[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 2, 2017 (Lent V) at St. Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN].
May the words of my mouth,
and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.
Last week’s sermon was all about the new perspective we gain in Christ, a type of deep-seeing that propels us into life’s dark spaces with the blessed assurance of God’s divine presence. What I said last week is this, “wherever there is life, there is light.”
Today I want to explore life, particularly as it is expressed in God’s dream for creation. Wherever there is life, there is light, and God is at God’s heart a God of life.
The prophet Ezekiel’s experience in the Valley of Dry Bones is an example of God looking at something that was once great, and strong, and formidable and endeavoring to breathe new life into it. The question upon which this whole scene hinges is his question to Ezekiel, “mortal, can these bones live?”
Paul wrestles with this idea in his letter to the Romans where he tries to put this argument of life and death into conversation with Platonic philosophy. His essential argument is this: if we look with our senses, everything around is (the flesh) is destined to decay and death; but, if we see everything through a higher perspective (the spirit) we can see everything is moving towards perfection. “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” he says, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
We have a similar scene in the Gospel where Jesus goes to resuscitate his friend Lazarus and he is confronted by both the faith and doubt of the community around him. He knows that Lazarus’s death is temporary, that he has only “fallen asleep,” and yet when face-to-face with the messy complexity of human grief he is overcome with emotion. In one of the most tender scenes in all of scripture, Jesus weeps. He weeps, and his tears become a human expression of God’s divine intention to enter our pain and confusion and to love us to life again and again because God is at God’s heart a God of life.
In a collection of poems entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson creatively reimagines the story of creation in his poem entitled “The Creation.” Throughout this poem, he imagines God stepping out on space and making the world because he was lonely, or creating light by smiling, or creating the sun and stars by gathering light in God’s hands and rolling it around and throwing it against the sky, or creating mountains and valleys by walking on the soft surface of the earth, or batting his eyelashes to create lighting, or clapping his hands to create thunder. Even after all this marvelous action, God was still lonely, so “he sat down” “by a deep, wide river” with his head in his hands and thought and thought, “Til he thought: I’ll make me a man!”
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
I love the rich, vivid, tactile language that transforms normal, playful activity into divine creation. I also appreciate the tenderness with which Johnson describes God creating humanity “like a mammy bending over a baby.” Most of all, I love the idea that God created humanity because God was lonely. God wasn’t satisfied with creating the world as a museum or prize rose garden that showcased God’s creative prowess. God wanted relationship. God is a God of motion, and moltenness, and movement. God is a God of life and all the mess that this brings.
Sometimes that mess doesn’t feel good, particularly when it is our lives that feel messy. Our journey with God can often feel that way – haphazard, unsure, unstable, and messy. When I was in seminary almost eight years ago, that is exactly how my life felt. Everyone else around me seemed sure of the paths laid out for them. They had firmly decided to pursue ordination, or academia, or community activism. I wasn’t even sure what classes I would take next semester and I certainly wasn’t sure I believed in Church anymore. I had grown up in an increasingly narrow brand of Christianity that sought to preserve its own power by placing more and more people on the trash pile destined for Hell. I began distancing myself from that community years ago, but that sent me on a journey into the wilderness that felt strange and uncertain. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was searching for home, and hospitality, and community that would welcome as I am.
I would find that community at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC one summer morning. I walked into the morning service completely unsure as to what I would find, yet driven by some unseen force. I met a woman named Martha who would guide me through all the correct Episcopal aerobics: bowing, genuflecting, kneeling, and standing. The learning curve for this recovering Baptist was steep, y’all. But, my life changed forever when we got to the Eucharist. I was overcome with emotion when I knelt at the altar. I received the bread in my palms with tears in my eyes. My tears were my human response to God’s divine intention to enter my confusion and pain and to love me to life again and again.
My life up to that point felt random, like I was wondering aimlessly in the desert and had just-so-happen to stumble upon an abundant pool of grace. But even tough the mess around us is can often seem like the desolate chaos of destruction, it might just be formless void of new creation waiting for the spirit of God to hover over it, animating it to new life.
What I learned in that moment is this: every faithful, struggling, stumbling step I have ever taken in God brings me exactly where I need to be. In her recent book Searching for Sunday, fellow evangelical expatriate Rachel Held Evans compares her life to a labyrinth. “The difference between a labyrinth and a maze,” she says, “is that a labyrinth has no dead ends.” Labyrinths were first developed by the medieval church to simulate a journey to the Holy Land for faithful pilgrims too poor or ill to travel there. There is only one way in and out, but much like our lives, there is not straight line towards our destination. Rather, there are turns and switchbacks and sometimes it feels like we are walking away from center. But if we keep following the path, taking one prayerful step at a time, we will finally reach home. Rachel says this,
It has become cliché to talk about faith as a journey, and yet the metaphor holds. Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next-deal, and you never actually arrive. I don’t know if the path is drawn out ahead of time, or if it corkscrews with each stop like in Alice’s Wonderland, or if, as some like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step taken in faith is wasted, not be a God who makes all things new.
Each of our journeys is our own. We come together weekly to support one another in a Christian discipleship, but ultimately each of us make take up our cross and follow Christ.
The good news this morning is two-fold: first of all, the word “follow” presumes that someone has gone or is going ahead of us. As the writer of Psalm 139 says, there is no place we can go where God is not.
Second, our journey might take us through dark and dry valleys, but our true home is with God – in peace, and joy, and love, and enough. Jesus tells his disciples in John’s Gospel that he has come “that they [we] may have life, and have it more abundantly.”
God’s promise is life: overflowing, abundant, can’t-keep-it-to-myself life that not only satisfies our deepest longings, but also runs over into the lives of others. Life that lives in our hands when we serve the most vulnerable people in our community and world. Life that lives in our words when we put them to music and lift them to heaven to glorify God or when we use them to cheer those who are anxious or afraid. Life that lives in our hearts when we dare to believe, even against all hope, that new life is always possible, that despite all evidence to the contrary, God will never give up on us. Life that lives where Jesus invites us to go – to places of lifelessness and despair in order to bless and sanctify even the most hopeless situation with the abiding presence of Christ.
Abundant life is our destiny – life that is contagious and filled with joy and peace and contentment and grace. Our life in faith not only empowers us to be agents of that abundant life, but to recognize explosions of life and joy all around each and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Ezekiel 37:3
 Romans 8:6
 James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, 19-20.
 Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, 198.
 Ibid., 199.
 John 10:10b