Easter 7: Living a thick life

[Jesus prayed,] I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.

But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:6-19)

It’s not much of a secret that I work better when there is coffee involved.

So I was sitting at Barnes & Noble the other evening, reading through today’s texts and starting to write my first thoughts for a sermon, drinking an ever-important cup of coffee, and tuning out all the sights and sounds around me. It had been a productive half-hour or so when, for no apparent reason, I tuned back in to my surroundings for just a few seconds, long enough to catch the last two lines of a song I had never head before:

"You can have this world, This world is not my own, You can keep this world, This world is not my home". (The song is M. Ward’s “Me and My Shadow,” by the way.)

I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit was winking at me in that moment.

Because these song lyrics could have been lifted right from the today’s gospel, the very text I was sitting there writing about. Moreover, these words could almost have been the very words of Jesus.

Because in case you were counting, Jesus uses the phrase “the world” thirteen times in the sixteen sentences of today’s gospel.

In this passage, which takes place just hours before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, Jesus talks about himself as being in the world but not of the world, but of being sent into the world. And he talks about the disciples, too, as being from the world and in the world but not of the world, and he asks the Father to protect them from the world, but he also prays that the disciples would fulfill God’s purpose as those sent into the world.

It’s like those song lyrics: ”You can have this world, this world is not my own. You can keep this world, this world is not my home.”

And in today’s gospel, as Jesus he prepares to leave this world which is not his home, he prays for the disciples who remain in the world, that they might live in the truth and continue his own work of proclaiming the kingdom and sharing with this world God’s good news of love and life.

And the thing is that the disciples that Jesus prays for aren’t just the eleven who didn’t betray him, or for the eleven plus their new Holy-Spirit-revealed twelfth companion. We, too, are the disciples that Jesus prays for. Yes, Jesus prays for us. Jesus prays for us who are children of earth, living in this world. He prays that we might flourish in faith and love, even in a world that is broken and still longing for redemption.

Now we need to be a little bit careful here. Because for Christians – and especially for preachers – it is very easy to look at Jesus’ words about “the world” and skip to a dualistic place where we see life as us – the faithful – versus the world – which is bad or evil. Many bad things have been done in the name of faith by people who came to believe that faith is a matter of us vs. the world. This is how faith gets shoved around and aligned to one political party or another, and how violence is done for the sake of sharing the good news. This is sometimes how Christians make excuses to neglect the needs of this world, believing that they are just holding out for something better than this world.

But if we were to skip back a few chapters in John’s gospel, we would read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And if we were to skip ahead to Revelation, we would read “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”

So it’s not that “the world” is a bad place. The world is a place God loves, and a place, when all is said and done, that God himself will come to dwell.

Jesus prays for us who are still living in the world because he knows that this world has not yet come to completion. New creation has begun since the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but it’s not yet complete. God’s kingdom is here, among us, but it has not yet been fulfilled. So the world is good and blessed, but still a little messy and still a little thin.

There are going to be days in this world when we feel like we are living a pretty thin existence. Days when our sense of self-worth feels pretty flimsy, and days when both our stuff and our schedules seem shallow and unfulfilling. There are days when we feel absolutely two-dimensional, as if we were just playing out roles in a movie or a bad TV sitcom.

In his book Death by Suburb, David Goetz talks about the parts of our lives that feel thin and one-dimensional, and of God’s correspondingly thick hopes for us:
The outward physical world of SUVs and minivans, drearily earth-toned subdivisions, golden retrievers, and endless Saturday morning soccer games is only one dimension. There’s another dimension or two. This much thicker world is a world in which I am alive to God and alive to others, a world in which what I don’t yet own defines me. It’s a higher existence, a plane where I am not the sum total of my house size, SUV, vacations, kids’ report cards – and that which I still need to acquire.
A thin existence isn’t a bad existence, but there is something better. When Jesus prays for us who are still in the world, he is praying that we might be able to see all of God’s deeper dimensions to life, living thickly in a world where there is far more divine beauty than sometimes meets the eye.

Thick lives have a sense of purpose. They pray for deeper things than just offering up a wish list to God. They seek out ways to make their joy complete, and to bring others into that joy. They see life as gift and not burden, and view the world with hope instead of cynicism.

There are lots of ways to start living a thicker existence; these things all fall into the category of spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are deliberate activities that open our eyes and our hearts to God’s presence and that make space for God to move freely in our lives. They help us see the dimensions that we might have otherwise missed.

Some spiritual practices are obvious and ancient: prayer, meditation, devotion, fasting, worship, keeping a Sabbath.

Some spiritual practices are creative: art, dance, music, reading and writing, getting out into creation to see God’s creativity at work.

Some spiritual practices are nebulous and beautiful: the practice of paying attention, the practice of keeping silence, the practice of slowing down or simplifying, and even the practice of saying “no.”

And some spiritual practices are things that we already experience and just haven’t thought of as holy: soul-nourishing friendships, genuine laughter, deep cleansing grief, morning or evening walks with the dog, the infectious joy of children.

Spiritual practices help us turn the world sideways to see all of its God-given dimensions, and to live thick lives in a thin world. They help give us eyes to see a thick world, deep with meaning and wonder – to live on the edge of our seats, ready to be amazed and hopeful, our hearts burning within us.

So your challenge this week, and my challenge, too, is to make time for spiritual each practices each day that open my eyes a little wider to the presence of God in the world.

Because Jesus promises us life and more life, and a world that overflowing with the goodness of God. There might still be loose ends and broken hearts that need mending, but Jesus prays that our hearts would be stirred by a God who still moves around us and within, hovering over the waters and breathing into creation. There are more dimensions out there than we have yet seen.

So our call is actually NOT to sing those song lyrics “You can keep this world, this world is not my home.”

No, instead, we are called to sing, “This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad? The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad

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