Something More Powerful than Our Virtues

Something More Powerful than Our Virtues August 20, 2022

One of the habits that having a puppy in the house for the past ten months has established is a one mile walk as soon as she gets me up (around 6:00, usually). As Bovina and I take various loops through the neighborhood, I listen to podcasts. My “favorites” include

  • Fresh Air
  • Hell and High Water
  • Hidden Brain
  • The Bible for Normal People
  • Everything Happens
  • Evolving Faith

and many more.

One morning this week I listened to the latest episode of “Evolving Faith” which, to my great delight, was a sermon given by Nadia Bolz-Weber prior to the Eucharistic celebration that closed the 2019 Evolving Faith conference in Denver. Nadia has been at the top of my list of favorite spiritual/religious writers and speakers ever since I read her NY Times bestselling memoir Pastrix several years ago. She is an ordained Lutheran minister who is irreverent, foul-mouthed, covered with tattoos, a former standup comedian, recovering drug addict and alcoholic—and one of the most powerful messengers of the gospel I have ever encountered.

The gospel text for her sermon was Jesus’ raising the widow of Nain’s son from the dead in Luke 7. As so often happens in the stories of Jesus, he and his entourage are just walking along minding their own business when they encounter something that draws Jesus’ loving attention. As they enter the city of Nain, a funeral procession is leaving the city bearing the body of a widow’s only son. “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Nadia Bolz-Weber points out that “compassion” is a relatively mild translation of the Greek word. “It’s more like his guts turned; his insides lurched at the sight of such loneliness as a widow grieving the death of her only child in the middle of a crowd.”

Right now I need a story of Jesus seeing and being moved by human grief because that shit is still so heavy around me . . . I love the simplicity of Jesus just seeing grief and being moved by it and being totally unafraid to touch it.

Jesus simply touches the coffin, says “Young man, I say to you, arise,” and the dead comes back to life.

The gospels, of course, are full of stories of resurrection. I wrote about the raising of Lazarus last Thursday, and Jesus’ own resurrection later in the story is one of the central events in the Christian narrative.

Die Before You Die

On one level, stories of miracles are difficult for modern readers—they are often mentioned by non-believers as one of the stumbling blocks that keep them from seriously considering faith. But as Nadia Bolz-Weber points out, there is a great deal more value to resurrection stories than simply debating whether they are literally true.

Right now, I need stories of resurrection. I mean, I’m sort of desperate for them. I know of all the stories in the Bible that are hard for us modern folks to believe, that stories of people rising from the dead can sound especially crazy, defying as they do the laws of both physics and mortality. But I love them. I love stories of resurrection . . . I love stories of resurrection because they’re messy and they’re weird, and stories of resurrection sink a hook of hope into me like nothing else can. And we could use some divine hope right now, could we not? We could use something a little more powerful than our virtues, a little more reliable than our wokeness, a little more hopeful than our attempts to just try harder. I’ve tried trying harder. It doesn’t make me free. It just makes me tired.

Sometimes you simply have to believe that there’s more going on than the best that we can generate on our own. As she says, “we need something a little more powerful than our virtues.” Resurrection stories remind us that, as Hamlet told his friend Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy,” or, I might add, our science, religion, or anything else we can imagine.

One of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s many gifts, both in her writing and her sermons, is the ability to pray and bless in ways that connect with reality more completely than virtually any prayers I have encountered in six-and-a-half decades of hearing and offering more prayers than any human being should be required to engage with. She ends this sermon with a beauty.

Bless the things we think are dead.

Bless that which we have already begun to carry out of town to bury.

Bless our rocky marriages and our college-age kids who smoke too much dope.

Bless the leave taking we have had with the thing we thought was faith.

Bless the person at work we love to hate.

Bless the young adult who assumes they are too young to be an alcoholic and the 60-year-old woman who has had too much work done.

Bless the chronically sick.

Bless it all, Lord of compassion, and love what only you can love—the ugly and abandoned and unsanitary in the wash of humanity upon which you have nothing but a gleaming compassion when we have none.

Lord of compassion, touch us as you did the widow’s son who lay dead and speak those same words to us: “Young man, arise.” “Little girl, get up.”

To those who think they’re not worthy to be loved, who medicate themselves with food and booze and shopping, say “Rise up.”

To us who have been hurt by those who say they follow you, say “Rise up.”

To the proud at heart who think they are not dead, say “Rise up.”

To those who hide their guilt behind good works, say “Rise up.”

To the unloved child who has no idea that one day they will change the world, say “Rise up.”

To the one here today who’s given up, say “Rise up.”

And then, as you did, the son to his mother, give us back to one another and help us to know when we do not have enough compassion for the road ahead, when we do not have enough compassion for our enemies, when we do not have enough compassion for ourselves, that you do. And that it is enough. It is enough for today and tomorrow. And the day after that. It is enough. People of God, it’s enough. Amen.

Here is a link to the podcast containing Nadia Bolz-Weber’s full sermon.

Evolving Faith Podcast Season 2, Episode 16

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