29 April 2012

Letting Go

John 10: 11-18 & 1 John 3: 16-24

 Fourth Sunday of Easter, 29th April 2012

Although they bear the same name—John—they were not written by the same person.  The writer of the gospel was not the writer of the epistles.  Tradition claims that they all came from the same pen – or quill – but they didn’t.  It’s easy to think so because they share a similar theological outlook, they share a common vision informed by the gospel-writer’s community and influence.  The gospel is John, while the epistle is Johannine, and both point us in the way of Jesus Christ.

It’s the Common Lectionary that links these readings together.  But even without the lectionary, it’s easy to see the connection.  In John 10, we have Jesus’ famous declaration that he is the good shepherd, the shepherd “who lays down his life for his sheep.”   He doesn’t rely on hired hands to care for his own; he directly cares for them—cares for us.  “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me….”  The shepherd has more than one flock.  In time there will be one fold, and the shepherd will lead them.  He will call and people will respond because they know his voice and trust it.  He cares passionately for all the sheep.  We might say this shepherd is more than good; he’s actually beyond good, exceptional really, because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.  That’s an extraordinary shepherd.    In fact, this shepherd loves the sheep so much that he chooses to suffer for the sheep, to lay down his life.  No one tells him to do this, he’s not forced or constrained.  “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up.”  Power rightly used.  Power used in action.  Power used in love for the sake of the sheep.  And so God’s love pours through him with delight and joy because he is the good shepherd.

            In 1 John, we hear an echo of this same teaching:  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  By the time these words were written, after Jesus’ resurrection, written to a community of Jesus’ followers, written to a church, we see that the author calls for belief “in the name of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ” and then, clearly, that we “love one another, just as [Jesus] commanded us.”  This, too, is a direct quote back to John’s gospel, to when Jesus gave the new commandment, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). 

            Now, to believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, means more than simply acknowledging that Jesus existed, more than intellectually saying, “Jesus is the Son of God.”  To believe here means to confess that something of God is known through Jesus, something of Jesus is known through God; to know that the way of Jesus is the way of God and the way of God is the way of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is the life of God and the life of God is the life of Jesus; that the truth of Jesus is the truth of God and the truth of God is the truth of Jesus.  To acknowledge this, to know this with our hearts, not from a distance, but from deep within, is what it means to believe.  To make his way our way, our way his way, is the life of faith.  And if our hearts know this to be true of Jesus, then our hearts will follow in the way; if our hearts know this, then our feet are bound to follow.  Faith and action.

            Faith leads to action.  If it doesn’t lead to action, to thoughtful expression in tangible ways, then you have to question whether it’s really faith.  Otherwise faith is empty or hollow, tradition or custom or simply going along with the crowd or just hypocrisy.  That’s why the author of 1 John urges his community, “Little children,” (and this is a term of endearment), let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  Let us love with more than our tongues, more than empty confession, empty talk, empty preaching, but with something deeper, deep in our hearts, to love with our whole beings. 

To “love in truth” means here, literally, to love from the truth, that is the truth about who God is, the source of truth.  Rooted in the truth of God’s love in Christ, firmly grounded with that knowledge, that awareness surging through our lives, from that truth, that right now we are participating in the Being of God, from this truth – act, do something, live, move, change, serve.  Allow this truth to flow and overflow over into action.

            It’s important to highlight here that this is not an exhortation to become Christian busybodies, Christian do-gooders, becoming exhausted with the busyness of action. Before you act, there’s something else that needs to happen first.  Note the order.  Pay close attention to what’s being revealed here. 

Rooted in God’s love, we act.  Abiding, dwelling, resting in the knowledge of God’s love, we act.  Actions divorced from love become self-serving and can do much harm.  Actions divorced from love might have more to do with our egos, our selfish motives, maybe even fear.  1 John says that we know what love is like because he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our life for one another.   The text then asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”  It’s easy to hear this as saying: we ought to love our brother and sister, that’s what we do—a meal here, a visit there, giving, giving, giving, that’s what Christians do, right?—but then completely overlook or ignore the first part, which suggests that in order for us to really love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31), to quote Jesus, we must first be abide in God’s love in the first place.  How does God’s love abide, indeed? 

            This passage and Jesus’ description of himself as the good shepherd suggest that we give and share and love out of our abundance, not from what we lack.  When we are abiding in God’s love, living close to the truth, to the source of our being, drawing from that Source, then we are able to care for our neighbors in need.  Look at Jesus. Jesus is fully aware of God’s love for him and out of that abundance, the fullness of his life, he willingly lays down his life.  No one forces him to do this.  He lays it down because he chooses to, because it’s an expression of his nature, who he is really, authentically, truly is. He’s not trying to be good or do good.  He is good and therefore loves this way.  I am the good shepherd, Jesus says – and this is how I love and those who know my voice do the same.

            This is what love looks like.  Both of these texts are really talking about love in the Christian experience.  Both point to the way of agape.  What does this word mean?  It’s something more than friendship (philos) or romantic-sexual love (eros), more than the bond between family members (storge).  It’s been defined as selflessness or unconditional love. Every place love is mentioned here in the Greek we find some form of agape. “We know agape by this, that he laid down his life for us…;” “How does God’s agape abide in anyone...?”  “Little children, let us agape one another.”  Jesus said, “Agape one another.”  God agapes Jesus because of the way he cares for his sheep.  In the next chapter of 1 John it becomes even more explicit:  Agape is from God, because God is agape. 

