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Flying Coach To Nirvana

Sermons on the Second Readings
Series II, Cycle C
A good friend of mine, Bob Frederickson, is writing a travel book called Flying Coach To Nirvana. I stole his title for this sermon because I want to do simply what he took 400 pages to accomplish. His book is a collection of essays about visits he has made to Gabon in Africa, the West Indies, and on and on. He thinks of his trips as simple, populist, and personal; his point is that anyone can travel. Traveling is an art that doesn't take big bucks as much as it takes big dreams.

His tone is the same way I think about the lament in today's letter to Timothy. The writer says he has been poured, spent, done, and still God stuck with him. We travel through life and we are all poured and spent. Just think about how you feel when you return home after a long trip: you are both filled and empty. When the writer of Timothy talks about being poured and spent, we are in a similar situation. We have ended one piece of our journey and are on our way to another part. We have exited to enter. We know we have nothing left for one stage of our journey, and yet we know another one is about to begin.

We are both empty and full. Buddhists love to speak of pitchers as needing to empty before they can fill. When Timothy talks about how poured out he is on behalf of the gospel, it is because he knows something good is on its way to fill in.

The great Chinese writer describes good travelers as people who "have no fixed plans and are not intent on arriving." Timothy was intent on arriving: He gave it his all. He let all go on behalf of Christ. He wanted, and wants, all of us to get there, too.

Some of us just get afraid when we are spent. Others know that to empty is to fill. We know that life's trip to heaven and eternal life involves a lot of coach-class flying. We approach the airport "hoping for an upgrade" but know that we could get stuck in a middle seat. We are not always comfortable. Sometimes we are downright exhausted. But still we empty and risk emptying by an array of commitments that amaze all of us. We make commitments, we try to love each other -- and love is always an emptying act -- and find ourselves strangely filled along the way.

A New Yorker cartoon watches a family separate at a big, well-decorated-for-the-season shopping mall. The father says good-bye to the rest of the family, "Okay, we'll meet back here in about $500." Unfortunately, many of us think of the road to Nirvana in these ways. It is long, expensive, and not something you want to do in coach. You want to go to Nirvana first-class -- and then you find yourself broke, in credit card debt, filled with an emptiness and an indebtedness that can be downright scary.

Today, I want to tell you that you can go first-class to Nirvana or the end of your lives by having first-class dreams. Dreams help us when we are empty and emptied -- because they remind us that we will be filled. We live through what the Buddhists call the fertile void, unafraid of the way our energy is poured out along the way. We know this fertile void as a necessary act of living. We empty. We fill. We empty again and we fill again.

We can fly coach to Nirvana. It doesn't take big money to get all the way to Nirvana so much as it takes big dreams. If you can dream, you can travel to Nirvana. You don't have to guard your energy so much as protect your dreams. You can say a hefty and sincere "Yes," without fear of being devoured by the world.

I keep running into the phrase, "cocooning," to describe Americans in the wake of 9/11. We are cocooning, as a way to stay safe from others. We, and them, is the premier division of the world; our cocoon and their cocoon. We are so afraid that the "strangers" may take from us what we don't have, so afraid that we will empty and not fill again, that we avoid each other. This very avoidance keeps our wells from refilling again to overflow.

Writer William Miller in his new book, The Mystery Of Courage, understands the very way we live as a deepening cocoon. Miller argues that a new kind of courage is needed. It is the courage to come out of our cocoons. It is the courage to risk being emptied by a friendship or a relationship. It is willing to let disrupting things and people into our lives. People who take in foster children are crazy, right? People who teach Sunday school are spending more than they have, right? No. We empty to fill. By emptying we fill. We can have what we give away, not what we cling to, not the security which then imprisons us.

Consider a normal evening. We come home from work, frazzled and spent. We walk into our kitchens and are not surprised that our partner and kids are not home. We take what we like most out of our refrigerators and put it in the microwave and stare at the paper on the kitchen table. Let's say it is Wednesday and our favorite television show is on, followed by a game with the home team. Our pulse quickens a little. The show is good, our partner comes home, we exchange a few words, we find the game boring, and so we move to the den to do an overdue memo on our computer. First we check our email and the latest news, then we play a computer game and say good night to our spouse. Then we go to bed. Is this, asks Miller, an unChristian evening? We have not coveted our neighbor's spouse, stolen anything, or ordered anyone around. We enjoyed moments of a pleasant, well-fed evening, eating what we liked and watching what we liked and doing what we liked. Miller calls this a retreat to a cocoon of autonomy and excessive self-determination. He argues that indeed this is what most people around the world want also, a safe, quiet cocoon. It is the marvelous first-world freedom to do next-to-nothing while getting three squares a day.

I personally crave nothing more than a quiet evening at home. I want not to be at church meetings or community meetings or watching kids perform. I surely do not mean that there is something wrong with "down time." Instead, there is something right with going from good down time to good "on time." There is something important about engagement with each other and it must be protected. Miller concludes his book by arguing that we are still (and nonetheless) surrounded by the possibility of engagement, both inside and from these cocoons. Here on the shelf is the poetry we could read to each other. There in the corner are the flute and the guitar we could play together. Right next to the kitchen is an underused dining room table. Not far from our home are the playing fields where we could teach our sons and daughters tennis or rejoin a softball league with our beloved. Within easy reach are the museums where local painters show their work and the concert hall where the citizen's symphony plays. There are also meetings where activists struggle to find the patriotic way to peace.

Will we be spent by engagement? Absolutely. We will be refilled by engagement? Absolutely.

Many radicals argue that devotion to family and communal celebration seems a bland and retrograde goal. It is better than consumption and shopping but not exactly the stuff of bold designs and revolutionary politics. But, if I tell you big dreams are the fare you need to get to Nirvana, not big money, I ask you where are your big dreams? Of course, they include peace. They include rice for Afghani children. They want women at the table. And all these dreams may require something from you. Not $500 bills so much as ways to find the courage to cross the threshold from the television room to the dining room, from the home to the community. There are other thresholds to cross. We need to move out of the room of unencumbered self-determination, all personal freedom all the time into a world that has a lineage, a legacy, a past, and therefore a future. We may, and must, engage each other, by the grace and hope of God for human community.

Every act of engagement will be costly. It will raise the price of our coach tickets. We will experience some of these costs of community building as emptying. We will fear that we will run dry. The promise of God, however, is that Nirvana, heaven, wonderful, eternal life is at the end of the tunnel. We will be filled again. So stop worrying about being poured, spent, or "done." You ain't finished yet. Nor is God finished with you nor is your journey finished. God will stick with you, whether you spread yourself thinly or thickly in life. God will pour you out -- and fill you up again and again. Amen.
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