Living this life is like building a tower.
I’d like to start with a quick survey: how many of you here have done a renovation project? (I’m defining the term renovation fairly broadly here – so as big as adding or altering a bathroom and as small as, I don’t know what, insulating your attic or putting drywall up in your basement or adding gutters. A project, in other words, that involves a drill gun and maybe a contractor and encountering the interior parts of your home, parts that you don’t normally see.)
So, a good number of us.
What you will know as a veteran of renovation is, with a handful of exceptions, renovations take longer than you planned, they are more complicated than you planned, they are more expensive than you planned. To open a wall in an old house is almost always to find problems or hurdles that you didn’t see coming.
I’m thinking about this, I guess, because I spent a good part of the last week working on running a new electrical receptacle to the narthex, to the wee lobby area just inside the front doors. It was more complicated than I had planned. That thing that looks like an arch around the door to the narthex, that appears to be holding up the ceiling? That’s actually hollow, at least down at floor level. The thing that looks like a plain-old wall beside it, that you would reckon would be lath and plaster with a hollow interior? That’s solid concrete, most likely the pillar that bears the load of the building.
That reversal of my expectations made running wire more challenging and differently challenging than I had expected.
I may have said some words that you are not supposed to say in church.
If the tradition is correct and Jesus followed his Dad into the carpentry business, if Jesus worked in construction, maybe building roads or houses in the city of Sepphoris, just a few miles north of Nazareth, then it is curious that in his parables and his other teachings Jesus reaches for imagery from construction so infrequently. He talks about agriculture a lot, about domestic service a lot, about money a lot. But not often does he talk about building things.
And so it is intriguing that, today, he talks about building a tower:
Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost? Because if you don’t, if you pour a foundation and then run out of money when you’ve built a third of the tower, everybody is going to mock you.
And you will forever be known around the neighbourhood as The Tower Loser.
On its face, this is pretty fine advice, the sort of thing that your uncle or your grandma might say to you as you are heading off to college: be careful about taking out credit cards; learn to cook your own meals, you’ll save a fortune; make sure you estimate the cost before building a tower.
And while that is highly sensible advice, advice that I am inclined to heed both here at Grace and in my own family’s life, I am not convinced that it is Jesus’ advice. Because while Jesus is a lot of things, he is just about never sensible. Jesus is not the guy who is going to tell you how to judiciously navigate the stock market or how to advance your career or how to dress for success. The things that Jesus has to say are way more beautiful and way more dangerous than that.
And so any time we hear Jesus say something and we respond, “Well, isn’t that nice,” that’s a clue that we may be missing where Jesus is going.
A few things in particular make me suspect a more wonderful, frustrating, confusing, complicated, holy message behind Jesus’ words. The first is the question itself: Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and calculate the cost first?
This question is almost a trick or a trap. There is a temptation to answer it reflexively and fast and say No one or at least Not me Jesus! But the actual answer, as the fully human Jesus well knows, is, well, a lot of people. Who among you does not finish your taxes well before April 15th? Who among you does not finish your essay a week before it is due so that you have ample time to proof read and get feedback? Who among you has not laid in your Halloween candy, pre-ordered a turkey for Thanksgiving, and finished your Christmas shopping?
Sometimes we are pretty good at planning ahead. But a lot of the time, because life happens, because we get overwhelmed, because we just forget, stuff sneaks up on us. It is the day when we are supposed to break ground on the tower, all of our friends are there with their shovels, and our plans amount to three lines written on a napkin.
The second thing I notice about Jesus’ saying has to do with the history of towers themselves in scripture. If you have access to that old-school tool called the concordance, an enormous book that lets you find where and when and how many times any word shows up in scripture, or if you have access to that new-school tool called the computer, you will know that, a whole lot of the time, towers in the Bible correlate with hard news.
What is the most famous tower in scripture? Babel. A symbol of human arrogance and Divine anger and totally not up to code engineering. And while towers elsewhere sometime stand for good news – 2 Samuel 22:50 and Psalm 61 describe God as a “tower,” and the erotic poem that we call Song of Solomon speaks of breasts like towers – that is by no means the rule. In Judges, the tower of Shechem is burned in war with great and horrifying loss of life. In Isaiah and Ezekiel, destruction looks like hyenas crying in a city’s towers and towers being pulled down. Ecclesiasticus speaks of a tower of death. Jesus himself mentions a tower in just one other context. Does anyone know what that is? It is also the Gospel of Luke, the previous chapter, 13. And there Jesus tells of the tower of Siloam, which falls and kills 18 people.
In scripture the tower is, at best, an ambiguous symbol – and maybe a symbol of things going spectacularly, disastrously wrong.
Last – and here I would like to return to where I started, to renovations – a tower is, by necessity, a product of building stuff. And as everyone here who has done a renovation knows, and as everyone in Jesus’ audience knows (generally speaking, your grandparents and our ancestors still further back were more handy than us, they knew how to do things), building stuff is hard. And so the crowd before Jesus, like us, knows in their bones about the joys and the wild frustrations and the confounded expectations of digging out a hammer and a saw.
And this is what, Jesus says, following him is like. Discipleship, saying yes to Jesus, saying yes to the Kingdom: it’s like being caught off guard by the first day of construction; it’s like a tower falling over in war; it’s like starting to dig and opening the walls and finding out that your project is going to cost more and take more time and work than you had imagined.
How is this good news?
Well, it’s good news because it is the truth. Faith, hanging out in community with other people, doing this beautiful messy thing that we call church, having friends and family, being alive, building our real and our metaphorical towers: these things are all so much harder than we planned for them to be.
Or maybe that is not 100% accurate. Sometimes these things are exactly as hard as we planned for them to be. But we discover that it is one thing to plan for an experience and quite another to live that experience.
How often does someone say, I knew my spouse’s death was coming. And so I got ready. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.
I knew that the job loss was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.
I knew that growing up or going away to school or moving to another city or retiring or getting old was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.
We knew that building this tower, that standing in the hot sun and, then later, in the cold rain would be hard. We planned. And somehow it turned out that we hadn’t planned at all.
So Jesus’ words are good news because they are true. And they are good news as well because, while the tower of Babel did not get anyone to heaven, the hard work of building these towers does get us closer to God.
My old boss, Bill, would often ask folks at a funeral a question. The question went something like this:
Imagine that I have the lamp with the genie inside. When I rub it, the genie comes out and he says,
I can take all of your grief away.
There’s only one catch. You have to agree to change your past so that you never met the one who died.
How many of you,
Bill would ask,
Would take that deal?
No one ever, ever put their hand up.
Living this life is like building a tower. Sometimes we are ready for construction to begin, a lot of times we could not be less prepared. Sometimes the tower falls over partway through construction. Always, always, there are tests: things that we didn’t see coming and things that we did see coming but that push us to and beyond our limits anyway.
