Sunday, May 22, 2016

Becoming More Fully Human (A sermon from Romans 5:1-5 and Psalm 8)

Have you read any of the books by Robert Fulghum? If you haven’t you should. Some of his stories are hilarious, but he also makes one think. In his first book, All I Really Needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten, he reflects on an experience at the San Diego Zoo. A little girl was standing beside him, both of them were looking at the giraffe. She asked her mommy, “What’s it for?” Mommy didn’t know. Does a giraffe know what’s its for?

Fulghum writes,
 “Besides the giraffe, I saw a wombat, a duck-billed platypus, and an orangutan. Unreal. The orangutan looked like my uncle Woody. Uncle Woody is pretty unreal too. He belongs in a zoo. That’s what his wife says. And that makes me wonder what it would be like if samples of people were also in zoos.

I was thinking about that last notion while watching the lions. A gentleman lion and six lady lions. Looks like a real nice life being in a zoo. The lions are so prolific that the zoo had to place IUDs in each of the lionesses. So all the lions do is eat and sleep and scratch fleas and have sex without consequences. The zoo provides food, lodging, medical care, old-age security, and funeral expenses. Such a deal

We humans make a big thing about our being the only thinking, reflective critter, and make proclamations like ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ But I look at the deal the giraffes and lions and wombats and duck-billed-what’s-its have, and I think I could go for the unexamined life. If the zoo ever needs me, I’d give it a try. I certainly qualify as a one-of-a-kind endangered species. And examining my life sure gets to be a drag sometimes.

Can’t you imagine you and your kids passing by a large, comfy cage, all litered with cigar butts, cognac bottles, and T-bone steak bones – and there, snoozing in the sun, is old Fulghum with six beautiful ladies piled up around him. And your kid points and says, “What’s it for?”

Fulghum says, “The lion and the giraffe and the wombat and the rest do what they do and are what they are. And somehow manage to make it there in the cage, living the unexamined life. But to be human is to know and care and ask. To keep rattling the bars of the cage of existence hollering, “What’s if for?”

And by the way, this is what the Bible is for. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us answers, but to invite us into the journey and struggle of being human. The Bible at its best prompts us to keep asking questions like, “What’s it all for?” Many folks who use the Bible for answers, for the most part, already feel they have the answers and go to the Bible to support their answers. I certainly did. I didn’t read the Bible as it is, I read the Bible as I wanted it to be – affirming and confirming the beliefs I was taught. And when we do that the great questions the Bible raises go unexamined.

What are we for? The scriptures today do not give us answers, but I do think we can draw some insights from them in wrestling with the question of what it means to be fully human.

I believe we become more fully human when we accept that we are accepted and then accept others with the same acceptance by which God has accepted us? Paul’s writing can be really dense, so let me offer a contemporary paraphrase of my sense of what Paul is saying in Romans 5:1-2. I believe Paul is saying: Because we have accepted that we have been accepted by the only one whose acceptance ultimately matters, we have peace with God. That is, we have a healthy, wholesome, redemptive relationship with God who compels us to accept others with the same grace in which we stand accepted, for we all have access to God’s unconditional acceptance. As we live out this acceptance, as we live in this state of grace, we rejoice in the hope of sharing more fully in the glory of God’s love. That, I believe, is what Paul is saying.

Whether or not I experience God’s gift of acceptance and hope will largely depend on my capacity to live in a state of grace. Frank McCourt wrote the book Angela’s Ashes that received a Pulitzer prize. He begins the book by saying that it’s a terrible thing to be born poor, to have that strike against you. But it’s even worse if you are born poor and Irish, that’s two strikes against you. But it’s a triple disadvantage when you are born poor, Irish, and Catholic.

Andrew Greeley, a progressive Catholic priest wrote a review of the book and he began his review by telling McCourt he needed to stop whining. He says, “McCourt, the fact that you were born poor, Irish, and Catholic are the only three things that make you interesting.”

Greeley goes on to review the book and give it its dues praise at certain points and then he ends his review by giving McCourt some advice. He says to McCourt: “You are no longer a child, you’re a grown man, so why don’t you do what you need to do – that is – forgive. You need to forgive your mother, your alcoholic father, Limerick, Ireland, the church, the Catholics. You need to forgive them all so that you don’t die an angry, bitter man.” That’s good advice. And that’s what it means to live in a state of grace. Paul calls this justification – meaning a state of being in right relationship with God and others.

Forgiveness plays a major role in living in a state of grace. Can we forgive those who have hurt us? And can we ask forgiveness from those we have hurt? And can we forgive ourselves for some of the stupid choices we have made? Can we accept that in spite of everything we are accepted because God is a God of grace, and can we then extend that same grace to others? If we can, then we are on our way, I believe, to becoming more fully human.

Another way, I  believe we can become more human is by allowing our human suffering to teach us, refine us, grow us, to expand our compassion toward others and toward the human condition. Can we allow our suffering to take us to a deeper place? Not necessarily a better place, but a deeper place – a wiser, stronger, more mature place?