            As I read these texts together this week what be clear (or clearer) to me is the way both texts characterize agape as other-focused, a turning away from oneself and giving oneself over to another, a laying down what one has so that another can take it up, a yielding, a letting go.  It is to hold an other in high regard—a Thou—to give one’s self over to the other, to want the best for the other, and not for the sake of oneself, for what one will get out of it. And all of this is done, not from a position of absence or lack or need, but from a strong sense of oneself, abundance, and fullness that one is able to give away.  If, as Martin Luther (1483-1536) said, “sin is the heart turned in upon itself” (Incurvatus in se), then love is the heart turned outward, that gives with a full and overflowing heart that’s being filled continuously by the Source of love, a heart that’s free to give because it is full. 

If this is correct, then we are given a profound window into the very heart of God’s nature and way of being.  For isn’t this the way God has been loving us from the beginning of time and promises to do to the end of time?  For God’s agape gives itself over and over, gives itself away again and again without worries of depletion.  It pours forth from a bottomless generative Source that creates and creates and creates, that gives and gives and gives, “letting be” and “letting be,” like in Genesis, calling forth life and life and ever more life, calling the universe and our souls into existence, saying, “Thrive! Thrive!  Thrive!” Forever fanning, extending its outward, in an outflow sun-like, not directed inward, but outward—not because inward is bad, but because it’s already full to overflowing and there’s plenty to share.

            When we’re in prayer or contemplation abiding in this truth, abiding in the awareness of how God’s agape is toward everything and everyone, something miraculous and graceful occurs in us:  we discover that we can let go.  We can let go of our narcissism and our ego-centricities and the myriad ways we pull people into our orbits, into our inward worlds to meet our needs and allay our fears, and then maybe we can come to discover and really see the needs of our brothers and sisters and begin to help.  We can let go of our need to dominate, manipulate or control…people, feelings, situations, outcomes.  Sometimes agape means letting go of the people we love, of relationships, the letting go of dreams and aspirations.  There is a grace that is found in such moments of release.  For agape does not insist on its own way (1 Cor. 13: 4).  We can let go of our anxieties and our worries about the future, our income, our children, our security, our nation.  We can let go of the past, of our hurts and regrets.  Then we might be able to focus on the needs of the people around us and really serve.

            All of this mind might sound Buddhist. There’s an echo of Taoism here, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (c. 604-531 BC) said, “By letting it go it all gets done.  The world is won by those who let it go.”  But didn’t Jesus say the same thing about losing— letting go—in order to find?  There’s a difference though, it seems to me.  Jesus offers this way of being as an expression of love itself, because love is free to let things go, and when that happens we gain everything, a hundredfold and more.  We don’t gain the world by grasping and hording and accumulating, but by letting it go, releasing it from our grasp, letting it be in love.  We give it away.  We find Jesus saying the same thing in the Gospel of Thomas, “Whoever finds the cosmos and becomes rich must ultimately let the cosmos go” (Logion 110).[1]  Or, as Presbyterian writer and minister, Frederick Buchner put it, “We find by losing.  We hold fast by letting go.  We become something new by ceasing to be something old. This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery.  I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all, but now I know that I do not need to know, and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows.  That is all that matters.”

            You don’t get to an insight such as this by thinking your way there, but from abiding in love, resting, trusting, know[ing] that I do not need to know and do not be afraid.”

            I was really struck with what Richard Rohr says about all of this in Falling Upward, which we’re studying in adult education just now.  He says that for all of our talk about love (agape), it’s easy to overlook that “Jesus praised faith and trust even more than love.”  Not because agape is secondary to faith, but because “it takes a foundational trust” to fall into God’s love, to trust it, that then frees us to let go.  “Then, and only then, will deeper love happen.”[2]  It’s a deeper love that is forever calling us to let go.  Why?  In  order to for us to receive the larger vision and the larger purpose and the larger hope and glory of God’s love that we are being invited to experience, by God’s grace.  Thanks be to God!

[1] This is Lynn Baumann’s translation, The Gospel of Thomas:  Wisdom of the Twin (Ashland, OR:  White Cloud Press, 2012).

[2] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011), xxvi.

17 April 2012

When Wound Becomes Gift

John 20: 19-31

Second Sunday of Easter/ 15th April 2012

The lectionary for the second Sunday of Easter often takes us to this text in John, to Thomas and his doubts. It’s the Sunday when preachers often explore the relationship between faith and doubt. Perhaps because we live in a skeptical age, which thrives on the suspicion of everything and everyone, that we assume what’s at stake here is the evidence of resurrection.  Thomas needed proof and in our scientifically minded age, certainly more than his, many want proof of resurrection.  Where’s the evidence? It’s easy to go there with this text.  But that’s not where I want to go – at least not immediately.

