Praying Silently with the Cloud of Unknowing

There is a story from India about four blind men who were asked by a king to describe what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. One blind man felt the leg and said the elephant is like a pillar. Another felt the tail and said the elephant was like a rope. Another one felt the belly and said the elephant was like a wall while the other felt the tusk and said the elephant was like a solid pipe. The king then said, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each of you touched the different parts of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all features you mentioned.” Based on their own unique experiences they each arrived at their own different conclusions about the elephant.

This story is often used to help explain different understandings of the divine espoused by different major faith traditions. We are all accessing and touching different parts of God and, as a result, Christians experience God one way while Muslims experience God in another way and Hindus in yet another way. We all have limited vision and limited experiences and we all see “through a glass darkly” as St. Paul says (1 Cor 13:12). We are invited to be careful in not insisting that we have a monopoly on understanding God in God’s fullness. As Desmond Tutu says, “God is Not a Christian.” Although the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God. God is beyond our knowing. God “surpasses our understanding” as we just prayed in our Collect this morning. So it is indeed appropriate that we open ourselves up to multiple perspectives on God, whose fullness we cannot comprehend on our own. For this reason, I appreciate our newly articulated mission statement for Church of the Redeemer, understanding our church as “a sacred space for sharing individual gifts and diverse views [about the God who surpasses all understanding] as we seek to embody Christ [who represents our understanding of God].”

This mission statement was perhaps not too unlike the mission statement of a place called Areopagus in first century Athens, which we read about this morning in our reading from Acts. Now in order to get a broader context for our reading this morning, let us open our Bibles to Acts chapter 17 verse 16. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” First of all, Paul was waiting for his missionary partners Silas and Timothy, with whom he had been sharing the Gospel across the Mediterranean, causing all kinds of trouble. While waiting, Paul notices how crowded the city of Athens is with idols. And he looks carefully at them and discovers one altar dedicated to an unknown God. Because Paul is an evangelistic genius and the Christian missionary par excellence, he knows that all cultures have within them already seeds of the Gospel (logoi spermatikoi) that need to be affirmed and watered and grown in order to challenge the violent and oppressive aspects of the culture that our counter to the Gospel. So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” this “God beyond all knowing” has made himself fully manifest in Christ.

Verse 17: “So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Other said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.’ Eugene Peterson translates this verse in saying something like, “The Areopagus was a great place for sharing ideas. There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.” The Athenians of Areopagus were open to new ideas and wanted to hear Paul’s spiel.

So Paul tells them, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God, the God beyond all understanding. And I’m here to tell you that that God has revealed himself to us in Christ. That God who has given you the gift of life and existence, in whom you live and move and have your being, is the God revealed in Christ, who has risen from the dead. And through Christ, we can tap into that divine Source of Being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”

And then how do they respond? let’s continue our reading and see how the Athenians respond in verse 32: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

I want to highlight this character Dionysius the Areopagite. Although he doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens. But more importantly, this character Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination and became the great Christian icon for accessing the God beyond our understanding.

In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this character Dionysius as a pseudonym for some short books he wrote on mysticism and accessing the God beyond our knowing. This author chose this pseudonym because he imagined Dionysius being moved by Paul’s sermon and then coming to experience, through Christ, the God beyond all knowing.

This author is now referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” I would honestly be surprised if any of you heard of him, because I didn’t learn about him until my third year in seminary. But Pseudo-Dionysius is considered to be one of the most influential theologians in all of church history, even on par with St. Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther. Almost all of the Christian mystics after the 5th century have been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius in one way or another. One mystic who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a text written in Nottingham England (the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood and the Westmorelands) in the 14th century, around the same time and place as….Julian of Norwich.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, also known as the Cloud author, uses images to describe our relationship with the God who is beyond all thoughts. He explains that between ourselves and God there is a cloud of unknowing, which we cannot penetrate with any thoughts, but which we can penetrate through love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through the cloud and thereby access God not with our thoughts but with our love. And he offers a practical way to do this, that has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This fairly ancient prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind, to detach ourselves from our thoughts, to tame what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind.” This word is meant to repeated as a kind of mantra, as an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, we return to the word and let go of the thoughts. By returning to the word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud of unknowing.

Now this is a difficult prayer practice that requires significant commitment from its practitioners. Most Centering Prayer leaders advise practicing this prayer for at least twenty minutes at a time, twice a day. Personally, I have enough difficulty practicing it for ten minutes once a day. However, I have found it to be deeply beneficial and transformative. I find that it deepens my love for God who is beyond all knowing while also helping me develop a healthy detachment from my own thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, better sleep.

Although I encourage you all to develop a habit of Centering Prayer (if you haven’t already), I also want to invite you to practice something that might be a little bit more accessible; and that is simply sitting in prayerful silence for just ten minutes a day, every day. That might look different for each of us, but I encourage you to make sure that time is both prayerful and silent. This practice of prayerful silence is a tried-and-true method for experiencing and abiding in the God beyond all knowing. It is a way to deepen our love for Christ while also expanding our experience of the infinite fullness of God. Returning to the story of the blind men and the elephant, it is a way to touch different parts of the elephant while remaining true to one’s own tradition and understanding.

I have offered this invitation to churches in the past and I have had congregants approach me months afterwards explaining how beneficial and transformative it has been for them to simply carve out this time, ten minutes of prayerful silence each day. At my commencement, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited us to abide in Christ by delving deep into the ancient Christian spiritual practices. Without connecting to our roots, he said, we produce no fruits.  Jesus said, “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). I invite us all to abide in Christ in whom the fullness of the infinite and ineffable God dwells. We can experience this today by sitting together in prayerful silence for just two minutes right now…

 

Praying “Interly” with Julian of Norwich

Happy Mother’s Day! There is much to celebrate today. Along with Mother’s Day and some celebrations and thanksgivings, today we also celebrate the Feast Day of my favorite English mystic. She is the author of the first text written in English by a female that we know of; and, according to Thomas Merton, she is the greatest English theologian.[1] Her name is Julian of Norwich.