But who would wish it different? Who would wish our towers away? Even when they fall, even when they lean like Pisa, even when they take more than we could have imagined, they remain glorious and holy, evidence that we have lived our lives, that we have said yes to love, to possibility, to God. Our towers are proof that we are here.
On Wednesday morning I attended a rally organised by the mayor’s office. The rally was downtown at Pioneer Courthouse Square and I was there as a representative of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, an organisation to which Grace belongs. The purpose of the gathering was for folks from a whole variety of contexts (there were representatives in attendance from business groups, from other faith communities, from political and law-enforcement organisations, from unions) to together say that we condemn and we reject white supremacy and we condemn and reject the violence that it brings. As a group we declared that if folks are coming to Portland with the goal of nurturing violence and hate that they are not welcome here.
The folks coordinating the rally positioned me in the front row, just behind the dignitaries, somewhere to the audience’s right of the lectern; I wasn’t there to make a speech, just to look good, something at which I am excellent. And I was charged with the task of holding a giant letter “H,” part of a collection of giant letters that together spelled “Our city, our home.” (I was never a cheerleader, so finally getting to hold a giant letter, even if I had to wait ‘til middle age to do it, was kind of cool. Gimme and H!) Along with a lot of other folks, I stood there with my letter, looking out at a wall of cameras, at a whole bunch of reporters.
I don’t know how much the rally swayed the nouveau Nazis who want to come march in our streets. But I think that it was important for us as a community to say that white supremacy is not a part of who we want to be, not a part of who we are called to be.
The experience at the rally was mostly awesome. Except that, whoever designed the square, whoever designed what is sometimes called Portland’s living room, did not give a whole lot of thought to shade. And friends, I am not built for the heat. Even with a substantial hat on my head, even keeping myself well hydrated, standing still in the direct August sun was heavy going. And so about an hour into the rally and still only two-thirds of the way through the speeches, my knees just gave way. And me and my big “H” were suddenly half-kneeling, half-sitting on Pioneer Square’s brick floor.
Now, I am someone who not only really wants to be in control of myself but, more than that, I am someone who really wants to appear to be in control of myself. I did not care very much for adolescence, when my body frequently had its own ideas about how it was going to behave: without any permission from me, acne showed up on my face and my eyesight fell off of a cliff and I was listening to unbidden comments about how much my voice had changed. And to this day I don’t like it at all when the visible evidence of my control slips, when I am vulnerable. I want to be the one who gives help: I don’t want to be the one who needs it.
I totally understand what the writer David Dark means when he says that his sense of composure is almost sacred to him.
So, if I am going to be ill, or if I my knees are going to give way and I am going to fall, I’d really prefer to do so in the privacy of my own home.
But here’s the problem:
Standing in the front row of a press conference with several dozen cameras pointed your way is the possibly the least private place to do anything.
A lot of people noticed that I had fallen and came to help, to offer their kindness and their concern. The folks near me, several police officers and, fascinatingly, someone dressed like a national park ranger, like Smokie the Bear, all gathered around me, all of them sincerely, generously compassionate.
Other than sitting on the ground, I was actually doing okay: I didn’t hit my head, I wasn’t feeling dizzy. And I reckoned that the best plan was to sit there, to drink as much water as I could, and to trust that, in half an hour, my legs would be willing to hold me up again.
I told what felt like four dozen different people that this was my plan. And then my neighbour held up my “H” for me and I sat in its shade.
Today, in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, we hear this protracted meditation on faith. Paul gives one example after another from scripture of what is possible when you have faith, of what people across history have done who have faith. Here are the folks who have endured much and have done much, who have walked through across the seabed and who have caused walls to come tumbling down and have seen resurrection.
And then Paul shares with us what, on some days, I think just might the most beautiful words in scripture:
We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
Now if we want to, I guess we can read Paul’s words as those of a kind of First-Century motivational speaker: David defeated all those armies, so you can too; I am a rock star or an NBA player or a billionaire entrepreneur, so you can be one too. In this reading, Paul is sharing a quintessentially Western and quintessentially modern message: say your prayers, work hard, set goals, and you will be rich and famous. You will win. Never mind that being rich or famous are, by definition, something that only a tiny fraction of us can do.
But what if that isn’t what Paul means at all? What if, rather than being a celebration of individual achievement, of rugged self-reliance, Paul is offering a repudiation of that philosophy and a celebration of something way better? Why if Paul is saying that faith is what happens when we realise that we are not alone, that we never were, and that we were never meant to live life without anyone’s help. More than that – and this is hard for a lot of us – we are incapable of living life without anyone’s help.
There is this cloud of witnesses.
To paraphrase that 20th-Century Saint, Mr. Rogers: some of the people in the cloud are here; some are far away; some are even in heaven. So, some of the people in our cloud of witnesses have died, maybe years or decades or even centuries ago. And I believe, I trust that our relationship with them remains. But the cloud is not comprised only of those who have died, not just of the angels in heaven. It is comprised as well of everyone around us. Our friends right now, our family right now, our loved ones right now, our neighbours right now, the strangers who makes a cameo appearance in our lives right now.
They are the cloud of witnesses for us, the ones on whom we lean. And we get our turn to be the cloud of witnesses for them.
And it is a failure of holy gratitude – or maybe that it is not strong enough language – it is heresy or idolatry to look at the cloud and say: I have no need of you. This heresy damages us and damages those around us.
I read a fascinating article, maybe ten years ago, about the ethics of organ transplants. And it featured someone making the case for paying people to donate their organs. The reason that the person wanted to pay donors was not to make them more likely to part with a kidney. But rather it was, so that after transplant, the recipient wouldn’t owe the donor anything. I’m just not comfortable, the person said, owing another person that much.
As though any amount of money given to the person who gave you the internal organ that allowed your life to continue would make you even, any more than you could be even with your parents or the others who loved you into being. A gazillion dollars wouldn’t make you even.
My friend Brian said something a while back that I have thought often. Brian recounted how folks who were sceptical of church would sometimes say to him Religion is just a crutch.
To which Brian, marvellously, replied:
Yes, it’s a crutch.
And I need a crutch.
Acknowledging the cloud of witnesses, acknowledging our dependence upon them, means putting away the story that says, so long as our credit card goes through or our cheque clears, we don’t owe anyone anything. It means acknowledging our profound and utter dependence on one another and on God.
This is the spiritual gift of falling down in a public place, whether that fall be figurative – a diagnosis, a job loss, a grave disappointment, an enormous grief – or whether, as in my case, it be as literal as literal can get. In the fall the illusion of self-sufficiency is stripped away, the illusion that we were ever 100% in control, that we were ever 100% composed, the illusion that we could stand on our own two feet and owe nothing to no one. In the place of the illusion is the hard but also glorious and freeing and joyous truth that our falling was always inevitable but, when that fall comes, the cloud of witnesses will catch us.