Instead, I want to talk about Jesus’ wounds. Three times in these verses there’s a reference to his wounds.  When Jesus arrived and said, “Peace be with you,” he “showed them his hands and his side.”  Jesus leaves.  Enter Thomas, having missed the visitation, says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  A week goes by and Jesus appears behind locked doors.  “Peace be with you,” he says.  And then he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  So, yes, one could say that the nail marks and spear mark are there as evidence.  Jesus wants them to believe – and in John’s Gospel belief is more than just rational, intellectual assent, it means trust and assurance, it’s very relational.

            But what strikes me – and maybe you don’t see it the same way – what strikes me is that in these resurrected appearances Jesus still has his wounds.  The resurrected body is still wounded.   It’s not completely healed.  We often associate resurrection with having a new body, not the old body revivified with all its aches and pains and blemishes and nail marks.   Here, the wounds are still fresh and open.  Even after more than a week Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger in the hole in his side. This is not a pristine body without blemish, but a wounded body.

            That’s what strikes me.  It’s remarkable, really.  Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas.  He offers his pain and his suffering to him.  He offers wounds that haven’t healed but are still open.  In John’s Gospel everything, every detail, has meaning; nothing is extraneous.  So what do we make of this encounter?  What does this mean for us theologically?  What does this say about the Christian experience?  In other words, what does this mean for us that the resurrected body still bears the wounds of crucifixion?

            If one travels to Colmar in the Alsace region of France and goes into the Unterlinden Museum, one will find there a masterpiece of Renaissance art.  It is a triptych (a three-paneled) painting known as the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528).  It dates from 1515. When I was on sabbatical several years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Colmar just to see this work that I’ve admired for years.  On the back panel there is an image of the resurrected Jesus.  Having shattered the tomb, throwing the soldiers to the ground in fear, Jesus is depicted as rising victoriously in the air.  His head is surrounded by an aura of brilliant light, yellow and orange. His arms are uplifted, his palms open-faced, as if he’s saying “Peace be with you.” And on his hands are the nail marks.  You can see them very clearly; it’s as if he’s showing them proudly. The nail marks, the wounds, come with the resurrection.  Even paintings depicting Jesus’ ascension, weeks after Easter, still include the wounds in his hands and feet and side.

            We often hear, “Time heals all wounds.”  Don’t worry about the wounds, they’ll heal.  It’s an old proverb that goes back centuries, the earliest reference is from Menander (c.342-281 BC), in around the third or fourth century BC.  But is it really true? Jesus has all the time in the world, I guess, which means that in time his wounds too would heal. Do the wounds heal?  Should they?

            Rose Kennedy (1890-1995) was a woman who knew a lot of pain and grief in her long life.  Whether one agrees with the political leanings of her family or not, she at least deserves compassion as a human being.  Reflecting upon her life, she said, “It has been said, ‘time heals all wound.’ I do not agree.  The wound remains.  In time, the mind, protecting its sanity covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it never goes away.”

            There’s a lot of truth in what she says.  This is particularly true when it comes to grief.  Grief is a wound and if the love is particularly strong the wound never completely heals. 

            Now, I’m sharing all of this not to make us depressed or sad, although that’s maybe how you feel right about now.  Actually, I’m lifting this up in order to offer hope and assurance.

            You see, I’m grateful that the wounds remain. The wounds make Jesus who he is.  They’re part of his history and therefore part of his identity.  And I’m grateful for the notion that the wounded resurrected Jesus eventually ascends still bearing his marks of suffering.  He takes his suffering – and all of ours – with him into the being of God and thus changes the nature of God. It now becomes easier to perceive what has been God’s way of being all along; we see in Jesus’ resurrection that God desires to take into Godself the wounds of Christ.  And it becomes clear or clearer to us that God desires to integrate, incorporate human woundedness into the very heart of God.  Christ’s wounds – which are also humanity’s wounds – become part of God’s history and identity.  God identifies with and participates in human woundedness and knows what they feel like. 

            If we’re honest, there’s a part of us that doesn’t like this emphasis upon wounds.  The truth is, we’re all wounded – all of us – some more than others. There’s an old proverb that I take very seriously: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”[1]  The most wounded people I know are usually denial about their state.  Many just want the wounds to heal, which often means to go away, to be rid of them, be over and done with them, so they can get back to a normal life like everyone else.  Let me just say that this is an illusion:  there’s no such thing as normal or abnormal life. There is just life. For some this life includes wounds that are too deep, too painful for words.  Some have very deep wounds, which are very painful – you know what they are, I don’t have to name them.  And some don’t just have wounds; the wounds have them, turning them into victims, causing individuals to become stuck in their pain and the grief.

            I would say that Jesus is not a victim to his wounds, they don’t have him; but he has his wounds.  And in some strange, bizarre, counter-intuitive way we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we? Would we want to remove his wounds from him?  If we removed them, made them go away, who would he be?  If we removed these characteristics of his life, he wouldn’t be who he is.  If he was the truly, authentically human one (that’s what is meant by references to him as the Son of Man), and this was true for him, why wouldn’t it be the same for the rest of us on our way to becoming human?  Isn’t this what Jesus’ life-journey has taught and is teaching us: we don’t have to be a victim of our wounds, but that in a bizarre and wonderful, grace-filled manner there is a way to honor our wounds, to claim them, accept them, even cherish them and value them, maybe as a badge of honor, because suffering through them has made us and continues to make us into the people we are meant to be by God’s grace. 

