30 April 2017

Inhaling the Holy

John 20:19-31

Third Sunday after Easter

Robert Pirsig died last Monday, at 88.  He was the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, a brilliant novel full of ideas and deeply disturbing, in many respects.  It became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the 1970s, when it was first published.  The novel, part road trip, part treatise, part open letter to a younger generation, tries to reconcile humanism with technological progress. It navigates through the world of ideas, especially Plato, trying to reach an age such as ours, an age that has become obsessed with technology and materialism, alienated from the life of the soul, alienated from what he calls Quality, which could be could understood as God.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance unfolds as a fictionalized account of a cross-country motorcycle trip that Pirsig took in 1968 with his 11-year-old son, Christopher, and two friends.  The novel navigates through complex ideas that explore the relationship of humans and machines, the nature of madness, and the roots of culture. Pirsig was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1960s and said that the book was written to make peace with himself after two years of hospital treatments, and the turmoil that he, his wife, and children suffered as a result.[1]

This book had an enormous influence on me.  It was required reading for a program called the Oregon Extension, a four-month reading/study seminar in the mountains of Oregon, which I was planning to attend, after college.  In the end, I was in Oregon for only two nights and didn’t complete the program.  My grandmother became seriously ill and so I went home to New Jersey.  But I read the book, underlined most of it (in red), and finished reading it a year later, in 1987, in the waiting room of the Montclair Counseling Center in Montclair, New Jersey.  This novel threw me into an existential crisis, threw me into psychotherapy, which helped me to see the value of a therapeutic experience linked with faith, which continues today.

I thought about Pirsig and Zen this week as I reflected on John’s Gospel.  This is a remarkable part of John.  It’s Easter evening, the first day of the week.  We’re told that the doors of the house are locked, for fear.  We’re told that Jesus comes and stands among them and says, “Peace be with you.”  How did he get in?  He appears behind closed doors, locked doors.  He appears in the midst of their fear and says, “Peace.”  Jesus wasn’t there to shoot the breeze.  He was a man with a mission.  Ignoring their fear, he gets right to the point.  Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  As the Father sent the Son into the world, not to the condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (Jn.3:17), as God sent Jesus, so, now Jesus sends his disciples.

And not only does Jesus send his disciples to do the same work, earlier in John’s Gospel we have Jesus saying this: “Very truly, I tell you”—“very truly, I tell you,” meaning there’s no room for doubt about this, there’s nothing vague or ambiguous about this.  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes (that is, trusts) in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12).  Not the same as Jesus, but greater, greater works!

And so, Jesus says, post-resurrection, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn. 20:22).  This is John’s version of Pentecost, without the tongues of fire and the hearing of many languages (see Acts 2).  The Spirit is given on the day of resurrection.  And, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus bestowed the Holy Spirit in a unique way.  He breathed on his disciples.  In both Hebrew and Greek the words for “breath,” “spirit,” and “wind” can all be used interchangeably.  God’s spirit is a breath that gives life.  God’s breath animates God’s people. God’s spirit as wind moves people.

All of which means—although the text doesn’t say it, it’s implied—that when Jesus breathed, they inhaled his breath.  They inhaled the holy.  They breathed in, took into themselves something of Jesus’ presence and power and breath and life.  Jesus bestows upon them—upon us—the life of God.  He brings us to life, true life, meaningful, abundant life (Jn. 10:10). Jesus is so close.  So intimate. Sharing breath.  That’s how close God is to us.  God in us, made flesh in us, dwelling in us, full of grace and truth (see Jn. 1:1-15).  When we know this, when we’re aware of this breath permeating our souls, when we feel this spirit/breath/wind moving through us and moving us, there’s no telling what we can do or accomplish or experience.

This brings me back to Pirsig.  Pirsig called this “gumption.”[2]  He turned to this old Scots word, used a lot by pioneers, to describe this element of the religious life.  He writes, “I like the world ‘gumption’ because it’s homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.  …I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality.  He gets filled with gumption.  The Greeks called it enthusiasmos, the root of ‘enthusiasm,’ which means literally ‘filled with theos,’ or God, or Quality.”

He says, “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things.  He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.  That’s gumption.”

“The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. But it’s not exotic. That’s why I like the word,” Pirsig writes.

“You see it often in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips.  Often they’re a little defensive about having put so much time to ‘no account’ because there’s no intellectual justification for what they’ve been doing.  But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before.  He hasn’t been wasting time.  It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so.”

“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.  If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed.  It’s bound to happen.  Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and persevered before anything else is gumption.”