My suspicion is that Jesus was not always fun at parties.
I mean I know that Jesus could be fun, a lot of fun. There is no question that he could tell amazing stories and that he knew something about making fine wine. And there is no question either that, even more than fun, he could be awesomely, almost impossibly kind and generous, inviting the loneliest and most lost and most hurting person to know that they were safe and they were home, that this was a party at which they belonged.
He could say to you: This is your table. You belong here.
And you would know in your bones that it was true.
But there is no question either that Jesus could turn on you and turn on you hard. You would be in the middle of telling or asking Jesus something that seemed kind of normal and everyday and fair and those eyes of his would suddenly be looking at you and looking through you. Abruptly he would say to you, Let the dead bury their own dead or Get behind me, Satan or It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Something like that happens today. This man comes up to Jesus and he says to him:
Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.
And I want to emphasise how thoroughly reasonable this guy’s request is. Inheritances, the reading of wills, these questions after a death about what is fair and about what is just and about which possessions appropriately go to which family member and about what all of that means about how the deceased loved or didn’t love those who remain: well, when they go wrong they go really, really wrong. This is a moment in the life of a family that can leave you with resentments, with scars, that will last forever. Getting an inheritance right is super important for the long-term health of a family. Asking a teacher to help you with that makes a lot of sense.
Let’s add to the reasonableness of this request the element of grief. If this man says to Jesus, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me, then what he is also telling Jesus is that his parents have died, that he is in mourning. And let me digress a little here to say for the record that it is hugely unfair that in our seasons of deepest loss we also have to navigate our seasons of deepest paperwork. There you are in the vortex of grief, unable to focus on much of anything, and the world says to you: your grief is not enough, here is probate. Please plan on spending the next several months fighting with forms and listening to hold music and writing cheques.
This is what the man brings to Jesus. This really reasonable, possibly family-saving request. And this grief. Together. He says to Jesus:
Please tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.
Maybe there are tears in his eyes as he speaks.
And what does Jesus say in response? He says:
Or, more accurately, he says:
Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?
Which, if you think about it, is not only a harsh response but also kind of an odd one. Because if the man knows who Jesus is, if he knows that Jesus is the son of God, then his reply to Jesus might well be:
Well, Jesus, God the Father set you to be a judge or arbitrator over me. There is literally no one more qualified than you. You, Jesus, are going to judge the living and the dead – I think I heard that somewhere in the creeds. So please start judging right now.
Here’s what I’d like to wonder about along with you this morning. Actually, that’s not strong enough language. Here’s what I’d to struggle with along with you this morning. As Jesus responds to this man’s reasonable question with what sure looks like an unreasonable and angry answer, is it possible for us to understand why Jesus speaks this way? And more than that – and this might be asking too much – through even these staggeringly harsh words, can we permit Jesus to teach us?
One reason that Jesus might respond to the man with the anger that he does is because, well, Jesus and his friends are poor. If the scholars are right who say that the job title in the Bible that we often translate as carpenter is better rendered as day labourer, if Jesus’ disciples are living cheque to cheque doing subsistence jobs, then neither Jesus nor anyone else in his posse is going to be receiving an inheritance from anyone. And so asking Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance is a bit like you or me approaching someone who is sleeping on the pavement and asking them for advice with our stock portfolio. Maybe it’s not deliberately cruel – let’s assume good intentions. But it is totally clueless. No wonder Jesus snaps at him.
A second reason that Jesus maybe responds with such harshness – and this is where I would like to spend a little more time this morning – is that the man is asking a question that seems mistaken or just wildly unimportant to someone like Jesus, someone who knows that, in a matter of months or maybe even weeks, the cross is waiting for him.
In all four of the Gospels, Jesus talks with this startling clarity about his death. The Son of Man, he says, must suffer and must die. Death is not an abstraction for him, it is not years away or decades away. He is not like the person – I don’t know if you do this, I do sometimes – who is calculating what percentage of his life is likely left, who is saying to himself, maybe 20 or 50 or 70 percent of my life remains. No. By the time of this conversation, Jesus may well be counting in weeks until his dying.
And I wonder, therefore – and forgive me if this is an odd idea, but it’s one that I have been sitting with this week and in which I have been finding insight – if we could listen to Jesus in conversations such as this one and understand his words as being spoken by someone who is terminally ill.
By terminally ill I don’t mean that Jesus is in any way sickly. To the contrary, he is just past the prime of his life, he is delighting in friends and food and wine and stories and walking across God’s good earth. By that I mean that he is like the one who has the test results in hand, the piece of paper that says that people don’t get better from what he has. Jesus knows that, this time next year, he will no longer number among the living, that one day soon the sun will rise and it will not shine upon him.
In Jesus’ case, his terminal illness is called Empire.
There is a difficult gift in this kind of knowledge. Those who are terminally ill, those who know that death is neither far away nor an avoidable misfortune that happens to other people, can, if they allow themselves, find clarity in this knowledge. I don’t want to be glib about this – and let’s be clear, there is a huge danger of glibness any time that we suggest that there are gifts to be found in suffering and grief and loss. I do want to name the reality that knowing that you will die soon can sometimes make it beyond clear what does and does not matter in life. There is a reason that the spiritual masters invite us to imagine our deaths, to write our own obituaries.
We all of us have two storehouses in our lives. This is implied in the parable that Jesus tells us today and he makes it explicit in a similar saying in the sixth chapter of Matthew, the one where he contrasts storing up your treasure on earth versus storing it up in heaven. The first storehouse is named something like success. It holds money – credit cards and 401(k)s and, yes, inheritances – it holds degrees and awards and other accomplishments, it holds property, it holds status, it holds all of the stuff that you put on your resume. And this storehouse is important. I love The Beatles, but I am kind of suspicious of people who say that they don’t care too much for money, especially when, like the Beatles, they have enough money to live comfortably for 100 lifetimes.
While there are lots of things that money can’t do, there are also totally ways in which it can buy you happiness. To have enough money to live indoors is almost always to be way happier than to live under an overpass beside the I-84. To have enough money to never wonder where your next meal is coming from is almost always to be way happier than to me walking in broken shoes from one soup kitchen to another. Similarly, your resume matters. If you can find a vocation in which you find stuff like meaning, belonging, and joy, then you have got a whole lot of life figured out.
As important as it is, the storehouse of success has its limitations. It turns out that private yachts or jets don’t necessarily make you happy. And most of us – all of us? – have had the experience of achieving a goal and saying: Is this all? I thought that I would be happy once this happened. These limitations become more and more apparent as you remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, as you realise that you have the terminal illness that is called having a body. Any moment, God may demand our lives of us.