            I’m not saying we should run out and get wounded or become martyrs in order to be blessed.  That’s not what I’m saying.

            What I am saying is that, from my experience, the wound, when accepted with grace and received with compassion, can become a gift.  It can even become a means of grace; that is, an occasion to learn and discover and experience through it something of God’s grace active in our lives. 

            This is what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr is getting at when he says there’s always a wounding in our lives. Being faithful to our calling, like Jesus, will inevitably lead toward a wound. The walk with Jesus might actually expose a wound we have denied or run from. When we are seriously growing in the faith and walking in the way of Christ we will eventually discover what is known as the “spirituality of imperfection” or the “way of the wound.”[2]  When embraced by God’s grace the wound can become the secret key that allows us to discover who we really are and what we were created to be and do.[3]  It becomes sacred and holy because through the wound we discover who God is toward us.  It makes us who we are.  We see it in Jesus.  We also see it in Paul, in his “thorn in the flesh,” a wound, which he asked God to remove several times.  God never did (2 Corinthians 12: 1-10).  Yet, that thorn led him toward wisdom, to discover and be able to say with pride, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12: 10).  He heard Jesus, the wounded savior, say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12: 9).  There is a kind of power that is also perfected in being wounded, because the wound changes us and it can transform us, by God’s grace, into growing deeper.

            This truth is deep – very deep; it’s archetypal. It’s everywhere in stories, ancient and new.  Start with Homer’s Odyssey.  Odysseus, who, after his journey, arrived home and was recognized by his wife only by the familiar scar on his thigh.  In Greek mythology we have Chiron, the centaur, who uses the pain of his wound to heal others, and Prometheus, the fire-stealer, wounded by the eagle removing his liver each day.  We have Gulliver on his travels, wounded in his knee.  Cain is marked as a sign of his guilt, but also as a sign of God’s protection (Genesis 4).  Jacob limps away wounded after wrestling with God all night, forever changing the scope of history (Genesis 32). Thank God for that wound!  Think of the Legend of the Holy Grail and the story of the Fisher King. The King is the keeper of the grail of Christ and is sustained by it, but he has a wound that will not heal.  And in our day, Harry Potter has a wound, a scar, a mark that sets him a part and defines his life.  He would not be “‘the boy who lived’ come to die” without that scar.[4] Our wounds matter.

            I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson’s extremely poignant memoir of growing up in Manchester, in the North of England, in the 1960s, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  In it she reflects upon the wounds in her life and the nature of the wound in literature.  “…wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.  What we notice in [literature] is the nearness of the wound to the gift:  the one who is wounded is marked out – literally and symbolically – by the wound.  The wound is a sign of difference.”[5]

            Winterson knows this well.  Jeannette was adopted, raised by parents who never really loved her properly. Her father tried to love her.  Her adopted mother really didn’t love her.  She often told Jeanette that “the Devil led her to the wrong crib” in the orphanage.  Jeanette refers to her biological mother as mother.  She refers to her adopted mother as Mrs. Winterson, to stress the distance and estrangement in their relationship.  Mrs. Winterson was gun toting, cigarette hiding, Bible-thumping Pentecostal fundamentalist.  She punished Jeannette by locking her out of the house – over night, many times – or locking her in the coal basement under the house.  She was also severely mentally ill and depressed and never received the kind of care she needed.

            Mrs. Winterson allowed only six books in the house, including the Bible, because she was suspicious of books, fearful.  “The trouble with a book,” she said, “is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”  Jeannette was not allowed to read fiction. Mrs. Winterson did enjoy reading murder mysteries, primarily because you know what to expect, a body shows up some place.  Mrs. Winterson read the Bible, the King James Bible, aloud every night for years. She started with Genesis and read continuously each night to Revelation – reveling in the gory images of the apocalypse – and then she started over again with Genesis 1.  Jeannette grew up with an ear for language. She went to the library as a refuge and began reading on her own, starting with the A’s:  Jane Austen.  She also brought murder mysteries home for mother to read. In the E-section she came across a title, Murder in the Cathedral, by a certain T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), not knowing who he was, and brought it home, also not knowing it wasn’t a murder mystery.  Before leaving the library she opened to the first page; when she read these words they broke her heart and caused her to cry:  “There is one moment,/ But know that another/ Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.”

            Jeanette eventually got a job and saved her money to buy books.  She carefully wrapped each one in plastic and hid them under her mattress so that they wouldn’t be found.  In time her mattress started to rise from the number of small, paper-books she was keeping there.  One night, while Jeanette was asleep, Mrs. Winterson came in with a flashlight (as she usually did) to check on her.  The corner of one book, by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), was sticking out.  Mrs. Winterson woke her up, lifted up the mattress, opened the bedroom window, and then proceeded to throw all seventy-two of her books out the window into the yard. Mrs. Winterson picked up the little paraffin stove used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin all over the books and set them on fire. “I watched them blaze and blaze,” Jeanette writes, “and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night.  And books have always been light and warmth to me.”  She relates, “In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley.  Burnt jigsaws of books.  I collected some of the scraps.” “I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed” that night; however, Jeanette refused to be a victim, “on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.”  She writes, “…standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do” with this pain, this wound. She realized she could do something.  She didn’t need those books.  She said, “I can write my own.”[6]  And so she became a writer.