What’s true for motorcycles is true for our lives, our souls, is true for the church, for this church.  Gumption.  Enthusiasmos. Enthusiasm.  God-filled.  Filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, Jesus, breathing through us.  Without the Spirit, there would be no church.  Without the Spirit, we wouldn’t be here today.  Christianity would have dissolved away like smoke, millennia ago. Without the Spirit, we wouldn’t know a thing about God or Christ or grace or love or the call of God in our lives and in the world.

On this Sunday, as we ordain and install new officers, we affirm the Holy Spirit’s role in all of this: through the work of the Nominating Committee, the Session, the congregation, the individuals who said yes to the call.  We will ask the Holy Spirit to come and rest upon these individuals in a unique and effective way—we will ask for gumption, the gumption to serve with courage and energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. 

And then we will hear from Alex Hall, who will announce this year’s Envision Fund Grants, totaling close to $115,000, shaping the ministry of this church and beyond these walls. And don’t underestimate for a minute that the Holy Spirit hasn’t been involved in this process either, in the grant writing, in the prayerful deliberative gumption of the board, and in the remarkable work we will be able to do, in the name of Christ—and dare I say, “greater works” than Jesus.  We’re about to do amazing work in a hospital in Haiti.  Jesus never set foot in Haiti. And yet we will help countless souls, bringing healing and wholeness and hope, all done in and through and with Jesus.  In John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus has enormous confidence in his disciples.  It absolutely astonishes me when I consider that Jesus actually trusts us and entrusts to us this ministry, this work.

The good news, friends, is that Jesus is still breathing through us, calling us, equipping us, the sending us out into the world to be God’s beloved people, with gumption.  So, go ahead, inhale.

Image: Nalini Jayasuriya, Receive the Holy Spirit.
[1] Robert M. Pirsig obituary in The New York Times.  
[2] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983), 272ff.

16 April 2017

Mary's Turn

Resurrection of the Lord

We owe Mary Magdalene an enormous debt of gratitude.  No, she's not a woman with a questionable past, although the Church has slandered her for centuries.[1]  No, she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet with her hair; that was a different Mary, Mary of Bethany, brother of Lazarus (Jn. 12:1-8).  No, she didn’t have a reputation. No, she wasn’t a seductress—despite how Mary Magdalene is portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, singing to herself, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”[2] And there’s Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), who suggests that Jesus had a marital relationship with Mary Magdalene, and a family.[3]  Dan Brown was just playing with tall tales that are centuries old—and making a lot of money from it.  These images of Mary make good characters in musicals and fantasy novels, but they don’t reflect the Mary we find here in John.

So, no, she doesn't have a past.  In fact, we’ve only just met her. She first appears at the crucifixion— along with Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Jesus’ mother (Jn. 19:25). Three Marys.  We meet Mary Magdalene at the cross and then next at the tomb. And it’s this link between cross and tomb, and John’s decision to make Mary the main character (apart from Jesus, of course), which is significant and should grab our attention. 
First, we need to remember that in John’s Gospel everything—every word, image, metaphor, every character—is there for a reason. Nothing’s by mistake. So, this morning, I’m going to stay very close to the text.  Everything matters.  Everything is intentional.  So, wake up, pay attention, to what John is saying here about Mary’s experience, about resurrection, about Jesus. 

In hearing or reading this text on countless Easter Sundays—"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (Jn. 20:1)natural for us to focus on the moved stone and empty tomb.  But we need to notice right away that it’s Mary Magdalene who first discovers the remnants of resurrection. Mary.  Not the Beloved Disciple, not Peter.  Mary.

She runs to fetch Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They return together to see for themselves.  They find the tomb just as Mary described it.  Empty.  The linen wrappings are left neatly on the side of the grave slab. They’re flummoxed, confused, and then leave the scene, shaken by everything—so shaken they ignore Mary.  But we can’t ignore her.

Mary remained.  Mary remained in her grief.  She stood there, outside the tomb.  That’s what grief often feels like, doesn’t it?  You can’t move.  You’re stuck.  She stood.  Weeping.  Instead of running from grief (as the men did), Mary courageously faces hers.  John tells us, “As she wept,”—still weeping!—“she bent over to look into the tomb” (Jn. 20:11b).  This is remarkable—in the midst of her heartache she is courageous and strong enough to face the source of her sorrow, that which has broken her heart.  She enters into the place where death lives.  She goes into the dark tomb looking for Jesus. Although knowing his absence, her eyes still strain to find him; her eyes guide her forward into the tomb.  Her grief is leading her. 

In the tomb, she witnesses two angels sitting where Jesus once was—one at the head and one at the feet, John wants us to know (Jn. 20:12).  The angels intentionally frame the place of absence.  They “hold” the space between them, this place where Jesus once was and is no more. And, what comes to mind when we hear of something being flanked by two angels?  Anything? The “mercy seat” of YHWH, or kapporet, was the golden lid placed on the top of the Ark of the Covenant; it was flanked by two cherubim, with empty space between them, “locating” the dwelling place of YHWH (Exodus 25:17-22). The cherubim on the Ark frame or “hold” holiness, creating a space for the dwelling of the invisible, non-representable, non-possessable Living God.[4] In the tomb, Jesus “fills” the holy space with his absence.

With great respect the angels ask, “Woman,”—a word used earlier in the Gospel to refer to Jesus’ mother (Jn. 2:4)—“why are you weeping?” (Jn. 20:14).  She answers.  She says she was searching for Jesus’ body.  At that moment, John tells us, “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (Jn. 20:14), but she didn’t recognize him.  Then Jesus says to her, “Woman,”—again, so much respect—“why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (Jn. 20:15).  Assuming him to be the gardener, she doesn’t see him.  She’s too concerned with finding a dead body.

Jesus says to her, “Mary!”  And, then, what does John tell us? Remember, every detail matters.  “She turned and said to him, ‘Rabbouni, Teacher’” (Jn. 20:16).  Isn’t this odd?  “She turned.”[5]  Wasn’t she already facing him, the gardener/Jesus?   Something so simple can be so profound.  She had already turned once, turned around to see what she thought was the gardener; but that turn was insufficient. She had to turn again.  But this was not the turn of the head or the body, but the turn of the heart.  And it’s with this second turning, the turn of the heart, the turn of “Aha!”, the turn that comes with revelation, recognition, realization, which allows the blind to see, the lost to be found, and the dead to come to life.  What’s required in us is the second turn. Without this turn, we can see but still be blind.  Without the turn, we’re left with an empty tomb, and the gardener, but no Jesus.  With the turning, everything changes.

So, how does this happen? What prepared Mary to hear the divine voice and see the Risen Lord before her?  Perhaps it was her tears.  The only other person who weeps in John’s Gospel is Jesus, when he sees the mourners weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus.  We’re told that Jesus was deeply disturbed by their grief, to the point that he was shaking and shuddering (Jn. 11:33). His tears pave the way for resurrection.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus said (Jn.11:39).  Tears, moved stones, and empty graves link these stories together.  Here, Mary Magdalene weeps for Jesus. Her tears pave the way for her to encounter resurrection.

What if it’s grief that prepares Mary to make the turn?  What if it’s her sorrow?  Her grief became the portal, which guided her into a dark tomb and beyond it.  Her grief, her sorrow, her tears, was the door, a holy threshold leading her to experience resurrection.  It’s her confrontation with loss and absence, her unwillingness to turn from her pain, her persistence, her determination, which allows her to move through absence to see the Lord of Life, not in a cemetery, we’re told, but in a garden (Jn. 19:41). We see that her grief, all along, was being held by resurrection, held by the Resurrected One, who makes space for her tears but never allows them to have the final word.

Thank you, Mary Magdalene, for showing us how to face our sorrow and embrace resurrection.  The first preacher of the resurrection.  The first to encounter the Risen Lord—without the Church or an institution, without tradition, without the aid of church school teachers.  She had no one, nothing.  She had nothing but her love and her grief, which was deep because of her love.  Astonishing.  I can’t help but wonder, what if Mary Magdalene had been the first Pope, instead of Peter?  A blasphemous thought, perhaps.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  Patriarchy has been disastrous for us.  The Church and the history of the West, along with the rest of the world, would have been very different had we listened to John’s Gospel and gave more space to the feminine and the witness of women.[6]  Mary models a different way for us to be disciples, a different way for us to see.

Sometimes it’s grief, sorrow, sadness, even suffering which prepares us to make the turn, to encounter resurrection, which opens our eyes to see God’s presence standing before us in surprising, startling ways.  Sometimes it’s beauty that opens our eyes to see resurrection. Sometimes it’s hearing your name called by someone who loves you through and through.  Resurrection can be encountered through doubt, as Thomas knew (Jn. 20:19-29). Or, resurrection can show up at daybreak to grill you some fish for breakfast, as John tells us (Jn. 21:4-14).  

Mary Magdalene teaches us to look for the Risen Lord precisely in those places of loss and sadness, in our tears, weeping for what might have been, for lost opportunities, regrets, wrongs, weeping for ourselves, those we love, weeping for the world.  Christ promises to meet us in those places.  

Isn’t this what we’re saying when we declare, “Christ is risen!”? For the one who said, “I am Resurrection.  I am Life.” (Jn. 11:25), holds life and death, all of it, the abandonment and abyss of the cross, all the pain and grief of the world, even the depths of hell itself—holds all of it—and holds all of us with the fierce, yet tender love of God, a love that will never, ever let us go. 

Christ is risen! 


Thanks be to God!

1. Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), The Morning of Resurrection (1882).