Because of these limitations, we need the second storehouse. Let’s call this storehouse love. This is the storehouse that holds acts of kindness, what the Jewish tradition calls Mitzvahs, a word that means something like both service and blessing. This is the storehouse that holds friendship, that holds joy, that holds love of God and love of neighbour. This is the storehouse that holds the stories that, you hope, will go into your obituary and be spoken at your funeral, the storehouse that you hope will be spoken of when we step into heaven.
Here’s the hard news. Or maybe it is the good news. I haven’t decided yet. The first storehouse, the one called success: we don’t get to keep it when we die. All of the grain in it either gets forgotten or goes to someone else or gets eaten by rust and moths. The second storehouse, however, the one called love: we get to keep the stuff in there forever.
Maybe that is why Jesus speaks so harshly at this man, why Jesus is no fun at this particular party. Jesus, our terminally ill saviour, recognises that, reasonable though this man’s request for arbitration may be, his fixation on money and stuff is keeping him from seeing his all but empty storehouse of love. And that emptiness isn’t what Jesus wants for this man, it isn’t what he wants for you or me. Both now and at the end of our days, Jesus wants all of our storehouses to be overflowing with the love of God.
Picture yourself standing on top of a diving board.
You have stood on top of this diving board lots of times before today. You know the stairs that spiral up its hard column. The history of the divers who came before you is written on its treads in wet footprints. You know the railing which bends around the stair’s exterior, its paint flecked off by years of sun and by scores of chlorinated hands. And you know the very top. The flat place where the stairs end, a plain roughened with rubber paint and no-slip strips, calling you out to the edge where the railing ends and where nothing starts.
There is no actual board on this diving board. Just two slabs of concrete jutting out of the tower, a giant “F” at the end of the pool. Maybe it’s more of a diving platform. But, board or not, a diving board – the diving board – is what you and your friends call it.
You have stood on top of this diving board lots of times. What you have never done is jump off of it.
Previous visits to its summit have gotten you as far as the precipice. There, your friends watched as you stood dead still, your hand digging a hole in the railing, your gut turning with equal parts bravado and terror. There you were. Leaning out over the edge, measuring the drop, looking down at the water as though you were staring at it through a pair of binoculars turned backwards. It was impossibly, lethally far away.
Your friends would start to yell then. “Come on!” and “Jump!” Calling out your name, shouting questions. The lifeguard would glance up at you, an expression of impatience flashing in her eyes, her hand starting to reach for her megaphone. Even in the summer sun, the wind was cold.
And then there was the walk back down the stairs. Your embarrassed footprints the only ones facing backwards.
This is the history that you hold with you on top of the diving board.
You wouldn’t be up there today except for this kid. His hair is wild and there is something in his eyes that you can’t name. The two of you horsed around in the shallow end for a while, whipping volleyballs at each other’s heads, but then he was out, heading for the diving board. “Follow me,” he said. And you did.
Down the length of the pool, walking not running past the lifeguard, and then up those stairs. The kid moves fast, frenetic almost, climbing hard, past the lower tine of the “F,” up towards the summit. His words ricochet back down at you, fast and cryptic. You think you hear him say, “foxes have holes and birds have nests…”
And then you are at the top, three or four steps behind the kid. Nothing around you but the railing and the summer sky. Infinity.
The kid stops, sets his face to the board’s end. To glory and terror. He starts into his run.
“Wait,” you say. “I have to call my Dad.”
“Forget your Dad,” he shouts. “Let your Dad call himself.”
And then, he is across the platform and off the precipice. He hangs there for a moment, suspended motionless in the air, high above the water. Wile E. Coyote. But there is no look of confusion on the kid’s face, no little sign in his hand. There are just his eyes. He turns his head and those eyes meet yours. “Follow me.” And then gravity is back and he is gone, down, into the water.
In that instant, a switch is thrown. You know that the wall that has held you back from the precipice, that has pushed you back down the spiral stairs all those other times, is gone. That you could follow him. You could just step off the end of the end of the board and into something new.
“What,” you whisper, “you mean now?”
We spend a lot of time praying for change. For difficult colleagues or classmates or neighbours or fellow parishioners to disappear, for love to walk into our lives, for babies to be born, for the airplane flight or the movie or school to end, for the church to get its act together, for the new government to take office. For a chance. For the opportunity to follow Jesus. And then that change comes, Jesus walks into town, the new sheriff, the spurs on his sandals clinking on the dry and dusty road. And suddenly we’re not so sure. I mean, yes, Jesus, this is what I want. I want to follow you. But I didn’t think you were coming today.
The Son of God is a lot of things: healer, prophet, priest, preacher, symbol. But maybe most of all he is a teacher. Jesus is always teaching in one way or another. Today his teaching method is one that only the really great teachers can pull off: he is being righteously, intemperately impatient. He is giving us that rare and difficult gift of listening to our list of reasons why we can’t take a risk, and calling BS.
The hard thing is this: our reasons actually seem pretty good. Jesus, I’ve got a family, I’ve got a job, I’ve got responsibilities, I’ve got to finish plowing the field. I’ve got to bury my father. But Jesus is having none of it.
Let the dead bury their own dead. This makes a cas e for being the harshest thing that Jesus says to anyone in any of the Gospels. It is harsher than anything he says to Pilate. It rivals the time when he likens the Canaanite woman to a dog. It is hard to think of a modern paraphrase for Jesus’ statement that doesn’t involve using profanity.
I think Jesus is speaking like this because he knows that this young man doesn’t actually have a corpse waiting for him at home – that burying his father is something that is going to happen years or even decades in the future. That it is the young man’s reason for infinitely postponing his calling. For moving it into that box on his desk called “someday” which Jesus knows most often turns into “never.”
I’m pretty sure that Jesus knows all of this because I’ve actually had this conversation. I’ve been that young man, finding reasons to stay home where it’s safe. And I have had the gift of a mentor who has spoken to me harshly, who has told me to give my head a shake. Who has given me an unwelcome and entirely necessary push into the unknown and away from that dull tragedy which is the life unlived. I hated that teacher for speaking to me like that. I resented his words. And I’m grateful for them now. Maybe you’ve had one of those te achers, too.
The Israeli physicist, Moshe Feldenkrais, said that the world is full of people desperate for change, but on one condition: they don’t want anything to be different.
Feldenkrais named something fundamentally human with that line. Things can’t go on like this – in the economy, in the environment, maybe even in our lives. But, like the smoker thinking about quitting, we know that now isn’t the right time for change. Just a little while longer. I’ll change next week: it’s in my calendar. But not today. Never today.
We shiver as the wind cuts into us at the top of the diving board, stopping our ears to the questions shouted up at us by the kids on the pool deck below. They are the hard questions of childhood. They are the hard questions of life:
Who do you think you are?