            Trying to prove the historical veracity of the resurrection is impossible and a waste of time, but maybe – just maybe – there’s some evidence to the power of the resurrection in our lives when our wounds somehow, some way become bearers of God’s grace.  How we use our wounds – how God uses them – might give witness to the power of God at work in us.  They just might give some evidence that Christ is risen – risen indeed.

Image: Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528), "Resurrection" panel, Isenheim Altarpiece (1515),  Musée d'Unterlinden,  Colmar, Alsace, France.

[1] Falsely attributed to Plato (424/423-348/347 BC) and Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50), it was probably articulated by the Scottish minister John Watson (1850-1907), through his pseudonym, Ian Maclaren.
[2] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011), xxiv.  Here he is referring to Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) and Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1266)
[3] Rohr, 18-19.
[4] This overview is taken from Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove Press, 2012). In a chapter titled “The Wound,” she explores the connection between wound, identity and creativity in religion and literature, 220-221. Cf. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, particularly Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007).  I’m grateful to my friend, the Rev. Dr. Derek Browning, minister of Morningside Parish Church, Edinburgh, Scotland, for drawing my attention to Winterson’s memoir. Consider also C. G. Jung’s (1875-1961) exploration of the Amfortas wound – the wound that wouldn’t heal – in his analytic theories.  Murray Stein, Jung’s Treatment of Christianity:  The Psychotherapy of a Religion Tradition (Wilmette, IL:  Chiron, 1986).
[5] Winterson, 221-222.
[6] Winterson, 39-43.

09 April 2012


John 20:1-18

Resurrection of the Lord/ 8th April 2012
In John’s Gospel we begin Easter morning in the dark.  While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.  We don’t know why.  It’s not like she was expecting resurrection and wanted to be the first to see; she wasn’t expecting the stone rolled away, wasn’t expecting an empty tomb.  Full of sorrow, maybe unable to sleep, she went to the tomb.  Why?  The other Gospels tell us that the women went with spices to anoint and embalm his body.  Here, Mary Magdalene goes alone. Maybe she just wanted to be close to his body, to what was left of his presence.  She goes to the tomb with love mixed with grief.  This might sound morbid, but there is a comfort, I know, in being able to go to the grave of a loved one, to just sit there, to pray, to think, to remember.

            But then she discovers that the body of the man she loved is now missing.  She’s lost her Lord not once, but twice, yielding a double-grief.  John and Peter have been and gone, verifying the fact that the body was indeed missing, they go home and leave Mary all alone. “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb,” John tells us.  It’s a painful, poignant scene, isn’t it? Imagine how that must have felt for her?  Abandoned.  Alone.  Lost. Confused.  She notices two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been, at the foot and at the head.  “Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask.  “Because they have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have placed him.”  She turns and notices a man there, thinking he is the gardener.  But she doesn’t really see him.  Her mind, her sight, her thoughts are all clouded by grief. 

            That’s what grief does.  That’s what fear and sorrow and sadness can do.  They muddy our judgment, falsify what we say, hinder our understanding, blind us to what’s happening right in front of our eyes. 

            In a dizzying moment like this we naturally look to hold on to something, something to grasp that’s solid and sure, something known and rational – even if it might be wrong.  John tells us the tomb is in a garden.  Mary is in a garden.  So Mary expects to see a gardener.  Who else would be there?  That’s whom she sees.  It’s rational – but she’s wrong.

            I’m intentionally honing in on this moment in the story because I think it’s telling.  My hunch is that all of us have had moments, like Mary, when our judgment and assessment in times of crisis are distorted, even wrong.  We think we’re being rational, but it just might be the rational that stands in the way of allowing us to see what’s really going on.  Facing dead men walking and then talking constitutes a time of crisis, at least to me. The skeptic in all of us starts to surface and wonders, how can this be?  We turn to the rational as a kind of default defense mode.  In a scientific, skeptical (some might say, jaded) age like ours, our default mode is reason – we ask what’s reasonable, what’s possible within the scope of reason.  Our rational default mode is often a defense against the possibility that we might not fully understand what’s going on and that scares us.

            Now don’t get me wrong, our rational mind is useful and good.  Reason as a method of knowing has taken us far – and we probably need more of it in some areas of our lives.  Yes, reason has taken us far, no doubt, but I wonder if it has taken us far enough? 

There are aspects of reality that cannot be known through reason.  There’s a lot that goes on in this universe and within our hearts that reason doesn’t understand, such as why we are blown away by the beautiful – whether it’s in nature on such a glorious day like today, or on a canvass, or in the human soul; why are we are rendered speechless by music or the power of words or when both are combined in the singing of a hymn; or why we are overwhelmed by the presence of God in stillness or in prayer; or why we smile and laugh when we see a baby smiling or laughing; or why we cry inconsolably when we’re lost in grief.  Reason is not helpful in these moments. 

