Proper 5 – Year C

This past Friday evening, an annual ritual of sorts took place. During the broadcast of the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, they closed the show with their end-of-year mashup of graduation images from colleges and universities across the country, along with some of the pithy, or poignant, or humorous one-liners from the commencement speakers who sent this year’s graduating class off into the big, wide world. Whether you call that particular event “graduation” or “commencement”, it marks the point of transition, as one chapter of life comes to an end, and another one begins. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re graduating from kindergarten or graduate school… the question remains the same: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s the kind of question which just seems built into the dialogue whenever we talk to someone who’s closed the developmental chapter on one phase of life, while awaiting whatever it might be that is coming their way next on the road.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It is a question which has always fascinated me at one level, because usually we are looking for a very different answer than the one the question implies. For many of us, I suppose – both as a questioner as well as a respondent – the “correct” answer has something to do with whatever occupation lies in store somewhere in the future. “I want to be a doctor. I want to be an astronaut. I want to be a teacher, or a firefighter, or a physical therapist, or (heaven forbid) I want to be a priest.” Now, all of those are perfectly good responses, but at some level they really answer a very different question than the one that was asked. They answer the question, “What kind of a job do you want to have when you grow up?”… a question which is really secondary to the much more fundamental question, “What do you want to be?” Regardless of whatever you “do,” whatever kind of work it is that allows you to meet the basic necessities of life, a question we all need to ask ourselves is: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Some years ago, the United States Army figured out the significant difference in those two questions “What do you want to be?” and “What do you want to do?”, and so, built an entire advertising campaign around the simple statement: “Be all that you can be in the Army.” It said nothing about whether you were going to be an infantryman, or operate a computer, or drive a tank, or sit in an office somewhere filling out paperwork for eight hours a day as a member of the U.S. Army. But it said everything about living into the potential, growing into the person, which you were truly meant to be. And, at least to me, it also implied a second message as well, that, wherever you find yourself in life, in terms of “being all that you can be,” you’re not quite there yet.

This morning’s gospel lesson, telling the story of Jesus raising to life again the unnamed son of the unnamed widow from the village of Nain (as well as the parallel story in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah doing much the same thing with a widow’s son in Zaraphath) is not so much for me a story about some kind of miraculous magic trick that Jesus is able to pull off to delight and amaze the crowds gathered for the young man’s funeral. Rather, it is a much more basic and fundamental statement about God’s intent for all creation… an intent best summed up in Jesus’ words in the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, when he proclaims, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The words of the old African American spiritual tell us:

“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe.
But there’s no sickness, toil, or danger in that bright world to which I go.”

Those words may express a sentiment held by many of us, but I don’t see much evidence of Jesus encouraging people to plod their way through this life, in the hope that there was something better waiting on the other side. It’s not as though, in Jesus’ mind, this world is merely a “dress rehearsal” for the real thing, the real life which awaits us in the great “bye and bye”. In fact, just the opposite seems to be the case. Time and time again, Jesus’ message is about life – life lived to its fullest – in the here and now. It’s about pushing through, breaking down, obliterating the roadblock which death sets in our path, so that life, real life, full life can be found and celebrated and lived in its place. Jesus’ question to each of us – across the miles and across the ages – is not whether there is life after death, but rather whether there is life after birth.

Back in 1999, a movie came out entitled The Sixth Sense. It told the story of a young boy named Cole, who had a particularly rare gift (if you can call it that)… he could see ghosts, he could see people who had died. In one interchange between the boy and his therapist, Cole describes this strange phenomenon.

“I see dead people,” Cole says.
“Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?” his therapist asks.
“Walking around like regular people,” Cole responds. “They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”
“How often do you see them?” the therapist asks.
“All the time,” Cole says. “They’re everywhere.”

I’ve got a confession to make to you all this morning. I see dead people, too. No, not the kind of dead people that young Cole saw in The Sixth Sense. But I see people walking around every day who carry in their heads, and carry in their hearts, and carry in their bodies the cold reality of death. And the saddest part of it is that so many of those folks have confused the death they carry with life, and so have come to believe that “the way that it is” is just “the way that it is supposed to be.” People carry with them the death of a hope, the death of a dream, the death of a relationship, the death of a vision, the death of their pride or their integrity or their dignity or their respect… and sometimes that death is so real you can see it, you can feel it, you can smell it when the person walks in the room. It is a kind of death which paralyses us; and stunts our development as people of God; and causes us to build walls between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and the world; and prevents us, in the words of that Army slogan, from “being all that we can be.”

And it is in the midst of that kind of death that Jesus comes to us, and lays his hand on our funeral bier. And the words of Jesus to a young man in a village so long ago become the words of Jesus to us as he leans over our death-filled body and utters the words, “I say to you, rise!”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s not just a question to be posed to someone clutching a newly-earned diploma. It’s a question each one of us is asked by God, with the invitation to push through whatever kind of death is confining us to “the world as it is”, with the promise of new life awaiting us in “the world as it might be.” The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue once wrote: “In the western tradition, we were taught many things about the nature of sin, but we were never told that one of the greatest sins is the unlived life.”

So live life as fully as God has intended for you to live it; naming that death within yourself which is holding you back; and offering it to Jesus, who holds out his life-giving hand with his word of promise: “I say to you, rise!”