Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year A- May 14, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
The Rev'd Dr. Deborah Meister
Fifth Sunday of Easter - Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Rev'd Dr. Deborah Meister

And Saul consented to his stoning. (Acts 8:1)

A few years ago, I woke one morning with the conviction that I needed to travel to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim road that leads from various points in Europe to Santiago de Compostela, the legendary final resting place of the apostle James, son of Zebedee, or James the Greater.
I had done no research on the Camino, had no previous experience with long-distance hiking, and didn’t even own gear; nevertheless, I found myself, four weeks later, in the ancient town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, placing my foot upon a road made holy by the prayers of strangers. As I took those first steps, I had two major concerns: that as a small woman traveling alone, I could be robbed or assaulted, and that I would get lost. Anyone who knows me knows that getting lost was a very likely outcome.

As I came to the first fork in the road, I was surprised to see that someone had painted a yellow arrow pointing the pilgrims on. I followed it until I came to another, then another. All that day, whenever the road branched, there was an arrow, placed there by someone whose face I would never see. But it wasn’t until the second day that the whole truth dawned on me, because the arrows continued to appear: someone — most likely a group of someones — had gone all through Spain with buckets of yellow paint, marking a path for pilgrims to follow, so that, every time we could get lost, we would find the traces of someone’s love.When Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” I think he means he is that kind of way: a way that is marked by acts of love. 

Certainly, those kinds of arrows have been in short supply this week, in which our news cycle has been dominated not by arrows, but by fingers, all pointing at one another. I would like to join in, but there’s this: last year, I fired an employee, and her friends immediately started a social media storm that lasted for months. And so, I know what it feels like to be stoned, and I can’t do it to someone else. But even outside the headlines, this dynamic is becoming prevalent in our culture. What does it say about us that we are so eager to cast stones at one another?

Perhaps my most vivid mental image a stoning comes from the great theologian Monty Python, who imagined ancient Israel as a place where stonings were a form of public entertainment, much as hangings used to be in the early days of our nation. In their satirical take, men rushed to participate, stopping briefly to buy packets of rocks from the stone vendors, while women, who were prohibited, crept in their turn to beard vendors, from whom they could purchase artificial facial hair that would allow them to slip in undetected. It made for a great scene — all those women speaking in their lowest voices — but let’s think about that for a moment: what allowed them to participate in a stoning was concealing their own identity. I would say, not only from others, but from also from themselves.

When I look at my life, the arrows don’t all point in one direction, and they are not all marks of love. My guess is, yours are not either. And if I’m very honest, the rocks and suspicions and hurtful words I’m tempted to toss at another too often point to what we have in common. I condemn when another embodies what I do not love in myself. I do it, in part, so that others will not guess I am no better than my target. And yet, the very act of lashing out reveals my essential weakness, for what Christ asks from us is not anger and accusation, but love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22)

Those qualities are the matrix through which we are called to embody Christ. Today’s Gospel gives us one of the ringing pronouncements of our faith, but in words that are deeply problematic in our context: I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. The issue, of course, is exclusivity. We all live in a pluralistic context; most of us have friends who practice other faiths, or none: What are we to do with the definite article, with that pesky the which implies that Christ, and only Christ, gives life?

Perhaps we should take it as an invitation to humility. It’s dangerous to speculate about the mind of our maker, so I’m going out on a limb here, but I am fairly sure it never occurred to Jesus that any follower of his — any true follower — could use these words in an arrogant way, because arrogance is the opposite of the way of Christ. We cannot use these words to uphold our own righteousness, because Jesus came for the unrighteous. We cannot use these words to exclude our neighbor, because Jesus died to include him or her. The minute we begin to jettison the flesh-and-blood people who disagree with us and argue with us and sometimes drive us crazy in favor of an ideal that is spotless, pure, unblemished, we are rejecting the priorities of Christ.

St. John writes, “If a man says he loves God but hates his brother, he is liar: for if he does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen.” (I John 4:20) For many years, I have thought that was the least true statement in Scripture. It’s much easier to love a God we never have to see than it is to love the person who snores and leaves socks under the bed and fails us when it matters. 

But all this year, listening to the strident contempt of pundits and citizens alike, one question has been in my mind: Is there enough love left to save this country? To save our communities? Because this is about love: love of our country cannot be separated from love of our neighbor. And I have been reminded, forcefully, that humility is integral to any relationship. After all, as Cheryl Strayed reminds us, “We all have a dazzling lack of authority about the inner lives of even the people with whom we are most intimate.”[1] Perhaps, when Jesus proclaims that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, one of the things he means is that we are not. None of us has all the truth of this life.

But the definite article can also signal something different: it can be a sign of commitment. If I ask a my friend about her new love interest, she might reply, “He is someone I could marry.” Or, alternatively, “She is the one I have been looking for.” Both are strong statements of love, but only one is decisive.

What matters to us supremely? It’s whatever we call “the most important thing,” or “the most important person in my life.” We say “my wife” or “the cause”: we don’t say “a wife” or “a cause,” unless we’re talking about someone else’s passion. When we push away Jesus’ claim to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, what we are really pushing away is his claim on our lives. We are seeking space to live with diminished urgency, to make Jesus one among many factors in our existence, rather than our foundation.

There is some real honesty in that. Most of us are conflicted about our ultimate loyalty. We have this tug on our heart from Jesus; we have minds shaped in the academic tradition of critical thinking, which gives us tools to tear apart any belief system we wish to analyze; we live under a constant barrage of media presenting the claims of consumerism or of politics or of other competing belief systems. Each of these possesses a fragment of our heart, until it becomes difficult for us to live in a unified way at all. We feel torn between competing goods, until it feels as if our “center cannot hold.”[2] But a path marked with arrows that point in all directions will not lead us home. And if our hands are pointing toward our neighbors’ faults, they will be too busy to open in acts of mercy. 

My friends, there is a Way, and all people of grace follow it. In the words of Annie Dillard, “Sometimes,...dazzlingly or dimly, God shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear these souls, marveling, know it....He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time...(Having seen, people of varying cultures turn -- for reasons unknown, and by a mechanism unimaginable -- to aiding and serving the afflicted and the poor.)”[3]

These people, whoever they are, converge on the same path: the path of mercy, kindness, and grace. And they do not follow it with half their hearts: they follow it with their lives. So let us lay aside “all malice, all guile and hypocrisy and envy, and all evil speaking,” and long instead for “the pure spiritual milk, so that by it [we] may grow into salvation.” (1 Peter 2:1-2)

Underneath all our finger-pointing, beneath our accusations of self and of one another, lies a striking lack of gentleness. Many years ago, a woman in a class I was leading commented that we do not hesitate to put upon ourselves condemnations that we would be appalled to heap on one another. And so it is worth remembering, here in this holy place, that when Jesus encountered someone in error, his most frequent response was a disconcerting restraint. He did not pretend that all was well, but he called each person into new life, and then said no more. In so doing, he showed us the way of tenderness, the way of forgiveness, the way of conversion. On that way, each error becomes not a sign of shame, but a mark of love, an arrow pointing us further into Christ.

In the words of a prayer of Soren Kierkegaard:
Hold not our sins up against us
But hold us up against our sins
So that the thought of Thee should not remind us
Of what we have committed,
But of what Thou didst forgive.


[1] Cheryl Strayed, review of Richard Ford, Between Them, New York Times, May 1, 2017.

[2] Yeats, “The Second Coming.”

[3] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being.

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