Novelist and essayist David James Duncan says this way of talking about human experience sounds foolish, because it is foolish – “to unadorned reason.”  But he has come to this conclusion:  “from boyhood through manhood,” he writes, “it has been my experience that trying to grasp an insight, a deep mystery, a transrational experience, or any act of love via reason alone is rather like trying to play a guitar with one’s buttocks.  Our powers of reason, like our buttocks, are an invaluable tool.  But not for the purpose of hearing ‘vast pulsating harmonies’ in nature when we listen to the sounds of the woods.”[1]  Philosopher and economist, E. F. Schumacher put it like this, “Nothing can be perceived without an appropriate organ of perception.”[2]

            So tell me, what kind of organ is needed to recognize resurrection?  That’s the question.  What is required for the transfiguration of perception?  What will remove the scales from our eyes and allow us to see?  What will speak to us in the midst of fear and grief and pain and sorrow?  The rational mind will get us only so far.

The contemporary neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, argues convincingly in his book, The Master and His Emissary:  The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, that for the last several hundred years we have favored the rational side of our brains, primarily to aid evolution and progress, however this has been done at the expense of our emotional, intuitive, feeling sides.[3]  We can discover a lot about the world using the rational; to use only that part, however, we cut ourselves off from the part that honors mystery and the sacred. We’re divided creatures, cut off from what our souls are really searching for. There’s a marvelous animated summary of his views that you can find on YouTube, which I recommend.  It’s from a speech Gilchrist gave summarizing these ideas.  In that speech, he closes with this remarkable quote from Albert Einstein (1879-1855):  “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.”[4]

            What is slowly killing the West is hyper-rationalism, where we over-intellectualize everything, even the faith, and see it as a problem to be explained or explained away.  The sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) warned in the last century, “We [Christians] are building an iron cage, and we’re inside of it, and we’re closing the door.  And the handle is on the outside.”[5] The solution is not for Christianity to become anti-rational (God knows that’s already happening with the growth of fundamentalism). The solution might be remembering there are others ways of knowing. Einstein again is helpful here:  “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and all science.  He to whom this ‘emotion’ is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder, or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.  His eyes are closed.”[6]

            So what opens our eyes?  What allows us to see? What is this ‘gift’ that bestows life? Who will turn the handle for us and free us from our iron cages or crack open our tombs?

             There’s nothing more mysterious and baffling and wonderful than love. Not the sentimental or romantic variety, as wonderful as they are.  I’m talking about a deeper, more profound form, which undergirds every other expression of love in this mysterious universe.  When Mary goes to the tomb in her grief, it’s really love that sends her there after him – yes, grief too, but if you stay with grief long enough we discover that often the emotion that sits underneath it is really love – and it’s love that allows her to find him and it’s Love-itself that finds her. 
It’s God’s love that turns the handle. 
It’s God’s love that opens our eyes and allows us to see
what reason can’t even begin to imagine. 
It’s God’s love as pure gift that bestows life, which yields resurrection. 
For, isn’t this ultimately what resurrection is – love seeking love?
The one she’s looking for is also looking for her, and will not give up until they meet and they are seen by each other. 

            Yes, Mary’s love is strong, but not strong enough to see through her grief and sadness. The gospel’s claim is that all our searching is matched by an even stronger love who is searching of us. It’s the kind of love that wants union and reunion with us and will never give up on this goal, no matter what; a love that never gives up on us.  That never quits.  That never ends.  That’s what resurrection is all about.  It’s a story shot through with compassion, and goodness, and devotion.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus said before he died, words that we heard here in the sanctuary on Thursday evening:  “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18).  I will not abandon you.  This is the word our souls need to hear and know and feel in the depths of our being.  That God will not give up on us or leave us.  No matter what we have done, no matter how terrible we might have been or are, no matter the source of our guilt or shame, no matter how heavy the grief, or dark the world may appear, nothing can separate us from God.  There are so many in this world that simply do not know this or believe it’s too good to be true it, or think they’re beyond redemption or hope.  No one is beyond redemption!  No one is beyond hope!  There are people who have been to hell and back who cannot accept that God is really on their side, who feel hopeless, orphaned, lost in grief or double-grief and regret.  Maybe that’s you.

            Then hear this – not with your rational mind – but with your heart, your soul, and with every cell in your body, hear this word in your gut:  Christ is Risen.  And the one who raised him from the grave is the same one who in love calls out to you by name and invites you to come alive and know again – or maybe for the first time – the deep inexorable love of God!  A love that’s relentless, tenacious, unyielding, resolute, it’s determined, unquenchable – inexorable!  It will go to any height or depth or length to show us we are precious and holy in God’s eyes.  This love is unflagging and steadfast in its desire to be with us, to be near us, to hold us and never let us go. 

The inexorable love of God has and is and will never stop entering
into death in order to reach through it to us,
to lay claim to us and hold us;
it enters into all the darkness of our hearts and the world and
endures it all and suffers through it in order to assure us that the darkness can never overwhelm us;
it seeks out every possible way to bridge the chasm of separation
 between us and God and one another,
to pull us back,
to bring us home.  
               It never gives up. 
It’s forceful and strong,
as scripture says –
“for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame” (Song of Solomon 8:6) – and yet
it’s gentle and tender, all at the same time,
a love that can push away boulders and shatter tombs,
and yet rests upon us and lives within us
with a presence that warms and assures us
that nothing can separate us from God.   

