Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about fathers:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Rilke’s poem comforts the father in me, the parent in me really, because it reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with being an exhausted father. Fatherhood should be exhausting at times because raising a child is a pilgrimage of our own self-discovery in order for us to model to our children a life that knows how to journey from the ordinary world of mundane comforts to the sacred center of life that God is calling us to. So, happy Father’s Day to all of the dads who strike the right balance between the dinner table and that far-off church in the East. It's not easy. It’s hard work. And you deserve a day to sleep in maybe and be appreciated certainly.
And there’s a truth here that goes beyond fathers and goes beyond children. Pilgrimage—a spiritual and physical journey from one place to another—reminds us that clinging to the places where we feel most safe is not always what’s best for us, or for our children, or for a world that needs the energy and, frankly, the risk of our movement—our pilgrimage, our perilous passage across the sea.
Ms. Opal Lee is known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. She is 94-years old. At 89 she undertook a 1,400-mile walk from Forth Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. to raise awareness and to gather signatures for a petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday. This was not some corporate–sponsored, cushy, comfortable trip. For much of the journey she slept at night on a mattress in the back of a Ford Explorer on the side of the road. But now, thanks in no small part to her work, Congress and the president have enacted a bill which recognizes June 19th, long celebrated in many Black communities as a day marking the end of slavery, as a public holiday.
So, I imagine that yesterday Ms. Opal Lee celebrated Juneteenth as never before, with her whole country behind her. And I pray today, after all her walking, her advocacy, and her organizing, that she has her feet up in some comfortable place where she can rest from the demands of her work. I imagine there is no better tired than the tired Ms. Opal Lee is feeling this morning.
And, so, we come to our scripture reading and Jesus asleep in the boat. We feel a little offended that Jesus might go to sleep on us, don’t we? Especially when we need him most. The disciples are certainly put out by it. They don’t just wake him up with a good shake or a friendly kick. Instead, they say, “Don’t you even care what’s happening to us? Don’t you even care we’re perishing here?” Which hardly seems fair. Doesn’t Jesus deserve his rest too?
Up to this point in Mark’s gospel Jesus has had a busy schedule—lots of travel, lots of people and crowds, lots of needs, and healings, and exorcisms, lots of disagreements with local authorities and even with his own family. It all leads to this striking line, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” Just as he was.
And how was he? He was exhausted. And (much like Ms. Opal Lee’s mattress in the back of the Explorer) all he had for comfort was a cushion in the back of a friend’s boat. Jesus was, after all, at the end of a long day, a human being like any of us. So, why should we resent his much needed and well deserved sleep?
And yet, while this sleep seems to be ordinary and expected, there is also something very not-human about this particular little snooze, isn’t there? I mean, can you imagine? The wind is gusting! Lightning is flashing and thunder crashing! The boat is being tossed on the storm! The rain is pelting his face and the waves are swamping the boat! The disciples are howling in terror! How can someone, anyone sleep through something like that?
There is something a little troubling about it, isn’t there? Exhaustion accounts for why Jesus falls asleep, but it can’t account for how he stayed asleep. How can you stay asleep at a time like this? Don’t you realize the danger we’re in? Don’t you see the danger you’ve put us in by commanding us to sail across the water in the dark of night when even the best of fisherman can’t watch out for a change in the weather let alone navigate around a squall. The risk you’ve asked us all to take, and you’re sleeping through it?
Antonio Machado remarked:
Humankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars,
and the fear of going down.
When the disciples wake Jesus up, he rebukes the storm! And then Jesus turns to the disciples and rebukes them. But he doesn’t say, “Hey, what’d you wake me up for anyway?” He simply asks, “Why are you afraid?” Don’t you know that fear is no good at sea? Why are you afraid?
Why are you afraid? Well, how much time do you have? Political unrest, nuclear proliferation, international warfare, gun ownership at record highs, gun violence exploding, culture wars, the rise of white nationalism, global climate change, mass extinctions, and a global pandemic that may very well have started in a lab just to name a few of the headlines I was scrolling through in my mind when I couldn’t get to sleep last night.
We think that the miracle is that Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said, “Peace,” to the sea, and the storm was over. “And they feared great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” But maybe there’s another miracle that we miss—that Jesus was able to sleep through that storm. What is it like inside of Jesus’ mind that he was able to do that? The text says that Jesus brings a “great calm” to the sea. But before Jesus externalized that great calm onto the wind and onto the water, he first contained that great calm within himself—lying in a bath of cold water tossed around on a cushion in the back of a sinking boat, and sleeping like a baby.
Why are you afraid? I’m afraid because my boat is so small, the sea is so big, and the storm is so fierce, that’s why I’m afraid! I’m afraid because I’m a father, and I have a little boy to protect—it’s like my heart is running around on the outside of my body. And how will I keep my heart safe from forces and powers far beyond the ability of any one person to anticipate or control?
And so I’m afraid! Because I’ve got big responsibilities. And so I’ve got to play it safe. I’m a father. It’s only reasonable I play it safe. I’m not going to cross the sea at night. Are you kidding me? I’m not going to go looking for that church in the East. No way! I’m not going to walk from Texas to D.C. Forget it! I’m going to stay right here where I feel safest.
We think that the antithesis of faith is doubt. But I think the antitheses of faith are things like despair, pessimism, selfishness, and fear—the emotions and tendencies that we use (or perhaps that use us) to close the doors of our house and make small the circle of our connection to world. Listen again to what Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Jesus brings a heaving sea to a standstill with one word: Peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says in the sermon on the mount. At the last supper he says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.” When he returns to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection, his first words are, “Peace be with you.” But how many of us have claimed our fair share of Christ’s peace? And how many of us have lived up to its implications?
How could Jesus have slept through that storm? I think the answer is that there was no distance—none whatsoever—between Jesus’ supper table and Jesus’ “church in the East.” Jesus had aligned the sacred center of his life with God. Jesus knew he was on the path that God had created for him and was calling him to. He knew that there would be storms all along the way, but he didn’t need to fear them—not because his boat would never sink, but because, when Jesus slept on that cushion, he did it as a human being exhausted by his calling on a pilgrimage to his destiny. If we want inner peace, we must also (as Howard Thurman often put it) turn the nerve centers of our consent over to God. It won’t make us invincible. It won’t even make us entirely fearless. But here is Christ’s peace—the deep peace of recognizing that your safest space and God’s biggest risk are one in the same!
Beloved, imagine an ending with me. Close your eyes and imagine a journey by boat from your safest place to that place which God has been or may be calling you to—to the church in the East, or to Washington, D.C., or to whatever “other side” it might be. You’re sailing through the dark of night, with just enough light that when you check back over your shoulder you see that Jesus is in the stern of your boat sleeping peacefully on a cushion.
A storm begins to brew. The waters get choppy and the wind blows. Then rain begins to come down in great, big sheets. Soon, the cold waves break over the rail. Of course, you’re afraid.
Now, imagine yourself crawling into the back of the churning boat and curling up on the cushion with Jesus. Imagine spooning Jesus for a little extra warmth, being careful not to wake him up—he’s sleeping so peacefully. Imagine taking his hand and holding it tight. Up in the sky, the lightning illuminates great towers of dark cloud, and thunder shatters the air all around you. You squeeze Jesus’ hand in yours and whisper up to the sky, “Peace. Peace. Peace.”
I love the month of June—the gateway to summer. And on June 1st, if it’s not up already, I put up my rainbow pride flag to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Plus Pride Month. So, I was putting out my pride flag on Tuesday and a guy was walking down the street and he said, “I like your flag!” And I said, “Thanks!” He said, “I grew up on this street, and the guy who used to live in your house was a minister, so I don’t think he ever would’ve flown a flag like that!” And I said, “Oh really? Well, I’m a minister.”
And he looked at me with a little bit of shock, and then he laughed, and then he looked at me again, and then he just kept on walking, and I could tell he couldn’t quite decide if I was joking or not. Now, I have no idea if our rainbow flag is the first to ever grace the front of the parsonage or not, but this fella just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a minister (or probably any Christian for that matter) in outspoken support of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
That happens sometimes. We think we know how the world works, we think we’ve got people pegged, we think we’ve got everything figured out and ordered, and then God sends along a little spiritual wind and blows our assumptions all over the place. Sometimes when that happens, we go find the biggest paperweight we can and we drop it right down in the middle of our assumptions so that no wind, holy or otherwise, will be able to budge them and make a swirling mess of our ordered world.
You will remember that two weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday, when the wind came and the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit many in the crowd shouted, “Oh, they’re just drunk.” And this morning we see that the Holy Spirit is at work again. This time the accusation is not drunkenness, but some are saying that Jesus has lost his mind. He’s crazy! Others say he must be possessed. But as we said two weeks ago, the intelligence of the Spirit doesn’t see any essential animosity between wildness and wisdom, between “craziness” and virtue.
