5/28/2018 0 Comments
Luke 15: 11-32
We are all accustomed to the metaphor of God as father. Each week we say the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with the words Our Father. But how often do we hear God referred to as Mother? Of course, all language about God is symbolic, since God is beyond all concepts and language, but certainly mother and father are major forces in human life, so it should not surprise us that these images have brought people closer to God. I came across a poem recently, portions of which read:
I cry out without a sound to Him I’ve been
told is there,
But my soul yearns for something more.
He knows my pain, yes,
But so does She. And
A mother’s pain
Needs a mother’s comfort.
In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus, when weeping over Jerusalem, the city that rejected the prophets and would eventually kill him, referred to himself as the mother hen, longing to gather her brood together under her sheltering wings. In Genesis, where God is sometimes referred to El Shaddai, usually translated as God Almighty, scholars say that the word Shaddai derives from the word, shad, which is a woman’s breast, the place where a baby is cuddled and nursed. Some years ago, when I was visiting France, I was in a cathedral---I cannot remember which city it was, and this massive wooden pulpit, was held up by a statue of a nursing mother. Now this was a Roman Catholic Church, but as a Protestant who sees the pulpit as the central symbol, I was blown away by that image: the place where the word of God is pondered, interpreted and preached, upheld by a nursing woman.
Now let’s change directions. Take a look at this copy of one of the greatest paintings ever painted: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. You heard the story. This younger son, in asking for his inheritance basically told his father, “I wish you were dead.” Such a request was beyond all decent convention. And then he goes out and lives a life of dissipation until he is broke and is hired to feed the pigs—for a Jew that is the lowest of the low. And so he returns home, falls at his father’s feet and begs for forgiveness. I am unworthy to be your son, he confesses.
Now take a look at the father: He is an old man; his eyes look almost blind. He wears a huge red cape, wing like in its ability to gather and protect the son under its folds. Now look at the hands. Those hands mesmerized Henry Nouwen, one of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th century, who died in 1996. When Nouwen went to St. Petersburg, to the Hermitage Museum, where this painting is, he sat and stared at it for over four hours. And he could not take his eyes off those hands. Of course the father in this parable is a metaphor for God, but in those hands, Nouwen said we have the hands of both a mother and a father. Let me read to you what Nouwen wrote:
The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal’s shoulder and back. The hand seems not only to touch, but also to hold. How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other, and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, to offer consolation and comfort. The father in this painting is indeed God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present.
The parable tells us that the father ran to meet his returning son, and indeed in the Bible there are stories suggesting a God who searches for the lost---the lost sheep, the lost coin. But Rembrandt choose to paint not the movement of God, but rather the stillness of God. “What I see, Nouwen wrote, “is God as mother, receiving back into her womb the one whom she made in her own image. The near blind eyes, the hands, the cloak, the bent over body, they all call forth the divine maternal love, marked by grief, desire, hope and endless waiting. God has chosen to become linked to the life of her children. She has freely chosen to become dependent on her creatures, whom she has gifted with freedom. When they leave, she grieves; when they return she is glad. But her joy will not be complete until all who have received life from have returned home and gather together around the table prepared for them.”
Rembrandt, by the way, painted this painting as an old man. Though he had enormous success early on, living a life of luxury, it all came crashing down. He lost his wealth; he lost two wives, two mistresses and four children; only one daughter survived him. And yet his losses did not disillusion him. In fact, some say his losses had a purifying effect on his artistic sight. He began to regard humanity and nature with an even more penetrating eye, no longer distracted by riches and outward splendor. And it was then, and only then that he could paint what some say is the masterpiece of his life, The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Shortly after its completion, Rembrandt died. And we are left with a gift that invites our reflection and our gratitude as it leaves us with many penetrating questions one of which is: Who is God for us?
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Genesis 27: 1-29
Mark 7: 24-30
One of my first theological disagreements was with my friend and next door neighbor, Antoinette Nicosia, who was Roman Catholic and at 9, two years older than I. Admiring this necklace around her neck with a picture on it of someone looking very regal and imposing, I wanted to know who is was. This is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, she told me. Oh, I responded, clearly disappointed. I thought it was someone really important. At which point, Antoinette became angry. She’s the mother of Jesus. She is important. I guess so, I said. But all she did was have Jesus and take care of him. That is what all mother’s do. It seems pretty boring to me.
