Mysticism and Unity

Mysticism and Unity

Sermon for May 24, 2020, Easter 7A

Audio will be here for several weeks. Video is at the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR YouTube channel

John 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In our Monday Morning Seekers class we have been recently discussing Celtic Christianity. We have been reading John Phillip Newell’s book, “Listening for the Heartbeat of God.” In it, he describes the way the early Celtic Christians put more emphasis on right living than on right belief. Unlike the Roman church, they were more practical than theoretical. But historically, Roman Christianity prevailed, and right belief has been the dominating center of attention for centuries. 

Believing the right things, for example, about the Trinity made all the difference between who was considered orthodox and who was a heretic.  

There is a great irony there when we think about Jesus and where he placed the emphasis. Jesus never spoke of the Trinity or asked us to believe in that difficult doctrine.

Another irony, at least in my opinion, is that there are things we are asked to believe that are much harder than the Trinitarian co-equal status of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How about what we are asked to believe in the text we just read, that we all should be one, like God and Jesus are one?  

On one hand, nothing is more obviously not the case. It never has been the case that humans have considered themselves one with each other. 

In fact, the bizarre truth is that the worst conflicts seem to happen from those who are most like each other, save in minor details: Hutus against Tootsies in Rwanda, Serbs versus Croats in former Yugoslavia, and this past week, I just read of the deaths of hundreds of people in South Sudan because of inter-communal conflict. Having a conflict during a global pandemic ensures that even more people will die. 

People simply do not consider themselves one, even with their ethnic or ideological cousins. We tend, instead, to be tribal: viscously tribal. They say that this is how we learned to survive, back when we all wore animal skins and had bones in our noses. We are good at being one with our tribe, but only with our tribe.  

Reading John

So what do we do with texts like this? Well, let us look at it together. First, we remember that this text came from a community of Christians, living at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth. They revered Jesus. 

Jesus epitomized for them the possibility of living with a transformative God-consciousness. The historical Jesus attracted many followers, partly because people who were with him experienced the presence of God when he was present. He seemed to exude a confident trust in God. 

He spoke of God in intimate terms, calling God, Abba, Father, or more like, “papa.” Jesus had an uncanny ability to see beyond petty and socially-constructed divisions between people, welcoming and loving people who were considered uncouth and undesirable by society.  

So the community that the Gospel of John comes from revered Jesus. When John wrote his version of the Jesus-story, he used Jesus to represent God. It is admittedly a bit hard for us to grasp, but in John’s gospel, Jesus literally represents God. So, Jesus and God share the same “glory” which is a word that literally means a brilliantly shining God-ish-ness.  

And, to make it clear, John breaks the rules of grammar, portraying Jesus speaking of himself in the third person, not as first-person “me,” but as “Jesus Christ” as Jesus describes “eternal life,” saying, as he prays,  

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Mysticism of Jesus and the Early Church

Even though the grammar is weird, the meaning is clear. John’s community experienced a transformed life, by getting to know God through knowing Jesus. Jesus led them to a spirituality of oneness with God. 

This is the essence of mysticism, which was clearly practiced by Jesus and by early Christian communities. It is a sad anomaly of history that we gave up mystical experience for theology, creeds, and catechisms. 

But anyway, in the early centuries, they were still mystics, and they experienced oneness with God, just as Jesus did.  

So, John wrote this section in which he presents Jesus, who stands for God, in prayer to God. So, Jesus’ prayer requests are meant to express God’s will. God’s will for people is for the healing of all of the divisions between each other. He wills for their oneness. Jesus prays,

“that they may be one, as we are one.”  

Protection Needed

In order for them to be one, Jesus prays for their protection, saying, 

protect them in your name that you have given me”. 

What would they need protection from? From all of the forces that subvert God’s will for oneness. What would those be? 

There are so many forces against unity. For example, I think we need protection from the forces of tribalism that make it easy to ignore, write-off, or even despise people who are not in our tribe, our race, our religion, our party, our orientation. 

When former Evangelical pastor and author Rob Bell wrote his book “Love Wins,” in which he expressed doubt about the existence of hell, another leading Evangelical Theologian tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Belief in hell is a requirement for that tribe.  

There are many kinds of tribes these days, with their exclusions and litmus tests. I think today we need protection from the forces of tribalism that make it impossible for Democrats and Republicans to work together for common solutions to the health and economic crisis we are in because of the pandemic. 

Covid-19 could have been the common enemy that we all united to fight against together, like the way we united to fight fascism in the Second World War; but instead, we are fighting each other. Our lack of unity literally kills people.

Eternal Life Starting Now

In John, the transformed life that has experienced healing of those divisions is actually called “eternal life” that begins already here and now, in this life. Let us hear it again. Jesus prays, 

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life” is knowing God, and specifically, knowing God in the form of Jesus. For us, God is Jesus-shaped. In other words, although God is a mystery beyond human understanding, there are some things we can say about God. 

God must be as compassionate as Jesus was. God must be as inclusive as Jesus was. God must be as responsive to human suffering as Jesus was. 

Eternal life begins now, as the kind of transformed life that emulates the Jesus-perspective. 

I believe that this kind of transformation comes from mystical practices, like meditation, specifically because those practices help us with the ego; the very basis of our feeling of separation and superiority to other tribes. 

The ego wants to be superior and exclusive, to be tribal, but mystics know that that is an illusion; a dangerous, destructive illusion. Meditation, which reduces the ego voice in our heads, is what nearly all mystics practice because it is so effective.  

Unified Mission

People who have the kind of mystical insight into our essential unity are not in it for themselves; they naturally reach out to help others. John says that God “sent” Jesus into the world. 

But, lest we think that this kind of sending happened only once and only to Jesus, let us remember that that was only the first step in the sending process. Later we will hear Jesus say to the disciples, 

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  

John 20:21

So, a sense of mystical unity leads naturally to a sense of mission. We are one, sent on a mission from God to overcome all the forces of division that separate us.  

How?

How? For the historical Jesus it meant having table fellowship that broke down those divisions. It meant conducting his ministry in non-Jewish territory. It meant having conversations with people who had been marginalized, like lepers, women, and Samaritans, and with people who were responsible for marginalizing his people, the Romans, even with Roman soldiers who were implementing the repression.  

How about us? It is specifically our mission to reach out to all kinds of people with the belief that, at least in God’s perspective, we are all one. 

This fundamental belief draws us to participate in the Interfaith Fellowship. We believe that beneath our external differences, we are all one. 