All of us have felt dismissed and maligned at some point in our lives. At some point, there was some gift, some joy, some calling, some essential, important, beautiful part of you that you were given that somebody else either by cruelty or by ignorance stepped all over. Maybe they even shattered a few of your dreams—it does happen:
You showed the picture you drew to your teacher, and she told you that the sun is supposed to be yellow not green, and a little bit of your artistic voice got quiet. You tried out for the baseball team and the other kids laughed at you because you were too small to swing the bat, and you never went back out on the field. You got straight A’s in the sciences in high school, and you graduated valedictorian of your class, but no one would send you on to a university because you were just a girl, and some of the joy of your intellectual life turned to dust. You loved God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and came to feel a calling in your life to be a minister, but then somebody told you that because you’re gay, you’re not fit for ordination, and it felt like your spiritual home was pulled out from underneath your feet.
She’s just drunk! He’s just crazy! You’re just a woman! It’s just a phase! Whatever it may be, we all know to a lesser or greater extent how it feels to have this kind of pejorative thinking aimed at us. And we know that when it happens, we are in the best of holy company because Jesus faced the same kind of slander from people who saw the good he was doing and who just couldn’t accept that it was really good. They saw beauty and couldn’t accept it as beautiful. They saw faith and couldn’t accept it as faithful. They saw healing miracles and exorcisms and said, “It’s just by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that he commands them.”
Maybe this is what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. Part of the reason that people have worried so much about this particular sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—is that Jesus says it’s unforgiveable—which is troubling. The other part of the reason we worry about it so much is because no one can figure out if they’ve done it or not. It’s a little ambiguous. And to be clear, no one really knows what the sin against the Holy Spirit is. It’s all interpretation. Even the Gospel writers can’t agree on exactly when Jesus said this, how he worded it, or what he intended to mean by it.
But maybe it’s just this—dismissing the dreams, the calling, the movement of the Holy Spirit within someone else or maybe even within yourself. Last spring, we planted some seeds at the edge of the yard and the neighbor’s landscaper got confused about where the property line was and just came and weedwhacked their little heads off just as they were lifting their faces to the sun for the first time. Because anything that tries to stick its nose up above the grass, must be “just a weed.” To try to kill God’s new thing, to look at a good thing and to assign it the worst motivations, to become a fundamentalist about the height of the lawn and to mow down anything the Spirit might be raising up—maybe that’s the sin against the Holy Spirit.
This brings me back again to that Rainbow Pride Flag I put up at the beginning of Pride month. It’s seems to me that human sexuality, in all its beauty and diversity, is a good gift of the Spirit. We’re often taught that sexuality dwells at the other end of the moral order of things—that’s it’s low, base, dirty, bestial, shameful, the very opposite of holiness. But this is so deeply pessimistic and dualistic and ultimately spiritually harmful to us. The intelligence of the Spirit sees no necessary animosity between human sexuality and human spirituality, between incarnation and sacredness. In fact, there is between them an intimate connection.
Human sexuality is not just an ailment to be corrected, an urge to be denied, or a distraction to be overcome. Our sexuality is a part of our very soul, a part of the good way God created us, a gift (in part) for reproduction but also for art, for culture, for dance, for pleasure, for beauty, for family, and, obviously, for love. When I say that I am a child of God, and I believe I am, that identity doesn’t erase the gifts that God has given me in my creation, I believe it highlights them. I am child of God! And I am fearfully and wonderfully made—gay, straight, male, female, cisgender, transgender, black, white—these are the marks of the children of God, these too are gifts of the Spirit!
When we pathologize human sexuality in general or when we pick on the consensual, mutual, loving sexuality of some individual person or group of people, we do great harm—a harm that is born out in depressing statistics: a survey by the Trevor project recently reported that 40% of LGBTQ youth seriously contemplated suicide in 2020, as just one example of the pain of being rejected at the soul level.
If blaspheming the Holy Spirit and her gifts and works is an “unforgiveable” sin (and just to be clear, I think Jesus is being hyperbolic when he says “unforgiveable”), but if it is an “unforgiveable” sin, then what is it when we’re silent in face of bigotries and oppressions like homophobia that mow down the precious and developing gifts of God within a human soul?
It’s not enough, in my opinion, for me or for any Christian simply not to participate in the social denigration and spiritual abuse of LGBTQ+ people. We cannot appear neutral. We must raise our voices and raise our flags and raise our children in ways that assures the LGBTQ+ community inside and outside our walls that they too, just as they were created, are the beloved children of God. Silence on this topic is a sort of quiet blasphemy.
There are some individuals and some churches who fear that being outspoken on this point will earn them the scorn of their neighbors. Or they’re afraid if the rainbow flag goes up, what kind of people might show up at the door looking to join the family? What if queer people and queer families really show up and everyone says, “Oh, that church? They’re just the gay church.” How could we live with ourselves if some of our neighbors thought we were all a little queer? At times like this, I think it’s important to remember how queer and strange and crazy people thought Jesus was. He earned himself those badges of honor, in part, by hanging out with those who were considered outcasts and by welcoming them into the family with open arms.
Some people describe Jesus as the defender of conservative Christian family values. Other people say that Jesus fully rejected the tradition of the family. I don’t think either of those positions is quite right. Jesus certainly had family values, but they were odd family values. He appears to have been unmarried and unencumbered by a family—same for his disciples. Jesus encourages the disciples to leave their families behind. James and John abandon their father in the fishing boat to follow Jesus’ call. When another follower’s father dies, Jesus advises him not to go home to attend to the burial—follow me and let the dead bury their own dead, he says. Jesus says that he has come to set family member against family member and to make families into foes. And he says you cannot be a disciple if you do not hate your parents, your siblings, your spouse, and your children.
Certainly, Jesus is challenging allegiance to the family as most of us know and define it. But Jesus isn’t rejecting family. He’s upending it and expanding its boundaries. Who are my mother and brothers and sisters, he asks? You are. We are. Jesus offers us a new definition of family not limited by blood or tradition that offers a home to those who like him, have been misunderstood and rejected by their families of origin. This to me is the ultimate of Jesus’ family values—not the white picket fence, not heteronormative marriage, not the 2.1 children or whatever—but the idea that we as Jesus’ followers are a family by choice, open to all. That’s a wonderful thing! But it comes with a caution as well: Woe to us, if as representatives of Jesus’ chosen family, we try to dismiss, to restrain, to suppress, or to dodge what the Holy Spirit is doing in our community and who she brings to our doors.
As the Sledge Sisters recorded it in lyrics that have inspired chosen families of all kinds for the last 40 years:
We are family!
I got all my sisters with me!
We are family!
Get up everybody and sing!
All of the people around us, they say,
“Can they be that close?”
Just let me state for the record,
We're giving love in a family dose!
We are family (hey, y'all)
I got all my sisters with me!
We are family!
It’s Trinity Sunday, which is the one Sunday in the church year that the calendar instructs us to focus on a doctrine of the Church—The Trinity, God in Three Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Christ, Holy Ghost), each “person” distinct but also all coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial. It is a distinctive Christian doctrine (no other religion has anything quite like it). For that reason, perhaps, it is also sometimes confusing to people—it has certainly been fought over! And it is also beautiful, if you just let yourself take in the view that the Trinity presents to us. It’s a beautiful thing. And I think it reflects to us something true and beautiful about who we are as people created in the image and likeness of God.
We have at home a very active 20-month-old little boy, Romey, and we don’t let him watch a lot of TV, but when we do it’s often dance videos on YouTube. I’m not much of a dancer, myself, but Romey loves to dance, and we’ve got to keep him moving to burn calories and get some sleep. I don’t have to be too self-conscious about my dancing in front of a toddler, and he’s actually taught me one thing that the dance videos couldn’t teach me and that’s the key is really to just keep moving. We’ve got to keep moving.
And we see this in children: We were made to keep moving, to keep learning, to keep drawing the world into ourselves so that we can become a meaningful part of the world. Sometimes we rush through life, we overschedule ourselves, we never stop to smell the roses, and we burn ourselves out. That’s not what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about dancing—about moving toward the heart of the party, jumping in with both feet, a sort of celebratory commitment. Dancing is not about living frantically; it’s about living joyfully. We’ve got to keep moving with joy. We don’t want to get stuck without it.
There’s an old Greek word for this, perichoresis, which literally means “to dance around.” And the word was used in the early Church to describe the Trinity. You can see this picture in your head, if you try, right? God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in twirling, dancing relationship to one another. In the dance, each “person” of the Trinity is fully related to and in no way separated from the other two. It’s one dance they’re dancing. But it’s not a melting pot. It doesn’t eat up the individuality of the dance partners. Instead, the perichoresis is a living relationship between the Parent, the Christ, and the Spirit forever moving and dancing with one another, fully interconnected, yet individually intact. When take in this beautiful view of the Trinity, we see that in the very nature of God, stuckness is nowhere to be found. Joylessness is an impossibility. Dancing and jubilation and activity are at the very heart of God’s existence.