She was a 14th century English anchorite, which meant that she lived enclosed permanently in a room (called an anchor-hold or anchorage) attached to a church with one window facing the altar and another window facing the world outside. It would be kind of like converting our sacristy into a small apartment, where someone has chosen to live for the rest of her life. (So next time you think you’re at church too often, think of Julian of Norwich who was at church 24/7 for her entire life.) During an extreme illness, she experienced a kind of near-death experience in the form of sixteen visions, which she called “Showings.” She wrote about these visions and understood them as revelations from God. While receiving these divine revelations, Julian was not simply a passive recipient but rather an engaged participant, praying boldly, seeking God’s face, asking questions, not holding anything back. And Christ seemed to appreciate this and continued to draw her deeper into his love, encouraging her to pray with all that was within her. In one vision, Christ spoke to her and said, “Pray interly.”[2] The word “interly” is a Middle English hapax legomenon, which means it is a word that only occurs once in all of the Middle English literature that we have. It is a powerful word with polyvalent meaning.[3] To pray interly means to pray inwardly or interiorly, with all of the emotions and questions of the inner life. And praying interly also means praying entirely, with the whole self, with the body, with the physical life. When Christ said to Julian “Pray interly” he was saying, “Pray entirely, wholeheartedly, earnestly, even if you feel nothing. Bring that nothingness to me in prayer. If you’re feeling dry, barren, empty, weak or sick, bring all those parts of yourself to me. I want it all.”[4]

The Scriptures we just read also invite us to pray interly. The passage from Hebrews calls us to enter the Holy of Holies “in full assurance of faith,” with “confidence” and courage, knowing that God loves and accepts us and wants us to bring our whole selves to Him in prayer. The Psalm calls us to “seek God’s face”; and the Gospel this morning provides an example of someone praying interly, recounting the climax of a long conversation between Christ and a feisty Samaritan woman, to whom we were introduced a few weeks ago, during Lent (4th Sunday). Does anyone remember the name that Church tradition has given to this feisty Samaritan woman? Photini, which means the “Enlightened One.” Photini boldly brought her questions and confusions to Christ and Christ responded to Photini with an invitation for her to bring even more of herself to him, even those parts of which she was ashamed. And when she did bring her whole self to him, warts and all, he lovingly revealed his divine self to her: a revelation of love: “I am he, the Messiah, the one speaking to you.” The Scriptures invite us to bring our whole selves to God in prayer, even those parts of which we might be ashamed, to pray interly as Julian prayed.

Now during Julian’s lifetime, the Black Death (the Bubonic Plague) was wiping out more than a third of England’s population (and more than half of Norwich!); the Hundred Years’ War (between England and France) was well underway, claiming young people’s lives; and followers of the heretic and Bible translator John Wycliffe (known as the Lollards) were being burned at the stake all throughout England. Climate change, famine, and peasant protests and revolts convinced many that the world was nearing its apocalyptic end. And on top of all this, the people were quickly growing disillusioned with the Church and her leaders, who were proving just as power-hungry and abusive as the political leaders of the day, squabbling over rights of succession. [5] In this context, Julian prayed interly, which meant bringing to Christ her doubts and questions, asking God, “Why is there so much suffering? God, why do you allow such disturbing people to be in positions of power?” Often, we ourselves can be timid or afraid of asking God such questions, but if these are our questions then praying interly means bringing these questions to God, the way Julian did. And God held Julian lovingly in all of her questions, not giving her pat answers, but offering her images and invitations into deeper love and trust.

One invitation into deeper trust repeats like a refrain throughout her visions. Numerous times, God gently reminds her, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”[6] Authors such as T. S. Eliot,[7] C.S. Lewis,[8] Annie Dillard,[9] and Thomas Merton have found immense comfort in these words and have cited them in their own spiritual classics. However, what I love so much about Julian, is that she still is not satisfied with this. She looks out her window and sees that all is not well. So she continues to pray interly, saying, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?” She continues, “And here I wished, so far as I dared, for some plainer explanation through which I might be at ease about this matter.”[10] Julian dares to talk back to God, telling God that his response isn’t good enough. And God, who appears to appreciate her authenticity and her commitment to pray interly, responds with more revelations of love. God continually points to the Cross, the central image around which all of sixteen visions revolve. Yet through the visions, Julian interprets the Cross very differently than previous theologians like Anselm of Canterbury who understood Christ’s work on the Cross as essentially paying a debt that humanity owed to God, a debt made when humanity insulted God’s honor by sinning. For Julian, however, there is no wrath in God. She writes, “For I saw most truly that where our Lord appears, peace is received and wrath has no place; for I saw no kind of wrath in God.”[11]  She writes, “I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and he forgives that in us.”[12] If there is no wrath in God, then the work of the Cross is no longer about the paying of a debt to a dishonored (and apparently insecure) deity. Instead, the Cross is God’s compassionate response to our own wrath and violence, which we so often tend to project onto God. The Cross, instead, is God’s willingness to hold us with love no matter what, even if it means receiving our wrath and violence.

Throughout her visions, Julian experiences God in the joy of laughter, in bodily pain and sickness and even in the wondrous process of human digestion! She experiences God as a close friend, a lover, a king, a kind nurse, a courteous knight, as clothing, as a castle, as a cave, as a brother, as a father, and most of all, she experiences God as a mother, as the one true Mother. Although not the first Christian theologian to describe Christ as Mother, Julian is the first to make the Mother Christ image central to her understanding of God. In fact, Julian’s view of motherhood is so elevated that Christ is the only One who truly embodies it, no matter how wonderful our earthly mothers might be. Julian’s own mother was present to her when she was severely ill and some scholars think that Julian herself was a mother whose husband and children died from the plague before she took her anchoritic vows. Julian knew motherhood well and knew that even mothers are fallible human beings. She writes, “This fair and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.”[13] Julian understood Christ and even the Trinity as a whole as our mother and this understanding reminds us of how God reveals Godself to us as a mother in the Scriptures. Jesus himself identifies as a mother when he longs to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37). And in the Isaiah passage we read, God describes how He carries His people in his womb and how He will continue to preserve His fragile and vulnerable people because He made us and because He loves us.

In one of her visions, Julian experiences the tender love and maternal protection of God through a tiny hazelnut-sized object. She writes, “[God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered…it lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”[14] In a hazelnut-sized object, God shows Julian the universe and assures her of His love and protection.

On this Mother’s Day, Julian of Norwich invites us to pray interly, pray entirely, wholeheartedly, with our whole selves, our physical bodies, our doubts, our questions, and our emotions. Whether we’re feeling sick or bored or frustrated or disappointed, we are invited to give it all to God in prayer. If we have big, burning questions about the problem of suffering or about the current presidential administration or about the future of this church or about difficulties in our own personal lives and families, Julian’s example encourages us to bring all of that to God. Although we might not get the rational, watertight answers that we might be seeking or expecting, I promise that we will get revelations of love. As the 20th century Anglican philosopher Austin Farrer put it: “God does not give us explanations; God gives up a Son.”[15]

Finally, I want to invite you to take a hazelnut. You may take it as a reminder of God’s revelation to Julian that all creation is held within the palm of his hand. You may also take it as an invitation to appreciate God within your body by simply eating the delicious hazelnut. And you may also take it as a reminder that our true Mother God holds all that is within you and invites you to pray interly, with your whole self because if our Mother God can hold the entire universe in the palm of his hand he can certainly handle all that is within us. In the loving embrace of our Mother God, Julian tells us that “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Amen.