Well, when you are 7, mothers can indeed seem boring. The mothers I knew in my neighborhood and school all seemed alike. None of them worked outside the home, except for one, who was divorced. They all cooked and cleaned, took their kids to the doctors and dentists and yes, meted out discipline in an effort to teach their children right from wrong. All essential, but at 7 I did not think it was very interesting.
Well, whatever we might say about the two mothers from this morning’s readings, we have to at least admit they are interesting. Now biblical women did not have many options. Motherhood was expected of them, and if they failed to conceive, they suffered the humiliation of barrenness---until God opened their wombs, as the biblical text usually put it. Recall Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who eventually bore Isaac; and Hannah, who finally conceived Samuel, who became a prophet to the king. And then there is Elizabeth, who in her old age gave birth to John the Baptist. And today we hear about Rebekah, who like the previously mentioned women, also had trouble conceiving and suffered shame on account of it. But Isaac, her husband, prayed for her, and God heard his prayer, and she gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. Now the older or oldest son was usually the favored one in the Jewish family, but Rebekah favored her younger son, Jacob. Jacob was a schemer, and the truth is, he was a lot brighter than his hotheaded older brother, who would give up his birthright for a bowl of soup. Rebekah undoubtedly realized where the talent really lay, and so it was her idea to deceive Jacob into giving the paternal blessing to his younger son, when it should have gone to Esau. She was a clever schemer, so perhaps we should not be surprised that Jacob too learned to cleverly scheme.
And then there is the mother from Mark’s gospel. Perhaps some might call her a scheming mother, because she was trying to get what she was not really entitled do. Jesus said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, and she was a foreigner, a Phoenician from Syria. But she was a suffering mother, and mothers, especially ones with sick children, do what they have to do. We don’t know exactly what her daughter’s problem was, since in Jesus’ day unclean spirits were blamed for all kinds of illnesses, including what we would today recognize as mental illness. Jesus was traveling through the region of Tyre in Phoenicia just north of upper Galilee, which in Jesus’ day was a predominantly Jewish area. We know nothing about this woman, whether she had a husband or what her social status was. We know only that she had a sick daughter. And she was desperate for her daughter to be made well.
Now it was completely taboo for women to accost males; only prostitutes did such things, but she did approach Jesus in someone’s home, and that is where respectable women should be---at home, their own or someone else’s. Jesus had gone there to escape notice, but this woman had heard about Jesus, and so she entered the house and fell down at Jesus’ feet to make her request, a sign of deference. Now two chapters earlier in Mark Jesus had healed a foreigner, so the foreign identity of the woman would not necessarily be enough to explain Jesus’ refusal. But that she a woman, a stranger to Jesus, would take it upon herself to enter a home and make such a bold request---that was beyond what social convention tolerated. And so Jesus turned her down, calling her a dog. Well, she did not care what Jesus called her. She did not try to defend herself or call Jesus out for his insulting treatment. All she cared about was her daughter, and so she turned the metaphor around: Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, she said, and for her bold and clever persistence--- the only example in Mark, where Jesus is out maneuvered by anyone---Jesus consents to heal her daughter. And there you have it: a mother doing what she has to do to save her daughter. An old story that is really not so old.
Some years ago in my former church in Middletown, I received a call very early one morning from a parishioner, a woman in her 50’s, whose 88 year old mother had suddenly died. The woman was hysterical, and wanted to know if she could come over to my house immediately. And so she did. The two of us sat in my living room, while she poured out her mother’s story. Her mother had been living in Florida for years with her second husband, when my parishioner was 10. “No one will ever know what my mother did for my sister and me. You see, my father started to sexually abuse my older sister when she was 12, and I was not far behind. My poor mother did not know what to do. She had been married since age 21, and had not worked since then. Here we were in a suburban community in Ohio, living in our split level home on a lovely tree lined street, going to our Methodist church every Sunday. Who in 1958 ever talked about sexual abuse?
