August 16, 2015
In the Gospel of John the risen Lord says to his grumbling disciples: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”
I grew up on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota, and my father spent a lot of his time and energy building fences and then mending them. Good fences are necessary for raising cattle, to enclose pastures and pens, and they keep the stock from wandering off into the wilderness. But strangely enough cattle don’t seem to mind being penned up–for the most part they appreciate fences. They prefer to stay inside with the rest of the herd, even though they could break through their barriers if they wanted to and be free.
Fences are actually quite fragile human constructions of posts and wire, and beef cattle are big, strong, beefy animals. They could walk right through their confines at any time, but for the most part they respect the barriers that keep them in, because they feel safer there, with a barrier of posts and barbed wire between themselves and the wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties. And although the comparison may not be very flattering, many people are like that–they fence themselves in with their limitations.
You know some people like that–folks who build up barriers to confine and narrow their lives. You can hear them saying–Oh I can’t do this! Oh I won’t do that! It’s too scary! It’s too difficult at my age. I suppose I could but I’d rather not chance it. On and on and on. . . .
Our human lives are by nature finite and limited—that’s very true. We can’t be or do everything. But we have infinite God, and his Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be more than we are and do more than we do. By his transcendent power we are always able to transcend the confines of our situation, whatever that situation may be, if we let him.
This week I got a note from a woman named Rachel from my congregation in Savannah. She is in a nursing home. Her body is crippled by arthritis. “I’ve been in bed for years,” she writes. “I don’t count. I just love and enjoy life.”
Some people magnify the constraints of their flesh, and other people, like Rachel, transcend their limitations by the power of the Spirit, who gives life. And asked myself when I read her letter—Do you magnify your restrictions and constraints, or do you rise above them? And I must admit that at times rather than trust in the Lord I use my limitations as an excuse. It is a natural tendency for all of us to dwell upon the restrictions our flesh places upon us, and that tendency grows stronger as we get older, and we experience more real incapacities. It’s easy to come to relish them, even enjoy them. So you hear them saying–Salad makes me windy. I get heartburn from onions. Waiter, does this salad contain eggs? I can’t have eggs. And red wine makes me nervous. And asparagus disturbs my sleep. But then I don’t like to go out after dark. And I would never fly! Never, ever! And so on and on and on, to anyone who will listen, dwelling upon what they cannot eat and what they cannot do.
But then young people can be just as bad, making up excuses to keep from attempting what is tough or complicated or scary. All of us have a tendency to do that, beloved, glorify our limitations, magnify our obstacles, and build up the fences between ourselves and wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties, and then live inside the barriers we build for ourselves, like cattle in a pasture.
It is what the risen Lord in the Gospel of John calls living by the flesh, letting the limitations that our humanness places upon us—our scruples and our fears and our incapacities–rule our lives. And Jesus is always contrasting our tendency to live by the flesh with another, better kind of existence–life in the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” he says in our Gospel lesson, “the flesh is no help at all.”
And the risen Lord Jesus is here right now asking us a searching question–What is governing your life—your obstacles or your faith in the power of God to transcend them? And all of us…all of us, if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, will have to answer him—Lord, in the past I have often let my limitations triumph over my expectations. I have sometimes preferred to hide behind feeble excuses rather than live in the freedom you died on the cross and rose again to give me.
Now our lives are finite and limited, this is most certainly true. But that is not a good enough reason for us to spend our finite days like that, in a pen of our own making. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians—“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”
School started again this week for our grown-up son Paul, who is the vice-principal of an elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a charter school in a poor neighborhood and the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary has to exploit every opportunity to make the students care about their school and value the education they receive there. The children are all required wear uniforms, and Paul stands at the front door in a suit and tie to shake to hands with each student every morning and greet him or her by name.
And as a way of expressing school spirit, he acquired as a school mascot a little yellow hamster. The children named the hamster “Little Griz,” in homage to Memphis Grizzlies, the wildly popular local professional basketball team. And Little Griz is also wildly popular.
She visits the classrooms on a regular basis to observe progress. She gives out prizes and when the children try to pet her she seldom bites. But Little Griz does not like living in a cage. In fact, she is an escape artist par-excel-lance. She is a veritable hamster Houdini. She regularly trips the fasteners and jimmies latches of her cage and goes on the lam for days at a time. She is a hamster of seemingly limitless imagination and ingenuity.
Now hamsters don’t live long—two to three years at most—and Little Griz seems to sense this. Her life is finite, and she seems determined not to spend it in a narrow cage if she can help it. And although her daring escapes drive the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary School crazy, everyone is forced to admire that hamster’s spirit. The word “impossible” is not in her lectionary.
But how about us? Life can become a narrow cage if we let it. And the difference between those who live by the Spirit, and those who are still trapped in the limitations of the flesh has to do with their ability to imagine things they have never seen and trust God to accomplish in their lives what seems impossible. Those who live by the Spirit may be frightened, but they are not afraid.
Now I would suspect that in your life, as in my own, there are a multitude of issues that are still pending. We all each carry around with us a thick file marked IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS– DO NOT OPEN MORE THAN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. There are seemingly hopeless tangles we struggling to undo. There are walls that stand before us in which we are trying desperately to find an opening. There is a wide, swift-flowing river at our feet, and we stand on the edge of it, waiting for it to run out before we try to cross it, but the river never, ever does run out.
So we need to hear the words of Jesus to his grumbling disciples—“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” We can’t do everything, beloved, it’s true, but God can—and will do something if we if we give him room.
You and I often read the miracle stories in the scriptures, and then wonder at the lack of miracles in our ordinary lives. But if we don’t see miracles it is because we don’t expect any. Actually wonderful things are happening all the time, all around us, in this world where literally anything can happen. But our hearts are not expectant. We do not see the glory of God, we do not see the Son of Man ascending, because our eyes are always fixed on the ground, upon our limitations and our barriers.
But the Lord is always calling us to imagine what he could do, and then he is ready to accomplish even more than we can imagine in our wildest daydreams. He will address the problems that we have long ago marked IMPOSSIBLE. He will show us the low door in the wall, and he will unlock it for us. But for our part—in the Spirit of Jesus and in the light of his example—we need to step forward into the swift-flowing river of life at our feet and stop hiding behind our limitations.