 

Prayer for Mother’s Day:

Mother God, we give thanks for the special women who have born us, who have nurtured us, and who have prayed for our well-being. And we give thanks for all who have been mothers to us in their own unique ways and also for the opportunities for us to embody maternal love to others. May our hearts overflow with gratitude to them and to you, who formed and knitted each of us in a mother’s womb.

 

 

The Lord’s Prayer for Mother’s Day and Lady Julian Day

 

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

[1] “There can be no doubt that Lady Julian is the greatest of the English mystics. Not only that, but she is one of the greatest English theologians.” Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 140. Also see Merton, Seeds of Destruction (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1964), 275.

 

[2] Julian of Norwich, Showings Long Text, Ch 44 in Colledge and Walsh, Julian of Norwich: Showings (Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1978), 249.

[3] See Daniel London, “‘Pray Interly’: Julian of Norwich’s Spirituality of Prayer” in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology. Vol 49. Issue 3. Spring 2015, pp. 14-24.

[4] Colledge and Walsh translation: “For he says: Pray wholeheartedly, though it seems to you that this has no savour for you; still it is profitable enough, though you may not feel that. Pray wholeheartedly, though you may feel nothing, though you may see nothing, yes, though you think that you could not, for in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and in weakness, then is your prayer most pleasing to me, though you think it almost tasteless to you.” (Ch. 44, 249)

[5] In what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity” or the “Great Schism” of the Western Church, Pope Urban VI claimed to be pope in Rome while Pope Clement VII claimed to be pope in Avignon. In a failed attempt to resolve the conflict, church leaders elected a third pope, Alexander V at the Council of Pisa in 1409. Finally, the conflict was resolved at the Council of Constance in 1414 with the election of Martin V.

 

[6] Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 27. Colledge and Walsh, 225

[7] “And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one” T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Little Gidding” V:255-259.

[8] “‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (HarperCollins: San Francisco, 2001, originally published 1946) , 140.

[9] See Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper and Row: New York, 1977).

[10] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 29, trans. Colledge and Walsh (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 227.

[11] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 49Colledge and Walsh, 264.

 

[12] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 48Colledge and Walsh, 262.

[13] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 60Colledge and Walsh, 298-299.

[14] Edmund Colledge O.S.A and James Walsh S.J. trans. Julian of Norwich: Showings (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978), 130. Chapter 4, Short Text.

 

[15] “The Word of God brings upon human pain and strife the consolation of eternal love. It is often thought that the Christian preacher is called upon…somehow to prove that the intolerable evils which ravage the earth are only the price of greater good. But the answer naturally provoked by such explanations is that of the suffering woman: ‘That makes it no better; it hurts just the same.’ Or even: ‘If that is what God’s love does, then for God’s sake let me have a taste of his wrath.’ No, God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: ‘Peace upon earth, good will to men…and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead that we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.” Austin Farrer, The Essential Sermons (SPCK, 1991), 204.

St. Mark and Wild Beasts

Probably because my name is Daniel, I have always loved lions: those in the Bible, those in the wild and that not-so-safe but good one in the land of Narnia. One reason why I love today’s saint so much is because of his association with the lion. There is a story that, while in the wilderness, Mark encountered a hungry and ferocious lion, ready to pounce on his human flesh. But like the Prophet Daniel before him, Mark trusted in the Lord and escaped unscathed. Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, saints have lived in harmony with a panoply of wild animals: St. Columbanus shared a cave with a wild bear; sea otters kept St. Cuthbert’s feet warm; St. Godric welcomed a hunted stag into his home; St. Francis made a pact with the violent wolf of Gubbio; and St. Seraphim took a bear as his pet and friend. Scholar Benedicta Ward points out that this miraculous concord between saint and beast was a return to paradise, to the Garden of Eden where humanity and all animals enjoyed each other’s company and friendship.  So it is no wonder that the Spirit led Jesus, immediately after his baptism, into the wilderness to be with the wild beasts in order to launch his mission to bring heaven to earth, to bring back the Garden. And part of taming the wild beasts in the wilderness involves, as Jesus shows us, taming the wild beasts within ourselves and wrestling with our own inner demons and devils, wrestling with our own inner violence.

Between escaping death by lion and meeting death by Rome, St. Mark, according to tradition, founded the Coptic Christian Church, a community of Christians in Egypt that still thrives today. It is this community that suffered horrific violence on Palm Sunday.  In the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, 45 Coptic Christians were murdered and many more were injured as a result of a suicide bombing. This year, I understood our participation in the liturgies of Holy Week as one way for us to stand in solidarity with our vulnerable and victimized Christian brothers and sisters, to mourn and pray for them, and to stand in defiance against such monstrous acts of violent terror. Lent and Holy Week also invited us to recognize the ways that we, as Christians and US citizens, have unintentionally and perhaps intentionally participated in and supported the violence and oppression of other vulnerable communities. As Nietzsche wisely said, “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” We cannot tame the violent beasts around us if we do not first learn to tame the violent beasts within.

And how do we do this? How do we traverse the treacherous wilderness and tame the violent beasts of the world outside and within our own hearts? Again, St. Mark and his spiritual progeny offer wisdom. It is to Mark and the Coptic Christians that we owe the powerful witnesses of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who also followed the Spirit’s lead into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan and to be with violent beasts. The great Abba Antony of Egypt said, “Obedience with abstinence gives people power over wild beasts.” And the desert fathers remind us of the vicious beasts that roam within us by calling our anger the lion and our fornication the bear. And they call us to tame our desires in the same way that lions tame wild beasts that encroach upon their territory and pride. Abba Hyperechius said, “As the lion is terrible to wild asses, so is the experienced monk to desires.” The desert tradition calls us to be a powerful lion like the Lion of Judah in order to tame the wild lions within, to persevere in resisting in evil, as we vowed to do at our baptism. And that is a tall order.

Also at our baptism, we vowed that whenever, we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. One of my favorite sayings from the desert tradition is from Abba Sisoes, who was asked “What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?” The old man said to him, “Get up again.” The brother said, “I have got up again, but I have fallen again.” The abba said, “Get up again and again and again.”

