggesting that if I had any other need of his theological services, I could send them to him in an email, so as not to bother the rest of his readers.
Recounting the exchange between Arnold and I is fun, now, in retrospect, but at the time, I felt myself responding in a deeply visceral manner. I felt my heart rate increase and my hands begin to shake as I read his response. I felt insulted. I felt as though I had never been treated so rudely, and that his response was personal and hurtful. So I felt myself becoming angry, wanting to lash back at Arnold. I wanted to hurt and humiliate him with a comment that exposed him as a fundamentalist meathead. But the anger was only on the surface.
Peeling back the spiritual layers, it became clear that I was feeling insecure, a form of fear. After all, a person like myself has spent a lifetime trying to figure out life. It has been my quest to find security in what i know, and the suggestion that I am wrong makes me feel exposed, and it triggers in me the need to grasp and clutch something, to hold on to my ideas for dear life, fearing that my fragile sense of self-esteem will slip away. Wasn’t that at least part of my reason for attending seminary? For spending countless hours in the library? Or writing research papers two or three times longer than the other students?
It turns out that my reaction to Arnold has nothing to do with Arnold. It has nothing to do with theological truth or error. My reaction was to cling to something like my life depended on it. In this situation, I could not experience the fullness of peace or inner freedom until I could let go, and I couldn’t let go until I faced the hurt head-on.
I hope that it is clear from this story of my own experience that living a full life does not mean that we ignore our suffering. On the contrary, we often find that we are failing to deal with our inner pain precisely because we are holding on to something else.
We should never ignore or trivialize our suffering or the suffering of others. We experience abundant life by going through suffering, not by side-stepping it or insisting that we or others “just get over it.” Rather, as the scriptures say, we “weep with those who weep.”
The spiritual process is a journey and spiritual development is slow; spiritual fast food does not satisfy or nourish. By embracing our journey, with its pain and struggle, we can then fully open to the goodness and blessings that life offers. In this way, spiritual life seems paradoxical: when we are fully open to that which is most difficult, we can be fully open to those things that bring the most substantial and lasting joy. When we hold on too tightly, we shut ourselves off from life, and we miss the experience of fullness and abundance.
I also want to clarify that we always must be cautious with spiritual formulas, because they don’t always hold true. There are, for example, many people who suffer because of physical, chemical, or mental disabilities and disorders. Such disabilities can further complicate the spiritual journey and add layers of complexity and real pain.
The goal of the Christian life is a hope, a lofty but grounded hope for a full and rich life, both for ourselves and for our communities. It is good to ask ourselves what it is that is keeping us from experiencing abundant life, and we should seek to be a companion to others in their spiritual journeys. But perhaps the most realistic application is to ask how we might develop an awareness of when we are holding on to the things inside of ourselves that are keeping us from experiencing the fullness of life.
This, I think, is where prayer and meditation come in. It is by praying and meditating that we are able to stop our lives–to pause–and to allow ourselves to become aware. If you are like me, then you find yourself living most of your life without being self-aware; we find ourselves not quite connected to ourselves. The daily times of prayer and meditation allow us to rest and breathe.
While in this place of spiritual rest, we may sense the Good Shepherd leading us by still waters, resting in green pastures, and restoring our souls.
Then in this space, we may find it is safe to loosen our grip and let go.
We might find ourselves trusting, feeling the sensation of grace and freedom.
We may then begin to open and sense the profound richness of our life, just as it is.
Life is a precious gift.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild precious life?”