That’s what Mary knew.  That’s what’s offer to you and to me.  Resurrection.  Love seeking love. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Image:  K. Kovacs.  Anastasis (Resurrection) fresco, Church of St. Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey (May, 2011).

[1] David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays:  Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (Great Barrington, MA:  The Triad Institute, 2007), 216.  The internal quotation, “vast pulsating harmonies,” is Duncan’s allusion to Aldo Leopold’s (1887-1948) mystical-naturalist history, Round River (1953).
[2] Cited by Duncan, 216.
[3] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary:  The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2010).
[5] The “iron cage” or “shell as hard as steel” (tahlhartes Gehäuse) is introduced in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/5).
[6] Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (Citadel Press, 2001).

03 April 2012

The Way of Christ and the Way of the Crowd

Philippians 2: 5-11 & Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday/ 1st April 2012

My friend, Bill Carter, a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania, tells the story of visiting the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem several years ago.  The forty pilgrims in his group stepped off the tour bus. Their plan was to walk down a road that has been there for three thousand years.  At his left was the largest Jewish cemetery in the area, established in the old belief that the Messiah will appear on the Mount of Olives.  At the bottom of the hill is the Garden of Gethsemane, guarded by the remains of the olive trees that perhaps overheard the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.  Straight ahead was Mount Zion, with the ancient wall of the city of Jerusalem.  This is the route that Jesus took when he entered the city on Palm Sunday.

            Right by the bus were a couple of local men. They waited for the tourists like them.  “Would you like to borrow a donkey to ride down the hill?” they asked.  “Perhaps you would sit upon one and we can take your picture.” These were not kind offers by generous new friends; this was the way those men make a living.

            No one in Bill’s group took them up on the offer, particularly when they heard it was fifty bucks for the picture and one hundred and fifty bucks to “borrow” the donkey.  These guys could demand such fees because of the location.  Apparently, the Mount of Olives is the most famous place on earth to “borrow” a donkey.  I didn’t know this! Although when I was there, I missed the donkey-lenders.  They weren’t there that day.

            The people behind Bill and his group, however, were pious folk from California. They were shelling out cash right and left for the privilege of riding those donkeys down the hill. The scene was pretty comical.  Bill says that if these people really wanted to take their Bibles seriously, they should have insisted that no money should have changed hands – because that’s what we have in the text.[1]

            Two different ways of approaching Jerusalem from Mount Olives.  One was thoughtful, serious, and contemplative – Bill’s group was intent on walking along Jesus’ way, following the road into the city.  The other was comical, commercial.  Two different ways of approaching the story of what happened on that day when the people shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

            I have to confess, I have considerable ambivalence around this story.  It’s so often celebrated in the church as a triumphal entry with the cloaks and palm branches and the crowds yelling, “Hosanna!”  There was a time when I didn’t feel this way, have this ambivalence.  I loved the processions and the palms and the hymns – and, don’t get me wrong, I still do. I really do.  But when I really started to read the accounts of Jesus’ entry into the city and went deeper into the narrative, and knowing what we know happens in the city by week’s end, when I reflect upon this, that’s when I begin to have problems. 

            This week I think I gained more clarity around this feeling within me.  It’s pretty simple, really:  I don’t trust the crowd.  I don’t trust the crowd.  I’m suspicious of their commitment to Jesus’ mission.  I’m trying not judge them, but did the crowd waving their palms and shouting their “Hosannas” have any idea what was about to be unleashed in their city on Friday?  Did they have the slightest hint that this victorious king was going to sweat blood on Thursday?  Did they have any intimation that Rome and their religious leaders would together come down – and come down hard, inflicting a devastating blow to their hopes and dreams?  Did they know?  Even though the crowds rejoiced and welcomed Jesus here, we all know that the crowd is fickle; for by week's end the way of Christ will be at odds with the way of the crowd.  

            On the one hand, we can’t blame them.  They could not see into the future.  Just like you and me.  We cannot see into the future, which, I think is my point here:  the entire narrative forces us to acknowledge that our way is not God’s way, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, our hopes and dreams and expectations are not God’s hopes and dreams and expectations.  It’s quite evident that Jesus is clear about what God’s intentions are; it’s not all that clear what the crowd has in mind.  Do they get it right? Is it all empty praise?

            There’s an old Latin proverb of unknown origin that goes like this: Vox populi, vox Dei, meaning, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”  The voice of God is known through the voice of the majority.  The Protestant Reformers didn’t always agree with this view of political wisdom. Although we are democratic in our Church polity, led by the majority views of the Church, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) encourages us also to make space for the voice of the minority, because it just might be the minority that bears the voice and will of God. The majority is not always on God’s side.  Sometimes the majority can actually stand God’s way.  There’s an early reference to this Latin aphorism that dates to 798, in a letter of Alcuin of York (d.804) to Charlemagne (c.742-814), the Holy Roman Emperor, that goes like this: “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”  The riotousness of the crowd might be close to madness, but so is the (self-) righteousness of the crowd, at times, close to madness. 