The lion associated with St. Mark is sometimes pictured above water, reminding us that our strength and perseverance in resisting evil are deeply rooted in and empowered by our baptism, which, like the baptism of Jesus, calls us into the wilderness to live in harmony with the beasts (internal and external) and to repent repeatedly and to restore the Garden of Eden and to bring God’s Reign on earth, to tame and tap into the life-giving powers of our own inner lions.

Method in the Madness of Forgiveness

Happy Easter! I trust you all had a powerful Holy Week and a glorious Easter Sunday. I am happy to be here with you on this Second Sunday of Easter, which is often called “Low Sunday” in contrast to the great pageantry of Easter Sunday. Although the name “Low Sunday” also seems to suggest lower attendance and a kind of post-Easter fatigue, I personally appreciate the relative calmness after all the pageantry, the calmness that offers us the opportunity to reflect perhaps more deeply and acutely on the mystery of the Resurrection. It gives us the opportunity to ask, “What does the resurrection really mean for us in our lives today?”

Today is also the birthday of perhaps the most famous Anglican in all of history. He’s not a saint and he’s not someone that we necessarily think of as an Anglican but the reason we know that today is his birthday is because of records of his baptism at an Anglican church: Church of the Holy Trinity in an English town called Stratford-upon-Avon. I am referring to the greatest writer of all time, the Bard: William Shakespeare. Because it’s his birthday, I feel invited to engage the mystery of the resurrection with Shakespeare’s greatest play Hamlet, which offers an enlightening contrast to the Gospel reading this morning.

[Hamlet was recently portrayed by the beloved Benedict Cumberbatch right before he performed as the titular hero in the movie Doctor Strange, which the Marin Episcopal Youth Group saw last November. I also saw my first live performance of Hamlet at Berkeley last year at around this same time, which was a real thrill for me, since Hamlet’s famous soliloquy’s have spoken to me ever since I was a young, sometimes “moody brooding” teenager.[1] ]

The plot of Hamlet is driven by the appearance of a ghost hell-bent on revenge, who appears to his son Hamlet and charges him to avenge his death. After learning of his father’s “most foul” murder, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with doubts, questions and indecision. He unpacks his heart with words, feigns madness and eventually kills an innocent man whom he mistakes for his father’s murderer. In the end, basically everyone ends up dead, showing that violence and revenge only lead to more violence and bloodshed.

The story of the vengeful ghost upon which Hamlet is based has its origins in ancient myths, which often depict gods and kings returning from the dead to avenge their murders or to commission others to do so. What makes the Gospel accounts of the resurrection so unique and so radically different from other resurrection stories and myths is the fact that Jesus has absolutely no interest in such vengeance and violence. The Risen Christ never once tells his disciples to “take up arms” against the Roman oppressors, who murdered him. Unlike the ghost in Hamlet, the Risen Christ never says, “Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder”[2] [1] (which he certainly would be justified in saying). Also, the Risen Christ has no interest in punishing his cowardly disciples who essentially all abandoned him at his darkest hour, including his close disciple Peter who publicly denied him three times.

According to Luke’s Gospel, the disciples were terrified and deeply afraid when they first saw the Risen Christ, not because he looked like some kind of zombie but because they thought he was a terrible ghost who would forever haunt them, reminding them of their cowardice and failure, asking them, “Why did you deny me? Why did you abandon me? Why did you betray me? Why did you leave me alone to suffer and die?”[3]

Instead, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples in the midst of their fear, terror and profound insecurity (as they are hiding behind locked doors) and says, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you! And then he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” which will empower them to do what he then commissions them to do. Not to avenge his murder, but to forgive. To forgive! And by forgiving and empowering us to forgive he throws a wrench into the whole cycle of violence and vengeance.

Now vengeance is sweet; we feel justified and righteous and even godly in punishing others whom we feel deserve it, but as Hamlet and history have shown, vengeance and violence only lead to more violence.[4] And in the Easter story, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that if we are moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit then we are not to seek vengeance, but rather offer forgiveness. Jesus knows we need the Holy Spirit’s help to do that. To avenge is human, to forgive is divine, and that is what we are called to do as followers of the Risen Christ.

The Risen Christ said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders has pointed out that in the Greek, Jesus literally says here, “If you forgive the sins of any one, they are forgiven and if you embrace anyone they are embraced.”[5] That is quite different, isn’t it? But that’s the Greek. The Greek word is krateo, which means to “hold fast” and “embrace” and the word for sin is not included in the second clause at all, it is added by the translators, erroneously.

And what Schneiders points out makes sense in light of the following verses about Thomas whom Jesus holds and embraces in all of his doubt. Jesus does not reprimand Thomas. He offers him peace and almost seems to appreciate Thomas’s honesty in expressing his doubt by inviting him to touch his wounds. Although Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt, but believe,” I do not hear Jesus scolding Thomas because of his doubts. Rather, I hear Jesus leading Thomas into a deeper faith. Again, a more accurate translation of Jesus’ words, from the Greek, is “Do not become someone who never believes, but rather become someone who is trusting and believing.” Jesus is basically saying what Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, [Thomas], then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[6] Because of Jesus’s forgiveness and all-embracing love, Thomas becomes the first disciple to confess him as his God and thus represents the model disciple, arriving at the very conclusion at which the author of John wants the reader to arrive: “This is written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

Then Jesus asks Thomas a rhetorical question, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” which he follows with a Johannine Beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” These words also seem to be admonishments for Thomas’ doubt. However, again, I do not hear admonishment, but rather commission. Whenever the Risen Christ appears to someone he gives a commission to go and share what has been witnessed.[7] Just as he commissioned his disciples to forgive others as he forgave them so too does he commission Thomas to embrace others as he embraced him, even in all of his doubt. In his personal commission to Thomas, Jesus promises that many who have not seen will come to believe. Many who have not seen will come to believe because Thomas will tell them! And Thomas will embrace them even in their struggles and doubts, inviting them into deeper faith. And according to Christian tradition, Thomas evangelized Parthia, a region that is now covered by modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan, and then traveled even further East to evangelize southern India, where churches today still boast the name “St. Thomas Christians.”