What are you afraid of?
We know that if we step off that boa d, something will shatter. Jumping is an ending, a kind of death. We will be changed. It is the ending of our certainty and of our fear. These things will be replaced with… what? We don’t know. A greater fear, one that we won’t be able to manage? A belly flop, like that kid we heard about one time, who hit the water sideways. He walked funny for a year. Or something else, something that we will find in the rush of the wind and in the immense mystery of water, coming at us fast.
Picture yourself standing on top of a diving board. You have stood on top of that diving board lots of times before today. But you have never jumped off of it.
The kid with the wild hair slowly swims away from where he landed, clearing the way for you. From where you are, way up above, it almost looks like he’s walking on the water.
He turns and looks at you with those eyes. Over the din of the pool, over all the shouting, you can just make out his words.
How shall we tell the story of the people who build the tower with its peak in the heavens?
Today, I’d like to wonder with you about understanding this story as a folk tale or, if you prefer, as a parable. Folk tales have morals, sometimes they even end with the storyteller saying, And the moral of the story is…
And the moral of the story is… Don’t touch other people’s porridge or Don’t talk to strange wolves, no matter how charming they may be. And parables have questions, questions that, somehow, always prove to be just a little bigger than our answers. The folk tale or the parable about the tower built up into the heavens: it ends with a moral or with a question to which the encounter that we call Pentecost then responds.
The folk tale goes like this.
Once upon a time there was a city. And in it there was a rich man. The man figured out how to make money when he was young and across his life he used that money to create still more money. He needed nothing, he wanted nothing. When he would sit down for a meal he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would look at the food on his plate and say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
In his factories, the man’s many employees toiled away making iPhones and Instant Pots, and in his hotels, his many other employees toiled away, going the extra mile for truly excellent customer service. The man would look at everything that belonged to him, and everyone who belonged to him, and he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would hold his Instant Pot and he would say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
It was a really nice Instant Pot.
But something was troubling the man. Even though people kept bringing him meals and kept on making him stuff and kept on cleaning his hotels, he had the strangest idea that no one liked him very much.
How could that be possible?
The idea that he was less than immensely popular, that the smiles on his employees’ faces when they met him were forced and false, that the people whom he called his friends would remain at his parties exactly as long as his money lasted and no longer, was an idea that began to keep him awake at night.
And so the man read several books, he watched several TV shows, he retained several very expensive consultants. And he started to notice that a great many people who seemed to be happy and who seemed to have friends said something that went like this:
I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And I love my neighbour as myself.
Not all of the people used exactly those words. But the man had the sense that they meant the same thing.
Now, the rich man found the idea of God strange. Because in stories that he heard, it was God who had made everyone and everything. And the man knew that no one had made him. He was a self-made man. This problem notwithstanding, he wanted to meet God. And so he told all of his employees in his factories to stop building and all of his employees in his hotels to stop cleaning and all of them to get out their shovels and their hammers.
I, he told them, am going to build a tower.
So start digging and hammering.
And so his employees began. And day after day, as the rich man watched, the tower got higher and higher until at last it reached up into heaven itself. On that day the rich man ordered all of his employees out of the building and he ascended to the top in his private elevator and there he stood in his private, heavenly penthouse. He looked around and he said: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
And then he added:
Well, God, I am here in heaven. Appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And so the man tried again.
This is the tallest and the best tower in the world. So, God, appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And the man became impatient.
God, he said, Don’t you know who I am? Appear to me now!
But God did not appear. The man was alone in what was supposed to be heaven. He opened his window and looked down upon the people, many of whom were his employees. Across the height of the tower the sound of their laughter and their joy and their words floated up to him.
And the rich man had the oddest impression that the people down below were speaking a language that he could not understand.
Years passed and the rich man lived in the tower alone. He grew old. Until one day his doctor came to him and said, You don’t have long. Soon you will die.
And the rich man said, I would rather not. How much will it cost not to die?
His doctor cleared his throat nervously. And the rich man said to him in a hoarse, small voice: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything. I will not die.
But even the rich man knew that this was not true.
And so one day, early in the morning, the rich man left the tower. Out he went onto the streets where the people spoke a language that he could not understand. He wandered the streets until he was lost, until even the tower that reached into heaven was out of sight.
A passerby saw the old man, lost and alone. And so she approached the old man to ask if he needed help. But the old man could not understand the words that the passerby said. And the passerby could not understand when the rich and old man replied, when he said:
I am looking for God. And I am so, so lost. I cannot search any more on my own.
And there the two of them might have stood, both wanting to understand, neither being able to.
Except that in that moment something like fire appeared among them. And everyone began to talk at once and the man could understood all of it, all of it. He heard everyone’s joy, everyone’s sadness, everyone’s grief, everyone’s hope.
The passerby said to him: This is the moral at the end of the story. This is the question at the end of the parable.
For the first time in years, maybe for the first time since he was a child, the man giggled. He giggled until he wept and his tears fell down his cheeks and mixed in with the holy flames.
A couple of years back, the author Douglas Abrams traveled to India to record a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The resulting text is called The Book of Joy, and it is an account not just of the week that these two extraordinary people spent together but of their whole lives. They are, both of them now old men, and in The Book of Joy they talk of their lifelong search for meaning and service and love, their encounter with what Tutu would call God and what the Dalai Lama might call by another name. The conversation recorded in the book took place over a week at the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And it is full of remarkable and inspiring moments.
The moment that I am thinking about this morning is when the two of them talk about hardship, about suffering, about unfairness. The Dalai Lama has endured years of exile – as a young person he had had to flee his native Tibet in the middle of the night. Like Jesus and so many other refugees before him, he went to another country to escape the violence of empire. But interwoven with this story of injustice, here is the joy from the book’s title. Even as the Dalai Lama talks of fear and unfairness, delight and laughter are never far away – he and Tutu together are this picture of holy mischief. After the Dalai Lama talks for a while, Tutu stops him and says:
You would expect the Dalai Lama to say that he is joyous in spite of adversity. But somehow he is saying that he is joyous because of adversity.
Tutu talks then about Mandela, about his 27 years in prison and the indignities and the hardships that he endured, but how he was able to emerge from prison somehow transformed. He left prison a kinder, more compassionate, more fully human person than when he went in. And so Abrams asks Tutu, How did he do it? How was he able to see his suffering as ennobling rather than rather than embittering. And Tutu corrects him:
He didn’t see it.
The two of them, these two masters late in their lives, are talking about mystery. And like a lot of mysteries, maybe like all mysteries, this one is laden with paradox. Because on the one hand, what they are discussing is rudimentary, almost a formula or a logical progression: they seem to be saying that suffering is necessary, good for us, that it is what makes us fully human. At one point Tutu says that we can almost be thankful for the Chinese invasion of Tibet, because without it the world would likely have been deprived of the Dalai Lama as we know him now.
