A sermon preached on April 10th, 2011 based upon Ezekiel 37:1 – 14 and Romans 8: 5 – 11.
After church last Sunday I took Bobby to one of his soccer games. As his coach had requested, I got him there well before his game, and having done so I set up the chair I’d brought with me by the field where the game that preceded Bobby’s was still taking place. I sat some distance away from where the majority of the parents were watching at midfield. Since my kid wasn’t playing in this game, I sat back a bit from the field, free to relax without worrying about the game’s outcome. Having rushed to get there on time, and with my Sunday morning duties over, I could now breathe easily. The sun was shining. The goodness of life was evident and I was free to take in the sights and sounds around me.
There was only one man in my vicinity – a father who stood in front of me — watching his son’s game. Soon however, the man’s wife came to stand with him, making a comment about how she couldn’t bear any longer to be in the company of the other parents. I was sitting quietly behind them, and they seemed oblivious to my presence. I could not help but hear everything they said, and so for the next twenty minutes or so I had the peculiar experience of listening in on their largely unfiltered conversation.
I was struck by how negative they sounded. They complained about the rough play of the boys on the other team, and of the refs’ ineptitude for failing to call the fouls that were so obvious to them. They complained about the poor passing of their son’s team. At one point the father yelled loudly criticizing his son’s play, and when parents from the midsection turned their heads to see who was hollering so stridently, the man’s wife complained about the parents’ inability to mind their own business.
Their body language expressed perpetual annoyance. From their point of view, I’m sure they were simply “calling it as they saw it” – naming the endlessly irritating flaws of humanity, the presence of which are a perpetual burden for them to bear. From my perspective, however, without personal involvement in what I was watching, it seemed pretty obvious that the problem wasn’t really with the imperfect people they were critiquing. The problem was with them – in the small-mindedness in which they were trapped that tainted everything they saw.
Their small little lives seemed pretty miserable. All they could see was were the flaws and failures. I wondered if they were able to see themselves from my angle – watch a movie of themselves talking – whether it would become obvious to them as well? Would they be able to recognize that the problem wasn’t out there — that it was inside them? Would it occur to them that their misery was their own making – that they were choosing to live in this cramped, self-absorbed place, and it didn’t have to be that way?
I know hardly anything at all about this couple. Maybe there were just having a bad day, and suffered the misfortune of having a preacher nearby who would put their behavior into a sermon. Or maybe this is what their lives are perpetually like. Only God knows for sure.
It occurred to me that there are plenty of times in my own life when, if somebody was given unfiltered access to listen in on my inner monologue the way I was listening in on this couple’s dialogue — well, it wouldn’t sound much different – maybe a lot worse.
To some extent, the measure of our lives comes down to how much time we spend in such cramped spaces. To get stuck in such a space is to lose one’s soul — one’s life.
In the passage we heard from the apostle Paul, there is some awkward language to get past. Paul speaks of “living according to the flesh” vs. “living in the Spirit,” which can easily lead us in the direction of a disdain and mistrust of the bodies God gave us. Unfortunately, Christians have often lived as though it’s a bad thing to have human flesh, and that in order to be “spiritual,” we have to suppress our bodies.
But the Bible tells us that creation is good –that our bodies are good. And the New Testament arises in wonder of God’s choice to take on human flesh in the incarnation. We have a savior who seemed truly at home in his body, comfortable with human touch, happy to enjoy good food and drink.
And although I think Paul has a tendency to lead folks astray in this regard, I think that what he is really getting at involves the difference between living in the kind of stuck, miserable space occupied by the couple I observed, and a life lived open to the Spirit, in the eternal expanse of the Kingdom of God. The narrow life leads to death, Paul says, but life in the spirit leads into a love so great love it could never be measured.
There is a wonderful NPR program on the radio called “Speaking of Faith”, where the host, Krista Tippet, interviews a range of people from a variety of traditions about their experience and understanding of spirituality. I recently listened to an interview of a Yoga instructor who described how in embracing her body through the practice of yoga – she found a means by which she could come closer in touch with the Spirit of God in her life.
She describes how early in her life she suffered from what she would later have diagnosed as OCD – Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder. OCD is a condition that compels a person to obsessively think certain thoughts over and over, and to compulsively behave in reaction to these thoughts, in the process of which a great deal of anxiety is generated, narrowing the perception of life considerably. In this woman’s case, her OCD involved a great deal of terror at the thought of her death. Though most of us wouldn’t be diagnosed as having OCD, I think most of us can recognize obsessive-compulsive tendencies in our own lives.
At the woman’s very first yoga class at the age of 19 she experienced a significant breakthrough in her life. She described working very hard to do the yoga postures correctly, only to discover that despite her best efforts she couldn’t get her feet to line up perfectly. (They shouldn’t, because it turns out, our bodies aren’t perfectly symmetrical.) She felt the familiar anxiety of her OCD raging up inside her, narrowing her world down to this tiny prison cell of obsession, at which point the instructor said to her, “Breathe, and everything changes.” Which she did – and as she focused her attention back on her breath, breathing deeply, her anxiety broke. Suddenly, the dimensions of her life expanded.
I was reminded of the significance of breath in the Bible. God is described as breathing the breath of life into some dust in order to create a human being. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel is given a vision of a valley of dry, lifeless bones. The question is asked: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord, you alone know.” To which the Lord declares, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”
In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus appears to his frightened, despairing disciples, huddled together in a cramped room behind a locked door. What does Jesus do? He breathes the holy spirit upon them.
Returning to the yoga instructor’s story, after that first session she practiced yoga regularly, but it took a couple of years to realize that the practice was leading her into a communion with God. She describes how, like many young people — and older people, for that matter – during this period of time her life was what she called an endless little “drama.” A perpetual series of overblown “crises” consumed her, narrowing her life to a miserable little prison cell that she kept recreating moment by moment in her mind, though she lacked the perspective to realize she was doing this.
One day she was walking down the street when she became aware of a strange feeling she said she’d never felt before, and as she thought about it, she realized what she was feeling was happiness. The narrow confines of her personal drama had lifted, and underneath she could see her life for what it truly was – a gift — a blessing.
From that point she began to realize that her yoga instructor had been speaking all along about a spiritual dimension to the practice of yoga, but that she had just tuned it out, because her focus had been exclusively on her body. Suddenly, however, God simply made sense to her. When she got out of the cramped little confines of her soap opera drama the presence of God was unmistakable. She recognized an underlying love and grace, and death no longer terrorized her.
In CS Lewis’ series of children’s book about the land of Narnia, there is this scene in which a group of dwarves sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking that they are in a pitch black stable when the truth is that they are out in the midst of an endless grassy countryside with the sun shining and blue sky overhead. The unbeknownst to the dwarves, Aslan, the great golden Lion stands near, watching over them.
In the end, Paul wants to say something reassuring to us. He knows how easy it is to fall back into that narrow, oppressive space. We get tired, stressed, and the big picture is lost, and life becomes once more a little prison cell in which we’re just doing time. Fear not, says Paul. You have been given the Spirit of Christ. It was breathed into you. It cannot be lost. Sooner or later, you will be led back to expansive green pastures of God’s kingdom. Soon enough the grace of God will awaken you once more to wonder of it all.
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”