Let’s keep this view in mind as we turn to Isaiah and Nicodemus this morning. Both Isaiah and Nicodemus are at the beginning of something. And I’m interested in this because, I think, so are we. Again, right? Here we are—again—confronting a new reality—we’re now reopening our sanctuary to the public for worship on July 11 and we’re contemplating the best ways for us to do ministry in this new moment we’re now in. The question I have for us is “Where might we be stuck? And what is moving us forward with joy?” And with both Nicodemus and Isaiah we see this in their beginnings—a mixture of hesitation and recommitment.
When we begin something new, we begin from what 20th Century comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “The Ordinary World.” We know what that is. It’s the world we live in when we’re not on an adventure doing something new. Isaiah was living in the ordinary world of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah. Times were difficult, and he saw no path to becoming a person who could make a difference. He was stuck. Nicodemus was a respected pharisee, teacher, and member of the Sanhedrin council who dedicated himself to a particular way of life and to keeping a particular order to the world. He was not a man of doubts. He was comfortable, assured set in his ways. Young or old, privileged or oppressed, paradise or dystopia, we all know what it feels like to start somewhere—the place we are before God speaks or before God strikes, as the case may be.
Into the everyday life of the ordinary world comes the Call. Isaiah is suddenly caught up in a vision of God almighty upon a throne. God’s voice calls out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Nicodemus for the first time in years finds himself unable to sleep, restless, bothered—bothered by that wild rabbi, Jesus, and his teachings. He goes to see Jesus at night. He wants, I think, to settle himself down, to stop the questions and the turmoil in his heart. He wants to go back to sleep! But that’s not what Jesus offers him, instead Jesus invites him, an old man, to be born anew.
The call wasn’t easy for either Isaiah or Nicodemus. That’s because God doesn’t have to call us to do easy things or to commit ourselves to no brainers. Every call is a call to adventure and a call to loss. So much so that even tragic news can turn out to be a call. My mom’s cancer diagnosis in 2019 turned out to be the call to complete her life. And it was hard, and there was meaning and purpose in. The call is always a call into a spiritually bigger kind of life, a life in which we push at the boundaries of the Ordinary World, push our vocations, push our families, push our comfort, push our diagnoses, in which we scramble up the DNA of the Ordinary World to try to make a new world, a better world for ourselves and for others.
And that is always hard. And so before we can accept the Call, here comes what I think is the most important part of a new adventure. It’s the place where we get stuck. After the magic or excitement or horror of that initial call has worn off, we can get stuck in between the ordinary world and the world of new possibilities. Joseph Campbell calls that stuckness “The Refusal of the Call.” Refusal. Well, that sounds a little judgey, doesn’t it? Because, I mean, aren’t there sometimes outside forces—forces that we have no control over—that hold us back?
What Campbell understands is that a necessary component of answering a call is a time of doubt where, perhaps overcome by obstacles, we say NO. In other words, doubt and the acceptance of doubt are built into the very beginning of every spiritual journey.
Why do we refuse the call? Well, we start out with practical excuses. We can’t leave the farm before the harvest. We have fields and commitments, family, responsibility. The journey is too long, too difficult, too expensive, too dangerous. And when we’ve finally burned through every external excuse for not moving forward, we come down eventually to the real, fundamental, core issue: “I’m just not good enough.” Our initial doubts may be external, but our final doubts—the doubts that really must be contended with—are internal.
In a wonderful line that’s always stuck with me, Harry Potter says, “I can’t be a wizard; I’m just Harry.” Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Nicodemus says, “How can anyone be born again after having grown old?” I don’t have what it takes to start God’s adventure again. I’m just not good enough.
In Joseph Campbell’s writings he talks about how in the myths of the Hero’s Journey the hero is judged based upon their heroic return to the ordinary world to give back to the people what they have stolen from the gods or whatever. You’re not a hero because you receive the call. You receive the call precisely because something is lacking. God calls those who are missing something to be the ones who find what is missing.
So, the Refusal of the Call is a necessary part of the journey because after all the other excuses are cleared away, we are left standing in the presence of God, looking into the mirror and realizing, “There’s something missing!” The person who doesn’t have that experience, might think that they were chosen because they’re perfect and that they’re expected to be perfect in everything they do. The person who doesn’t have that experience might go out into the world thinking that are being called to win, when actually God is calling us to grow.
That’s how God works. She gives important work to imperfect people. Sometimes certain people realize that if they just keep messing things up, eventually people will stop asking them to do things. We’ve all known somebody like this. But our Triune God never gets stuck, she just keeps on moving. Even when we want nothing more than to be left alone, God doesn’t ever give up on us.
You are not perfect. I am not perfect. Neither is our church. No matter. A change is coming, a call to a new adventure, to the world’s next great need, and God is wondering who to send. Beloved, if there was ever a time to do things differently, if there was ever a time to let go of the things that may have been slipping away already, if there was ever a time to lean into new opportunities, events, and ministries, now is the time. The world is wounded, our neighbors are seeking, we are called, and God is dancing, dancing all around—dancing, dancing, dancing.
In the late 90s I worked at a summer camp way out in the woods in North Carolina. One night after a closing Bible study in an old army tent with my campers we switched off our flashlights and fell asleep in the quiet dark. Around midnight I was awoken by a sound like I had never heard before—a wild yipping, yapping, growling chorus echoing through the woods and getting louder and louder, louder and louder until this pack of coyotes was rushing like a tornado right through our campsite. I’ll never forget sitting there on my cot, my heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through me, my imagination running wild as I listened to them scampering, sniffing, howling, and tearing at one another just on the other side of the tent wall—feet away from me.
I wasn’t afraid of them—I knew we were safe in the tent, but they awakened some slumbering part of me. I wanted to step out of the safety of the tent, I wanted to howl back at them, I wanted to run with them through the woods. I realized that while I had many things that coyotes do not have, those coyotes still had something themselves that I was wanting. Maybe something I was not even able to comprehend. What was it?
The great French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil once wrote, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” That’s a Pentecost statement, I think, because Pentecost is about broadening the idea of what intelligent comprehension is. Intelligent comprehension is not just spread sheets and flow charts and facts and rational answers. There is another form of communication, one which we’re all capable of speaking in, and it’s not a barbaric language, not just the howlings of a drunken mob, not the “tale told by an idiot” that faith is often made out to be.
The Spirit has its own intelligence that even we Christians are sometimes regrettably alienated from. Now, why is that? Are we afraid that if we go out to “run with the wolves” we have more to lose than to gain? Are we afraid that we’ll look drunk or foolish or that we’ll be scorned? We’re suspicious of the intelligence of the Spirit and the language she speaks, I think. The intelligence of the Spirit is hot, hopeful, loose, faithful, wild, and wise. Can you even imagine such words being listed together as if they belonged to one another? Hot and hopeful? Loose and faithful? Wild and wise? The intelligence of Pentecost says YES to such unlikely pairings because Pentecost does not see any animosity between that which is virtuous and that which is exciting, between that which is rational and that which overflows the dams of rationality.
Within us, within all of us and within each of us, and within the universe itself there is a deep reservoir of spiritual intelligence that doesn’t do arithmetic, doesn’t exist to fill in the circles on a multiple-choice test, is not held back by what it has been told is known and what it has been told is possible. It does not hold to the rules and restrictions of the grammar of rationality—and yet it is intelligent and intelligible.
It is an intelligence that is drawn to the Mysteries that cannot be proved, but which are useful and powerful precisely because they cannot be proved. You cannot prove that life is worthwhile. It is an untestable theory. And if you are a person who cannot decipher the natural intelligence of the Spirit, if you are someone who cannot be inspired to hope in times of despair, to faith in the age of reason, and to love in a culture of contempt—then no matter how great your achievements may be they will feel empty because no one will be able to prove that they are meaningful, no one will be able to prove that they are anything more than the predetermined accidents of an empty existence in a meaningless universe. And so through the intelligence of the Spirit we are inspired to become a people not of certainty, but of conviction.
The intelligence of the Spirit longs to look out on the vistas of the great questions in life and never wants the view to the far horizon to be blocked off by an answer, by a dogma, or even by a reasonable interpretation offered too early or too eagerly. God goes all the way to the horizon! And how often we try to hem God in and make God logical and dry and conventional. But by the intelligence of the Spirit we learn how to step out of the way, how to inspire, and how to be inspired by the view that is beyond us.
I mean, My God! Look at what happened on Pentecost! There was fire in the air! Everybody thought they were drunk! They were speaking languages they shouldn’t have known! And a bit after where our reading ended this morning, we are told that after witnessing the events of Pentecost morning more than 3,000 people were baptized! What was it that moved them to give themselves over to God’s Spirit so completely? Was it decorum? Was it tradition? Was it some creed? Was it an answer at the back of the coursebook? No, no, no, no. It was the intelligent, palpable, wild heat of that morning. It was the men, the women, the people who let themselves be moved by it, who let the speech of their tongues, the hearing of their ears, and the intelligences of their hearts be transformed by it. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our church, must be experienced at levels deeper than what the rational mind can comprehend.
Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, defined three kinds of legitimate authority: traditional, rational, and charismatic. Traditional authority is upheld by doing things the way they have always been done according to custom. Rational authority is upheld by doing things according to the rules, following the proper procedures. Charismatic authority is based upon the power of personality—connecting deeply to the emotions, the desires, and the soul of the people. Weber said that the most unstable form of authority was charismatic authority because charismatic authority dies when the source of the charisma (the charismatic leader) dies, or the power is maintained but only by transforming charismatic authority into something else—into tradition or rationality.
And this, I think, is what has largely happened to the churches and to Pentecost. The birth of the Church was a charismatic miracle of the Holy Spirit. Many of the earliest Christians were drawn into the church because of the way that the Holy Spirit was allowed the freedom to connect them spiritually and viscerally to God and to their neighbors. But slowly that miracle was transformed from an ecstatic, heart-pounding, communal encounter with God’s Spirit into something much tamer, something much more staid, something much more reasonable. We’ve turned it into a story about church history, rather than living it out as the example of who we are and what we do in church today. We have forgotten that our charismatic leader is not dead, is not gone. The Holy Spirit is still here, still working among us. WE are the charismatic leaders of the church of today and tomorrow—that’s the invitation of Pentecost to the Church in all ages.
Of course, churches have traditions, and they should. Of course, churches have bylaws and politics and theologies and interpretations and explanations, as they must. But our traditions and our rules and our expectations have always been meant to recreate the opportunity for the world to have a charismatic, Holy Spirit encounter with the power of the resurrected Christ and the living God. Beloved, in church it’s not supposed to be Christmas all the time, it’s not supposed to be Easter every Sunday, but every day ought to be a little like Pentecost.
Instead, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has been domesticated by the churches, and it is up to us to reintroduce ourselves to the wild. Pentecost is the birth of the Church and the model for what the churches ought to be—and the story of Pentecost makes clear we’re meant to be more Dionysian than Apollonian, more tent revival than chapel, more Burning Man than country club. The Holy Spirit is a special kind of chemistry between people, between God and us, between the Church and the world, and heat is the key ingredient to the chemical reaction we are hoping to incite.
We need fire. And how many of us can say that we have been set ablaze by the Holy Spirit and that the flames are spreading to the four corners of the globe? The poet Rumi advises us on this point, “Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you. Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion. Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”
So, this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday is not a Sunday to be rational, circumspect, or decorous. It is not a Sunday for easy answers or for seeking salvation solely in the experiences of our spiritual forebears. Of this I am sure: meaning cannot be found in answers given to us or in experiences unlived by us. Meaning can only be found in wrestling with convictions, with community, with suffering, and with love. When it comes to meaning, answers are just placeholders—the finger pointing to the moon.
This is the other virtue of Weil’s words, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” Not only do her words encourage us to broaden our intelligence, they also decenter us and remind us that that which is most real, most important is beyond us—and if we’re smart and if we’re humble, we’ll pay attention to what is most real—that intelligence which leads us first to grace and then to fire.
Our scripture reading this morning is from John’s Gospel, chapter 17. You’ll need a little context to pick up where we are here. Our reading is a portion of what’s come to be known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” or his “Farewell Prayer.” This prayer only appears in John’s Gospel. Jesus prays it at the end of the Last Supper just before he and the disciples depart for the garden where Jesus will be betrayed and arrested. So, that’s where we are in the narrative this morning—the closing prayer of the Last Supper.
This prayer (like you might expect from John’s Gospel) is long, and it has three thematic sections. The way the Revised Common Lectionary works is that we read section 1 in Year A, section 2 in Year B, and section 3 in Year C. This is Year B, so we’ll be hearing the middle bit of the prayer this morning.
In section 1, Jesus opens the prayer by praying for himself and he asks to be glorified so that the world might come to believe. Section 3 is where Jesus famously prays for all future believers “that they may all be one.” Here in the middle, in section 2, Jesus is praying for his disciples—as they listen to him—so it’s Jesus’ final words to them before his death, and by extension his closing words to all of us who desire to follow Jesus and to be his disciples.
A staple of Christian education is the old saying, “We are in the world, but not of the world.” You’ve probably heard it before, right? It’s not an exact quote from the Bible, but a teaching tool interpreting what scripture is saying in certain places. “We are in the world, but not of the world.” The major source of this rhetorical device is right from our reading this morning, and you can find other materials in the other gospels, in the letters of Paul, and other New Testament books that bolster this sentiment.
“We are in the world, but not of it.” I’m not a big fan of this saying. I know you’re not surprised to hear me arguing with tradition. And I can’t say that this statement isn’t true. But I think it’s a misleading and inadequate interpretation of what the Christian disciple’s relationship should actually be to the world. So, we’re going to discuss what’s true about “We are in the world, but not of it,” and we’ll talk about where some of the problems come in. And then we’re going to talk about the shift in perspective that I believe ultimately requires a Christian disciple to leave this formulation behind and to grow into a more ultimate truth.
Let’s start with a story: It’s the last week of Jesus’ life. He’s teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some people come to him and they ask him, “Should we pay taxes to Rome or not?” Jesus asks for a coin. “Whose picture is on this coin?” he asks. “Whose inscription?” The people say, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus responds, “Then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which belongs to God.”
Now, I’d say that the most common interpretation of this story is that you’ve got to pay your taxes and you’ve got to follow your government’s laws. This is the “Render unto Caesar” interpretation which conveniently forgets that that’s only one quarter of what Jesus actually said. What Jesus actually said was, “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which belongs to God.” Jesus doesn’t say “pay” or “don’t pay,” because “pay,” I think, wouldn’t have fully represented his position and “don’t pay” would have had him immediately hanging on a Roman cross, and he needed a little more time. Instead, Jesus presents all of us with a higher order of discernment: We must determine what belongs to Caesar (or what belongs to the world) and what belongs to God.
What I think we can all agree on is this: that we live in a world ruled by Caesars and empires, but we do not belong to Caesar, to Rome, to sin, to injustice, or to death. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We heed a different call, we worship only God, and we are guided by Jesus’ surprising, challenging, unworldly values.
Now the problem comes in, in part, because the word “world” is a very general word. Even in the original Greek, kosmos, it can mean a lot of different things—it’s a big tent. What do we mean by “the world”? Where is the likeness of the world imprinted? And where is God’s likeness imprinted? And are they always mutually exclusive? From the Gospel according to John chapter 1: The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through the Word. The whole world, all things, came into being through the Word, through Christ.
So, for example, do nature, the environment, the ecosystems, and planet Earth—do they belong to God? Or is all that “stuff” just the world, the place we are not of, the place we don’t truly belong? Christians disagree on this. Some say that God will redeem all of Creation. Some say we are commanded to be good stewards of God’s Earth today and to the end of time. Others say that Creation must be destroyed for the final judgment to happen and so who cares what happens to the world today? What parts of Creation are just “the world” and what still belongs to the God who made it all in Christ? Where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line?
From John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son. Is it just Christians who belong to God and the rest of the world are a bunch of lost sinners—the kind that Noah’s Ark leaves behind to drown? Or are all people created in the likeness and image of God, and, therefore, all people belong to God and to nothing else? Humanity in general has certainly not yet made up its mind about who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving and who’s unworthy. We would hope that Christians would see all people as equally made and equally beloved, equally belonging to God, but it doesn’t always go that way.
So, it’s indisputably true: We are in the world. No one really denies that, as much as we might have wanted to over the last 14 months. Here we are. That’s true. And we are not of the world. That’s also true. We do not belong to Caesar, we do not belong to Pharaoh, and we render unto God. But this particular formulation (almost like a creed), “In the world, but not of it,” tempts us to be pessimistic and judgmental about the world and its inhabitants. It tempts us to believe that we are merely strangers in this place, just passing through—that the world doesn’t really matter, that the planet or that people different than us are just in the way somehow.
So, the question we must ask ourselves as Christians, who hold with the idea that we are in the world, but not of it, is this: Are we Christians less committed to the world and its people than others? And I think the way this old staple is strung together (in the world, but not of it), it’s tempting to deny our responsibility to the world and to our neighbors.
There are some truths which are more reliably true than others. And the truths that are most true will point us unfailingly in the right direction, headed toward our final goal. “In the world, but not of it,” cannot be an ultimate Christian formulation defining our relationship to the world because it lacks any kind of missional aspect. In fact, it can lead us away from the idea that we have a mission in the world at all. And how can you be a Christian without a mission? How can we be a church without a mission?
