Did you ever know something –
know it in your bones?
What I mean is the kind of certainty
where we know such things. But then,
you discovered it wasn’t true?
Oh, how we long for it?Truth.
Oh, how we long for it?
Truth, that bedrock foundation
that does not shake
or shift over time.
Where on earth
can we find such a thing as truth anymore?
When even the geological plates under our feet
move and shift
and the earth itself is never without motion,
how can there be a truth that stands still?
“I am the way, the truth and the life.
No one comes to God except through me.”
John places those words
on the lips of Jesus seventy-five or so years
AFTER Jesus was dead and buried.
Then those words become “the” truth
for an entire empire
and European civilization that killed, tortured, burned
and destroyed other people
who did not claim that truth.
In the year 2020
we can glibly say, as Marcus Borg did so often,
that yes, “Jesus is the way,
and the truth and the life”
and it is just the same “way and truth and life”
known in every religion in the world
by different names and from different spiritual sources.
Now, please allow me a brief break in the action.
We are in the midst of a pandemic,
so we are scattered and unable to talk in person
or in real time.
A better pastoral instinct than mine,
would perhaps suggest that preaching in this time
should not be challenging – and comforting only.
But my problem is, that if we are going to keep using
Biblical readings, and continue to use
then there is little choice but to include
some challenging content.
To allow such things to stand uncritically
and without further comment, is not truthful –
or so it seems to this preacher.
I invite us then, to think about truth in the context of our own lives.
When I was in high school,
I witnessed the Klu Klux Klan holding a night time rally
carrying torches and a burning cross.
They had the way and a truth and a life,
and Jesus was his name.
Like many of you, I grew up in a culture
in which homosexuals and transgender folks
were harassed, humiliated, and beat up,
and unlike many people and places now,
few seemed to have a problem with it.
It was okay because we the way and a truth and a life,
and his name was Jesus.
When I was middle school,
my mom would not have been able to get credit on her own.
And we went to a church in which
she could cook and wash dishes
but not be a deacon, priest, or bishop.
We had the way and a truth and a life
and we proclaimed it, Jesus.
Without giving it too much thought,
people might believe that religion –
since it touts “the” truth –
would never change much.
I mean, if the truth is absolute, then
it is probably unchanging, right?
All those councils,
creeds and doctrines
have codified truth, haven’t they?
So now it is all done, once and for all.
How could Christianity change
when right there at the very bottom of the pile
of Christian ideas
is one that says God does not change?
If God does not change
then the truth cannot change. Right?
What happens to all that dogma
and doctrine, written and voted on
when we still thought that the sun orbited the earth?
What happens to us
when we begin to see
the vast expanse of interstellar space?
What happens when we read those
famous, brilliant theologians
and suddenly even an ordinary,
not-so-brilliant high school student
can recognize the cultural filters they wore?
What happens when we can recognize
in our most cherished theology, and see how it
distorted Christian views of Judaism and Jesus,
and so corrupted much of what we thought was truth?
What happens when we start to read Isaiah or Luke
from the perspective of a Salvadoran compasino?
What happens if we listen to Jesus
from the point of view of an American feminist?
What happens if we see the Exodus story
from the eyes of a Syrian Muslim
rebelling against an authoritarian regime?
What happens when Biblical scholarship
from the first half of the 20th century
is undercut by archeological discoveries
in the second half,
and what we thought was the protective armor of truth
looks more like swiss cheese? Yikes.
Truth. oh, how we long to know it.
Truth. Where is that bedrock foundation
that does not shake or move or shift over time?
Do we hold onto our truths for dear life,
as if they are the only things that will keep us
from drowning in the brutality of an on-coming tsunami?
Or do we let go, hoping-against-hope
that surrender to the torrent
will reveal a new, deeper, truer truth?
“…Enter the turret of your love, and lie
close in the arms of the sea; let in new suns
that beat and echo in the mind like sounds
risen from sunken cities lost to fear;
let in the light that answers your desire
awakening at midnight with the fire…”
(Denise Levertov, from “The sea’s wash in the hollow of the heart”)
I do not know if Denise Levertov
was pointing to the same thing I am today,
but it sounds like it.
