Love Each Otter

Sermon by The Rev. Ryan Wiksell

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Third Sunday of Easter – Readings

My entire adulthood has been spent living in one of three cities, a big city, a medium city, and a small city. The big one was Washington DC, the medium one is Kansas City, MO. And the small one was Springfield, MO. It’s interesting to compare the three, especially when they all have their own version of the same thing, and you can do a little apples-to-apples.

Like the ballet: My wife could tell you all about the Washington Ballet, the Kansas City Ballet, and the Springfield Ballet. All three are good in their own context, but pretty different. Or the zoo: Obviously Washington has a world-class zoo, Kansas City has a very nice zoo, but not especially famous, and Springfield’s zoo… is just ok. But just recently, Springfield made up for their lackluster zoo when Bass Pro Shops built the Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium, which is absolutely world-class.

Wonders of Wildlife opened less than a year before we moved away, so we went as often as we could during those months, and quickly decided that our favorite thing to see was the River Otters. Those guys are just fuzzy little balls of joy. The way they run and slide, swim and twist around in the water, play with their bath toys, and collaborate with each other in the process. Nobody can keep from smiling while they watch, because otters are just happy to be alive.

It got me wondering: What if I found a family of otters that wasn’t happy at all? They’re bored with the slides, bickering with each other, lying around eating junk food all day and whining about all the nosy tourists. If they could talk to me they might say, “Is this all there is? There’s got to be more out of life. I want to be a dolphin! Or a falcon!” And I would wonder what happened to these otters that broke their brains. I would try to talk some sense into them if I could. “Yes, this is all there is! No, there’s not more out of life! You’re an otter! It’s who you are!”

It’s ridiculous, because an otter would never try to imagine something greater, or higher or truer. They are already their truest selves, just like every other species in the aquarium. But what do they think when they look at us? If they had the capacity, they might wonder why we all wear clothes, covering up our bodies and competing to look the best. They might wonder why we sometimes bark at our kids, or gripe at each other. They might wonder why we look so tired, or rushed, or distracted. This is clearly not all there is to being human. And they might wonder what happened to these hairless bi-peds that broke their brains.

Now if the otters were really sharp, they might discuss the problem, and conclude that it’s one of two things. Either the humans really are malfunctioning, and something in their ancestors’ neurons short-circuited to turn the whole species into a hot mess for no reason, OR… there really is something more to being human. Perhaps they’re in a zoo of their own, they might theorize, but it’s a really crappy one. They can feel the walls around them all the time, and the beady eyes watching their every move. The ground is hard, the air smells moldy, and all the food tastes the same. You know, metaphorically speaking. Because this is not how humans are supposed to live.

Today’s short reading from 1 Peter takes this head-on: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ … Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God … You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed.”

We were created to live forever, delighting in our creator, in each other and in ourselves. Just like those otters were created to splash and play, we were hardwired from the beginning with that “genuine mutual love” that Peter writes about. That was our “imperishable seed”… but we didn’t want it. We wanted something we could control. Something we could accumulate. We didn’t want mutual trust and vulnerability, we wanted individual achievement and predictability. And we found this shiny stuff, this silver and gold that looked so solid and eternal. But it wasn’t.

Years ago I decided to build a shed in our backyard from a kit. I had just come off a successful installation of six ceiling fans in our new house, and only electrocuted myself once. So I was feeling pretty good, and kicked it off by building a foundation of plywood, resting on about 16 brick pylons. Ultimately, I managed to build the whole shed on top of that foundation, almost by myself. No experts needed. Yeah, there were some pieces left over at the end, but it looked pretty solid to me.

Unfortunately, a few years later the doors no longer opened right, the plywood floor was constantly wet, and rotting, and there were things living under it. So we had a contractor pour a concrete slab elsewhere in the yard, and move the whole thing over to the new foundation. Now it was finally the shed it had been designed to be, but it had to be completely removed from what it was standing on, and set down on something better.

When I live life trusting only in myself, I am basing it on the perishable seed: that silver or gold that looked so perfect at first. Jesus had something so much better for me, so he came down and took on that perishable seed too—a fragile human body—and he took it with him to the cross, and then to the grave. He had to die in order to kill it, and rise again to bring back the imperishable seed—to restore the life we were created to live.

You guys, the otters are right: we all live—all of us—as if there is something else. We all hope, we all strive, we all reach for something better, however profound or petty it might be. And if in the end we find that this has all been a daydream, if the visceral world is truly the limit of all things, then we are 100% the most pathetic creatures in history.

But we’re not just dreaming, are we? Christ is risen; the tomb is empty. Imagine what it was like for those two disciples: Cleopas, and the other one, walking on the road to Emmaus. They had been so hopeful. They’d left everything behind. They followed this one guy all over the place, and then bam! It’s over. But now, as they walk along hearing this random traveler talking about how it all had to be this way, they “felt their hearts burning within them.” Maybe there really is something more!

And then they find themselves, with their “new friend” in this cozy house in this little town in the cool of a Spring evening… the sun is setting, the candles and lamps are lit, and the table is set for a Passover dinner. The traveler is clearly the wisest person in the room, so they hand the matzah bread to him for the blessing. Such an intimate setting. Such a small moment. So the traveler blesses God, breaks the bread, and then they know. They see it now. It’s him! And he’s gone.

Jesus is alive, and because Jesus is alive, everything temporal and petty and fragile has been replaced. All of Jesus’ lofty words have become real and permanent… seared into their flesh like a cattle brand. We’ve spent years trying to prove ourselves, scrapping for an identity, for a nod, for an ounce of recognition. And now it’s over. Something far, far better is here.

How foolish we’ve been, and slow of heart “to believe all that the prophets have declared!” as Jesus said in Emmaus. Or, as Augustine famously put it, in his prayer to God, “late have I loved you.” Maybe we’re all late bloomers. Spiritual stragglers. It can take us a long time to come around to the truth of Jesus. But we’re here now. He is living and breathing, and so are we. And every breath we take fills us with the Spirit of God, and every breath we release breathes life into another.

Church is not an organization. It is an organism. Just like Paul says, though we have many parts, we are one body. A living, breathing body. And if you’ve ever practiced yoga, or meditation, or mindfulness, you know the difference between breathing automatically, and breathing with intentionality.

So, church. Let’s focus on our breathing. Let’s show that we’re not dead, but alive. Inhale with me, and imagine the Spirit entering us from the breath of Christ. Now exhale with me, and imagine that life flowing into each other, and into the entire universe. One more time, inhale … exhale.

You have been born anew… not from perishable seed, but from imperishable. Not from scarcity, but from abundance. Not from the finite, but from the infinite. Do we feel your hearts burning within us, as our Savior opens the Scriptures to us? Do see him being made known to us in the breaking of the bread?

You can go to the zoo anytime to see the otters, living how otters are supposed to live. But this, right here, is how humans are supposed to live: Breathing in life from Christ, and breathing out life to the world.

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