“In the world, but not of it,” seems to say that my being here in the world is just an accident. It just happens to be the lousy place I unfortunately find myself. And my job is to not let myself be tainted by the world too much, not to get too attached, so that when I die, I can float off to heaven unencumbered by this place and my time here.
But isn’t the very receipt of God’s grace in our lives simultaneously a call to action for us, a call to sacrifice, and a call to great expectations? Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
Listen again to the closing verses of our reading this morning, Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…” That’s not a mission. That’s just a statement of fact: We belong to God. Then Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Because much is expected of us and because a church must always be an organization with a clearly defined mission in the world, I think we need to turn this old saying around and redefine it. Instead of “In the world, but not of it,” I propose we say it this way: “Not of the world, but sent into it.”
Better yet, let’s try this: “We belong to God, and God is sending us into the world.” We are not of the world because we know that we belong to God alone (that’s where we begin), but precisely because of the grace we have received which has revealed the truth to us, we are being sent into the world to love it and to serve it without holding anything back—as if it were our very own. We’re even called to lay down our lives for one another—to serve and to love with a commitment that isn’t decreased by faith, but that’s made greater by it. That’s a mission! That is the end we must always reorient ourselves to! It is the best possible formulation of our future possibilities.
We belong to God alone, so we are being sent into the world with a purpose. The church is being sent into the world with a mission
There are plenty of people who say that Mother’s Day was a holiday invented by the greeting card companies. And there’s some truth to it. And I think for a long time that I agreed with the general sentiment. But this year, my first Mother’s Day without my mom, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic and sentimental.
For those of us who were raised by good and loving mothers, like I was, there is a great debt of gratitude to Mom. For those of us lucky enough to know loving mothers, we can say that there’s nothing quite like a mother’s love. So, to all the loving moms out there, you have our gratitude for your love. And on Mother’s Day we should shower you with praise and with flowers and greeting cards. But I also think if we’re truly grateful for the love you’ve given and taught to us, we’ll show our best gratitude by loving others.
Now here’s something interesting about being a loving mother and also (like Jesus is talking about in our scripture reading this morning) about being a loving father. The parent who loves you unconditionally, who forgives you endlessly, who accepts you just as you are, and who never gives up on believing in you is also the parent who sets the rules of the house, who enforces those rules, who disciplines and punishes, and who holds high expectations for your own behavior and success in life.
As a father myself, the two phrases that most often come out of my mouth are, “I love you,” and “Stop that.” At first glance, certainly from the childhood perspective, this seems to be an incongruous contradiction. I’m grounded again! Why? Because my mom hates me! We don’t like it when Daddy makes us eat our vegetables! Why can’t you just give me the ice cream and chill out, old man? But as we mature and grow, as we mature and grow in love, when we become parents ourselves, we realize that there is no necessary contradiction between unconditional love and great expectations, and we understand that true and healthy love must be both free and boundaried.
Our 19-month-old son, Romey, loves to be outside. He’s an explorer and he’s fast and he’s sneaky like the dickens. You can’t turn your back on him for a second. The other day he pointed up into the sky at an airplane, I looked up at it for a second, “Yeah, airplane! Very good, honey!” I turned back around—he was gone. He’s goes like a shot. Bonnie and I have found him in the neighbor’s yard, we’ve found him in the street, we’ve found him halfway down the block.
Last weekend we took him to a birthday party in a fenced-in yard. What a difference! It was the most fun the three of us have had outside since he started walking nine months ago. Because there was a fence, we could give him the freedom to be on his own that he desires so much and that he needs. Freedom is important. Boundaries make freedom possible. A strong boundary, in the appropriate place, at the appropriate time is a form of love. “I am giving you these commandments,” said Jesus, “so that you may love one another.”
I had a clergy colleague who started at a new church and quickly realized that she had a real problem congregant in leadership at the church—this man was mean, rigid, controlling, and angry. He was always right. He was extremely judgmental. He yelled at other people, belittled them, and said terrible things about them to their faces, in front of other people, and behind their backs.
If my colleague, his minister, ever called him on it, he could quote her chapter and verse some rule or commandment from somewhere in the Bible that put him in the right and the opposing party in the wrong. This man was big on the rules, but where was the love?
My colleague knew she had to do something. This man was so toxic that he was doing a lot of harm to the community and to the ministry of the church. So, she gathered together the Deacons and the Elders to try to put a plan together to deal with this behavior. Many of those in the room had borne the brunt of this man’s abuse for years. And sitting in the church basement my colleague made an impassioned call for the leadership of the church to stand together, to confront bad behavior, and to set strong boundaries and to impose consequences on those who refused to conduct themselves appropriately.
And when she was done, one of the Senior Deacons, looking very embarrassed said, “But we can’t do that! We’re a church! We’re supposed to welcome everybody!” They had the boundless love of Jesus in their hearts! God bless them! But they had low expectations!
Some people think the Bible is a book all about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: Grace and forgiveness and love that is free and easy and doesn’t cost you a thing, doesn’t transform you, doesn’t lay claim to you or make demands upon your life once it’s received. “God is love and God loves everybody and that’s all I care to know about it.” It’s a lovely looking playground in your backyard, but there’s no fence, no rules, no supervision, and no expectation that anybody is ever going to grow the heck up.
Some people think the Bible is a big book of rules that must be followed to the letter—or else! These folks often fetishize certain of these rules and interpret them in the harshest and most unforgiving manner—like an electric fence that’s keeping all the children out of your yard, rather than safe inside.
Of course, neither of these approaches is right. Instead, the Bible, like anything else that is designed to empower you to grow up healthy and strong, is the story of both boundless love and great expectations at the same time. And so there are rules. And you may quibble with some of those rules, in fact, you may well reject some of scripture’s pronouncements, you may say that this or that rule is not compatible with the rule of love we have been given by Jesus. And that’s a mature Christian’s job, right?
Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.” Jesus’ commandments are not commands of servitude, but the teachings of love. A servant must obey an order, right? But a friend is one who makes a choice. And love must always be chosen, it can’t be forced. Not even God can force us to love her or to love others and have that truly be love.
So, yes, we are free to choose. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is not an aimless freedom. It is a freedom which is guided by love. And precisely because it is guided by love, there are rules and expectations. You will be confronted by these rules regularly. Like driving down the road, you’ll see signs reminding you to slow down or sometimes shouting at you “WRONG WAY.” These rules are the signposts of love designed to save you from yourself and to protect those around you when you in your freedom have lost sight of the guiding principle of love.
All right, Pastor Jeff, that makes sense. Boundless love, acceptance, and forgiveness require boundaries and they bind us to certain expectations. And then these boundaries and expectations must themselves be understood and interpreted by an ethic of love. You can’t have one without the other. We get it. But what we want to know is—what’s God really like? What kind of a heavenly Parent do we have? Who’re we dealing with here? So, tell us, is God a strict parent or is God a lenient parent?
My mom had rules, of course, like every mom does. But as I’ve grieved for my mother these last months and as I’ve processed my relationship to her, the rules (which were so much more prominent and sometimes irksome when I was a child) have faded into the background. From where I stand now, as a son raised, a father raising a son himself, I see the whole story of my relationship to my mother as a story of love. The rules, the fights, the ruptures—these were love’s growing pains.
Similarly, I think the answer to our question is that God isn’t best described as strict or as lenient. God is best described as perfectly loving. And what is love? It’s freedom, and it’s boundaries. Freedom and boundaries working on you in tandem until the time comes when you don’t see any difference between them anymore. True love, God’s love, is a self-limiting freedom.
So, if you’re the kind of person who rolls their eyes at the ten commandments or gets uncomfortable when Jesus starts talking about judgment, instead of skipping that section or blocking your ears, don’t reject it out of hand. Wrestle with it a bit. See if there is perhaps a call within that story that could push you to a greater love. And if you’re the kind of person who uses the law of the Bible and the promise of judgement as a weapon against others or against yourself, if you take pride in your virtue and feel that righteousness is a competition, or if you bury yourself in shame and guilt for your perceived failings, I beg you to recall the metric of love and to evaluate yourself and those around you by that measure. Sometimes love requires us to put up a fence. And that’s hard work. But more often I think it requires us to tear down the walls. And that is hardest work of all.
Nobody said that abiding in love was going to be easy. There is no cheap grace here. No loafing freedom. Love is always a call to action. The Good News should forever be a dynamic tension in our lives—to know that you are boundlessly loved no matter what, and at the very same time to know that that love bestows upon you the burden and the hope of great expectations.
1 John 4:7–13
There are few symbols that can be traced as far back in human culture and sacred history as the vine. The grapevine is, after all, an exceptional plant—rugged, growing in soils and climate where other crops won’t take hold, yet producing these great, heavy clusters of fruit—globes of sweet juice held together by the thinnest of skins. And the juice of these ample grapes contains a mystery: it can be transformed into wine, and when we drink that wine, we ourselves are transformed. The vine has long represented tenacity, bounty, transformation, and celebration—it represents life!