This is also what opens our hearts to the poor among us, as we participate in several feeding ministries like Second Sunday Salvation Army Suppers and weekly collecting canned goods. 

We are not above people just because we have been blessed with material resources. At root, we are all one, and we have been sent on a mission in Jesus’ name. 

This sense of our foundational oneness opens us to people who have been marginalized in every way, including people with disabilities, people with mental illness, and people who have non-heterosexual orientations. 

Before this pandemic hit, we were formulating plans to create a safe space for LGBTQ youth to come for fellowship, for education, and for connection to community resources, like counseling and medical resources. 

We have become aware of the huge problem of homelessness and suicidality among those young people, and as people of faith who believe we are essentially one, we feel the call to minister to them.  

We will probably never achieve the kind of oneness we seek. The world will never be fully healed of its divisions. There will probably always be tribalism and war, just as there will always be poverty and hunger.  

But we are here because we have embraced Jesus’ vision. We believe we have been sent with a purpose to be part of God’s mission of compassion and healing. 

We will continue the kinds of mystical ego work that keep our hearts in tune with God’s heart, and leads to transformation. We will affirm together, that despite appearances to the contrary, we are one. 

The Spirit and Mental Health

The Spirit and Mental Health

Sermon for May 17, 2020, Easter 6A.

Audio will be here for several weeks. Video is at the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR Youtube channel.

John 14:5-21

[Jesus said:] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

None of us are comfortable with this situation of social distancing and isolation. Some of us are just bored. Others are dealing with all the implications of working from home; the living room becomes the office and the refrigerator is always available, neither of which is healthy for us. 

Some of us are just lonely, others are with people who are driving them crazy. There are lots of reasons for feeling unhappy with this pandemic time. 

Now, we have started looking at other people with suspicion — especially the ones in public places who will not wear masks and who ignore social distancing. But, if you are like me, you find it uncomfortable to look at other people as potential threats. How do you love your neighbor but hope they don’t come to close to you? It causes stress on top of anxiety.  

In our area, we have not had many known cases of Coronavirus, but the keyword there may be “known.” Maybe we just don’t know. We are not doing much testing here. 

A local medical service provider just told us that a kit of 20 tests she was ordering cost $1,600. She asked us to pray that her agency would get the grant they were applying for to pay for them. 

She also told us that she had seen severely sick patients in the past few months who thought they had pneumonia, but were never tested for Covid-19. In her opinion, when we do start testing on a large scale, we are going to be surprised at the number of local cases. 

Another doctor in the meeting said that the virus is not going away, and probably will be with us permanently. No one can predict how this will turn out — and the unknowns add to the stress we all feel.

Mental Health Awareness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It could not have come at a better time. All of us are newly aware of how important mental wellness is. As the song said,

Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘till it’s gone.” 

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

If mental health is a concern for those of us who were relatively healthy before the pandemic, how much more important is it for those with underlying mental health issues? 

We are going to devote our next Third Thursday program to this issue. We will be speaking with people with mental health conditions and with local therapists. We will be providing some strategies that all of us can use to help improve our mental health.  

We, people of faith, have a set of tools that can be of great benefit for our mental health. We do not have a panacea. There is no magical or even spiritual instant cure for depression, bipolar illness, or schizophrenia. Nevertheless, according to Psychology Today,

“A growing corpus of research has examined the link between religious belief, religious practice, and mental health. These studies reveal a set of consistent findings.  The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being.

Coherence and Faith

Scientists ask the question, why would this benefit exist? One possible answer is that religious practice, both private practices, like prayer and meditation, and public practices like participation in worshipping communities “can provide a ‘sense of coherence,’ imparting deep meaning and an organizing framework to individual life experience.”

In other words, what we believe about the world we live in, whether it makes sense, whether there is a purpose, whether or not our limited mortal lives matter, makes a difference. Suffering is part of life, but it matters what we think about the world we are suffering in.

So that brings us to the Gospel text before us. This text helps us to understand how the world is coherent and meaningful, even if it does include suffering from mental health or other issues. 

No Orphans

The scene that the Gospel of John presents has Jesus and the disciples in the upper room on the night before Jesus’ arrest. In this scene, Jesus discusses his upcoming departure. By this literary device, John describes to his Christian community what it means to be followers of Jesus when Jesus is not physically present. 

The mood here is dark. The disciples are presented as anxious, confused, and fearful, maybe even depressed as they imagine life without Jesus’ presence. John’s community was experiencing these feelings.  

So, Jesus’ remarks are made specifically to address their mental health. But, if the problem is his upcoming absence, what could he possibly say that would help?  What could help John’s community, 60 years after Jesus’ earthly life, who must live without him?  

The announcement Jesus makes takes into account their feelings. He says,

I will not leave you orphaned”. 

What do we believe about the world and our place in it?  We believe that we have not been left orphaned to suffer alone. Whatever else we can say about the world, we people of faith believe it is a divinity-soaked world. We believe that God is spiritually present in every part of our universe like the way background radiation is ubiquitously present in the universe.  

God as Personal 

Yet, it is important for us, as Christians, to say something further. God is not, we believe, just a force. God is more than merely an impersonal, mindless presence in the world like energy. God is personal; that means that God has a purpose and will. God has relationships and even emotions. 

Now, we do not claim to know too much; God, we believe, is a mystery far beyond our mind’s ability to conceive. But we can say some things, and importantly, we can say that God is personal.  

This is what John’s gospel tries to capture in the scene we read. Jesus describes the way God is spiritually present with the disciples in the pictorial language of the Spirit whom, he says he will send in his absence. He describes the Spirit as an “Advocate, to be with you forever.” 

As an advocate, the Spirit takes up our case; in other words, God is not just a mindless force, rather, God is with us and for us; literally on our side.  

It is not just that God  is vastly more than a mindless force, it is also that God is our help, our refuge, our safe place.  This is  the opposite of the concept of a God who is an angry presence, as judge, jury, and executioner. 

We do not believe that God is out to punish us, causing suffering, sending us pandemics and recessions. Rather, God is with us in the middle of our suffering, on our side, helping us get through it, moment by moment.  

Present like Beauty and Truth

The spiritual presence of God is not obvious, any more than beauty is obvious. It is possible for someone to walk through the most beautiful spring day and never once take the time to notice its loveliness.  

John describes people who are not awake to the presence of the divine as “the world.” He says, “the world cannot receive [the Spirit], because it neither sees him nor knows him.” 

That is true, in my experience; some people are spiritually sensitive and others are not. But to those who pay attention, to those who are awake, the Spirit is everywhere present.  

