Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection August 23, 2020
And Finally: Life by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
(This sermon from August 16 began with my reading Psalm 148:1-10)
Today we reach number four of my Final Five Sermons: “And Finally: Life!” I begin with a quotation from the spiritual writer, Anthony Padovano: “Life, life is what you must affirm, no matter how painfully, even unwillingly. Others must know you as faithful, faithful so often that when they wonder where life lives, they will think of you as one in whom life has made a home.”
I pray that I have been faithful in this way. I pray that in my 12 plus years of serving as your pastor, I have faithfully been someone in “whom life has made a home.”
Here is a strong truth: everything in the universe is pregnant with God. You and me are pregnant with God. Everyone you see, regardless of age, regardless of gender, is pregnant with God. Every creature, every corner of creation, is pregnant with God. The entire cosmos is pregnant with God, filled to overflowing with the fecundity of God.
This morning, while talking to my beloved Vinal, I mentioned the idea of everyone being pregnant with God. She recounted a story about her giving a Sunday sermon at a Methodist church. The season was Advent so she titled the sermon: “We’re Pregnant!” When she came to the church, she saw on the church outdoor sign the title of her sermon and directly underneath was her name, followed by the name of the pastor. How she regrets not taking a photo of that amusing church sign!
Now the teaching about being pregnant with God is not my teaching. This teaching comes from medieval mystics such as Angela of Foligno whom I studied in my doctoral classes, as well as the Jesuit paleontologist and poet, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, another one silenced by the Vatican as was I.
What about this idea? Am I pregnant with God? Are you pregnant with God? The problem is we can’t go to our local drug store to pick up a divine pregnancy test!
But let’s forget for a moment medieval mystics and Jesuits. Let’s look at our brother Paul and his masterpiece, The Letter to the Romans. Let’s look at some words from what I believe may be the most important chapter in Romans, chapter 8. This is verse 22: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves …”
So long ago Paul wrote that all creation, including each of us, is groaning in labor pains. One doesn’t suffer true labor pains without a pregnancy. So long before Angela of Foligno, long before Teilhard de Chardin, Paul understood how all creation, including every person, is pregnant. And pregnant how? Pregnant with and by God Almighty!
So, my fellow pregnant pilgrims, let us explore life. The most important grace of God is life. The most important gift of God is life. No one has ever received a more important grace. No one has ever received a more important gift.
I’m sure we all remember the famous Bible passage where Moses calls the people together and tells them to “choose life.” I’d actually be surprised, however, if many could correctly guess where this passage is found. I myself guessed it would be in the Book of Exodus, near its ending but I was wrong.
This famous passage is from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verse 19: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days …”
Life is our highest value, our most important choice. Unfortunately, because of our broken human nature, we don’t always choose life. Sometimes we mistakenly choose violence and death.
For some weeks now, on Thursday evenings, I’ve been watching Ken Burns PBS series on World War II. It’s not easy watching; not only because of the disturbing filmed-footage but also because of the stories from those who survived combat, those who survived the horrors of that global conflict.
When I lived in northern Louisiana from 1983 until 1990, I had a wonderful doctor whose name was Lemoyne Bleich. What made Dr. Bleich especially noteworthy was that he had been an Army doctor who had endured the infamous Bataan Death March and subsequent four years of incredibly cruel imprisonment by the Japanese. Talk about being tested in a fiery furnace!
But Dr. Bleich didn’t talk about the horrors he had witnessed and endured. He was a very humble doctor as well as a friend and congregant in a church I served. It was an honor to know him.
I bring this up to highlight the reality that war is against life. War is anti-life. War has crippled us as a people. We have not yet been able to find a cure. (As I’ve preached in the past, using the lyrics from Edwin Starr’s War: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”) War is against life.
Racism is another reality that stands against life. Racism is anti-life. Racism continues to sicken us as a country. Racism is against life. We need to search for cures against the two plagues of war and racism!
Why is it in our country that we cling so desperately to what divides us while giving such short shrift to what unites us? This is also anti-life.
God must love diversity to have created so much of it. Here’s an important secret: God’s first and foremost language is the language of life but God speaks this language of life in the dialect of diversity.
How is it that many of us who claim to be “God-fearing” people refuse to listen to the divine dialect of diversity? I believe those who disparage diversity blaspheme God, pure and simple. If you are against diversity, you are anti-life!
As my favorite all-time professor, Zachary Hayes, writes in A Window to the Divine: “(in creation) God always has a goal, a purpose, in mind.” So I ask: what goal, what purpose, might God have in mind with the incredible diversity we see all around us? I’m not sure but God obviously loves diversity. If we want to be real God-fearing people, we need to love diversity as well! You want to love God? Love diversity!