Tragically, last year on Easter Sunday, Christians around that same part of the world (even some “St. Thomas Christians”) were viciously murdered in Lahore, Pakistan, in a suicide bombing. And this year, on Palm Sunday, 45 Coptic Christians were murdered in the middle of worship by a suicide bombing in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria. Coptic Christians trace their spiritual lineage to St. Mark, who may have also been in the house with Thomas when the Risen Christ appeared. This year, I understood my participation (and our participation) in the liturgies of Holy Week as one way for us to stand in solidarity with our vulnerable and victimized Christian brothers and sisters, to mourn and pray for them, and to stand in defiance against these violent acts of terror.  And I honestly want to wreak vengeance on such evil terrorists. Certainly, we must work to protect the innocent and stomp out evil and terrorism. And at the same time, Jesus’ resurrection scandalizes me by reminding me that Jesus did not come back from a horrific death as a ghost hell-bent on vengeance (like Hamlet’s father), but as a glorified, risen body saying, “Peace, Forgive, Embrace.” I am not saying that should necessarily be the response of political leaders whose jobs are to protect the people, but I am saying that is Christ’s response: Peace, forgive, embrace. It sounds like madness. “Though this be madness,” Shakespeare, “yet there is method in’t.”[8] It was also the response of the early Christians who became martyrs and planted the seeds of the early Church. And one of those martyrs was St. Thomas, (as well as St. Mark). It is also the response of those who have practiced creative non-violent resistance: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Oscar Romero who all fought evil with what Romero called the “violence of love.”[9] Peace, forgive, embrace.

This forgiving response that risks martyrdom is not akin to the suicide that Hamlet contemplates in his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy.[10] And it is not the “conscience [that] doth make cowards of us all.”[11] It is a radical and robust courage inspired by the resurrection of one who knew that even in the darkest, most hopeless, most God-forsaken tragedies, there is still a hope at work that is far more powerful than death. It is a conviction that says with the Psalmist and with Peter (who quotes the Psalmist in his Pentecost sermon), “You, O God, will not abandon me to the grave… You will show me the path of life.” It is courage inspired by what Peter calls the living hope, the inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, that endures trial by fire and produces “an indescribable and glorious joy.” It is faith in what Shakespeare’s Hamlet calls “the divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”[12]  And it is a faith that is not bound by the power of death nor fear of death, but that dismantles all of death’s minions (vengeance, violence and hate) with a liberating and empowering love that says, “Peace, forgive, embrace.” It is a faith that sees the divine method in the apparent madness of forgiveness.

 

[1] The phrase “moody brooding” is borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses

[2] Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 25.

[3] Luke 24:37

[4] As French philosopher Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence—nothing else.” Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, trans. Cecilia Gaul Kings (London: SCM, 1970), 100.

[5] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 145-146, 179. ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.

[6] Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 167-168

[7] Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; Acts 9:6; John 20:21-23.

[8] Shakespeare, Hamlet, II. ii. 207.

[9] See Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2004).

[10] Shakespeare, Hamlet, III. i. 56-89.

[11] Shakespeare, Hamlet, III. i. 83.

[12] Shakespeare, Hamlet, V. ii. 11-12.

Touching the Body of the Risen Christ (Easter Sunday Sermon)

St Peter was guarding the Pearly Gates where he would welcome and then interview new souls who were coming into heaven.  He saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention and said, “Hey Jesus! Would you mind guarding the gate for a bit while I go run an errand?”

Jesus said, “Sure. What do I have to do?”

Peter said, “Just find out about the people who arrive. Ask them about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve entry into heaven.”

“Ok,” Jesus said, “Sounds easy enough.”

So Jesus manned the gates for St. Peter (kind of like our senior warden Mike is manning the gate for the bounce house after Eucharist). The first person to arrive at the gates was an old man. Jesus welcomed him and then looked closely at him and asked, “What did you do for a living?”

The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.”

Jesus remembered his own earthly existence and leaned forward and asked, “Did you have any family?”

“Yes,” the old man said, “I had a son, but I lost him.”

Jesus leaned in more closely and said, “You lost your son? Can you tell me about him?”

“Well,” the man said, “he had holes in his hands and feet.”

Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”

The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”

 

We have a misrecognition of Jesus in this story just as we do in our Gospel reading this morning. Just as the old man Geppetto thought Jesus was his son Pinocchio at the Pearly Gates so too does Mary Magdalene think Jesus was the gardener at the tomb. It is not until Jesus says Mary’s name that she recognizes him as her Risen Lord and cries out “Rabbi!”[1] So a question for us this morning is how do we recognize and experience the Risen Christ in our lives?

After recognizing Jesus, it appears that Mary then rushes to embrace him since, according to our translation, Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me.” Other translations render the phrase “Do not cling to me.” However, the Greek verb here is actually hapto, which means “touch.” So Jesus is actually saying, “Do not touch me” (me mou hapto in Greek. Noli me tangere in Latin). Now these words are very mysterious and to me, very frustrating. They are frustrating to me since this entire season of Lent, which began 40 days ago, back in March (March 1st), we at Redeemer have been trying to experience the Gospel of John and Jesus through the five bodily senses: through listening, tasting, seeing, smelling and throughout this Holy Week, through touching. A couple days ago (on Maundy Thursday), we gathered here to wash each other’s feet, as Jesus commanded us to do, as a symbol of love and service to one another. In general, the Gospel of John invites us to use our senses to understand and appreciate deeper spiritual realities, but here Jesus says, “Don’t touch me.”

What makes this statement of Jesus also very mysterious is the fact that in this very same chapter in John (chapter 20), Jesus invites his disciple Thomas (often known as Doubting Thomas) to put his finger on his hands and side. So why does he tell Thomas to touch while telling Mary, “Do not touch me”? Well, as I said, way back on Ash Wednesday, apparent incongruities in Scripture are not simply mistakes or mere contradictions, but rather invitations into the deep, paradoxical mysteries of God. So what mystery are we invited to understand and experience, even with our sense of touch, on this Easter morning?

What does Jesus say to Mary after saying, “Do not touch me”? He says to Mary, “Go to my brothers” (20:17). With these words, Jesus is telling Mary that if she wants to touch Jesus’s body, she is now invited to do so among the community of believers, which, after Easter, is understood to be the Body of Christ. In one sense, the Risen Christ has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and in another sense, the Risen Christ remains here among us, whenever we gather in his Name. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders writes, “The fundamental sign […] of the really present Jesus is the ecclesial community itself, which is now the Body of Christ, the New Temple raised up in the world.”[2] This is why it makes sense for Jesus to invite Thomas to touch his risen flesh in the very same chapter because Thomas is in the midst of the community of believers, the Body of Christ.

The Gospel of John teaches that if we want to experience and touch the Risen Christ today, we can do so whenever we gather as a worshipping community, as the Body of Christ. Because we do not live in first century Palestine, we cannot touch that same tangible body that Mary Magdalene touched. But we can touch the Body of Christ as it is made manifest to us today, in the Eucharist and in this very gathering of people who proclaim the resurrection.