Except that it’s not simple at all. We all know folks who have not been ennobled or in any way improved by suffering (maybe we’ve all been those folks). We all know folks who, quite to the contrary, have been almost ruined by it. Their cruelty and hostility has been magnified. It is overwhelmingly likely that a child abuser was themselves abused as a child.
And besides, who wants to say thanks for suffering or for unfairness? Who wants to say thanks for the invasion of Tibet or a car accident or for still another school or place of worship getting shot up? One of our family friends suffers from bipolar disorder – what another generation called manic depression – and he is beyond clear that we are not to talk as though there were “something good” about his mental illness, that we are not to talk about a life in which he swings from this fecund but out of control energy and then to thoughts of suicide as though it were a cloud with a silver lining. He is adamant that there is no silver lining, only cloud.
Similarly, among the many alcoholics whom I know and love, I don’t know that I have ever met one who says that there were some pretty good things about rock bottom, about that moment when they realised that booze was running and ruining their lives, that maybe even they understood that they could either stop drinking or die.
(And maybe the very definition of paradox is that we have to reach for the words “and yet” when we speak of it.) And yet so many of my friends who have seen suffering and unfairness have been, somehow, set free by it. To hit rock bottom and come back, to encounter a staggering grief and come back, to suffer injustice and come back: that stuff changes you. You are who you are because of that experience. We are who we are because of our experiences of trauma, of grief, of loss.
Sometimes these are the experiences which, while they could embitter us, instead transform us. Instead, they invite us into compassion, into possibility, into holiness and love.
Today, Jesus talks with his friends about peace. And maybe they are confused to hear him do so. After all, these are folks who are poor, some of them dirt poor, who are eking out a subsistence living as fishers and day labourers. They are folks who live under occupation, who endure the constant fear of the state’s violence. And they are living centuries before contemporary medicine. All of that together means that their lives can end brutally and abruptly at any time. To top it all off, Jesus has told them early and often that the state is about to lynch him.
More than one of them gathered in that upper room may be tempted to say:
Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?
And at some level, they would be right to do so. If what we mean by peace is a more or less stable middle-class existence, the kind of life that many of us in this room lead, then peace for Jesus and his friends is an absurdity, an impossibility.
But maybe the peace of God is something other than that. Perhaps this is what the hymn is trying to get at when it says that The peace of God, it is no peace. Much as Christian hope is something harder and better than optimism – the resurrection doesn’t say that there is no death, it says that death is real and awful and that God is bigger than death. Much as joy is something harder and better than happiness – if you have ever been up in the middle of the night caring for a baby or for an older person whom you love and whose health is failing, you probably didn’t know much happiness in that moment, but you may have known joy. So is the Peace of God something harder and better than stability.
There is a reason that, come the end of the service, the blessing says:
The Peace of God which…
What does it do?
Which passes all understanding.
God’s peace passes all understanding. God’s peace isn’t easy. But it is good. It is in that peace that we may find that we are following Jesus.
For the past several weeks, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – has told us stories of resurrection. Beginning today, it returns us to the time before Jesus’ death: to the upper room, to the Last Supper, to what scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which he tells his disciples what his work means, what his life means, what is coming next. With this return to the time before the great change, it is as though the lectionary, just like the disciples some 2000 years before, is looking back into its memory and saying, Now that we have seen the cross, now that we have seen the empty tomb, what do Jesus’ words and actions mean? How are they different in light of what we have experienced?
Jesus’ words today are prefaced by a brief and vital detail, by words that, if this were a play about the last supper, we would call a stage direction:
When Judas had gone out…
And drawing on the work of a scholar by the name of Frederick Niedner, I want to suggest that this preamble, this information about the departure of Judas, is our key to understanding what Jesus says next. In particular, these words are the key to understanding Jesus’ new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
When Judas had gone out, Jesus said to them, Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
The Gospels tell us that, as Judas walks out the door, Jesus knows what Judas is about to do. He knows that Judas is going to betray him. Maybe his other friends, the other disciples, guess what is going on as well. And so a possible a way of reading Jesus’ subsequent commandment is to say, You need to love one another. Don’t be like that guy, Judas, who is totally failing at the whole loving thing.
And maybe that’s right. There is a long and well-attested reading of the Bible in which Judas is the villain of this tale, the cautionary example, the guy whom we are permitted to loathe. I had a colleague in the theatre biz who toured for a while with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. And he said that, come the moment when Judas hanged himself, there were audiences who cheered.
But there is actually nothing in the Bible that insists on that reading, that insists on Judas as the icon of contemptible evil and, therefore, as the one whom we may safely hate. Indeed, there are scholars who make the case that Judas is really not so different than Peter or the other disciples. Come the moment of the cross, come the moment when empire’s violence descends on them, 100% of the disciples fail Jesus. (Well, actually, that’s not true. 100% of the male disciples fail Jesus, running away, preferring their own safety over fidelity to their Lord. The women stay with Jesus to the very end.)
What if hating Judas gets Jesus’ words totally backwards? What if Jesus, as Judas walks out the door to betray him, is saying to his disciples: I know you want to hate Judas right now. I can understand that. But I’m giving you a new commandment, you need to love one another – including Judas – as I have loved you.
Maybe that sounds like a stretch. If it does, stay with me. Because I’d like to us to notice Jesus’ new commandment. What he says to his disciples, what he says to us, is a change, a variation upon, an expansion or magnification upon the golden rule. The new commandment is not Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nor is it Love your neighbours as you love yourself..
Now, those are a good commandments. It is good to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Except what if the way that you want to be treated isn’t the way that another wants to be treated? If I love spicy food – and forgive me if this is a silly example – and my neighbour can’t so much as look at a jalapeno without starting to weep, then treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated by preparing a flaming hot dish would actually be kind of mean. There’s lots more examples, and lots more serious examples, of ways in which treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated would neither be loving nor kind.
But what about loving others as you love yourself? That might be a better commandment. Any time that we are talking about love, we are talking about God. As our Presiding Bishop rightly never tires of saying, the Way of Jesus is the Way of Love. But as several of my friends and acquaintances were saying recently in a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced conversation on Facebook, what if you are in a season of your life when you don’t especially love yourself? Are you morally required, required by Jesus even, to share your hurt with the world, maybe even to have contempt for neighbour as you have contempt for yourself? Clearly, there are people in the world who are doing that very thing – who are projecting their misery and anger outwards. We have all been those people at one time or another. We don’t need to look further than the news to see more of them.
And maybe it is because of these problems that Jesus, on the night before his betrayal, gives us this new commandment. Jesus says:
Love one another, not as you love yourselves, but as I have loved you.