In the Book of Genesis what does Noah do after he gets off the ark? He plants a vineyard. In ancient Sumer, at the dawn of civilization, the written symbol for “life” was a grape leaf. Grape vines were sacred to Osiris, the Egyptian god of life and fertility, and they were painted inside of Egyptian tombs as a symbol of resurrection. And we can’t forget Dionysus and Bacchus, the Greek and Roman god of wine, passion, and religious ecstasy.
So, when in our reading this morning, Jesus adopts the image of the vine, the true vine, he’s doing it provocatively. He’s doing it with at least some awareness of the symbolism and the importance of the grapevine and its connection to life and to divinity that he’s now laying claim to.
But Jesus isn’t just laying claim to the territory of some other grape gods. Jesus does something so much more surprising, so much more outrageous, but we don’t even notice him doing it anymore. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” In all previous history, you could worship the gods of the vine, you could worship grapes as a god, you could drink the sacred wine as a gift from the gods, or you could pour it out in sacrifice to them, but never before in religious history were you informed that you were a part of the vine, never before were you painted into the picture as essential to the symbol’s equation, never before were you so intimately intertwined with divinity. Never before have we been invited to abide in God as God abides in us.
That’s the first surprise of this image. Jesus is not a God who’s disconnected from us. Our God is not aloof, not far off somewhere. Do you want to find God? Where should we look? Jesus tells us that we’re as tangled up together, as interconnected with God as a vine and its branches. Now, you tell me, where does the vine end and where does the branch begin?
When I was 14-years old, I broke my back because of a bone disease I have that severely weakened one of my vertebrae. I was brought to Boston Children’s Hospital and the doctors there said that my spine was the most severely damaged spine they had ever seen that belonged to someone who wasn’t paralyzed—yet. I remember the light flickering on behind the x-ray of my back and looking inside of myself to that precarious, twisted mess of bone and nerves and feeling so afraid. I remember thinking, “Is that what I am?” It turns out that was a very productive question.
The doctors told me they would do their best but that it was a serious operation to put me back together again and there were no guarantees. I needed to be prepared to wake up from the surgery paralyzed from the chest down. I would be under general anesthesia for at least 8–12 hours and I was afraid that I might not ever wake up at all. Anything could happen.
Lying on the operating table waiting for the anesthesiologist, mortally afraid of what might happen to me, I made a deal. Now, it might sound a little cliché and unsophisticated, and I wouldn’t always recommend it, and I was young, but it was an important moment for me. I promised that if God would let me live and let me walk and let me heal, that I would dedicate my life to God. I looked deep inside of myself and I promised to become the individual that God most wanted me to become.
And when the surgery was over, I was fortunate to have a remarkable recovery. And now that I was healthy and not so terrified anymore, I started wondering about the deal I cut. I knew, after all, even at that age that that’s just not the way things work. Sometimes very good people pray for healing and don’t necessarily get what they’ve prayed for. It could have turned out differently. For many people, in a moment of crisis, it does turn out differently. So, what was the point of that seemingly foolish prayer? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about it?
I thought about that promise almost every day for months and months. And slowly I began to realize that the power of that prayer wasn’t about walking or not walking, living or dying, the power of it was that in that moment of ultimate vulnerability I was given a chance to look deep inside of myself and really see who it was that I am—not a tangled mess of bone and nerves and guts—but the very best version of my future possibilities.
It was like there was this closed box somewhere deep inside of me holding this calling? opportunity? destiny? and in that moment of vulnerable, mortal prayer I suddenly had a reason to open the box and look inside. And as I continued to heal and continued to grow up, I realized that I was never going to be able to get that box closed again. That was the true power of that prayer—it showed me who I am.
It was like I looked down inside of myself and saw that I was not some untethered, withered, broken stick, floating through a meaningless void. I looked down inside of myself and I saw that I was a branch, and I got the briefest glimpse of where the branch begins, of what it is made out of, what it’s a part of. And just the briefest glimpse changed everything.
Carl Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “The decisive question for human beings is: Am I related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of our lives. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. Thus we demand that the world grant us recognition for qualities which we regard as personal possessions: our talent or our beauty. The more a person lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity they have for what is essential, the less satisfying is their life. We feel limited because we have limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change. In the final analysis we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
Beloved, part of my calling is to proclaim and to remind and to assure and to reassure you that you, here in this life already, have a link to the infinite. You are a branch. You are a branch. You are a branch. And who can even say where the vine ends and the branch begins? Jesus is our source, God is the ground of our being, and we’re not merely brushing up against them, we’re growing out of them. When we abide in God as God abides in us, we abide in love and we produce the fruits of love by which we will ultimately be judged—by which our lives will be productive or wasted. For our lives to have their fullest meaning, in order to not be distracted by trivialities, we must look down within ourselves to see for ourselves where the branch begins. Where the branch begins is the beginning of everything that matters.
1 John 3:16–24
.There is an interpretation of life, the universe, and everything that has always been with us, but which throughout modernity and post-modernity has been ascendant. And it says that life is a zero-sum game: Your loss is my gain; your gain is my loss. It says that there’s not enough for everybody and that the most important thing you can do in life is to lay claim to your fair (or more than fair) share of what’s good in the world before somebody else gets there first. Even resources that seem like they should be infinite (like fairness and justice) should be hoarded, just in case, because a power imbalance that disadvantages someone else, must somehow be an advantage to you. It says that winning is everything, and there’s really no such thing as a win-win scenario—somebody’s got to be on top and somebody’s got to be on the bottom.
Basically, this all means that you’ve got to look out for number uno. And, of course, it’s true—you do need to look out for yourself, don’t you? Of course, you do! That’s what makes it such an easy trap to fall into. Where we go wrong is that we mistake a lower-order truth for the ultimate meaning of our lives. We idolize it.
But all you need to do is listen to it to know that it doesn’t make any sense: I make myself strong in order to make myself strong in order to make myself strong in order to make myself strong... It’s just a self-referential loop. It’s meaningless. It’s boring. We don’t require strength for strength’s sake. We require strength for love’s sake.
When it comes to “What does real strength look like? What does real love look like?” Jesus is our model. And Jesus is the Good Shepherd—not to win Shepherd of the Year year after year, not to own the biggest flock, not to corner the market on wool. The Good Shepherd is the Good Shepherd in order to lay down his life for the sheep. Even for the Messiah of the world, the purpose of strength is not strength. The purpose of God’s strength, demonstrated in Jesus, is the love and service of all creation.
And here we run into another truth that can mislead us. We see Jesus’ strength and Jesus’ sacrifice (on the cross, especially) as so singular that we think our only job is to receive the gifts of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And what’s expected of the sheep? Nothing. Maybe a little gratitude. But other than that, why should you be asked to sacrifice anything? Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to, goes the tired, old rhetorical device.
And there is truth here, isn’t there? We are called on to believe, to orient our lives in relation to what happened on Good Friday and Easter morning. But to say, “Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to,” is ridiculous. Of course you suffer. Don’t you? Don’t we all? Of course you have to do something! You’re alive, aren’t you?
Jesus’ life was singular, and miraculous, and spectacular. And we must never forget that although his life is also at times challenging, and confounding, and mysterious that Jesus’ life is the model for our lives. Follow me, he said. Come and see. Take up your cross! Jesus’ first message to us is, “BELIEVE.” Jesus’ final message to us is, “And now go out into the world and do likewise and I will be with unto the end of the age!”
The author of the letter of 1 John gets it. It’s a letter to the earliest Christian community saying, because of what we all know Jesus did, we must go and do likewise. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Well, what does that mean, exactly? It certainly doesn’t mean that our goal is to go and get ourselves crucified or to martyr ourselves. We’re not in a death cult. We believe in the Lord of Life and we follow the religion of love.
I think that laying down our lives for one another (oriented toward life and love) is, first of all, a rejection of the philosophy that life is meaningless, that selfishness makes sense, and that ever-expanding ego is the height of our spiritual aspirations. It’s a rejection of the scarcity mindset that says there’s never enough to go around. Instead, we say, I do not lack. In fact, in Christ, I am a source of abundance. And I will share—I will lay that abundance down for others. And this is the whole point of abundance. Not abundance for the sake of abundance, but abundance for the love of others and for the sake of all.
This goes way beyond the “win-win scenario.” Scarcity thinking and selfishness are nothing more than fear. When we orient our lives around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, fear is dethroned from our hearts. And from a place of fearlessness, we see clearly that the very concepts of winning and losing are illusions. We’re like little drops of water who suddenly realize that ice and steam are both just water in another form. Freezing and boiling don’t matter anymore. Solid, liquid, or gas, the point is our relationship to all the other little drops—enduring the joys and sorrows of life together.