Paul sees suffering as a necessary part of our redemption and growth doesn’t he? I suspect he is overstating himself when he says, “we boast (or glory) in our sufferings” – that’s a little over the top don’t you think? Maybe we could tone it down a bit and ask: Can I nurture a deeper faith in the midst of my suffering? Can I possibly see some value in it? Paul says “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

I remember some time back seeing on facebook two postings that jumped off the page because of the contrast. Someone had posted a picture of a beautiful rainbow – the picture was taken on her way to work. She said that she hoped this was a sign of good things to come. Just below it on the page was a posting of the terrible devastation wrought by a Tornado that had tore through a town in Oklahoma. Two very different pictures.

Metaphorically speaking, we all encounter rainbows and tornadoes on the path of life. Never in equal proportion. In the journey of life on planet earth we experience both surprising beauty and unforeseen tragedy. And rarely are they proportionately balanced. We never know what unexpected treasure or wreckage may wash up on the shore of our lives.

These are not “signs” of God’s blessing or cursing. God is not the cause. Such experiences are simply part of what it means to be human. Suffering comes to all of us, and not in equal portions. Life is not fair. Which is why we may have to forgive God too, along with forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. Some rail at God thinking that God is responsible for reality as it is. I can’t see a whole lot of value in that. Could God have done things differently? No one knows. My sense of it is that God is doing the best  God can do.

So in the midst of our suffering we must ask: Do we want to become more human? Do we want to become more – stronger, mature persons? If we do, then we must not give into fear, or bitterness, or resentment; we must not blame others and lash out at others. We must live by faith. The wilderness of suffering is a hard place and it is a lonely place, and yet it can be a transformative place if we can keep trusting in the liberating, healing power of love, which is what God is.

A third way I believe we can become more human is by finding joy and purpose in the great privilege and responsibility of being a faithful image-bearer of the Divine and caretaker of God’s world. We can become more human by being a good steward of creation and a servant of the common good.

When the Psalmist praises God for giving human beings “dominion” over the creation (the version we read speaks of “ruling” over the creation), the Psalmist is not talking about exploiting the creation or using the creation for selfish purposes. In the first creation story God breathes life into the human couple so that the human couple can mirror God’s likeness in the world, which involves exercising responsible, loving care over the planet, and showing reverence for and guarding the sacredness of all life.

As Christians we understand our call to be image-bearers through the lens of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus is our quintessential image-bearer. When Jesus’ disciples wanted to share in his power, thinking it meant exercising power over others, Jesus took a basin of water and towel and washed their feet. When they argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that if they wanted to share in his kingdom that, unlike leaders of the kingdoms of the world who like to lord it over others, they would need to be servants of all. God’s kingdom, you see, is not like the kingdoms of the world. We are called to exercise dominion in God’s kingdom not by asserting our will over creation, but by being the best stewards and caretakers for the good of creation that we can be.  

John Woolman, a devout Quaker, lived in the 18th century at the time when many wealthy Quakers were slave holders. As a young man, he vowed to rid the Society of Friends of this terrible blight, and for 30 years he gave himself to that task. He did not picket or hold mass rallies. He didn’t publish vindictive sermons against slavery. Rather, he traveled up and down the length of the land visiting with slaveholders. He would accept their hospitality and then ask them how it felt as a child of God and as a Christian to own slaves. He asked them hard, disturbing questions like: What does the owning of slaves do to you as a moral person? What kind of value system are you passing on to your children? How do you reconcile the owning of slaves with the life and teaching of Jesus? His one man campaign was so effective that one hundred years before the Civil War not a single Quaker held slaves.

I know that few of us can have the kind of impact that a John Woolman had, and we are not called to be like John Woolman. But we are called to work for justice and engage in works of mercy right where we are. We can pursue the common good whatever our station in life.  

There is a story about a Zen Master known for his wisdom in responding to difficult questions. One day a former disciple decides to challenge him. The disciple, holding a small bird in his hand, asks, “Master, is the bird dead or alive?” The question is intended to be a trap. If the master says, “The bird is alive,” the disciple can simply crush it to death and say, “No, you are wrong.” If he says, “the bird is alive” the disciple can simply open his hand for the bird to fly away. The master pauses, and then repeats the question: “Is the bird dead or alive?” Then he adds: “It is as you will.”

Can we become more fully human? Can we accept that we are accepted by God and accept others with the same measure of grace? Can we walk courageously through the wilderness path of suffering and allow it to take us to a place where we will be larger, deeper, and stronger? Can we arise to our calling to be a divine image bearer by doing all we can to take care of one another and our planet? Can we become more fully human? It is as we will.

Gracious God, we can become so distracted and preoccupied with our own agendas and plans that we stifle the very desire to examine our lives and live more fully human. So much of the time we miss opportunities to reflect your image and live up to our potential as your daughters and sons. Forgive us our failures and create within us a desire to become more fully human – more like Jesus. May the Spirit of Christ mold us and shape us into your image – both for the benefit of others and for own benefit, that we might find true joy and peace in living out our destiny.


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