2. Saint Mary Magdalene icon, (11th century), Monastery Dionysiou, Mount Athos, Greece.

[1] For example, Pope Gregory (d. 604) preached in a sermon, in 591, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected.” Cited in Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 133.
[2] Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar (1970).
[3] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (Anchor Books, 2009).
[4] Rowan Williams, “Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne,” On Christian Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), 187.
[5] I am indebted to Jaime Clark-Soles (137), for drawing my attention to the significance of the second “turn” in John 20.  The sermon circumambulates around this insight.
[6] The integration of the feminine into the psyche of the Christian experience is slowly occurring, but there’s still more healing or “therapy” required.  The psychologist C. G. Jung (1875-1961) was among the first to point the Church, and its theologies, in this direction toward deeper wholeness.  See Murray Stein, Jung’s Treatment of Christianity: The Psychotherapy of a Religious Tradition (Chiron Publications, 1986), 183ff.

13 April 2017

The Fruit of the Vine

John 15:1-17

Maundy Thursday
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Abide.  It’s one of John’s favorite words in this Gospel.  Abide.  Remain. Stay. Stay close.  Sixteen of the twenty-one chapters in John include this word; it occurs over forty times.  Intimacy, connectedness, relatedness, closeness, these themes run throughout John’s Gospel. For John, these are tangible manifestations of the Risen Christ among us and within us; they are signs of resurrection life.  These words describe life in community centered on the Risen Christ, Christ the center. John wrote these words to his community who struggled with what it means to be followers of Jesus, and, through the Holy Spirit who spans space-time, they are directed to us today, to the church.

To be part of the church of Jesus Christ means we are all connected, whether we like it or not.  We are in this together.  And we need each other in order to be faithful to Christ.  We can’t do it on our own.  We can’t “do” church or “be” church on our own.  We can’t follow Christ on our own.  We can’t be faithful on our own.  We need each other. We can’t be faithful disciples on our own.  The Latin American liberation theologians often talk about convivencia when describing the Christian life.  Convivencia means, literally, “living-with.”[1]  Convivence is what sustains us individually and together, as a community. We are living with one another and living with the Lord.

That’s why we have Jesus, here in John’s Gospel, in a section of the Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse, providing us with what we need to be faithful to Christ post-resurrection.  Jesus turns to an image that was familiar to his listeners.  He uses an organic symbol, the language of vines and branches in order to talk about friendship and love.

It’s a remarkably dynamic symbol, the vine and branches.  Jesus invites us to abide in him, as branch to vine. That’s because, Jesus tells us, he also wants to abide in us.  “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” He is the life force, the love that energizes the growth and brings about the yield, the fruit.  Even the relationship, itself, is fructifying.

Reflecting on this text took me back to Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago. In the Rioja region the Camino cuts around and sometime straight through acres upon acres of vineyards.  I was walking in late-September, outside Logrono, near the time of harvest.  The green, leafy branches were full of deep, red grapes, the branches led to old, knotty vines that thickened at the base where they sunk down deep into the soil.  It was a Sunday, but I didn’t go to worship that morning—at least, not in a church—I did worship and pray and sang my way along the way, out there among the vines and branches.  “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  I plucked off several grapes to eat; they were juicy and sweet.  I could feel the vitality of life all around me.  The vine is the source of vitality and life. That’s what Jesus wants us to know, that he is the source of vitality and life. As I walked through the vineyards I imagined all the wine these fields would eventually yield, the fruit of the vine to be poured out around the world.  I felt as if I was swimming in wine.  It was flowing all around me, through me.

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from him there is no life.  Apart from him there’s no yield.  No fruit.  And Jesus wants us to bear fruit. That’s why you’ve been chosen to sit at this table.  That’s why we are here.  We are his friends (Jn. 15:14).  As his friends, he says, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” (Jn. 15:16). “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (Jn. 15:8).

What is that fruit?  Love.  Love is the fruit of faith—love in relationship, friendship, community.  Jaime Clark-Soles writes, “If we are not a community marked by friendship and love, then we should close up shop.  If we are not a community with friendship and love as our key goals and markers, then we may be many things, some even useful and worthwhile, but we are not a Christian community.”[2] 

Love is the vine.  Love is also the force—the vinculum, meaning the connector, the binding agent—that links vine, branch, and fruit.  “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).  Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34).

Let us share in this meal, given to us in love.  

Let us share this meal in order to deepen our connection with one another. 

Let us remember the one who showed us many years ago what love looks likelove is cruciform.  It takes the shape of a cross. 


Let us abide in him, the one who lives today in bread and wine, 
and in us. 


Photos:  K. E. Kovacs, along the Camino de Santiago de Comopostela, September 2016.
[1] Cited in David Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 42.
[2] Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 101.