It is a tricky, demanding,
and grueling dance we have these days.
With one hand
we hold the truth of the ages
and with the other,
we wrap our fingers around the waist of the present moment
with all its cascading truths.
Who is supposed to lead?
Both of these partners
would jealously take us into themselves
and never let go.
But you and I must not allow them to lead!
We must lead
or we will be lost.
and traditional wisdom,
has a conserving nature
and demands fidelity to everything she says.
The wisdom of the present moment,
capricious and seductive,
has the soul of a marketer
which is more intent on capturing us
than concerned with the content of his product.
Then there is us, you and me;
unsure of our step,
not confident in our own authority;
suspicious of our partners’ motives
but not at all clear
about our own.
We know it is still possible to self-medicate
with the sedatives
of an exclusive wisdom of ages past,
or the formless stimulants of new age wisdom.
We know it, because we see people drug themselves.
We see people holding tight to the old
or clutching the new
even though it requires them to deny
their own experience.
We have done it ourselves,
every single one of us, I suspect.
We have held tightly to truths we were handed
because we fear being alone in the dark without a light.
It is very tempting to fold ourselves
into the old or the brand new truths,
pretending that the blanket under which we hide
provides real safety.
But if the bedrock of our faith
is in an idea or a belief,
whether ancient or new,
our faith will not weather the tempest headed our way.
Suffering and death makes a liar
out of every religion and every religious idea.
When we sit atop a pile of life’s manure –
when our most cherished relationships
are broken or sour,
and when our best efforts are rewarded with loss,
or careful health strategies didn’t stop disease,
then our bitter question becomes, “Why!”
It is a statement more than a question,
and “Why!” echoes unanswered
in the darkness.
Whether Jesus, Buddha or Mohammad
is the way and the truth and the life,
the truth of an IDEA
will not get us through.
When you and I are the one lying on the hospice bed
hosting the convoy of people coming to say good-bye,
and life has been too short,
and the suffering has been too painful,
and all we want to do is call for a re-run,
religion and religious ideas
will not be enough to give us our wings.
What in God’s name are we going to do
without “the” truth as our bedrock?
Well, first of all, we start by packing it in.
We need to stop looking for the sure and certain truth.
We need to give it a funeral
and grieve for it.
We need to finally just let it go
so we can move on with the other stages of grief.
I am not kidding, that is an important thing to do
if we haven’t done it already.
Truth be told, we will likely have to do it
more than once
because we are clinging to all kinds of truths
we are not even aware of –
and the awareness comes in waves,
not all at once, nor once and for all.
So, once we have made this terrible
acknowledgment about the death of truth –
at least the sure and certain kind –
we start by opening our minds
and opening our hearts
and opening our friendships
and opening our search
and discovering the loss of sure and certain truth
brings with it, enhanced senses.
When we have let go of the sure and certain,
we can feel more,
and intuit more,
and imagine more,
and apprehend more.
When we have opened our pores
we also create more portholes to the holy.
The first thing we will discover
as our grief for “the” truth begins to abate,
is that we become more experiential with our faith.
Then, as we become less idea-and-belief oriented,
we gain the awareness of a need
that may have been only abstract before.
You see, when we leaned on and trusted
the authority of ideas
and their authors or institutions,
the community of faith was just people
with whom we worshiped.
But as our own experience
becomes more authoritative,
we have a greater need of other people
to help us discern the meaning of our experience.
It is no longer a dance
between tradition and innovation,
it’s moshing and WE are in the mosh pit.
Or if you have never moshed,
it’s a rugby scrum
and we’d better have a good team
while we are in the thick of it.
Encounters with God,
ordinary experiences of the holy, are tricky.
On the one hand, we can get carried away
and think they change everything!
On the other hand, with time and distance,
we can begin to lose confidence
in our experiences of the holy,
as if maybe they were just our imagination.
We need other people around us
who we can talk out loud to about God-stuff,
people who aren’t so rigid with truth
that they can’t listen to us,
or so fearful
that they can’t return the intimacy.
We need to be able to wonder out loud with people,
and to imagine out loud,
and to feel out loud,
and to open our hearts and minds to life with other people.