We are to love one another as Jesus loves us.
As Judas walks out the door, that raises a few questions. The first one goes something like this:
Whom does Jesus hate? Whom does Jesus exclude? Of whom, as he hangs dying on the cross, does Jesus say, Father, do not forgive them?
The second question goes like this: When Judas goes out into the darkness, do any of his friends follow him, do any of them search for him? Does anyone miss their friend? What about later, after Judas brings the soldiers to Gethsemane? Does anyone look for him them, try to reach him with God’s love, a love that extends even into his shame, his anger, what Niedner calls his rapidly deepening hell?
And what about the Judases in our own lives? The people who have betrayed us, who have hurt us profoundly? Dare we go looking for them? Dare we trust the difficult, beautiful news that the love of God extends to them as well? And – maybe this is still harder – what about the times when we are Judas to another, when what we have doneor left undone has left another feeling profoundly betrayed? Will we allow the possibility that they will follow us into the darkness?
Dare we accept this new commandment? Dare we abandon the comfort of having a villain who is outside of our love? Dare we to say yes to being part of the staggering love of Jesus?
The encounter or the experience that we call conversion is about seeing and being seen. It is about being named.
First, seeing and being seen.
My vision fell off a cliff around the time that I turned 12. This is not a metaphor. In what felt like just a handful of days, but I suppose what must’ve actually been a handful of months, I went from being able to see at distance pretty well to blackboards turning green and vague and even stop signs morphing into red clouds on sticks.
I remember the day that I put on my new set of glasses. And, well, it was revelatory. I had never noticed or, I guess, I had forgotten how much texture there was on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, how there were veins in the leaves of the trees, how our cat was something other than a diffuse blob that moved around the house, periodically meowing.
Conversion is like that. Meeting Jesus is like that. In conversion we understand something, at least in part. But there is more than a new set of glasses going on, more than clarity when we meet Jesus. Because in conversion we realise that the clarity is mutual, that it is reciprocal. To turn around Paul’s language a little, in conversion we know and are known.
Now, I don’t mean that, in conversion, God sees us for the first time. God has always seen you and me. As Jeremiah proclaims, God has known you since before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Rather, I mean that in an encounter with Jesus, we understand, we know that we are seen by God.
This experience of being seen is powerful, it is transformative. If you have had a great teacher in your life – and if you have enjoyed any kind of success, any kind of happiness, I predict that you have had several great teachers – then you will know what it is to be seen. What is amazing about a great teacher is that, in order to free you up for the profound wonder that is learning, they don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are. A lesser teacher wants and maybe needs you to be just like them. They know how they learn and they want you to fit within their model. A great teacher, by contrast, wants and needs you to be utterly, freely yourself.
Jesus sees you as you are and wants you to learn and thrive and grow as you are.
Second, being named.
Sometimes when we encounter the holy, we get a new name. Some of us come out of the sacrament of marriage with a new last name, all of us come out of the sacrament of baptism with the new name Christian. And there are other sacraments, ones not named in the prayer book, where we get new names too. For some of you there was a day when you received the name Mom or Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, Uncle or Aunt, Brother or Sister, or Friend. Hearing that name applied to you was maybe a little startling and a little beautiful all at the same time.
If we live long enough, we will receive other names, too. These names are harder. But maybe, maybe they are not less holy. To stand in a hospital corridor, for instance, is sometimes to be handed new and unwelcome names, names such as Next of Kin or Survivor or Widow or Orphan or the Bereaved.
In joy and in grief alike, we receive these new names. These names are outward and visible signs of our encounters with God.
In a way, it’s weird that the lectionary has paired this reading from Acts alongside this reading from John, that it has paired Saul along with Peter. After all, Peter is one of the very first of the disciples, he has followed Jesus from the very beginning, he was there long before the crowds, when absolutely everyone listening to Jesus’ words didn’t even add up to a dozen people. And Saul, well, when this story starts he is an ethnic cleanser, a supporter of the death squads. He is, Acts tells us, breathing threats and murder against the disciples.
But at another level, the pairing of these two people and these two stories makes total sense. Because Saul and Peter are both folks whose lives have been damaged by violence, whose lives have been shaped and distorted by the hatred of mobs. They are both folks, as a consequence, to whom Jesus comes – as Richard Rohr says, Jesus always goes towards the pain. They are both people who see Jesus and know that Jesus has seen them, they are both people who get new names after meeting God. Saul becomes Paul, and Peter (remember way, way back at the start of the story when his name is Simon), gets this new name, Peter, which means the Rock.
And they are both people who, in the stories that we hear today, are converted.
Clearly, the story from Acts is the conversion of Saul. And I’d like to make the case that the story from John is also a conversion story, that it is something like the second conversion of Peter.
Okay. I’ve just shared a whole lot of ideas in a row. Let’s see if we can unpack them a little bit. And let’s start with violence.
It is, I would venture, obvious how Saul has been distorted by mob violence: he is someone who is participating in and celebrating the Ancient Near East’s answer to lynching. And while, clearly, Peter has done no such thing, he does remain someone whose very understanding of himself has been shaped and shaken by the violence of a crowd. Because Peter at the last supper, remember, is the guy who says that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to death, that he will never deny Jesus. And he is the guy who, when confronted with the horror of the crowd’s violence, with the horror of the cross, denies Jesus three times.
So both of these men come into these respective tales having been profoundly diminished by violence, having had their understanding of themselves and of the world bent by violence. It’s fascinating to notice, by the way, that Peter starts this story naked. His very body is a metaphor, it is an outward and visible sign of how everything has been stripped away from him in the crucifixion.
Both Saul and Peter begin with this inability to see. Saul abruptly becomes blind. And Peter, like the rest of the disciples in the boat, can’t quite figure who it is on the shore in the early morning light who is calling out to them. As Paul Nuechterlein, whose work really shaped this sermon, says, the words, “Who are you?” are on the tips of all of the disciples’ tongues. But somehow nobody on the lake that morning dares to spit out that question, because – and how enigmatic or paradoxical is this? – they all know that it is Jesus.
Saul actually does ask the question, “Who are you?” And Jesus replies, fascinatingly, wondrously, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Not, I am Jesus, and you are persecuting my disciples, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Here, from the risen and ascended Lord, is an echo of the Beatitudes: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me.
Saul, now groping about in darkness in the middle of the day, is lucky enough to meet some people who are kinder than he is, and he is led further into Damascus. He finds his way into a room where, lost, he devotes himself to prayer. And this disciple, Ananias, comes to him. Ananias who is afraid of Saul with good reason, but who trusts Jesus more than he fears Saul, and who goes and lays hands upon Saul – Brother Saul, he even calls him. He says, Jesus has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit.