We can say something more about the nature of God as person: God’s Spirit is “the Spirit of truth….” In another place we hear Jesus say, “the truth will set you free.” 

This is God’s purpose for us: our inner freedom to live the truth. To live with eyes wide open to the truth; to live without delusions, illusions, or in denial. This includes the truth of our conditions.  

None of us is perfect, nor are any of us perfectly healthy. We all have our dark sides, which we admit with honesty. We all have days we are not proud of. We all have shortcomings. And we can be honest about the fact that none of us is completely healthy. We can admit that we struggle with mental health. 

We are a community that is not afraid to admit that some of us suffer from depression, bi-polar issues, anxiety, and other mental health issues. 

We believe that God’s truth-oriented Spirit is with us in these conditions, just as much as God is with us when we suffer from cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

And just like those conditions, part of God’s grace comes to us through modern medicine, through drugs and therapies that can help us with these conditions.  

I have had times of depression and I benefited from therapy and medication. Like many of you, I have people in my family who have suffered anxiety and depression. I have family members who have attempted suicide and family who have become addicted to drugs that were meant to treat their mental health issues. I have family members who suffer from being bi-polar and from PTSD. 

That is my truth. But so is the truth that some have experienced great help through medicine and therapy, and some have experienced healing in some measure. 

Understanding that God is spiritually present, on our side, and helping us accept the truth has been a huge benefit to some of them.  

We may be isolated from regular social contact in these pandemic days, but we are not alone. We may be suffering in all kinds of ways these days, but we do not suffer alone. The Spirit is present as our Advocate, on our side, supporting us, moment by moment, helping us face the truth of whatever is happening with acceptance and equanimity. 

We are awake and attentive to the Spirit’s presence. We employ regular spiritual practices like prayer and meditation to help us stay awake and attentive. And we show special love and care for those among us whose suffering in these days is greater than ours because of their underlying mental health issues. There are no orphans among us; that is our truth. 

Where is God in a Pandemic?

Where is God in a Pandemic?

Sermon for May 10, 2020, Easter 5A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks. Youtube service is here.

John 14:1-14

[Jesus said:] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Pandemics force changes on us that no one wanted. Graduations cannot happen, at least not when they were supposed to. We cannot gather safely for worship, or even for funerals. 

One of my clergy colleagues here in Fort Smith had to attend the funeral service for his mother by Zoom this past week. 

And now, today is Mother’s Day and we cannot safely take mom out for a Mimosa and a Sunday Lunch. 

When I speak with my mother on the phone she tells me that she and my father are not even allowed to venture outside their room, into the hallway of their assisted living facility, which she is not happy about, but at least they have been safe thus far.  

How long will this last? 

Will there be subsequent waves of infections as the scientific models suggest? 

When will it be safe enough to open the economy? 

And the deeper question: are the leaders who are making decisions about this influenced by public pressure and economic concerns, or by science-based medical advice? 

Are they keeping us safe or are they eying upcoming elections?

Questions

At an even deeper level, we wonder, where is God in this? 

Every case of suffering raises this question. The worse the suffering is, the more widespread the pain, the more intense the question becomes. 

Why is this happening? 

Why doesn’t God stop it?  

What can I count on God to do for me or my loved ones? 

What role does prayer play in all of this? 

How can it be true, as we read in today’s text that

If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it”

Were not those who have died prayed for by anyone? (Who could believe that?) — then, what does that promise mean? 

These are not easy questions.  

Reading John Today

We will look at these questions today, through the lens of our wisdom tradition, the scriptures. We will look hard at the text, and we will try to be open to its teaching, while having our eyes wide open to modern scholarship. 

What I mean by that is that whenever we are reading the gospel of John, we are reading something quite different in many respects than the other gospels. 

John was written around six decades after Jesus walked the earth. The voice of Jesus in John’s gospel sounds quite different than the voice we hear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew, Mark, and Luke see Jesus very similarly; they differ, but they have a common view of Jesus, which is why they are called the Synoptic — seen together — gospels.  

Early church leaders called John’s gospel a “spiritual gospel.” So, in John, when Jesus speaks, we are hearing an interpreted and processed message. For example, John (the traditional name of this anonymous gospel) describes Jesus as making long speeches, unlike the short sayings found in the synoptic gospels. 

In the Synoptics, Jesus’ theme is the kingdom of God. In John, Jesus’ theme is himself. All of the “I am” statements like “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” are exclusively in John’s gospel. 

So, many modern scholars believe that John uses the character Jesus to stand for God. In fact, this text today makes that clear. Jesus says directly, 

I am in the Father and the Father is in me…Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Earlier in John, we hear Jesus say, “The Father and I are one” (10:30).  

A Community’s Interpretation

So, if we are a bit removed from the historical Jesus when we read John, how shall we read it? 

I believe when we read John, we are hearing the witness of an early Christian community as they try to work out what it means to be followers of Jesus in their generation. 

Jesus had a deep relationship with God, whom he intimately referred to as his “father” or even “daddy” (Abba). 

Jesus was a deeply spiritual person, according to the gospels, and a person of intense prayer and long periods of meditation. That gave him a powerful sense of God’s presence which other people sensed when they were around him. 

As the early Christian communities gathered to remember Jesus, they understood him to be their spiritual guide, their path to a beautiful relationship with God, “the way, the truth, and the life.” 

Jesus experienced oneness with God. His followers, even in the next generation, were drawn to seek that same oneness too. This perspective has been called a “non-dual” perspective.  

I believe that the key to unlocking both the meaning of this text understanding the role of God, in a pandemic, is the same. It is the key of a non-dual perspective.  

Non-Dualism

Many people have written at length about a non-dual perspective; all we have time for today is simply to glimpse at the topic (see modern writers like Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox, for example). 

But in short, non-dual thinking does not separate nature from grace. 

Non-dual thinking does not separate God from the world. 

Non-dual thinking is capable of embracing paradox. It celebrates oneness.  

This perspective is present in the Gospel of John. Not only is Jesus one with the Father, but later, in John 17, we will read that Jesus prayed for the same oneness he had with the father to be the oneness that his followers experienced with each other and with himself and with God.  

“I ask…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

John’s Literary Strategy

One of John’s frequent literary devices is to present a scene in which Jesus is in dialogue with one other person, like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman at the well. In this scene, the dialogue partner is Phillip. 

In each of these, Jesus speaks on a spiritual level, while the other person misunderstands him by taking him literally. 

This is John’s way of signaling to his readers that to understand properly, we must be open to seeing things as the mystics do; non-dually. It is not an either-or question.  

