The Phoenix Bird

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a poem called The Phoenix Bird:

In the Garden of Paradise
Beneath the Tree of Knowledge,
Bloomed a rose bush.
Here, in the first rose, a bird was born.
His flight was like the flashing of light,
His plumage was beauteous
And his song ravishing.

But when Eve plucked the fruit of the tree
Of knowledge of good and evil, when she and Adam
Were driven from Paradise,
There fell from the flaming sword of the cherub
A spark into the nest of the bird, which blazed up forthwith.
The bird perished in the flames;
But from the red egg in the nest
There fluttered aloft a new one
The one solitary Phoenix bird.

And so legend has it that every 500 years, this bird will make a nest of dried cinnamon sticks, settle into it and set itself ablaze until nest and bird are nothing but ashes. Yet, out of these ashes, arises yet another phoenix to live for another 500 years.

Christians for centuries have used this bird, this Phoenix, as a symbol for Resurrection, a visual hope of immortality, of life after death. They have lifted it up as the model of rising against incredible odds, though beaten down to stand firm.

Ezekiel speaks of his vision of new life for the nation of Israel whose people had been carried off to another land. In very graphic terms he spoke God's words of life into bones scattered about - dry after years in a barren valley.

John tells the story of Jesus praying to God to bring life again into Lazarus and speaking him out of the tomb though dead for four days.

And Paul gives us the promise that though our bodies are dead because of sin, we have life because of the Spirit of God that raised Lazarus from the dead.

Resurrection. Sounds good doesn't it? Course, we have to die to be resurrected, don't we? Some folks want to short circuit the process and weave stories about the rapture…about being translated, transmitted, or maybe it's Scotty beam me up, watch out for the unmanned car kind of faith???? But what about those of us who are dead, though we live? Those who are depressed to the point of despair who in our hopelessness kill everything that is good around us, or those of us whose age or illnesses have short changed our potential? Or those who are just passing time, bored and unimaginative? Sometimes we talk about organizations that have outlived their usefulness, or traditions that are dying and taking our fondest memories with them, or buildings that are decaying from lack of care, or churches for lack of spirit?

What does resurrection look like for the living dead?

There is an article in the March/April issue of AARP that caught my attention. It was entitled, "Too Late to Die Young." It was written by a woman named Harriet McBryde Johnson. She tells the tale that begins in her early childhood when she first was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. She saw the TV fund raising commercials and began to realize at 5 years old that she was going to die. Harriet remembers the discussion that her parents had about whether or not to send her to kindergarten and she is ever so glad that they did. For it initiated the various stages of joy and hope that would punctuate her life, though death hung over it like a cloud. She thought to herself, well,

"when I die, I might as well die a kindergartner."

She continued in school and studied hard, although there was no fantasy of a future. But she studied because studying was a pleasure for its own sake. And, besides she thought, "when I die I might as well die educated." As the years went by and she heard stories of an aunt and uncle that she had never known, it dawned that all the other people eventually will die too. So, she decided to be vague about what was wrong with her when people asked. She did not want to be identified with Jerry's kids and become an object of pity. She didn't want to be defined as one of the Undead, an unnatural creature, not really alive but feeding on the lifeblood of others.

At 25 she left the cozy comfort of home and family and went off to law school. She figured she'd be 27 when she finished and could probably practice for a couple years, so "when she died she might as well die a lawyer."

She is now 47, and although her body has been worn down by her condition and she continues to move about in the confines of a wheelchair, she realizes her plan to die young hasn't worked out and reconsiders the messages of her childhood. Yes, of course, she will die, but she was never terminal as she was led to believe. She wonders how many children have actually been killed by predictions. How many gave up breathing for want of a doctor crazy enough to see them through? How many have lived and died without learning to value their own lives? While anyone may die young, it's not something you can count on. You have to be prepared to survive. Mortality is something all people share, a unifying force. Every life, whether long or short, is a treasure of infinite value. Death remains mysterious. It is a random force of nature; survival is equally accidental. Each loss is an occasion to remember that survival is a gift. I owe it to others to make good use of my time. "When I die, I might as well die alive."

What amazing insight! As Paul said, though our mortal bodies are dead because of sin, the Holy Spirit brings life, not perfection but life. So how, like the Phoenix, do we rise from the ashes of condemnation or the limitations of human existence? The Holy Spirit can give us the strength to refuse to be sucked under by predictions of death. How many people are Christians in name only because they fear the predictions of Hell? Ha! That kind of hypocrisy is a ticket to a roller coaster ride of uncertainty. How many people upon hearing the word cancer allow their spirits to succumb to its terror and cling to length of days instead of gathering all resources within and living fully in the days left? The Holy Spirit calls us to stand in the face of all adversity and live, no matter how brief or how long, and live as Jesus bids us. And, who knows but the Spirit may lengthen one's days as it did for Harriet?

The readings we have heard today, speak of what seem like insurmountable odds. How could one be Hebrew if you could not get to Jerusalem and the temple? Yet, they found a way to keep their faith, and worship God despite their new surroundings and their physical limitations. The story of Lazarus' actual death and resurrection brings us hope, that though everything we know disappears, though this building were to fall down around us, we could continue being Christ's church. That though our children wander from our expectations, there is hope that they will return with a new spirit and fierce determination that comes when the Holy Spirit that was given them at birth has freedom to recreate them. That though our bodies are worn out, our minds and hearts may be a powerful influence when the Spirit drives us back into life.

There are those who speak of small churches like ours as dying churches. The attendance is small and the average age is up there in years. And the monetary resources are dwindling. Often in desperation they engage in efforts to bring in new members to keep them going. But time after time, the new members bring change - and resistance and resentment set in and the church dies anyway. Resurrection for small churches comes from the Spirit within each and every member young and old. Our personal spiritual health will determine whether we rise to the challenges before us and live though we were once told we shall die.

As we approach the end of our Lenten Journey and spend the days ahead reflecting on the death and resurrection of Christ, it will be fruitful to look at ourselves and ask what death we are living right now and then envision what resurrection might look like if we were to rise from our ashes to new life? The answers will be different for each and every one of us. For we all are called by God to different places for different purposes.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan