Are you Full?By imironchuk • Nov 21st, 2010 • Category: Pastor's Message
by Rev. Scott Summerville
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
We are preparing for our Thanksgiving gatherings and holiday meals. Most of us will feel very full by the end of the week. Some of us will be too full; we will wish we had pushed back from the Thanksgiving table sooner than we did. At the same time we are reminded today that not everyone has the problem some us have of sometimes being too full. So along with the plans we are making for our personal Thanksgiving feasts we are offering gifts today for the Food Bank for Westchester.
Thanksgiving is a good time to ask the question: what does it mean to be full? What is a full life? What is this thing Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John: “abundant life?”
If a person dies who has lived a very long life, it is common for people to say, “She had a full life,” or “He had a full life.” Generally, people do not say that unless the deceased is at least eighty years old. In fact, these days eighty is not all that old, so you may have to live to be at least eighty-five or ninety years old before someone will say that you have, “led a full life.” Why is that if someone dies who is seventy years old, or sixty years old, or forty years old or twenty years old, we rarely say that they led a full life?
Maybe they did live a full life. Maybe the life of the forty year old was an abundant life. I have known people who have died young – way too young by my standards – but I would say of most of them that they lived a full life. They may not have lived long lives: but I remember them with a pang in my heart and the sigh in my breast – because their lives were so full.
For some people growing old brings serenity and acceptance. It is a wonderful thing when someone can say of himself or herself, “I have led a full life. I am satisfied with the drink I have taken from the cup of life. The wine was good.” Or if you are an old fashioned Methodist you can say:, “The grape juice was good!”
When the elders tell us that they have led a full life, they are not making a statistical report. They do not mean, “I have lived 30,000 days; that should be enough to satisfy anyone.” No, you could live forever and not live a full life. What these elders are telling us when they say they have lived a full life they are saying: “I have experienced a depth of life, a richness of life, and a quality of love that has filled me and satisfied a deep longing in my soul. I have endured and come to terms with my suffering and my grieving. I can pull my chair back from the table of life; for I have tasted life, and I am full.”
Yesterday I listened to a sermon by a young man who came very close to death four months ago, and I had an opportunity to talk with him privately as well. His name is Rev. Josh Noblick, the United Methodist clergyperson who became famous in July of this year when he and his partner were having a quite picnic in a public park in Atlanta. In the space of ten horrifying minutes his life was changed, as he and his partner savagely attacked by six young men who taunted them with anti-gay slurs. Then a gun was put to Josh’s head, a loaded gun.
At My Brother’s Keeper, the symposium on hate crimes yesterday at Grace Church in Manhatten, Josh was the preacher. Given what he and his partner went through, what he said from the pulpit was an extraordinary witness.
In a calm and gentle voice he spoke of the young men who attacked him as fellow human beings. He said that none of us should be judged by the worst thing we have ever done, and these young men should not be judged solely by their actions in that day. He also said that we need to examine the hatred that motivated these young attackers, and trace it back to try to understand where it came from. Where does a thirteen year old – the youngest assailant was thirteen – where does a thirteen year old learn to hate? Hateful attitudes and actions do not just happen.
These young men will have to bear the punishment for what they did, but all of us need to ponder why they did it. In his message Josh said that he realizes that he has a permanent relationship with the six young men who attacked him. He said that he will think of them every day of his life. And he realizes that they, in their jail cells, surely think of him and of what happened on that day and ponder it every day of their lives. Ironically Josh has had experience in his ministry counseling young criminal offenders, some of whom have done worse things than were done to him. Some actually pulled the trigger. Counseling offenders and being a victim of violent crime are two very different things.
Clearly Josh hopes that the lives of these young people can be redeemed somehow. Jesus said, “Bless those who persecute you.” That is what Josh has done. He hopes that their lives can yet be redeemed form hatred and violence. He realizes that he may even have a personal role in that.
When I spoke with Josh privately after the service he said that through his work with young offenders he knows something about gun violence, and he knows how easily the guns go off in the hands of pumped up nervous kids; as he put it, I realize that in some ways I should not be here.” As a victim of violence and hatred, Josh is making a powerful witness about the love of God, justice and forgiveness. He is a man whose life could be filled with rage and hatred right now, but it is not. It is filled with a humble sense of having narrowly escaped death and a desire to use his experience to serve God in works of education and reconciliation.
When Jesus talks about the fullness of life – when he promises abundant life – he is speaking of these very things: forgiveness, love, justice, reconciliation.
What is it that gives life fullness, abundance? Definitely a full life needs some material things. We have basic needs for safety and nourishment and shelter. The first petition in the Lord’s prayer is: “give us this day our daily bread.” We need bread. We can’t get sentimental about poverty. Poverty kills souls and bodies. But we in our culture have put material abundance in the center of our altar and worshiped it. Jesus said to seek your daily bread – yes – take care of ourselves and those who depend upon you, but do not worship bread, money, things.
The journey that some of us took to Africa this fall confronted us powerfully with the question of what it means to live a full, good, abundant life. It is easy to make quick judgments; it is easy for prosperous people to classify people who are materially poor as being “less fortunate than ourselves.”
When you look into the faces of the villagers, the farming people in the rural northern Ghana where we visited; you see their character, their endurance, their quiet strength, the openness of their hearts, and you are moved. You realize that they live every day with scarcity; they survive on so much less than we could survive on. You might say, “These poor people; they are ‘less fortunate than we are.’ ” Or you might reverse that and say: “These people in their poverty are richer than we are.”
I do not make either of those statements. We cannot measure the fullness of our lives by comparing ourselves to others. I cannot claim that these people are less fortunate then you or I. I cannot claim that my life is better than theirs or that they are “Less fortunate than we are.” I do think they have something to teach me. It is for them to judge whether I have something to offer to them.
You don’t arrive at the abundant life by living for eighty-five or ninety or or a hundred years. And of course there is no check that you can write large enough to buy the abundant life.
Christ has set a table for us, a feast.
It is the feast of mercy.
It is the feast of love.
It is the feast of compassion and justice.
And it is in this feast that we taste life, life abundant.