Here is how it unfolds here: 

Where is Jesus going, Philip wonders? 

Where is the Father? 

How can he know the way? 

Jesus’ answers are non-dual. If you have seen him, you have seen the Father. If you follow him, then you already know the way; he is the way itself. There is no separation between the material and the spiritual, between nature and grace. God is in the world and the world is in God.

Let us try to unpack this perspective: theologian Peter Rollins has an analogy that may help. Think of an old shipwreck at the bottom of the sea. The sea is in the ship, and the ship is in the sea.  

And just like the way the world is in God and God is in the world, the ship is entirely in the sea — just as the world is entirely in God — but God is not entirely in the world, as the sea is not entirely in the ship; God is in everything, but is also more.  

So, it would be a mistake to think of God as a “being,” like just another ship. God is not a being, as we are beings. God is the source of all being. 

Or, to use another analogy, just like light is not something to see, but the means by which we see everything so God not a supernatural being “out there,” God is the one in whom, as scripture says, “we live and move and have our being.” God is spiritually present in everything.  

Who is God? What is God Doing?

So how do we conceive of the God that is in everything, the God whom we are one with, the God Jesus taught us about? What is God like? 

The simplest and most profound thing that we can say, as scripture teaches us, is that

God is love” . 

1 John 4:7

Love is God’s character, God’s essence, God’s essential being. This leads us to say also that God is good. God’s mercy is inexhaustible. God wills the good for you, and me, and for every person, even for every part of Creation.  

So, what is God doing, as the spiritual presence of love and goodness? First, we can say that God is not controlling things. Love does not control. To control is not to love. 

God’s love is an un-controlling love. Love cannot control, but love can lure; love cannot coerce, but love can persuade. Love can coax. Love can open the door to the possibility of the next right thing.

 Love can lead to healing after trauma and injury, to forgiveness after pain, to the transformation that comes from equanimity; being aware that things as they are, are as they are, instead of becoming embittered and resentful at that which we are powerless to change. 

This is what Jesus meant by the kind of faith that children have. As Matthew Fox put it:

“Faith is nothing else but a right understanding of our being—trusting and allowing things to be; A right understanding that we are in God and God whom we do not see is in us.” 

God in a Pandemic

So, where is God in the pandemic? God is not “out there” watching, letting things happen that could be stopped, deciding what to control and what not to control, choosing whom to spare and whom to ignore. That version of God as sloppy Superman is what we had as children, but is not worthy of adult thinking. 

God is not separate from the world of sunsets of lovers, and viruses, but is in each part of it as the sea permeates  the ship. 

This means that God sufferers as we suffer in the pandemic, and God will rejoice as we rejoice when it is behind us. God is present in each case of love showing up during the pandemic — in the work of each nurse, each doctor, each person who comes into the room to sanitize it, each person who cares enough to wear a mask and walk down the one-way grocery aisle the right direction.  

Prayer 

So, what about prayer.  God is personal — or we should say, at least personal, as we think of it, if not much more than we can conceive. So, prayer is communication with God as a person. 

Prayer is crying out in pain over suffering. Prayer is expressing our deepest wishes for good outcomes. 

And, at the bottom of it all, prayer too is a mystery. It was a mystery to the apostle Paul who described prayer as groaning, saying that God’s Spirit translates our groaning into groaning of the Spirit, too deep for words, interceding with our spirits as we pray. 

So we ask “anything” and receive the spiritual goodness of a loving, present God, with us with un-controlling love.  

So, where is God in a pandemic? Where is God in suffering? God is love. God is good. 

God is with you in every moment. In fact, God is not separate from you and from the world you live in. At the deepest level, we are one. 

If you are suffering, God is with you in your suffering. If you are crying out to God in prayer, God hears you and loves you. 

This is the way Jesus taught us. The truth of our Oneness, the life of faith that trusts that in the end, as Julian of Norwich said, “all will be well.

The Voice and the Gate

The Voice and the Gate

John 10:1-10

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Animals can communicate, but only in a limited way, compared to humans. They can sound the alarm, for example. When my dog is out in the back yard, the birds know to scatter, and as they do they cry out, which alerts the squirrels too, so they head for the trees. 

But the animal communication ability has severe limitations. Animals can conceive of a predator in the present, but they cannot think about a possible predator coming in the future. They cannot discuss a potential predator coming tomorrow, as humans can.  Our capacity to imagine hypothetical predators has a downside: it also gives us the ability to lie. We can say things that are not true. This is a big problem for us.

Self-Deceit

It is a problem on multiple fronts. The most obvious is that we can lie to each other. Maybe worse is the way we can lie to ourselves. We do it all the time. We are constantly making up mental excuses for ourselves: 

“it wasn’t our fault,
we don’t do it very often,
we deserved it, they made us do it,
they did it first, just this once,
we were just tired,
we were just in a bad mood;” 

we have a million excuses that we tell ourselves.

We also lie to ourselves by the practice of denial. We don’t want to see things, so we don’t. 

We don’t want to let ourselves know things, so we pretend we don’t.  

We don’t want to admit that our behavior is not just occasional but has become habitual; we don’t want to keep track of our calories or our alcohol consumption, or our discretionary spending, or our age or our physical limitations. 

We can be in denial about nearly everything, at least for a while, until it catches up with us. Denial is a form of lying to ourselves. 

This is a big problem for us when we come to this text in John’s gospel. Many decades after Jesus was physically present, John — if that was the author’s name, as it became traditional to call this gospel — wrote these Jesus-stories for his little Christian community. He wanted to encourage them to keep following Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle, even though he was not physically present. So he wants them to think of themselves and of Jesus in certain ways, and he wants them to engage certain practices to keep them on track.

Sheep to a Shepherd

The way John wants his community to think of themselves in relation to Jesus is as sheep to a caring, protecting shepherd. I love that metaphor because both aspects are present: care and protection. 

Jesus, in John’s gospel, is a character that stands for God’s presence with his people. John is comfortable with thinking of God as a Shepherd. It is one of the treasures from his Hebrew Bible. As the twenty-third Psalm says, 

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.”

Knowing that we are loved and cared for by God, just like a shepherd cares for his sheep is fundamental and basic. To know and believe in our hearts that the God who made us, loves us and wants what is best for us is basic and fundamental for our spiritual lives. 

It is probably the one truth that can help us counter the lies we tell ourselves, the excuses, and the denials. We don’t need to excuse or ignore our dark sides when we realize that nothing we can do can change our status: we are beloved by God. God is our Shepherd.  

This is not simplistic. This is not a carte blanche guarantee of protection from every bad thing, but a promise of presence, even in dark times. There is no guarantee that we will not go through the “darkest valley” — we have been there, and there are more ahead — but it is a promise of God’s presence even in our suffering and pain. God will be with us as we go through it, and lead us to a better place afterward. 

So it is right and good for John’s community to think of themselves as sheep of God’s fold. That is how we should think of ourselves in relation to God. 

Listening

John also wants them to engage certain practices as followers of Jesus. He uses the metaphor of listening to Jesus’ voice. John draws on the sheep metaphor again: just as sheep recognize the familiar voice of their shepherd, so we recognize Jesus’ voice. When we hear it, we trust it. What he says, we will do.  

But there is a tricky complication here. Jesus is no longer physically present. So in what way does he continue to speak? How do we listen to Jesus’ voice? 

How do we know that we are not simply hearing our own voice in our heads, telling us what we want to hear? How do we know we are not lying to ourselves to justify what we want to do or excuse ourselves from facing the truth? 

John acknowledges this conundrum by commenting that people found it hard to understand Jesus. He says, 

“Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

The stakes are high. There are consequences for mishearing; John uses the metaphor of a thief or bandit, of killing and being destroyed. The voice in our heads lies to us and denies the truth, often to our peril. 

Instead of merely telling us what is right or wrong, the voices can be harsh and judgmental. They can tell us that we are not worth anything, or that we never do it right, or that we are being punished for what we have done. They tell us we are not forgivable, or not loved, or not okay in some way. 

Or, they can tell us that the destructive path we are going down is normal, that God will magically bail us out from the harm we are causing ourselves. There are any number of ways of being destroyed by attending to the voices of the thieves and the bandits in our heads. 

Active Listening

The problem is that hearing is a passive activity, both for sheep and for people. When we hear a voice, we recognize it without even trying to. But when Jesus is not present, listening cannot be passive, it has to be active. We have to train our ears to hear Jesus, and to distinguish the genuine voice of Jesus.  

I cannot give you any way to be certain about this. There will always be subjectivity and risk.  But the only way I know to be able to distinguish Jesus’ voice from the destructive false voices is to be as active as possible as near to the source as we can get. The historical Jesus is not present, but the gospels are the closest we can come to his voice. So we regularly attend to the gospels as they present Jesus. Voices that do not line up with the Jesus of the gospels should be immediately suspect.  

For example, Jesus never rejected people. Any voice of rejection should be suspect. Jesus never found anyone hopeless; he identified no lost causes. So any voice that forecloses hope must be suspect. 

Jesus taught us to approach God by the metaphor of loving heavily father, or the divine tracker of the number of hairs on our heads, so any voice describing God as a punitive, sin-tracker has got to be misconstrued. 

Jesus did not label people sinners, but rather spoke of those who had become lost, and, spoke of God as the great seeker of the lost — using, of course, the metaphor of a shepherd who left the 99 sheep to go in search for the one lost one. So any voice suggesting God’s apathy or judgmentalism is not the voice of Jesus. 

Jesus sat at table having fellowship with all kinds of people, so any voice of exclusion must not be his. Jesus taught us parables about helping the injured on the side of the road and brought healing to all kinds of people, so any voice justifying neglect of the suffering cannot be the voice of Jesus. 

By actively attending to the Jesus of the gospels, we can, over time, become experts in voice recognition. We will not have certainty, but we will have confidence that we are on the right track.  

Besides the gospels, we can actively attend to the voices of people we believe are wise interpreters of Jesus’ voice in our context. Daily we can fill our minds with people who speak to us through their books, videos, blog posts, podcasts, or email subscriptions, and from them, we can gain wisdom. 

These sources all must be measured by the standard of the Jesus of the gospels, but when we find people who are faithful to the gospel tradition, we can learn a lot. They can help apply the gospel voice of Jesus to our context. 

I have a set of daily readings and a stack of books that I return to daily which help me immeasurably. Our church library is a great source, and we have new books that you can check out to read in this pandemic time when perhaps you have extra reading time. We have listed them in the past Spire newsletters and on our church website. Locals: We will be happy to drop off books at your house if that would make it easier for you. 

You may have your own resources already. Use them. Listen for the authentic voice that calls us each by name and leads us through our days.  

The Gate to the Abundant Path

Although my English teachers would have marked him down for it, John mixes the metaphors midstream. Jesus first said that he was the true shepherd, but now changes the image: he is the gate. He is the access point. He is the door to the path that can lead to an abundant life. 

It is Jesus’ view of God as good that will help us stay on the right path, if we listen to him long enough to believe it. It is Jesus’ orientation to life, not lied for self, but for others that will lead to joy. As the prayer of St. Francis said,

“for it is in giving that we receive.” 

It is Jesus’ spirituality of practicing the presence of God in every moment, of prayer and meditation that will bring equanimity and a calm centeredness to our lives. 

How do we follow Jesus who is no longer physically present?  We think of ourselves in relation to Jesus as sheep to a shepherd, as sheep using the gate that leads to the right path.  Jesus is the shepherd whose voice we learn to hear.  Jesus is the gate for us that opens on to the path of life. This is truly the path to an abundant life that our Shepherd wants us to live.   

Stories: Your Choice

Stories: Your Choice

An essay on worldviews, ethics, science and myth in the Coronavirus days.

After the Trojan War, in the ancient Greek story the Odyssey, the main character, Odysseus or Ulysses, returns after 10 years of war and 10 years of travel to his home on the island of Ithaca. When he gets there he learns that his wife Penelope has been waiting faithfully for him, but has had to use stratagems and wisdom to ward off the advances of the many “suitors” who come to court her, assuming Odysseus had died, hoping to gain control of the estate. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, who was just a boy when the war started, is now a young man. The two of them, with the help of the goddess Athena, then kill all the suitors in a bloodbath. That was Greek virtue in action. Without proof of the death of Odysseus, he suitors had dishonored Penelope and scorned her marriage, and so deserved the fate they received. That is how the world worked, and should work. It made perfect sense back then. The fact that a goddess assisted in the violence shows that vengeance was proper, from their perspective.  