I applaud those who can speak many languages, those who are polyglots. I have always admired those who are fluent in more than English. While I have studied Latin, German, Koine Greek, and Spanish, I have no fluency in any of them. But maybe that’s what I can do in my rapidly approaching retirement? I can try to learn other languages. Learning a new language is supposed to help keep dementia at bay. Carpe diem … carpe diem!
I believe God likes it when we expand our narrow views and embrace a wider, broader view. Life, as they say, is for the living. I like being alive. I hope you do as well in spite of the challenges we collectively face.
This past week, I watched for a second time the PBS special program: “The Rise of the Mammals.” As we probably know, the rise of the mammals led to us humans. It took a long time for us to get here - almost 65 million years of development since that asteroid wiped out most of the dinosaurs. The global destruction generated by that asteroid opened the way to humans.
And speaking of mammals, most know that I have a fondness for whales. I love going to Maui and sailing into the midst of the Humpback whales. Just over two years ago I was there with my beloved Vinal. We sailed out amongst the whales. We saw many Humpbacks. Then the tour-guide dropped a hydrophone into the ocean so we could listen to whale songs.
For me, listening to these songs is almost a mystical experience. Tears always flow from my eyes as I listen. I look forward to that day when we shall discover a new Rosetta Stone to help us understand what the whales are singing.
In “The Rise of the Mammals,” I learned that the ancestor of today’s great whales was a small mammal, about the size of a dog, with a long snout. It took some 12 million years for that small mammal to become fully aquatic. God is nothing if not patient!
I hope we’re aware that whales have bigger brains than we do. Dolphins also have bigger brains than we do. Some whales live 200 years! God must really, really, like whales to give them such large brains and long life!
The biggest creature ever to live, ever to be created, is the blue whale, which were hunted almost to extinction. God likes whales! I‘m glad I like them as well.
I believe God is pleased with me when I learn more about life, more about the world on which I live, more about the universe as a whole. I’m still stupefied that so many of the college students I taught for 15 years knew so little about the world, the cosmos, and our place in it.
Of course, we grasp that life on earth would not have been possible, would not now be possible, without our sun. Yet most know little about how the sun works. From where comes its great energy and critical warmth?
The sun’s energy comes from the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. Two hydrogen atoms, traveling at enormous speeds in the sun’s core, collide and fuse together to make one helium atom. In this process, energy is released.
Every second of every day within the core of the sun, 600 million tons of hydrogen are fused into 595 million tons of helium. The “missing” 5 million tons is converted into the energy equivalent to the detonation of one billion hydrogen bombs. This takes place every second of every day and has been doing so for the past 4½ billion years. God is always at work!
There’s a branch of theology known as eschatology. This field explores the possible end of everything. How does this all end? I certainly don’t know. Nor does anyone else. But God knows. God has a long-range plan. We call this plan God’s providence.
Again from Zachary Hayes: “Christians are those who believe firmly that we have a future with God, but we know remarkable little about what that future will be.” He continues: “Christians have a passionate belief that humanity and the cosmos have a future when God will be all in all (as Paul proclaims) as noted in 1st Corinthians 15:28.”
What is God’s goal, God’s purpose? We can’t say because we can’t know. But, as Christians, we believe that the goal, the purpose, of all creation, the fulfillment of the cosmos, is intimately intertwined with and in Jesus Christ.
As disciples, we’re called to help bring about the completion of the cosmos in and through Christ. How do we do this? The answer is both simple and ancient: Choose Life!
We choose life mostly in small ways. Yesterday I helped choose life. As you know, I have bird feeders attached to my porch, to my deck. One of the feeders was empty and I noticed its lid was knocked off, perhaps by a squirrel. When I went out to refill it, I discovered a sparrow had gotten trapped in the feeder.
I don’t know how long it had been trapped there. I gently put the feeder on its side and the trapped sparrow quickly and happily escaped and flew away. My heart was up-lifted.
I don’t know if my freeing of that sparrow is enough for me to merit heaven, but I know it comes close! (I’m kind of kidding here but maybe not!)
I end with the closing story from my first book, Shaping a Healthy Religion: “One bright summer day, two or three years ago (around 1983), I was driving from Chicago to Minneapolis. I was traveling along at 55 mph (remember when that was the top speed?), maybe even a few miles above that. A large monarch butterfly flew in front of my car. I knew that I had hit it.
“I felt a momentary sadness, asking forgiveness, as I try to do when life is destroyed because of me. I kept driving. I drove for almost another hundred miles when I finally pulled over to a rest stop.
“I got out and, as I was walking by the front of my car, I saw the butterfly caught in my car’s grill. I pulled it gently from the grillwork and to my utter amazement, it flew away. I just stood there and wept. I had learned that life is not as fragile as I had imagined. That’s really the lesson which healthy religion teaches us.”
It’s my great hope that in my 12 plus years as the pastor of our beloved congregation, I have taught us this critical life-lesson. L’Chaim! L’Chaim!