            Perhaps my suspicion of the crowd comes from hanging out too much with the likes of Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who said, “For ‘the crowd’ is untruth.”  Or, “the crowd” is a lie.[2]  He’s right. This isn’t true all the time. But sometimes it is, one has to admit, enough to put us on guard.  The crowds, mobs, the collective – what everyone else thinks or says or believes, the prevailing views and perspectives, whatever’s popular – are all sometimes just wrong. Sometimes it’s difficult of us, as individuals, to stand out from the crowd – like Jesus; to make our way through the crowd – like Jesus; to not be shaped by the crowd – like Jesus; not be hampered by the crowd – like Jesus.  We know the limitations and dangers and challenges of herd mentality, group mentality, and groupthink.

            I find it fascinating how the Lectionary for today juxtaposes Mark's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and Paul's use of an ancient hymn to Christ, the Carmen Christi, in his letter to the Philippians.  What struck me was Paul’s reference to the “mind of Christ” and my own ponderings on what the “mind” of the crowd might have been like welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.  I found myself imagining Jesus on the colt, surrounded by the crowds, yet clearly striking his own way through the crowd.  He knows exactly who he is; he’s obviously in control the situation, his destination – the temple – is clearly in his sights.  He arrives at the temple, looks around, and because it is late, leaves.  He returns on Monday to “cleanse” the temple and says, quoting Isaiah, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” – which then lights the fuse that explodes on Friday.  Mark writes, “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard this, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mk 11:18).  They know the crowd is still with him, but what does the crowd expect from him?  Jesus doesn’t say a thing; he withdraws from the city.  In Mark’s Gospel the crowd is generally viewed in a positive light.  That is until the end, after Palm Sunday, when the crowd turns on Jesus and prefers Barabbas instead of him at the trial.  “Hosanna” one day, “Crucify him” another.  Same crowd?  Different crowd?  We’re not sure; there was probably some overlap. It’s still the crowd, the clouded wisdom of the crowd. 

            So what was/is the mind of Christ?   We don’t hear this kind of language in Mark’s Gospel, but in Paul.  When we hear “mind of Christ” or “put on the mind of Christ,” it’s natural for us to think he’s talking about “mind” as we conceive it.  But he’s not talking about thoughts or ideas.  He’s not saying that we must think our way into Christ.  It’s not an intellectual exercise. Paul urged the Philippian Christians to have the same “mind” that was in Christ. We could also translate the phrase this way, “Let the same attitude,” or even, “Let the same way,” be in you that was in Christ.  There’s an active, dynamic quality to the Greek here.[3]  In other words allow his mind, his attitude, his way unfold in you, flow in you and through you.  And what is this way?

                        Though he was in the form of God,
                        did not regard equality
                                    with God as something to be exploited (or grasped),
                        but emptied himself,
                        taking the form of a slave,
                        being born in human likeness. 
                        And being found in human form,
                        he humbled himself
                        and became obedient
                        to the point of death – even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).

            We see something of the same "mind" or "way" on display when Jesus enters Jerusalem, humble on a donkey.  In obedience to his call he follows his way, “steadfast He to suffering goes”,[4] the way that leads through the crowd, the way of love, ultimately deflecting all the projections of the crowd upon him, a crowd that could not fathom the depths of such commitment, obedience, and love. In obedience to his call he does whatever it takes to demonstrate the power of God’s grace and love.

            Where are we in this story?  On the way with Jesus?  Or lost in the crowd? Believing along with everyone else, acting like everyone else, whether they’re right or wrong, believing all kinds of things about Jesus and God and the Christian life, but just basically going along with the crowd?  Probably a little of both – because it’s all happening, both ways, at the same time in the text.  They overlap.  The story, though, urges us to proceed with caution.  Who’s way are we on? Are we on the way of Christ or the way of the crowd? Are we on the difficult path, walking the way that’s marked by humility and obedience to God’s call in our lives, urged on by the power of God’s radical love?  Marked and sealed in our baptism and therefore ready to transform the world? Or are we taking the easy way, walking en masse in the way of crowd, lost in untruth? 

            Like most things of importance in life it’s not a question of either-or, it’s not that simple.  Like most things in life that matter, truth is rarely a question of either-or, but often both-and.  That’s what I’ve found to be true.  Some have even said that’s what I’ll have inscribed on my tombstone: “Both-And.” 

            The way of Christ.  The way of the crowd. I know where I am and would rather be.  What about you?

Image:  Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864), "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem" (c. 1842).

[1] I’m grateful to William Carter, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit, PA, for this story, from which I quote liberally.  It’s taken from his Palm Sunday sermon on this same text, “The Best Things Are Borrowed.”  It can be found at the Day 1 website here http://day1.org/3714-the_best_things_are_borrowed.  Day1 is the voice of mainline Protestant churches, presenting outstanding preachers from the mainline Protestant denominations. Day 1 began broadcasting in 1945 as “The Protestant Hour” and has been on the air every week since, currently on more than 200 stations.
[2] Sören Kierkegaard, “On the Dedication to ‘That Single Individual,’” in Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (Copenhagen, 1847).
[3] I’m thankful for Cynthia Bourgeault’s reflections on the “mind of Christ” in The Wisdom Jesus:  Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston:  Shambhala, 2008), 171ff.
[4]From a poem by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683/4), which became of the text of the hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  The hymn tune (LOVE UNKNOWN) was written by John Ireland (1879-1962) in 1918.