That story, and many others from Greek mythology, are re-told in one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read, a New York Times #1 best seller called Circe, by Madeline Miller. The story of the slaughter of the suiters is not narrated as it happens but is recounted as a memory by Odysseus’ Telemachus, to the nymph Circe and her son. So the story comes from Telemachus’ perspective. He watched his father who had returned from the horrors of war and from an impossibly long and loss-filled return voyage home, arrive as a bitter, empty man. He was, in Telemachus’ view, a broken, angry, man, frustrated with his life, who took out his rage mercilessly on men who had every reason to believe he was dead. Telemachus recounts the story with his own bitterness at having watched his father, once a noble king of Ithaca, descend to this barbarous state.  

Miller has not only re-written the story, but she has also stood Greek virtue on its head. The Greeks would have applauded Odysseus’ vengeful violence, but Miller finds it appalling. Why? Because, whether or not she is a Christian (I have no idea) Miller, an East-coast American, has absorbed a Christian world view. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Vengeance is not ours to do. Enemies, Jesus said, should be forgiven, not slaughtered. The ancient Greeks would have scoffed, even laughed at Telemachus’ moral assessment of his father’s violence, but to Christians, or people who have absorbed a Christian perspective, it makes perfect sense.  

Which perspective on the world, the ancient Greek, or the Christian point of view is more adequate, given the world as it is? The question is troubling because the way the entire world seems to work is much more in line with the Ancient Greek view. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, the law of the jungle seems to be how the entire biosphere operates. The survival of the fittest is the way evolution produces creatures who are best fitted to their changing environments. Prey and predation seem to be how it works, from the cellular world where bacteria and viruses live to the world of carnivores and omnivores. I see it in my dog who finds endless delight in chasing squirrels up the trees, but the truth is that if she caught one — well, I don’t want to think about what would happen. Maybe the Ancient Greek perspective in which Odysseus is a “hero” best fits the world as it is. So what then, of the Christian world view?  

At one level we humans are animals. We can tell our human story this way. We have genes that want to survive and propagate, and we have to eat to live. But that is not all that can be said about us. Something more must be said because we are not merely logical primates who can speak with language. Our story can include the fact that we are people of depths of emotion who love profoundly and need to be loved. We are lovers of beauty and structure, from word-play and poetry to music and art. We are capable of cooperating on massive scales, achieving societies in which huge numbers of us can thrive together. We have found ways to combat many diseases, we have built universities and healthcare systems that protect and prolong life, diminish suffering and provide care for sick children, the elderly, the disabled, people with chronic conditions, and all of us in between. In other words, we have developed beyond the brutal world of prey and predation where the law of the jungle rules the land. Viruses evolve to be lethal. The fittest may survive, but so can the vulnerable, if and when we find the collective will to help them.  

Jesus lived in the Roman Empire, a world that operated according to the ethics of Ancient Greece. But the story he believed and taught was different. Starting from his Jewish ancestors’ story of Creation, Jesus believed in a good God who was the Source of a good material world in which people can only be described in the nearly-idolatrous language as “bearing the image of the Divine.” There is essential goodness that is far deeper in us than anything else that can be said about us. And that quality of goodness is true of all of us. We could think of it mythically as coming from our original parents before we were divided by language, race, economics, or any other condition. We, therefore, recognize our obligations to each other as “neighbor” when any of us suffers; we fulfill our highest calling when we become the Good Samaritan who helps the victim have a future with hope. This is our story. 

So, in this time of the pandemic, when there is so much suffering all around us, it may seem as though the world of deadly viruses is simply a brutal place of a-moral nature being nature, blindly operating by Darwinian principles. But we are here to make the wager that there is a lure to goodness that calls us louder to a higher reality. As the Iona community has said, “we believe in a with-us God who sits down in our midst and shares our humanity,” suffering as we suffer and offering us the possibility of the next right thing, of compassion and of service to each other. This is our Christian worldview, our story, and our source of hope.  

Reframing Redemption

Reframing Redemption

Sermon for April 26, 2020, Easter 3A

Audio can be found here for several weeks. An online version can be found at the Central Presbyterian Youtube channel.

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

There is a lot of disappointment in the Bible. Story after story contains characters that expected one thing, but got another. Expectations were raised, then dashed. For example: the Bible starts in a perfect garden of effortless abundance, but one bite of an apple later the temptable pair of humans are struggling to produce food by the sweat of their brows from a thorn-infested earth.  

The family of Abraham multiplies in the land of Canaan, only to be forced by famine to immigrate to Egypt where they become slaves of Pharaoh. They are liberated by Moses only to wind up in a wilderness without water. 

The disappointment goes on and on. They get to the Promised Land, build a kingdom, but get carried off into exile in Babylon. They are released and return, but only as a province of Persia. By the time of Jesus they are vassals of the Roman Empire, their leadership is corrupt, and most of them are poor. But then a figure like Jesus shows up, talking about the Kingdom of God coming near, and getting their hopes up, only to become just another victim of violent Roman suppression.  

Disappointment is how this story in Luke starts. We can relate to feeling disappointed and having our expectations dashed. Whoever believed we would be living in times like these? Whoever imagined we would be going to church by video and communion by drive-thru? It is not at all what any of us wants. We too are disappointed. 

So, what can we learn from a story that begins with disappointment? We know the end of the story, but if we rush to the happy conclusion we will miss some important ideas that this story is teaching. I think there is something here for us that we will benefit from only if we walk through the story, letting it unfold as Luke wrote it. So let us being.

On the Journey

In the opening scene, an unknown couple who were Jesus-followers are on a journey. Luke presented Jesus’ whole ministry as one long journey, from Galilee to Jerusalem, so it is not surprising that his followers are also on a journey. We are all on journeys too. 

When you are on a journey, you are moving forward, leaving the past behind, following a path that you have chosen because you believe it will lead you to a better place. You journey one step at a time.  

Our journey is called life, which we experience one day at a time; in fact, one moment at a time. Sometimes we followed blind alleys or took attractive, but destructive exits, and had to re-route. Sometimes we felt like we had no idea where we were going. Sometimes our journeys broke us.  At other times, it felt like a wonderful ride that we were happy to be on. 

Every day of our journey we make dozens of small choices that either help us or not, and all of these accumulate over a lifetime to make us the people that we are. Daily choices about things like diet, exercise, hygiene, sleep, and spiritual practices all affect our journey; both the destination, and the shape we are in when we get there. 

This couple, since we know nothing about them, represents all of us. They are going to a town we know nothing about, so it represents our destination. 

A journey is not like progress around a Monopoly game board, where every square you land on is well known.  Even on the most well-planned journeys, the unexpected can happen, like pandemics. 

On this journey, an unexpected and unknown third person suddenly arrives, and changes everything for them.  