And something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes. And after he gets his strength back, he begins to proclaim everywhere that Jesus is the Son of God.
Peter meanwhile swims to the shore. (I love the weird detail that he puts on clothes to jump into the water – that’s the opposite of what most of us do. I love the even weirder detail that the net that he and his buddies haul in the incredibly specific number of 153 fish.)
And there, for the second time in not very long, he stands around a charcoal fire.
Remember that Peter is standing around a fire in the cold of the night when he denies Jesus. In the resurrection, in this moment of conversion, that scene is inverted or reversed. Jesus, wondrously, gives to Peter the chance to reverse his actions. Much as there were three denials, Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to say, I love you.
The scene is amazing enough in translation, in English. It is a picture of resurrection, of forgiveness, so beautiful that it might just put you on your knees. But it is even more amazing in Greek. Because in John’s original language, there is a fascinating discrepancy in Jesus’ words and in Peter’s. The Greek has multiple words for Love, and so what Jesus asks Peter is Do you agape me? And Peter responds, Yes Lord, I philio you. And then a second time, Peter, do you agape me? To which Peter says, Yes, I philio you.
What happens the third time? Does Peter finally get it, does he finally use the right word? That’s what we might expect. But it’s not what happens. Jesus says:
Peter, Do you philio me? In other words, he sees Peter right where he is, he uses his language, he names him right where he is, he joins him right where he is.
This is what happens in conversion. For Saul, for Peter. For you and me. This is the moment, however fleeting, when we see Jesus and we know that he has always seen us, when we are given new a name, a name like Disciple, like Christian, like Beloved Child of God.
We live in the time after the resurrection. And given that, here is the question with which we are confronted. Given the staggering mystery of the empty tomb, what should we do? How should we live? What does resurrection mean?
These questions are as old as the Christian movement.
We can imagine the apostles asking this question. After encountering resurrection, after living the strange, wonderful miracle that was the resurrected Jesus for fifty days, after being part of this holy party that waited on the far side of the cross, they say:
What now? What does everything that just happened mean?
Well, part of the answer to that question is recorded in the Book of Acts, a book that we might call What the Apostles Did Next or, maybe, How They Made Sense of the Resurrection. Part of it is recorded in a collection of letters, some of which are bound into the Bible. Part of it is recorded in ancient church documents: beautiful, searching texts like the one that we call the Didache, that tell us what it was like be part of the young church.
And part of the answer is recorded in this very service and in the three days that came before it.
The first Christians knew that the resurrection had changed everything. Now, they didn’t understand the resurrection, any more than you or I can understand the resurrection. To stand before the empty tomb is have an encounter that bends the very rules of life, of reality. But they knew that it made everything different. Resurrection (and forgive me if this is a flippant analogy, I don’t mean it to be), is like a twist ending in a story or in a movie. When you encounter it you want to go back and read everything or watch everything again to see the clues that you missed before, to see what they might mean in light of what you now know.
Jesus’ life and his death are different when you understand that resurrection is coming. Creation itself is different when you understand that resurrection is coming.
And so, over the three days that end Lent plus this, the anniversary of the day of the resurrection, the day of Easter, they crafted a series of practices and symbols that told the story of, well, everything. It was as though they wanted to cram absolutely all that there was and all that there ever has been and maybe all that there ever will be into church.
Maundy Thursday, where we remember and embody Jesus washing the feet of his friends and establishing the Eucharist, the holy meal that we will share together in a few minutes. Good Friday, where we journey with Jesus to the cross and watch helplessly and hopelessly as he suffers and the life bleeds out of him. The Easter Vigil, where we tell one story after another after another from scripture (way back when, that service lasted all night long, so that the worshippers would have literally journeyed from darkness and into light, so that the Vigil and today’s service would’ve been the same thing). And then today, where we hold this celebration, where declare that God has broken the very bonds of death.
The Vigil – the old beginning of this service – begins with the very first reading that there is in scripture, with the part of the Bible that says in the beginning.
One of the big questions that the first Christians wrestled with back then and that those of us who do our imperfect best to follow Jesus are wrestling with still goes something like this: When God became human and lived with us and told us stories and healed us and then died and then proved to bigger than death, did God do that because we humanity was terrible, because we had made so many, selfish mistakes, because we had spectacularly screwed up the world, because we were such awful sinners?
Or was there another reason?
The first possibility is maybe the one that we are the most familiar with. This is the possibility that God, like a disappointed Dad getting up from the TV to deal with the yelling in the living room, God had to come to earth because we were kind of awful. In that reading, the first two humans introduced this thing called original sin into the world. (“Original sin,” by the way, is a phrase that appears exactly nowhere in scripture.) Ever since the first humans ate from the wrong tree and original sin got introduced, humanity has gotten worse and worse, running up a bigger and bigger tab of sinful debt with God, until the debt was so bad that humanity no longer had the capacity to pay it.
And because the debt had to be paid, because someone had to die, and die horribly, for all of our sinning, God sent God’s only son to suffer and suffer and suffer and finally die on our behalf.
And that’s an okay understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I guess.
With the lone problem that it makes God into a psychopath.
Why in the world would God require that his only son be tortured to death? And if God did require that, why in the world would we worship that God? Wouldn’t we have a moral duty to refuse to worship such a God?
Thanks be to God, we’re not stuck with that explanation. Because for someone like the wonderful Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, the Incarnation was not an in-flight correction but, rather, was God’s plan from the very beginning. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God digs out God’s paintbrush and chisel and creates this world of wonder and beauty. God says that it is good. Some theologians reckon that we should not speak of Original Sin but of Original Blessing.
And God decides that God will neither watch what God had created passively from a distance, and nor will God operate reality like a puppeteer pulling on the strings of a marionette. Rather, God will participate in reality, with all of the grief and the joy that comes of being alive.
God will walk the earth.
If that’s right, then the cross isn’t something that God wanted or needed. Rather, it was something that we in our fearfulness and our anger and our violence did to God. Jesus, as Marcus Borg would put it, did not die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world. But here’s the amazing thing: God figured out how to turn even the cross, even the worst that humanity could come up with into something wonderful and something freeing. And even more than that – and this is a part of the story so beautiful that it puts you on your knees – God accepted that very worst thing that we could do. And God kept on loving us anyway.
There are lots of stories where the hero comes back from the dead at the end. Go see a Marvel movie. So that part of the story is maybe not so different. But there is a part of the Gospel that is entirely different. Because what does the hero say when they crawl out of the rubble?
The villain is going to pay.
That is what we would expect from Jesus. But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus refuses to return our violence or our hatred to us. The resurrection is all about shared meals, shared possibility, shared loved.
We are people who live after the resurrection. And we have this ancient question: What now? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have seen the staggering goodness of God? What shall we do, who shall we be, now that we have participated in resurrection?