Here’s the Sunday sermon from June 7th. If you’d like to listen to it, it will be available here for a month.
Everything’s Just Fine
Many of the great spiritual masters begin their lives in places of great comfort, wealth, and power. It’s a story that shows up throughout Christian history and beyond. If we step outside of our tradition to consider Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, we meet a prince, the son of a king, who was protected at all costs from viewing the unpleasantness of the world lest his princely demeanor become spoiled. But on successive journeys outside his fortified palace young Gautama sees three things in the street that change his life forever: he first sees a sick man, then an old man, and finally he sees a person who has died. The image of a flawless world spoiled, Gautama begins a lifelong journey to get at the root of suffering.
The same is generally true of St. Francis as well: an arrogant aristocrat who is protected from the suffering of the world by family wealth, he enters military service and along the way is changed from a man at the pinnacle of earthly means to one who cast aside all property and chose instead to live in fellowship with the poor. Throughout history the ranks of saints and holy women and men have been filled out with defectors from the upper crust, who in a flash of revelation or through a lifetime of prayer discovered the fleeting nature of their stuff.
These are men and women who were born into a world in which everything was fine. The clothes were fine, the manners were fine, and we can even use the modern use of the word to describe their daily lives. For the boy Gautama, everything was just fine. For the adolescent Francis, everything was just fine.
We do our best to recreate that sense of “fine” today. On one end of the spectrum we have access to so many nice things that folks from most times in history would see our lives and think that we were royalty. I’m guilty here: I have no love of throwaway stuff but hope I appreciate the value of nice things. I talk a lot about how the technology in our pockets diminishes our human connection to one another, but at the same time I am really amazed at what they can do and love to use my own digital device. We’ve got some pretty nice things in our world, things that in the proper sense of the world are indeed quite “fine.”
But more to the point, we often jump at the opportunity to live our lives behind the palace walls, surrounded by our familiars and our finery, where everything really does seem to be “just fine.” How are you doing? Just fine! Being behind the walls is familiar, it usually meets our expectations, and above all it’s nice and safe.
Actually, I may be overstating that a little bit. We don’t really ever “jump at the opportunity” to stay in a place of comfort. It’s really all around us without having to make any overt choices – it’s the air we breathe. Our world is generally arranged for us so that we don’t need to leave our fortresses very often at all. And when we do, we can easily get from place to place, from palace to palace, from home to work, from store to store, where things are, by and large just fine. We’ve really got things arranged pretty nicely, so long as we don’t stop to think much about it.
But things aren’t fine. That’s what Gautama saw in his journeys beyond the palace walls. The king’s servants had been instructed to keep the young man from seeing anything that would disrupt his perspective, that would pop the bubble, but they could only hold the world at bay for so long. Once Francis was beyond the echo chamber of his drinking buddies (his was the original “entourage”) Francis saw a tumultuous world beyond (and within) the prosperity of his own city state, built on the Italian textile trade. Francis, prince of an empire built upon finery, realized that things were “not fine” and came to believe that something so basic to civilized life as property was in fact the root of violence against the creatures of God.
Both of these holy men are known to history in part because they each had a moment of decision, a particular break-point at which they saw the temporal world for what it was, they suddenly saw both their fantasies and their lived experiences for what they were, and instead turned their course towards the eternal. In a sense, both of these men, and so many other women and men, had a particular moment of revelation in which they stepped away from the familiar lives that were expected of them, and entered a more holy dwelling.
Today’s letter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is frequently read at funerals, especially those in which the deceased has been sick or afflicted for some time. “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
But we do not need to wait until we lose a loved one to consider this passage, which I think speaks both to the question of temporal and eternal time, and to the way that grace is increased in us, little by little throughout our lives especially as our bodies head in the opposite direction.
It’s good to talk about death once in a while. It’s profoundly Christian to speak of it, because the hope of the resurrection is what binds us together as Easter folk, and our belief in the resurrection of Jesus can shape how we are transformed by the very afflictions that remind us that things are really not “just fine.” Oh, our days can be joyful, they can be grace-filled, they can be hopeful against all odds; or they can be painful, or lonely, and difficult, or worse. But rarely are things “just fine,” despite the many ways we avert our eyes.
I think that in the Christian funeral we see the extent to which we “walk the walk” of our faith, or to which we don’t. Do we indeed celebrate the resurrection, the Easter Liturgy, when we part with our loved ones, or go through a ritual that speaks only of loss and pain? Do we honestly bring our sadness or anger or despair before the holy one, or do we stick keep the stiff upper lip, remaining strong at all times? What does it mean to celebrate Easter when looking death squarely in the face? What does it mean to give voice to an unspeakable grief? Can we actually do both at the same time?
The actual practice of funerals suggests to me also that there’s some dissonance between what we believe theologically about death and resurrection and how we celebrate it in practice. I notice with some sadness when a member of a congregation has died, but that person because of age or infirmity is less on the radar of the whole community. It happens fairly often when someone outlives most of their friends and acquaintances: despite many years of faithful service, only a small group of folks gather for the funeral. This was true of my own grandmother, who spent the last 5 years of her life with accelerating dementia, and by the time she died was relatively unknown to her church.
It’s a reality of our age, and certainly a reality of larger churches: we simply can’t get to every funeral. I am as guilty as anyone when funerals happen elsewhere. But what if…what if the practice of a Christian community was to bring the party at the funeral of any baptized member of their congregation? What if…not just the retired folks who knew them, not just the ushers who’d heard of them, not even just the people who liked them, but instead every member of the baptized fellowship saw it as a part of their own practice to gather and accompany departed with song? Can you image saying to someone, I didn’t expect to see you here, I didn’t think you liked Tom.” “I couldn’t stand him, but hey, it’s resurrection, Baby!”
As an aside: The wonderful book about Delta funeral traditions, called “Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral,” reminds us:
Folks in the Delta have a strong sense of community, and being dead is no impediment to belonging to it. Down south, they don’t forget you when you’ve up and died–in fact, they visit you more often.
I know this is a fantasy (and I know that there are members of this congregation who for that reason do attend as often as possible) and I am not in any way trying to suggest we’re failing. Just about every church in Christendom has this problem. I just want to look at our life together from a different angle, from that of the eternal life to which we are called, and in which we all participate. Here. Today.
It’s hard to free up the kind of time that that would demand, because most of us, and sadly this is me too, spend much of our time on the temporal time clock to the exclusion of the eternal. I began with Francis and Gautama because they were born into culture of means and power, a culture of acquisition and climbing. And so are we. A culture in which everything is fine and anything that isn’t should be banished, kept at bay for as long as possible.
These holy men abandoned the life of acquisition for a holier life of letting go.
Paul’s words cast that idea in the light of our mortality and the expanse of grace that comes even as our bodies let us down. He speaks of the “slight momentary affliction.” We should immediately see the impossibility, the audacity of that statement. If it were slight or momentary, it wouldn’t be an affliction, would it? Yet it is all these things, this wasting away of our outer nature. Our bodies. Our stuff. Our worldly names. They cannot last.
Yet what matters continues to increase in us. Grace fills us and spills over, extending to more and more thankful hearts. The invisible, the immortal, the eternal, is day by day becoming the reality of our lives and our being, until one day when the one “who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence.”
How do we respond to that promise? I’m not asking what we believe that means or what it might look like, but simply how we respond? Do we cling to outer nature, holding at all costs to the fantasies of our adolescence, to the empty promises of our vanity?
But we do not lose heart, despite the fact that our hair is thinning, our bodies don’t work as well as they used to. We do not lose heart if the affliction that cripples us cannot be outdone even by modern marvels: we know that viewed from the perspective of the eternal, that affliction is as slight as it is momentary. We do not lose heart, because the presence of Jesus means that as our outer nature wastes away, our inner nature, our true nature, gains strength, and depth, and life, and breath. We are growing in grace, thank God, and we are beginning to see the eternal as the reality that has shaped our spirits and our lives all along, when we were behind the palace walls, when we were out among the suffering of the world, and especially when in those moments when we chose to cast our sights on a more holy dwelling.