One of the benefits of being a smaller, more intimate community, is that, during the passing of the Peace, we generally get to greet everyone in the room. And that is generally done with some tangible sign of peace: a handshake or a hug or a kiss. I often have to cut short the Peace because there is so much greeting and hugging. And then after that, we have a tradition of gathering in a circle to bless people on their birthdays and anniversaries. I have realized that we are kind of a touchy-feely group. And although some people might be uncomfortable with that and we need to always be respectful of people’s boundaries, I see us, in many ways, fulfilling Jesus’s command to Mary to “Go to my brothers and sisters” because, Jesus says, if you want to experience me now, you can now do so among the community of believers. So every time we greet and hug one another, we are greeting and hugging and being hugged by the Risen Christ, who promises to be present and alive among us.

My spiritual journey has led me to explore other faith traditions and to seek wisdom from various spiritual leaders such as the Buddha, Lao Tzu and even the prophet Muhammad. However, after a few years of exploration, it became clear to me that Jesus was my rabbi and my guru. I appreciate understanding Jesus as my guru because a guru functions as one’s access to the divine as Jesus is for me; and also because the term reminds me of an experience that my father shared with me about his own spiritual journey. My father, who grew up Jewish and explored a variety of spiritualties, wanted to become a follower of a living Indian guru named Sri Chinmoy (who died about 10 years ago). However, Sri Chinmoy turned him away because, in his apparent wisdom, he sensed that my father’s true guru was actually Jesus. At the time, my father was disappointed by this because he knew that it was much more helpful and spiritually beneficial to have a living guru with whom one could physically engage and interact, rather than a teacher like Jesus who died 2,000 years ago. But it was actually through a group of Jewish believers in Jesus that my father came to understand Christ as very much alive (as we proclaim on this Easter Sunday) and very much present within the church. As I have grown in my own personal understanding of Christ, I have also come to experience him as very much alive and present; not just present within our thoughts and memories and prayers; but present in the physical sacraments; the consecrated bread and wine; and present within and through our own bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit.

I also came to understand that in order to truly grow in my experience of the Risen Christ, my relationship with him needed to expand beyond an individual and personal relationship to a communal relationship. In other words, if I wanted to touch and be touched by the Risen Christ, I felt invited to do so within the community of believers, the Church, within the Body of Christ. And that’s really why I am here now as a priest, because I have come to experience the Risen Christ tangibly within the church, and tangibly within this particular church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, and Redeemer being another important name for my guru. And even though things get challenging and messy within community (as things do in all communities), the Risen Christ, the Redeemer, promises to remain present and at work within the church, within this community. The Risen Christ is alive and here with us, right now, tangible and accessible to our bodily senses. Can we recognize him?

I would like to conclude with one beautiful and practical way that we can experience and perhaps recognize the Risen Christ among us right now through our bodily senses; and that is, by singing together. Throughout the season of Lent, which is a time of repentance, we have been fasting from using the word “Hallelujah” which we say during times of joy. This Easter morning is a time of joy so we can finally unleash our Alleluias and I’d like us to do so together by singing a song by another spiritual master named Leonard Cohen. It goes like this…

[1] See Zacharias Thundy, Rabbouni (John 21:16) by Mary Magdalene: A Misreading (2016)

[2] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) 58.

 

Touching the Feet of Christ (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

Eight years ago, during Holy Week, I had the privilege of visiting the largest church in Christendom: St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. I remember it as a multi-sensory experience, as I heard the echo of visitor’s footsteps and the whispers of prayers, smelled and almost tasted the fragrant incense in the air, beheld Michelangelo’s magnificent Pieta and Bernini’s bronze canopy (baldacchino) towering over the high altar; and I remember touching the cool and smooth feet of a bronze statue of St. Peter. Even before touching the feet, I could see that it had been touched and rubbed and even kissed by thousands, if not millions, of pilgrims before me. Peter’s feet no longer looked like human feet, but more like those of a deformed duckbill platypus since they had been eroded and worn down by the hands of countless pilgrims throughout the centuries. Even though it was a statute, pilgrims still experienced holiness and potential healing in simply touching the feet that had been touched and washed by Christ. As Protestants, we have a healthy skepticism of devotion to statues and even icons, yet I still felt something powerful and sacred in touching something that had been so revered and venerated by so many lovers of Christ throughout the centuries. I felt a tangible connection to millions of other Christians both living and dead; and through that experience, I also felt a tangible connection to St. Peter, to Christ, to God.

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation and one of its primary implications is the belief that God makes Godself accessible to us through tangible and touch-able matter and through flesh. Roman Catholics tend to incorporate this doctrine into their spiritual piety more so than Protestants, but this evening we get to experience God by touching and washing each other’s feet just as Jesus washed Peter’s feet and commanded us to do the same.

Usually when preachers (including myself) comment on the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, we explain that foot washing was an expected act of hospitality within ancient Middle Eastern culture, where people often walked long distances without shoes or socks along dusty roads often covered in camel dung. Because people’s feet were often so smelly and disgusting, the foot washing was generally expected to be performed by servants and slaves. So us preachers often highlight the great humility of Jesus who meekly enacts the role of servant and slave as he washes his disciples’ smelly feet, before dying a slave’s death. This is a beautiful and historically accurate understanding of the foot washing practice and one that helps us appreciate the spiritual depth of a practice that might seem rather foreign and even awkward to us today. This context and understanding helps us to see the foot washing as a symbolic act of humility, service, hospitality and self-giving love for one another; as a symbolic way of fulfilling Christ’s maundatum for us to love one another as he has loved us, the maundatum from which Maundy Thursday derives its name.

However, I believe there is something even deeper going on in this symbolic act of washing each other’s feet. Beyond symbolically showing our humility and love for one another, this act invites us to experience Christ in each other’s flesh; to touch and wash the feet of Christ, the very feet of God incarnate. In the Middle East and other Eastern cultures, the feet were much more than a body part that frequently required cleaning. Within [Eastern] culture, the feet of a spiritual master or guru or rabbi were considered to be “channels of divine grace.”[1] In his book Miracle of Love, spiritual teacher Ram Dass writes, “Touching, holding, rubbing the guru’s feet has profound significance in the Hindu tradition. For out of the guru’s feet comes the spiritual elixir, the soma, the nectar, the essence of the sacred Ganges River—the subtle pran, or energy that heals and awakens. To touch the feet of such a being is not only to receive this grace, but it is an act of submission, of surrender to God, for that is what the guru represents on earth.”[2] This Eastern understanding of feet helps illuminate references to foot washing and anointing within our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In Genesis 18, Abraham offers foot washing to visitors who are revealed to be divine. And all four Gospels relate accounts of women anointing the feet of their rabbi and guru Jesus Christ, who comes to be understood as divine. The feet of spiritual masters are channels of divine grace. So it is indeed scandalous and confusing for the divine Jesus Christ to venerate his bumbling disciples as bearers of divinity by washing their feet.