If we are not going to wear the traditional
sure and certain truths
of the past or the present like chainmail in battle,
and if we are not going
to ricochet like a cue ball
from new idea to new idea,
then we have to have people to share our wonderment and experiences with,
and with whom we can learn from and grow.
We need those others more than ever,
not just family and friends,
but people engaged in the same spiritual process
we are engaged in.
Ideas and doctrines,
sure and certain truth,
do not carry us through a time like
the one we are in right now.
What holds us,
in times of crisis and endings,
is the experience of God’s love.
The IDEA of God’s love is lovely,
but the EXPERIECE of God’s love is transforming –
confirming and affirming in small doses,
and rattling and terrifying up close and personal.
Our experiences of the holy
may be big and splashy
and what people normally think of
as religious experience, OR,
it can be the accumulation of many small,
ordinary moments of presence
that forms a preponderance of holiness
across our lives.
They may not be big and splashy experiences at all
but quiet threads
weaving our life’s experiences together.
In the end, or in the middle for that matter,
it is not the truth of ideas and beliefs
that hold us –
it is the love of God that holds us.
It is other people
who have also experienced
the love of God, that hold us.
So the way, the truth and the life changes.
Experiencing the love of God,
and our need for one another
as we seek to encounter and understand it,
goes on and on and on.
This time of social distancing will end
and access to spiritual community,
and all kinds of human solidarity, will be easier.
But the love of God is made known now
and always, in big moments and quiet ones,
and it begs to be shared.
The text for preaching today, is the Gospel of John 20:19-31. It is that old story about the disciple Thomas who did not believe his fellow disciples when they told him about a risen Jesus, at least not until Jesus appeared and asked Thomas to put his finger in the open wound made by the sword in his side.
The other text, which I will read in a moment, is a poem by Ivan Bunin, entitled: “Flowers, tall-stalked grasses, and a bee.”
The story of Thomas is a parable.
It is the kind of story my kids would have said
is a guilt trip.
Heck, I would say it’s a guilt trip.
Just a reminder,
a parable has a single point
as distinct from an allegory, which may
have multiple messages.
The single point of the Thomas story
is that our spiritual stature,
if not our personhood,
is diminished if we cannot believe
what we have not experienced.
If we listen hard to that story,
it is not difficult to hear a “tsk, tsk” whispered
between the lines
We know the Gospel of John was written
seventy to ninety years after Jesus’ execution,
when there was no one left alive
who had witnessed his life, death, or resurrection.
So there is little doubt this story
was told to encourage those who believed
Its effect, of course, could also have been to
pour bitter lemons on those who didn’t.
As I viewed the images
of the angry, gun festooned mob
demonstrating at the State House in Lansing, Michigan,
against being told to stay at home
because of the pandemic – some of them extra agitated,
no doubt, because the governor is a woman –
I thought of this problem we have
related to seeing and believing.
It is not just a problem of experience
it is also a problem of perception,
of confirmation bias:
we see what we want to see,
close our eyes to what threatens our beliefs,
and embrace whatever reinforces
what we thought in the first place.
Obviously if we begin with the belief
that government is bad
and must be kept in its place,
then being told to stay at home –
not matter that there is an unseen pandemic
sweeping the state
and the only way to manage it,
though no one has ever done it before,
is social distancing –
then we are likely to feel hostile and paranoid
toward a stay at home order.
I get it, I have felt that hostility
and paranoia before –
(but without a gun strapped around my waist
or bandolier belt with ammo crossing my torso).
Still, viewing the images of that protest
and knowing what I know about the virus
and believing this social distancing project
is a good-faith effort we need to get behind,
it was hard not to feel disgusted.
So, I want to give Thomas a little grace
and practice a some humility
because who among us
has seen a dead person in the flesh?
But not merely a ghostly apparition,
rather, the sinewy, flesh-punctured,
and scarred body of a person
attached to a living, breathing soul?
It is just not a common category of experience.
But what about joy?
What about beauty?
What about the exquisite honeycomb of hope
with its delicious beads of blessedness
rising like bread between the forms?
What about folks who just do not see it
and instead, hover over the nail holes
and the bloody pus of injury?
Is there some way
we can help them see what we see
and know what we know?