Imagine a world measured and judged not by winning and losing, but by laying down our lives for one another. No more war. No more poverty. No more privilege. No more racism. No more hate speech. No more police shootings. No more mass shootings. No more pandemic. Laying down our lives for one another means practicing a radical, dangerously unselfish kind of love—a love that understands that my greatest significance as a person is located in my ability to do unto the least of these.
In our culture, we associate love with feeling. And of course, love is a feeling. That’s true. But love is not ultimately defined by what it feels like. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ that we follow, love is defined by what it does. Love is a way of life best described by laying our lives down for one another. Laying down our lives for one another means practicing a radical, dangerously unselfish kind of love. This is a love that does not count the cost. But it’s not naive; it’s a mature love. It’s not a pushover love that allows itself or others to be abused. True love—laying-down, radical love—holds power to account at every turn.
We saw this kind of love exemplified over the last year in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd. Without the moral uprising of people around the world, especially Black people, especially in Minneapolis, it’s conceivable that this week’s guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin might have turned out differently: It’s possible that he might never have been held accountable in any way at all—maybe not even charged, maybe not even fired.
And yet it’s about more than one man, it’s about more than the latest killing of a Black person in the media spotlight. This is a movement for Black lives in the United States and around the world. Are you a part of that movement? Are you willing to give yourself to it? Are you willing to lay down your lives for one another? Because that’s what’s being asked of us. As George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said after the guilty verdict came in, “I’ll put up a fight every day. Because I’m not just fighting for George anymore, I’m fighting for everybody around this world.” That’s a radical, unselfish, active kind of love. A love that when it touches you, your ego suddenly realizes, “This is what I was made for. Not to grow bigger every day. But to grow big enough to do this, to love like this.”
When the guilty verdict came in on Tuesday there was a sense of relief. There was no cause for celebration, exactly, because George Floyd was murdered for 9-and-a-half minutes on video in front of the whole world, and the person who murdered him was merely held accountable as we should have all been able to expect he would be. That it did happen when our justice system has such a high tolerance for Black death and such a low tolerance for police accountability of any kind was a relief, but George Floyd is still dead, a family is still heartbroken, the Black community in the United States is still terrorized, and the system is still broken, so we cannot allow ourselves to celebrate victory prematurely—to convince ourselves that the problem has somehow been resolved.
But there’s nothing wrong with feeling relief. Feel relief, but know that this struggle is just beginning, and it’s not going anywhere, and it may require you to lay something down, to give something to it. Our feelings of relief must be quickly turned into the continuing actions of love. Because as Philonise Floyd put it so well, we have to fight for everybody; as the author of 1 John said, we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
Madeleine L’Engle, the Christian novelist and poet who’s best known for her Wrinkle in Time series, was once asked in an interview, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” She responded, “I believe in God with all my doubts.” It’s tempting to end the sermon there, but I’ll give you a little more…
Because this brilliant line from L’Engle could really transform the way we think about “Doubting Thomas.” Do you know that in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Thomas is not remembered as Doubting Thomas, but as Saint Thomas the Believer?
In Luke and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus famously says, “Seek and ye shall find!” Well, wasn’t Thomas a seeker in his moment of resurrection skepticism? Maybe Thomas found a little bit later than his friends, but he sought deeper and longer, and he had the integrity not to cave into peer pressure but to discover the truth for himself.
I wonder, is Thomas’ doubt a closed door or an open door? Is Thomas’ doubt his excuse for calling it quits and breaking up with God? Or is Thomas’ doubt an invitation for God to enter in more deeply? Is Thomas’ doubt maybe an echo of that wonderful line from Mark’s gospel, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”
I’ll tell ya, I think Thomas gets a pretty bum rap, poor guy. Thomas is remembered by us as the bad disciple, the one who didn’t quite measure up, the one with the special needs, the one we shouldn’t be like. I don’t think that this has anything to do with what Thomas said or with what he did. I think it has to do with our own feelings, as people of faith, of guilt and shame about the doubts that we carry—that ALL OF US carry, because no one is without doubts. So, I wonder if Thomas has something to teach us about living with doubt and really LIVING with it.
The health of our doubt has to do with our perspective towards it—how we feel about its presence in our life and how we then express it. When Thomas got the news about the appearances that Jesus had made, something just didn’t click for him. It’s a whale of a tale after all. Jesus, Thomas has been told, has risen bodily from the grave. But when Mary first saw Jesus, she didn’t even recognize him—she thought Jesus was the gardener. And she didn’t touch him in John’s account. Jesus told her not to. Later, Jesus seems to materialize into a room with locked doors—something Spirits are well known for, but usually not bodies. The disciples saw the wounds of the cross and had the Holy Spirit breathed onto them, but they still didn’t touch Jesus.
Thomas’ doubt is a bold statement of need. He has no self-consciousness about being public and clear. What I need, said Thomas, who had just lost a friend he loved deeply, is to touch him. If that wasn’t a ghost you saw, if it wasn’t just his Holy Spirit, then I want to touch his body.
Thomas isn’t giving up here, is he? He’s certainly not being disrespectful. He’s not going to be poking at Jesus with a stick to make sure he’s solid. Thomas is seeking way more than “proof.” Thomas seeks and he doesn’t stop seeking until he finds his own intimate connection with the risen body of Jesus.
How we deal with doubt affects the health of our entire lives. Doubt is not just something that assails us in church. Oh no. If only it could be that easy. If only all we had to doubt were the mysteries of faith, but we have our whole lives to find doubt in, don’t we? Love, relationships, vocation, self-worth, talent, happiness—we know how to doubt it all, don’t we?
I was in a relationship once as a younger man in which we didn’t handle doubt well at all. We wanted to be together, and we loved one another deeply, but, wow, the doubting that we did was destructive. It’s not that doubt is inherently destructive. Doubt is normal and healthy. But we beat each other up with doubt. We weaponized it. Rather than using doubt as an opportunity to express our needs, we used it as an opportunity to accuse one another of the shortcomings we surely felt the other person had. Instead of using doubt to invite intimacy, we used it to create distance. Instead of using doubt to pay closer attention to one another and to seek together, we used it as an excuse to turn away from one another. Eventually, burdened under our ever-growing heap of doubt, our relationship predictably collapsed and buried us.
We can heap this kind of doubt onto our loved ones, ourselves, or God. I call this kind of doubt “closed doubt.” We use closed doubt as an excuse to care less, to hope less, to try less, and to run away. But that’s not all there is to doubt. I call doubt spinning in the opposite direction “open doubt.” Open doubt is a very different animal. Closed doubt is sure of itself—absolutely not. Open doubt’s not so sure—maybe not. Closed doubt rejects. Open doubt wonders. Closed doubt says, “I’ve heard the stories, but I doubt there’s anything interesting on the other side of that old mountain. I doubt you could even get there if you tried.” Open doubt says, “I’ve heard the stories, and I wonder if there is anything interesting on the other side of that old mountain. I wonder if it’s even possible to get there. I wonder if the old stories might have a part in my life. It’s hard to believe, but I wonder…”
I once heard a colleague of mine, Rev. Sekou, preach a sermon about faith. And he told this story about two women caring for a young child who was sick with fever. They didn’t have an icebox, so they had no way to cool the child off. So, one of the women took a bucket out from under the sink, put it out on the front steps, and came back inside, and then the two women together prayed for hail. Now when she put the bucket out, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky, if I remember the story right. But God heard the prayers, God saw their faith, and God sent the hail for the sick child.
I probably heard this story ten years ago now and it’s stuck with me. Putting out the bucket and praying for hail is a metaphor for faith. But I also think about the second woman in the story. There were two women caring for the child, remember. What was she doing in that story? She didn’t put the bucket out. And maybe she thinks this idea is as crazy as I thought it was when I first heard it. But when it came time to pray, she prayed too. That I think is a metaphor for open doubt—she left the bucket out on the steps and prayed even though she maybe didn’t believe. Sometimes imperfect faith and open doubt don’t look all that different.
To be sure, Thomas is carrying a lot of emotion with him, in our reading this morning, right? He’s mourning, he’s afraid, he’s angry. Now everyone is telling him these incredible stories, and if they’re true, he’s missed the most important moment of his life because he was out doing the shopping or something. He’s exhausted. But he leaves the bucket out on the front steps, right? He sticks around for a week. God hears this as an invitation. And Jesus responds by offering up his body, his most tender places, his still open wounds, to Thomas’ touch—an honor the other disciples didn’t seek, didn’t ask for, and didn’t receive.