Episcopal priest and author Dr. James Hughes Reho writes, “From the perspective of his culture, Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet is not only giving them an example of humility, he is affirming to them that they themselves carry the Divine within themselves, that they…can and should function as channels of…divine glory, for others. He is venerating them ‘as if’ they are already deified beings, because in one sense they—and all of us—already are.”[3]

According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the divine can be made manifest in material and flesh. We can experience the divine through our bodily senses. This evening, Christ invites us to experience the divine in one another, even in each other’s flesh, in the intimate and sometimes awkward act of touching and washing one of the most sensitive parts of our entire body: our feet. So I invite us to relax into the potential awkwardness and intimacy of this practice and open ourselves up to the possibility that when we touch the feet of one another (each one of us—bumbling disciples), we are acknowledging the divine within each of us and we are touching the flesh of Christ.

[1] James Hughes Reho, Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity (Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 2017), 272.

[2] Ram Dass, Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba (Santa Fe NM: Hanuman Foundation, 1979), 33.

[3] Reho, Tantric Jesus, 282.

Exegesis of John 8:44 for Grace Cathedral

The Gospel readings for this Fifth Week of Lent have included passages from the 8th chapter of John, which contains one of the most beloved stories in all the Gospels as well as one the most troubling. The former involves a woman caught in adultery and the latter involves Jesus and the Jews caught in a vitriolic debate. Our reading today includes the final jabs of this troubling dispute between Jesus and the Jews, which ends with the Jews attempting to stone Jesus. This argument is so troubling that the lectionary organizers thought it best to omit a significant portion of it; several verses which have been highly prone to misinterpretation and which have, in fact, been used to justify Christian violence against Jews. The verse most prone to pernicious readings is verse 8:44 in which Jesus says to the Jews, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” To this day, white supremacists and anti-Semitic communities point to this verse as justification for their “Christian” anti-Judaism, this verse in which Jesus seems to call the Jews to whom he is speaking “children of the devil.”[1]

In many ways, it probably was wise for the lectionary organizers to omit this verse and others like it from the Lenten readings since it is so fraught and so very difficult to interpret. However, as someone with Jewish background, I cannot help but grasp the nettle and grapple with these words of Jesus. Although unpacking and dismantling the apparent anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John cannot be accomplished in one brief homily, I would like to offer a reading that has been helpful for me.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi arguing with other Jewish rabbis about how to interpret the Torah as rabbis are wont to do. This was an intra-Jewish debate, a debate within the Jewish community. Throughout John, Jesus seems to highlight the portions of the Torah that defend and advocate for society’s victims while his interlocutors tend to focus on the parts of the Torah that condemn, punish, accuse and expel. In general, Jesus plays the role of the Advocate while his interlocutors play the role of the Accuser. In Hebrew, the word for Accuser is “Ha Satan” (Satan) which is translated into the Greek as diabolos and into English as devil. Later on in John, Jesus calls the Spirit which he will leave for his disciples the “Paraclete,” which is Greek for the Advocate. A significant part of Jesus’s ministry involved healing, protecting and defending victims from the social mechanism known as scapegoating which the Bible personifies as Ha Satan, the Accuser. We are all very susceptible to this social mechanism of blaming and scapegoating innocent victims; and many fascists have risen to power on the backs of various scapegoats and remain in power by consistently deflecting blame onto others. The Bible exposes the reality and violence of this social mechanism of scapegoating and Jesus stands fully within the Jewish prophetic tradition when he exposes others who are caught up in this behavior.

One of my favorite theologian James Alison points out how “Jesus uses the word ‘devil’ about his interlocutors’ paternity and his interlocutors use ‘demon’ to get back at Jesus…the word diabolos in John always refers to the founding principle of fratricidal order [scapegoating], and is a revelation of a principle that is to be overcome, not an accusation of ‘bad people.’ The word ‘demon’ – daimonion – is the accusatory word from within the fratricidally structured cultural order, the way one indicates someone as not ‘one of us.’ Jesus’ word diabolos reveals the murderous structure of [the scapegoating mechanism] the interlocutors’ word daimonion is a function of that [scapegoating mechanism].”[2] In other words, when Jesus says to the Jews that their father is the devil, he is not trying to insult them or demonize them; he is trying to show them that they are caught up in the behavior of the Accuser, the Satan. They behave as the Satan by accusing Jesus of having a demon and then by seeking to stone him to death just as they hoped to do to the woman supposedly caught in adultery. We all know the saying, When we point the finger at someone, we are always pointing three fingers back at ourselves. Jesus is saying that whenever we point a finger at someone else to accuse and victimize and demonize there are always three fingers pointing back at us, indicating our complicity in the work of the Satan.

The tragic irony is that the very passage that calls us to stop demonizing others has been used to do just that. Throughout history, Christians have too often played the role of the Satan by using this passage and others like it to accuse, demonize and victimize Jews and other vulnerable peoples and communities. When we do this, we fall into the very trap from which Jesus came to save us.

The Spirit which Jesus gave us is the Spirit of the Advocate, the Paraclete, the same Holy Spirit who has been speaking up for outcasts and victims ever since Abraham interceded for others and welcomed strangers into his home. The Holy Spirit has been speaking up for outcasts and victims even before Abraham and it is that Spirit that Jesus embodies and invokes when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” And it is that Spirit that Jesus pours out on his disciples and on all of us at our baptism, inviting us to bury our addictions to accusation and blame and to defend and advocate for those of us who are vulnerable and victimized, including those parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and victimized; for by doing so we are continuing the work of Christ and abiding with the Spirit who rejoiced with God at creation and who lives and reigns with God both now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] The website of the anti-Semitic White Nationalist Community called Stormfront.org cites John 8:44 in their list of “What World Famous Men Said about the Jews” https://www.stormfront.org/jewish/antisemite.html, accessed April, 6, 2017.

[2] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Crossroads, 2001), 68.