Luke does something here that all of the gospel writers do: they tell the stories of Jesus’ appearances, after his crucifixion, as if they were dreams. Jesus shows up, like this, out of nowhere, and then vanishes, the way people do in dreams.  

The couple does not recognized Jesus, which defies normal waking logic. He feigns ignorance of the big, public event they are so upset about, namely, his own crucifixion. All of these elements make it clear that Luke is not describing a literal scene, but telling a parable. So let us learn from the parable.

Dashed Hopes

The couple’s big concern is that now that Jesus has been crucified, their hopes for redemption have been disappointed.  They tell the stranger walking with them, 

we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” 

For them, redemption meant exactly one thing: liberation from Roman and Herodian rule. They wanted Jesus to be the new Moses to lead the enslaved, oppressed people to independence and justice. But now he was dead.  

So, Jesus has a task in front of him. He has to re-orient their long-held expectations. That is not a small nor easy job. If you have had your hope set on something for a long time, it’s not easy to change it. 

How do you get people who have believed that redemption means one thing to change their expectations? This is going to be a question for us too, but let us continue first with the story.

A New Look at Old Texts

In this parable, Luke has Jesus take them through the scriptures with eyes open to things they had missed, things they had overlooked, things they had misread. So he takes them back through 

Moses and the prophets,” 

which means the stories of their original liberation from Egypt, all the way through the stories of the monarchy and its demise. 

Embedded in those stories is the hope that one day God would act to make things right again. One New Testament scholar calls this the expectation that one day God’s great “clean up of the world” would commence. 

Although the specifics of this cleanup action in the Hebrew Bible, are vague, they included a figure they called Messiah who would be God’s anointed agent of change. 

Opinions about what Messiah would do, and be, differed wildly in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, but many believed he would be like Moses or Joshua, or perhaps a new King David. Someone who would rally the people to national victory.  

One could indeed, read “Moses and the prophets” that way, but there were other alternative visions of what redemption could look like. Some prophets envisioned, not national victory, but a worldwide movement which would produce a time of peace, 

swords into plows,” 

Isaiah 2;4; Joel 3:10; Micah 4:3

and a time of security, 

everyone dwelling under their own vine and fig tree, without anyone making them afraid.” 

Isa 36:16; Zech 3:10

That vision is far wider and deeper than a national liberation. That is a “clean up” of the world that involves total transformation. It would involve a change in aspirations, from parochial, and acquisitive goals, to an inclusive, egalitarian harmony among all people. This new vision included eschewing violence and materialism, in favor of peace, justice, and spiritual transformation.  

How do you get to that kind of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, of “Moses and the prophets?” There is one key that unlocks the door to their understanding; one key to reorienting their concept of redemption. That key is the word “suffering.” Jesus asks them, rhetorically, 

Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?

Suffering is the cost of rejecting violence. Suffering is the cost of being a champion of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Suffering is the price for being pro-active on behalf of “the least of these” as Jesus called them. And suffering is exactly what Jesus was willing to do, on behalf of his people.  

But the Easter story is that suffering is not an end in itself, nor is it the end of the story. Hope comes in believing that suffering can be redemptive. New life can come out of dead hopes and dreams. 

God does indeed long for the clean up of the world, and we are the agents he has chosen for that job. God is at work in us and through us as we participate in fulfilling God’s dream of healing the world (Tikkun Olam). 

God’s method is collaboration.  God will not do it without us, and we cannot do it without God. Suffering may be called for, in the process. If so, we accept that, believing that being collaborators with God in God’s good purposes for the world is worth it.  

Eyes Opened by the Breaking

There is so much of this story that we have no time to unpack, but let us jump to the climactic scene in the house where Jesus has been invited to stay with the two travelers. 

He is their guest, but in this illogical, dream-like story, Jesus assumes the role of host. Luke tells us that Jesus 

took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”. 

Using the exact same four verbs as Luke used in the story of Jesus’ feeding the multitude, and the same four verbs that Jesus used at the Last Supper: took, blessed, broke and gave, we realize what Luke wants us to learn: 

It is not just in bread, or even in the sharing of bread that we encounter the risen Christ. Rather, our eyes are opened to see Christ’s presence when the bread is broken. In brokenness, in the acceptance of suffering on behalf of others, we see the risen Christ. 

We are seeing this constantly in these pandemic days. Though some people are selfishly unwilling to suffer the inconvenience of physical distancing and of mask-wearing, thank God, they are the minority. 

Countless people are putting themselves in harm’s way to be of help to others. Medical professionals, delivery drivers, checkout clerks, and so many others are willing to embrace the possibility of suffering to serve others. They are willing to be broken on behalf of others. 

When we see this, we are seeing love in action. In every act of love, we see the spirit of the living Christ at work.  

Seeking the Right Redemption

What kind of redemption are you seeking? I was taught, when I was young, that redemption was a purely private, personal gift from God; a get out of jail free card (or out of hell) for people who said the right prayer and had the right amount of faith. That is not the kind of redemption Jesus showed any interest in.

The two disciples Jesus met on the way to Emmaus wanted national political redemption. That was not Jesus’ project either.  

They were disappointed, until they heard a much wider, deeper, and more profoundly beautiful version of redemption that Jesus taught us to long for and, with God’s help, to work for.  

When they heard of the redemption found in the willing embrace of suffering, their hearts burned.  When Jesus “took, bread, blessed, broke and gave” it to them, “their eyes were opened” in a new way to the redemptive power of brokenness. 

They were fed by that broken bread, and returned on a new path, a new journey, to spread the word with great joy. The story that began in disappointment, ends with a new vision of what God is doing in the world, and so, ends in great joy.  

We are all broken people.  Life breaks us in many ways. The journeys we are on have not been easy.  This moment in the journey is not easy.  Suffering is part of it.  

But when we, in our brokenness, offer ourselves on behalf of other suffering people, new life is possible; resurrection is possible, for us, and for our suffering world. 

Locked Rooms, Grasshoppers, and Real Hope

Locked Rooms, Grasshoppers, and Real Hope

Sermon for April 19, 2020, Easter 2A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

John 20:19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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 later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Never in my life, before this pandemic, did I read these words with such sympathy: 

the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear

Our doors too are Locked, in the sense that they are not open for each other, for fear of catching an invisible, microscopic disease, even from a person who is completely asymptotic. 

Who can be a safe person to be within 6 feet of under these conditions? So, we are in a form of social lockdown out of scientifically justified fear. We can have sympathy for how those fearful, locked-down disciples felt.

John’s Generation

John wrote this gospel story several decades after the time of Jesus, maybe six decades or more. He tells the story as a metaphor for how his struggling Christian community felt. They were fearful, and in a sense, locked down too. 

Why? The early Christians had been considered a Jewish sect, and for that reason, they were legal under Roman law. 

But there came a moment in history when it became clear that Christians had made serious departures from the Jewish faith, and they were, therefore, expelled from the synagogues. 

After all, they were not keeping kosher, they were not worshipping on Saturday, the Sabbath, and they were having inclusive table fellowship with impure, uncircumcised Gentiles. Clearly, they were not practicing classical Judaism anymore, thus the expulsion.  

But that expulsion from Synagogue participation made them vulnerable. Christianity did not enjoy legal status in the Roman Empire. Christians had trouble calling Caesar “Lord,” to say the least, and so, lived in legitimate fear of the Roman response.  

Should you reveal that you were a Jesus-follower to your friends, they wondered? Like asymptomatic virus-carriers, how could you know who was safe? Thus, the sense of fear and lockdown in John’s early Christian community.

John’s Story of Easter Evening

So, how do you tell a story that can speak to that fearful community? Let us look at how John tells the story. 

John sets the story in the evening. There were no electric street lamps outside. Inside, only oil lamps burned, so things are shadowy; dark. There is a sense of foreboding. 

We can identify with that too, as the Coronavirus death tolls rise. Even if the curve is flattened out, nevertheless, the virus will spread here; we all know that. There are simply way too many people not taking it seriously and practicing responsible social distancing. 

Even some churches and Christian colleges are ignoring the science, for reasons that I cannot comprehend. You probably heard of the death of one of the leaders of the church in Louisiana whose pastor is ignoring the wisdom of science. Louisiana is next door. 

I received an email from city officials begging us pastors not to hold services, but at least one church here in Fort Smith continues to ignore the warnings. So, the virus will keep spreading. It is, in that sense, a long shadowy late evening for all of us too.  

Real Fear, Real Hope

How do you give hope to a Christian community like John’s? What is the basis for hope? It would have been impossible to give them hope that they would be safe from Roman authorities. 

Historically we know that there were waves of persecution. Most persecutions were local and sporadic in the early years. Ancient Roman historian Tacitus said the Nero blamed the fire in Rome in the year 64 on a sect that everyone hated anyway, the Christians, but nothing more is known about the consequences of his accusations.  

Systematic persecution of Christianity did not begin until the third century by most accounts. But there were real reasons for fear in John’s generation.

So, John tells a Jesus story. He sets the story in the late evening darkness and in a locked room. What happens there? Jesus shows up. Remember, this Easter Sunday evening. Jesus has just been executed by the Romans. Jesus, as far as they all believe, is dead. 

But there he is, bearing the scars of the crucifixion, standing right in front of them, saying multiple times, 

Peace be with you.

Consider this: how would it help you as an early Christian, in the year, 100 CE or so, to hear a story about Jesus showing up after his crucifixion? Even if you took that story literally, it’s not going to happen again for you, right? 

Jesus doesn’t show up bodily every time there is a reason everyone in the community is feeling fearful. So how does it help to tell a story in which the solution to the problem is unrepeatable?  How does this story help us today?

Let us think about this story more deeply. Jesus showed up, and pronounced “peace” on his disciples. What was he offering? 

The peace he brought did not come with a blanket promise of protection from the Romans. The peace Jesus offered was not based on a happy optimism, a hope that the threat would magically disappear. 

How could it? The story of Jesus is one in which he was not given blanket protection by God. He prayed to have the cup of suffering taken from him, but it wasn’t. 

On the cross, he even had a moment of feeling abandoned by God, when he said, 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

The Christian story is not a story of magical protection from suffering. That is not our hope. 

The Spirit and Hope

The next thing that happens in the story is that Jesus breaths on them and says, 

receive the Holy Spirit.” 

This starts getting to the heart of our hope. Our hope is that God is always present to us in every moment. How? The Spirit is present to us, even in our locked rooms, even in the darkness of evening, even in the context of continued threat.  For us, that means that Jesus is present, spiritually.  

Those of us who read Richard Rohr’s emails from the Center for Action and Contemplation know that he recently quoted one of their teachers, Cynthia Bourgeault, on the meaning of Christian hope.   

Real hope, she calls it “mystical hope” 

is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions. It has something to do with presence—not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.”  

We know that in every moment we are in the presence of God, upheld in communion with God who is “intimately at hand.” 

Just as Jesus was not abandoned by God on the cross, even though it felt that way, nevertheless, God was there, suffering with him.  In the end, Jesus acknowledged God’s “with-ness” saying, 

into your hands I commit my spirit.”  

Cynthia calls this kind of hope, “an abiding state of being.” We are not spared the suffering that defines human existence, rather, we are given the assurance that we are not going through it alone. God’s Spirit is always present. 

The only question is, are we awake enough to know it?  Are we paying attention to the clues of God’s presence right under our noses?

You know I enjoy the poetry of Mary Oliver. In her poem, “The Summer Day,” she illustrates what that kind of paying attention looks like.  

THE SUMMER DAY 

Who made the world? 
Who made the swan, and the black bear? 
Who made the grasshopper? 
This grasshopper, I mean— 
the one who has flung herself 
out of the grass, 
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, 
who is moving her jaws back and forth 
instead of up and down— 
who is gazing around 
with her enormous and complicated eyes. 
Now she lifts her pale forearms 
and thoroughly washes her face. 
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. 
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. 
I do know how to pay attention, 
how to fall down into the grass, 
how to kneel down in the grass, 
how to be idle and blessed, 
how to stroll through the fields, 
which is what I have been doing all day. 
Tell me, what else should I have done? 
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? 
Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?

Oliver, Mary. Devotions (p. 316). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Blessed are those who have learned to pay attention. 

Blessed are those who are awake enough to feel the breath of the Spirit in each wild and precious moment of life. 

Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed. 

Blessed are those who have learned to hope, not for a magic rescue from being a finite, mortal human, but for a glimpse into the infinite; like the glimpses you see in the complicated eyes of grasshoppers, and the immense mystery in the eyes of every other human, longing to know peace, in the context of locked rooms and real cause for fear.  

So, the question before us is the one Mary Oliver asks, 

what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?” 

We are going to be people of faith. 

We are going to be people of spiritual practices that awaken us to the Spirit. 

We are going to be people who know how to take deep breaths, even in lockdown, to slow down and notice. 

We will be people of gratitude for each precious day of life we get to live. 

And in the end, we will be people of the peace that comes from real hope.