Wonder is a key ingredient of an open doubt, but wonder can also be the outcome of open doubt—that wonderful moment when the hail hits the bucket. The numinous, awesome, terrific intimacy of putting your fingers inside the body of the resurrected Jesus—WOW! Wow…
So, Beloved, my prayer for all of you this Easter is that you be a little kinder to your doubts and to yourselves and to all of us doubters. Doubt is a normal, healthy, and even a necessary part of faith. Doubts can be burdensome to carry, but I think that’s because we carry our doubts as our private shame—a social stigma, the reason we don’t belong, the reason we’re different than everybody else at church! But faith actually requires doubt because we don’t always have “proof.” The hail doesn’t always fall right when we need it to. But if we just leave the bucket out, open to the sky, we may be surprised by the ways that God can come to fill it.
In 1917, Rudolf Otto, who was a German Lutheran theologian and comparative religionist, published a book called “The Idea of the Holy.” In this book he invented a new word: numinous. He defined the numinous as the beginning of all religious experience. It’s an experience of that which is wholly other, totally outside of yourself, a capital-M Mystery (like God, or maybe like the empty tomb) that leaves you feeling both fascinated and terrified.
We think we like to be terrified—a little bit, some of us. Some of us like roller coasters. People pay money and wait in line to scream upside down. Some people love scary movies. Ghosts, monsters, zombies, serial killers all get our adrenaline pumping. We think we like to be terrified, but really we just like to be exhilarated and frightened a little. We like the jump scream in the dark theater, the loop-de-loop at the amusement park. We like fear packaged as entertainment. Nobody really wants to be truly terrified. Most of us don’t really want to have to run for our lives from a guy with a chainsaw. Most of us don’t really want to meet an evil spirit on a dark and stormy night. And to be honest, for similar reasons, many of us don’t really want to encounter God either.
In fact, I would say that we fear the experience of encountering God most of all. That’s why Rudolf Otto had to create a new word, numinous, even just to describe it. Because we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of acknowledging that there may be something so much bigger and so much more wonderful than us that we disrespect the very words we have to communicate about these things! --Did you remember to pick up milk? --Yes. --Awesome. Really? Awesome? --Are you free Tuesday? --Yes. --Terrific. Terrific?! What do you mean by that, exactly?
We waste the word “awesome” on mundane things and we rob it of its power to describe truly awesome, awe-inspiring, holy things. We use the word “terrific” to just mean “very good” and we forget that a terrific thing is not just a great thing, it’s a great and terrifying thing—terror-ific. We don’t want to think about that. --Can I borrow a pen? --Here you go. --Terrific. --Were you able to find parking? --Yeah. --Awesome. We don’t even want those words in our vocabulary because they might point us towards the experience we’re most afraid of—truly encountering God.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark understands this, I think. The original version of the Gospel of Mark ended right where we ended our reading this morning, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Empty Tomb. Terror and Amazement. The End. The oldest Greek manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel, the book ends right there.
And it just drove people nuts. It was a little too ambiguous even for the true believers. They were afraid that this deficient gospel might confuse people or turn them off. So, they added endings. They added at least three endings to Mark’s gospel in different places, including the one or two that you’ll always read in your Bible—all of them adding in bits of the resurrection stories from the other three gospels—so that if you only read Mark’s gospel, you won’t be left thinking terror and amazement is all there is to the story.
But we have four gospels in our Bible, so we don’t have to miss out. And I think we should take seriously what Mark thought the most important part of the Easter story was without covering it up with the best parts of other versions of the story. If we’re going to hear the good news according to Mark, then our Easter morning can’t just be about the amazement and joy of resurrection, we also need to make a little room for terror, to be afraid—because that’s how Mark ends the whole story—with amazement and with terror. True, profound fear.
In some ways this is the perfect resurrection story for where we are right now in our history, right? Mark gives us the upheaval of the empty tomb—all the hope, all the possibility of the promise fulfilled, but also all the uncertainty, all the doubt, all the fear. Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it’s true! Oh my gosh… I can’t believe it’s true… I mean, we’re living in similar moment of upheaval.
There was a headline in the Washington Post yesterday, “As Coronavirus Vaccinations and Infections Surge, Hope Collides with Fear.” In the article they interviewed Dr. Laura Forman who runs the emergency room in the hospital in my hometown of Warwick, RI. She told them that a few weeks back, the first time she pulled into work and saw that the refrigerated truck they’d been using as a makeshift morgue was gone, all she could do was stare at the empty space where it had been and cry. “It was the most powerful symbol of hope,” she said.
But close on the heels of hope, there’s dread: There are variants, it looks like we’re in for another surge, mask mandates were dropped too soon in some places, there are still lots of adults who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, and what about kids—they’re not vaccinated yet. This could be a great summer of hope! Or it could be another pandemic summer. Which will it be? I don’t know! Hope collides with fear! An Easter Upheaval!
We’ve had a monumental change in our political fortunes recently in this country. Democrats control the presidency, the senate, and the house. Georgia went Blue! Can you believe it? If you lean left, you’re thrilled about it, you’re expecting big things. But a recent survey found that 2/3 of Republicans believe that the last election was stolen and invalid. There’s the looming shadow of the Capitol riot with its threat of white nationalism and domestic terrorism. Georgia has now just passed harsh new voting restrictions.
The moment of victory so quickly turns to pessimism. Are we riding high into a new Camelot or are we going to just be run over by politics as usual? Are we entering a new era of bipartisan cooperation or is the pendulum just swinging left through an increasingly polarized time? I don’t know! Sometimes it’s even hard to tell the good news from the bad news. If the democrats get rid of the filibuster so that they can push through as much of their legislative agenda as possible, is that good news or bad news? I honestly don’t know. The pathway to hope seems so narrow and so fraught.
Mark’s Easter morning story acknowledges something about good news—that all news, even good news, is complicated news. There is no good news—not even God’s good news—that will guarantee you a painless, conflict-free life. Mark acknowledges the way God works in our lives and in our world—through our faithful struggles to do right, to do good, and to do better. The good news of Easter morning is not that our struggles are over. In some way Mark’s message seems to be that Easter morning is both victory and struggle, but even in the struggles Mark promises us that the crucified and raised Christ goes ahead of us and will meet us again as promised.
We could complain that Mark doesn’t actually provide any “proof” of the resurrection! That seems to be a flaw. But maybe Mark was looking forward a hundred, a thousand, two thousand years, and he realized that whatever he might write down, nothing could ever “prove” resurrection to you or to me. Even as the other gospels record it, Jesus’ resurrection was a mostly private event—for Jesus’ disciples and closest followers only. It wasn’t televised. And so Mark chooses to end his gospel where the faith of every Christian must pick up—with the amazing possibility and the terrifying burden of believing.
Resurrection can’t be proven. You believe in it, or you don’t. If you don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, you maybe don’t believe it. But when people say that they don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, they mean proven in origin or proven in fact. We can’t see backwards 2,000 years, so we can’t prove exactly what happened in that empty tomb. And there’s no scientific evidence to support such a thing as resurrection ever happening. And that could be the end of the argument.
But there’s another way to believe, which is really more about faith (as in the way you live) than it is about belief (what you think). And it’s more about the end than about the origin. So, belief says, “You can’t prove that Jesus was resurrected 2,000 years ago.” But faith says, “I believe that the power of the resurrected Christ fulfills my life and can heal the world.” It’s more about art than it is about science. Science is about perceiving facts. Art is about expressing the truth, making it whole, making it beautiful.
If we believe that dead is dead and Jesus is dead, the world is a little less amazing. And that suits some of us just fine. We want a manageable world, a physical world, a universe free of capital-M Mysteries and capital-M Meaning, a universe that we can eventually entirely conquer and understand. A universe that will eventually run out of surprises. Where a human life doesn’t count for much, but on the upside, you don’t have to worry about how you fit into the bigger picture, if there is no bigger picture. A little less amazing, a little less terrifying. A universe where the word awesome can best describe a really good cupcake you ate and has no further application.
But if we believe in a living, resurrected Christ—that changes everything. Every particle in the universe is touched by that light. We can’t prove resurrection in origin, but if we make it a part of our faith and if we live it out as the truth and meaning of our lives, it transforms us. We prove it in faith. We prove it in action. We prove it with the world we build together. We prove it with love.
Resurrection adds WOW to our lives, but sometimes WOW is terrifying. A living Christ in everything? Suddenly we’re so much more than we thought! Everybody else is too. And simultaneously, we’re suddenly not sufficient unto ourselves anymore. We need God, we need one another. The universe has been cracked open and at it’s true center there’s not just atoms, and particles, and fields—No, there’s meaning, truth, purpose, calling. WOW! Wow…
Beloved, Easter morning is not just for us true believers. It doesn’t matter maybe if you believe in resurrection or not, or even if you believe in God or not. Mark is inviting all of us to feel the awesome, terrific possibility that we don’t know where the limits of the universe or of ourselves are set. Mark is inviting us to rush out into a transformed, numinous universe and to live as if there is Mystery and Meaning everywhere.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations