Life More Abundant

April 11, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

READING "Miracle Fair" Wislawa Szyumborska

One of many miracles:
a small and airy cloud
is able to upstage the moon.

A run-of-the-mill miracle:
winds mild to moderate
turning gusty in storms.
Next but not least:
just this cherry orchard
from just this cherry pit.

A miracle (what else can you call it):
the sun rose today at 5:32 a.m.
and will set tonight at seven after six.

An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
the unthinkable can be thought.

THE SERMON

"A miracle (what else can you call it): the sun rose today at 5:32 a.m." writes the poet.

I want to start with a story about that little miracle; a story that requires me to break one of my own rules about preaching, which is: don' t preach about your cat. No one wants to hear about your cat. You might think your cat is cute and fascinating, but no one else wants to hear about her, especially not on such an important holiday as Easter. But there are children here this morning and I thought maybe they would like to hear about my cat. Would that be alright?

As you know, all cats have their origins in Egypt, and as you might know, the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun. It makes sense then, that cats also worship the sun, being good Egyptians. It has been a dark winter. Humans have a hard time living in darkness and cats don' t much like it either. Sometimes, very early on sunny winter mornings I have awakened to hear my cat crying and meowing. When I look for her to see if anything is the matter, I find her rolling around in a patch of sunlight that comes through the window. She cries and run to me, and then runs back to the patch of sun to stretch out in it and it is clear that she is saying, "Look! This person has just come into our room! Let us welcome him by rolling around on his warm self!"

"You go ahead, dear," I tell her. "I' m going back to bed."

The other morning, say around 5 a.m., the cat woke me up again. We' d had an awful lot of rain – remember? about eight days in a row -- and the sun was finally starting to shine again in the mornings. I expected her to make quite a fuss, and she didn' t disappoint me. But you know, it was worse than a fuss. She was making such eerie sounds -- unlike anything I had ever heard any animal make -- that I remained frozen with fear for a moment. I finally got up to see if she was hurt, or if she was choking on a mouse or a toy and saw her – for heaven' s sake! -- sitting quietly in the first ray of sunshine that was coming through the window. She wasn' t meowing and rolling, she was making short, low, throaty sounds (grrrll-owwwl) and then quick, high sounds (chya! chya!) like a little girl catching her breath. And she repeated this sequence again and again, all the while sitting very much as you are sitting now, as if in a pew at church, in her little beam of sunlight, looking up at it with great love while she made these remarkable noises.

I watched this for a minute or so, and it made the hair on the back of my neck prickle a little bit. I certainly couldn' t go back to sleep. "What is she doing?" I thought. "Who is she trying to talk to? Is she calling the mother ship?"

I watched her and listened for a bit, feeling a kind of awe, and then I realized, oh my goodness… she' s singing. She' s singing a little hymn of praise to the sun! There' s no other possible explanation for this. She' s comfortable, she' s not hungry, she' s not crying for a boy cat, there' s nothing outside the window to see, she' s not making this noise for my benefit…she' s singing. In her own little cat way, she is sitting in her little beam of sunlight responding to the beauty of the morning. She is expressing her religion. I have not been able to get it out of my mind.

I remember a similar story about a baboon who was observed watching the sunset by a naturalist in Africa. If I am remembering this correctly, baboons are usually fairly busy with their social lives in the evening but this one took time to sit and watch the sunset. He sat on a hill, while a human brother watched from a safe distance, and set his gaze on the beauty of the sky with great love and awe and reverence. I love to imagine the back of that gentle beast, his head tilted slightly back, his eyes moist and wise with a wisdom we will never understand. The religious impulse resides in all creation, not just in human beings.

Today is a celebration of the religious impulse. It is an ancient festival of rebirth and triumph that comes from a story that still has the power to upset and divide people, although we think that' s a shame. I like to think that Easter will fill us with the kind of joy that Ermengarde has when she rolls around in the beam of sunlight coming through the window, or with the kind of quiet and good awe of the baboon watching the sunset.

Our Easter comes to us specifically from a story about a Jewish prophet from Galilee. His story, which is that he lived and was shocking and amazing and wonderful, and made some people very angry, and then was executed and then was reported to be seen alive again – (how' s that for a nutshell?) – is similar to stories from many lands where beloved gods or people die and return to life. Many times throughout history, people have developed religions around these stories of death and rebirth, and we call many of these "mystery religions." Christianity is the most popular mystery religion going today. I am personally a little bit sad that it is almost the only one around anymore. I am not sad about Jesus himself, who was just right, but I am often upset that many of his followers have been fighting since just about the minute after he died, and have never stopped fighting since.

There is a movie out now that I have been critical of, and I would like to mention it again this morning because it might help us appreciate what the Jesus story means to us, and what it doesn' t mean to us. In the movie, (and I am speaking of "The Passion of the Christ," by Mel Gibson), you only see very short scenes of what was beautiful and loving and worth following with all your heart about Jesus. Mostly you see him being punished and beaten and it' s simply awful because you know he didn' t do anything wrong. The idea is that he had to suffer so terribly because human beings are so bad, his suffering made up for all of our badness (children, this is the simplest way I can think to explain it to you).

The idea in this movie is that Jesus was like a superhero: more brave and strong than you or I could ever be, that he could, like Rocky, keep getting beat up on and he would get up again and again and take some more, because he' s a hero. Even in the scenes that show him with his community, he is still like a superhero, all by himself at the head of the table or at the top of the mountain, teaching or making someone feel better, putting his hands on sick or possessed people to heal them. But always totally apart. It made me think that it must have been the loneliest thing in the world to be Jesus. I don' t believe that it was, though.

In this movie, Jesus' main contribution to our spiritual journey is to teach us how to die.

But in our tradition, we honor Jesus because he was a teacher of how to live. In my imagination of how he must have been, Jesus is fast and funny and intense. He doesn' t moon around looking at people from under his glowing halo, he walks around telling stories, sometimes yelling so he can be heard by everyone who' s gathered around. He takes his sunburned hands and tears loaves of bread and hands them around, all while he' s still talking. Sometimes he goes off to pray by himself, sometimes he falls asleep like he did one time in the back of the boat, during a storm. But he' s a running-around man, a man who reaches out and takes you in his arms, a man who might sometimes lose his temper when he thinks we' re not paying attention. He knows he doesn' t have time to waste. He knows how the world works, and that he' s due for some big trouble.

Jesus said that the point of his life was to bring us "life more abundant." And in John' s version of his story, he speaks of himself as the source of that life. "I am the Way," he said. Meaning: "Look, I' m showing you with my own life how you can have a life of your own that' s more juicy, more worth cherishing, more like God meant it to be."

We' re so confused about "life more abundant" nowadays. I saw a woman at the salon the other day (this tells you something about my own priorities for life more abundant, doesn' t it!?) and I was so worried for her. I can' t be sure but I am afraid she was practically starving herself. She was dangerously thin, but with excellent muscle definition so you could tell she put in a lot of time at the gym. She had perfect, dyed blonde hair that was so dry it looked as though it would crack. Her skin was tanned, baked tan, brown and leathery; far too much of a good thing. She had gone way beyond the "healthy glow" stage. My heart ached when I looked at her. Maybe she was sick, I hope not. She ran in and she ran out of the place – cell phone in one hand, cup of coffee in the other -- she seemed to have lots of energy and confidence, but I thought if Jesus saw her he would take her in his arms and touch her dry, brittle hair and hold her emaciated face in his hands and say, "Honey. May you be healed." Of course according to our current standards of health and beauty, she had good reason to believe she was doing all the right things. It' s very easy for any of us to get lost.

What does life more abundant mean to you? Does it mean being able to run a five-minute mile, or having the security of a home or two? Does it feel like life more abundant to stand and regard the certificates and degrees framed on our office walls, to think with pride of how much knowledge we' ve accumulated thereby? Is it really life more abundant to have the perfect balance of good and bad cholesterol (I can never remember which one is which), or a healthy body fat ratio, or a lawn that isn' t overly infested by crab grass? I myself am feeling pretty good because the laundry' s all done and the bean salad is marinating for a dinner I' m hosting tonight (I hate myself for eating about 60 jellybeans while I worked on this sermon, but the house is clean).

Good grades? A good-looking lover or spouse? Terrific kids who do well in sports and at school? These are all components of what we call "the good life," and there' s nothing at all wrong with pursuing these things or with appreciating them. But Jesus, the main character in a sacred story that I believe is chiefly to teach us how to pursue "life more abundant," points us to a deeper definition of life itself.

Remember his conversation with the rich young man? (Mark 10:17-22) It' s a sweet moment, a story I return to again and again because it suggests so clearly that as fiery and pushy as Jesus could be – as much as he was willing to throw around furniture to get us to understand the urgency of changing our priorities and living out an ethic of community and mutuality and radical inclusivity – he was also tender and compassionate. He took one look at that guy and knew that guy' s limitations. And he loved him anyway.

For the rich young man, I am guessing that giving up his money would be the thing that would most free him, and the thing that would cause him the most pain and grief. This is what makes Jesus such a Trickster. He knows that what we believe are necessary ingredients for the good life are often what we should most chuck in order to be truly present in love to what' s right in front of us.

It' s not a story about how to die. But it is a story that involves death, that says "Hey, life more abundant doesn' t mean life free of pain, or life that' s easy, or life that doesn' t involve suffering. It doesn' t even mean immortality." Even though tradition tells us that Jesus made a second appearance to his disciples after he died, it was a brief appearance, as if to say, "What I said? I meant it. And if this doesn' t impress you that I was serious, nothing will. Now go do something about it." And then – poof! – he was gone.

I don' t know how this connects with cats singing hymns to the Sun God in my bedroom. It has something to do with lifting our face to the moment, to be awed by it, to attend with reverence to the resurrections that occur all around us -- even if they are commonplace, even if they are things we usually rush by in our pursuit of the good life. It has something to do with finding the one who reveals Life More Abundant in every possible place: in the Bible, in the sacred scriptures of people from lands we' ve never seen or dreamed of, in the community of seekers like the one gathered here this morning, in the daffodils pushing this very moment through the soil… and even in a singing cat, or a meditating, contemplative baboon.

You are the resurrection and the life. Happy Easter, and life more abundant to you, to all of you. Amen.

BENEDICTION

So friends, every day do something
that won' t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant
that you will not live to harvest.
Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.