Aromatizing our Prayers

This Lent, I have been trying to experience the Fourth Gospel through the five senses and experience God through the five senses. I have been trying to listen to the Spirit of God in my breath and in the wind. I have been trying to appreciate tasting, drinking and eating particularly the consecrated bread and wine through which the Spirit of Christ enters me and makes my body into a temple of the Holy Spirit. I have been trying to open my eyes to see opportunities for creativity and healing where once I saw opportunities to blame; and to see God’s creativity and healing power at work even when things appear to be very, very messy.

I have been trying to do this. In some ways, it has been really encouraging and has helped me be present and in other ways it has been disappointing and discouraging. I have often found that my reflections on the bodily senses tend to become too abstract and spiritualized way too quickly while the intent was to engage the senses in a down-to-earth and practical way. However, the Fourth Gospel keeps pushing me to go deeper in my engagement with the senses and to understand the senses as symbols of deeper spiritual realities. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. Most of us don’t come to church to focus on our flesh but rather to focus on our spirit, or more specifically, on the Holy Spirit that gives life to our flesh. As Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). But then he goes on to remind us that our fleshly bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). The Fourth Gospel similarly invites us to understand our bodies as temples of the same Spirit who raised both Jesus and Lazarus from the dead. I have been trying to find this balance between appreciating the spirit that gives life to the body and appreciating the body that houses the spirit. It has been hard and frustrating and sometimes disappointing.

So I brought this disappointment with me to our gathering here last Saturday along with other frustrations around sickness in my family. I had been struggling to find the right words to pray so it was helpful for me to ease into the ancient words of the Psalms, which express a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. We lit some frankincense and prayed psalms of joy, anger, confusion and sadness. We chanted the Psalms; we read responsively, antiphonally, softly, joyfully, loudly (especially when we competed with the lawnmowers outside). And all the while, the frankincense kept burning, releasing its holy fragrance and reminding us of how all our prayers were, in the words of Psalm 141, “set before God like incense.”

Initially, the aroma of the frankincense reminded me of the stunning Anglo-Catholic parish at Time’s Square: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, known for its frequent use of frankincense and fondly referred to as “Smoky Mary’s.” Now that holy scent has taken on new meaning for me as it will remind me of this church and this sacred space and time when we gathered to prayerfully read all 150 Psalms. The aroma will remind me of how all our prayers —both joyful and sorrowful—were received by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Our sense of smell, as we all know, has a unique way of triggering memories and deep emotions; and our Gospel this morning is suffused with references to smell, memory and deep emotions. When we are introduced to Mary, we are reminded that she is the one who poured (or will pour) expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet and filled the entire house with its potent fragrance. Martha tries to remind Jesus that there is already a stench of death and decay emanating from Lazarus’s tomb. And the onlookers remind themselves of Jesus’s love for Lazarus and his previous healings as they observe Mary, Martha and Jesus each express their own intense emotions.

Just as the Psalmists and those who pray the Psalms express their intense emotions to God so too do Martha and Mary express their emotions to Christ in this morning’s Gospel. Mary and Martha show us that no matter how despairing and even hopeless our prayers might be they are still received lovingly by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Both Mary and Martha embody the many psalms that cry out to God for help when they say together, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Also like the Psalmists, Mary and Martha must struggle with the inexplicable delay of their Lord. As readers, we too are baffled by Christ’s delay when we read the puzzling words: “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Why would Jesus stay after having heard this news? As readers, we are compelled to ask this question and to also imagine the confusion of Martha and Mary, who must have been praying something akin to the potent words of Psalm 44, which cries out: “Wake up, O Lord! What are you waiting for? Rise up, come to our help.”

When Jesus does finally arrive, he appears to be too late; and Mary and Martha each respond to Jesus’s significant tardiness in their own way. Martha’s response embodies the psalms that express anger and confusion but then reaffirm their trust in God’s saving power when she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What I love so much about the Gospels in general and this morning’s passage in particular is how we get to see how God in Christ responds specifically to emotion-filled prayers and complaints, like those in the Psalms. Jesus receives Martha’s complaint and subsequent affirmation of faith by inviting her to broaden and deepen her understanding of the resurrection and of himself, proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Mary’s response to Jesus’s delay embodies the darker psalms that both begin and end in anger and confusion when she falls at Jesus’s feet, weeping and says simply, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why weren’t you here earlier? You could have saved him. He is dead now because of you.” Commentators often point out that, with these words, Mary is rebuking Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond to Mary’s raw emotions? He seems to accept her complaint as a genuine act of faith and responds with one of the most profound, humble and human acts of love and pastoral care within all the Gospels. He weeps with her. He responds to her tear-stained prayer by crying with her. One of the Psalms (Psalm 56) says to God, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Our tears are precious to God, so precious that they move him to tears as well. Throughout John’s Gospel and especially throughout this passage, Jesus is no stoic. He is bursting and overflowing with intense emotions. The fully human Jesus of John empathizes fully with all of our sorrows. He not only receives our prayers as incense; he also enters into our deepest emotions with us.

The fully human Jesus of John is also fully divine; therefore, he can also hear the prayers of one who is dead and buried; of Lazarus who embodies perhaps the darkest Psalm of all: Psalm 88, which concludes with these haunting words: “Your terrors have swept over me; they have engulfed me completely. You have taken away my loved ones. My only friend is darkness.” In the stinking darkness of death and decay, Jesus smells hints of new life and calls them forth when he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” We learn that even the most dark and disturbing secrets and feelings which we are sure must smell like death to God are received by Christ who will transform them into new life.

Episcopal priest and author Martin L. Smith writes, “In Lent…we often try to palm off on God the renunciation of desserts and treats, when Christ is [really] summoning us to hand over our burdens” (127-128). So what burdens is Christ summoning you to hand over to him this Lent? What emotions or complaints or frustrations are you being invited to bring to God in prayer? I invite us to trust that whatever we bring to God in prayer will be received by him as sweet-smelling incense. I also invite us to aromatize our prayers. What do I mean by that?  I mean that I invite us to not only practice being present to the moment and to our bodies by appreciating our sense of smell but I also invite us to let God speak to us through our sense of smell. Perhaps there is an emotion or wound or longing hidden deep within us that can only be triggered and unleashed through the smell of some aroma. Let us invite God to tap into those deep parts of us this week through our sense of smell so that we can bring those emotions or wounds or longings to God in prayer, like Mary and Martha and the Psalmists; so that we can hand over our burdens to Christ; so that we can we allow God to breathe his refreshing life into those dark parts of our soul that might feel dead. And by doing so, we can experience resurrection and new life in our own tombs and valleys of dry bones through the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.