That poem we heard today,
from the Russian Nobel Laureate,
Ivan Bunin, it could be a kind of anthem:
“Flowers, and tall-stalked grasses, and a bee,
and azure, blaze of the meridian…
The time will come, the Lord will ask his prodigal son:
“In your life on earth, were you happy?”
And I’ll forget it all, only remembering those
meadow paths among tall spears of grass,
and clasped against the knees of mercy I
will not respond, choked off by tears of joy.”
Now please, I am not promoting
a Pollyanna innocence and naivete
with eyesight that glazes over at the first sign
of danger, darkness, or dread.
Rather, the importance of having role-players
in our Hundred Acre Woods.
We need the Christopher Robin with global vision
who can remind Pooh
just how sweet it is,
and put rails up on Piglet’s anxiety
and Rabbit’s cynicism,
not to mention Eeyore’s morose near-sightedness.
Of course, restraining Kanga and Tigger
is also his job, so that their unbounded exuberance
doesn’t get them all killed.
We simply must have people with vision
for the ordinary sacred blossoming around us,
and for the exquisite intimacy
entangling the joyful and the grievous
into a single ecosystem that is the garden we walk in.
What’s more, I think it is learned –
I think it is a practice available to Eeyore and Tigger.
It is what Jesus gave us, should we wish to receive it.
The vision to see, to see even what is not in front of us.
It is the vision to see life even within a deep and painful wound.
It is the vision to see beauty even where death is a yawning presence.
It is the vision to experience joy in an orchestra that pairs pain and love,
struggle and liberation, conflict and healing.
It is a learned practice to willingly enter what is taking place around us
with a kind of fearless openness and unguarded mentality.
It is a learned practice
that allows us to be surprised
by what contradicts our assumptions
and to be disabused of our ordinary prejudices.
It is a learned practice
that takes a role-player like Rabbit or Owl
and allows them to act as Robin or Pooh
at the very moment the whole community
of the Hundred Acre Woods
is desperate for someone to do it.
Like a rubber band stretching out of its comfort
to serve as a temporary hold,
any one of us, if we practice,
can learn to see beauty
and know joy
and point to the sacred in our midst,
and in so doing
help heal and strengthen
the community we are in.
Now this does not mean
we must always be the one
and always hold the moment for everyone.
Rather, we can fall back into the shape and vision
more natural to us
and allow others to hold our hand
and point the way.
That is how a team works,
that is the nature of a community.
But to be ready when it is our turn,
we must practice.
We must practice unbridled openness.
We must practice microscopic seeing
and open-fisted receiving.
We must practice big-heartedness
and exposed, vulnerable, thinking
with a path cleared to seeing and hearing
a brand-new idea or thing.
No one has that ability all the time,
no one has that super power as a second nature.
We learn it
when we practice it.
Like all things, some people seem more graceful with it
than others who are forever awkward,
but every single one of us
has the capacity to practice and do it.
I think maybe, maybe
that is our gift –
and by “our”
I mean Christian spiritual practice
and done with love.
It would mean altering our interpretation
of the Thomas story
to surgically remove the “tsk, tsk” –
which is not actually in the story
but in the historic interpretation of it.
It would mean passing around the glasses
that give us the vision
and allowing each of us to lead the way
toward the beauty and sacredness
sprouting at our feet
even now, even in pandemic –
even in sickness and in death.
It would mean all of us trying it out,
with training wheels if needed at first,
and giving it a try.
“The time will come, the Lord will ask his prodigal son:
‘In your life on earth, were you happy?’
And I’ll forget it all, only remembering those
meadow paths among tall spears of grass,
and clasped against the knees of mercy I
will not respond, choked off by tears of joy.”
Come on Tigger, and Eeyore,
come on Rabbit and Piglet,
give it a try –
put on the Robin and Pooh glasses
and see the orchestra of splendor and sorrow
as it makes the music of life…and
how stunning it is.
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We are striving to be as open as the table Jesus hosted, in solidarity with the people of Geneva, and an accessible partner to others who share our sense of the gospel.
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“Growth, Wellness, Healing, & the Arts” means we are pointed toward a particular dimension of life, specifically that which strengthens the relationship of body, mind, and spirit.
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