What’s a mother to do with four children, two of whom were daughters, threatened with sexual abuse. So do you know what she did? She started an affair with the town pharmacist, a 42 year old single man. I don’t think he knew what hit him, my parishioner told me, but she got him to marry her, and so my father was out. My mother told my father she would see him in jail, if he did not let the divorce go through, and so, guilty coward that he was, he let it all go through. We kids were heart broken, because my mother would not let us see our father. Even my sister cried about it. And mother, well, she was run out of the Methodist Church; none of the women would speak to her. She was viewed as the town whore. Did she care? Oh, on one level, she must have. She was shy and sensitive, and the nasty comments hurt. But still the most important thing was to protect her daughters, and this was the only way she knew how. My step father moved us to another town, where he got a new job in a bigger pharmacy. All four of us kids were angry; we did not want to leave the only home we had ever known. I knew none of this, the woman told me, until about five years ago, when my mother finally told me the awful story. Even my older sister did not realize what our mother had done.
Maybe there are some people, who even today would criticize this mother, but she did what she felt she had to do, and she was willing to take the shame upon herself to protect her daughters. I don’t think you have to be a mother or a daughter to understand the powerful poignancy of that woman’s story, but I do think there is a reason that mothers and motherhood have their place in the bible. Yes, we all realize that motherhood was the female role---but there is something in that role that uniquely shows us what God in Jesus Christ is like, when suffering is taken on willing for the sake of others. What’s a mother to do? Sometimes she does what she has to do, and often no one knows the extent of the creative scheming that went into the plan, or the suffering and humiliation that was privately and publicly suffered.
My parishioner told me she was so shocked when her mother told her the story, she did not know what to say. My poor mother told me how humiliated she felt, doing what she did. But I did not know what else to do, she kept saying over and over again. I couldn’t think of anything else. Do you understand why I did it? Do you understand why I had to take you away from your father? I was so overwhelmed, my parishioner said, I just sat there crying. I felt so badly for my mother. I took her hand in mine, but I never thought to express my thanks. She saved me, and she saved my sister, and now she is gone without ever having heard our words of deepest gratitude and admiration. My mother was so ashamed, and she took that shame to her grave. She thought of herself as weak and cowardly, but she was really strong and courageous. She did what she had to do. I hope she is now at peace, her daughter said to me.
And so do we all hope. We hope that what is not repaired on this earth will somehow be made well in a time beyond time, a time we cannot now see or know, but a time in which we can hope. In the meantime we remember the stories---the stories in the bible, which are still played out in the drama of daily living.
Acts 10: 44-48
At the end of my first year in seminary I did a summer unit of clinical training at Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where one of my assignments was the heart unit. The head of the unit offered us a short tutorial on heart disease and described some of the therapies, surgical and non surgical. “Every July 1,” he said, “I get an eager and talented bunch of new residents, fresh out of medical school and committed to saving these patients from themselves, from all the bad habits that in many cases have led to heart problems: poor diet, no exercise, too much stress, etc. And I am going to tell you, aspiring clergy, exactly what I tell them: MOST people would rather die than change.”
Pretty stark words, but often true. Change is never easy, and has often been viewed as the enemy. In 1803 the preacher Jedidiah Morse, who on the one hand established a school for girls in New Haven, because he was distressed that girls were not being educated, nonetheless also said, “Let us guard against the insidious encroachment of innovation, an evil and beguiling spirit now stalking to and fro on the earth.” In 1854 the Transcendentalist of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau, complained about the construction of a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas. “Why do we need that?” he asked. “Maine and Texas have nothing important to communicate.” In 1906 the composer John Philip Sousa lamented that phonographs were causing a deterioration in American music, and in 1926 the Knights of Columbus warned that the telephone would break up families and the practice of visiting friends. And just last Sunday I read an article in the New York Times about the resistance Pope Francis is facing, because he has chosen to be more concerned about issues of economic and social justice, rather than abortion and divorced Catholics, whom, he hinted, might at some future time be allowed to take holy communion. He is a heretic, some have charged, which means that his thoughts are not the thoughts of the cardinals, resisting change.
Change is never easy, and the church also has a long history of resisting change. When Martin Luther began what became historically known as the Protestant Reformation, the most scathing criticism against him had to do with innovation---Luther’s way of interpreting scripture and authority. What makes you so confident that your new interpretation is right? he was asked. And this charge of innovation greatly troubled Luther, who insisted, “I am not innovating. I am simply returning the church to its glorious beginnings, when the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification was rightly understood and taught. Perish the thought that he should have a new idea.
And yet history shows us that new ideas and change are inevitable. The church, though very similar to the synagogue, was not exactly the same thing. And the writings that became known as Christian scripture, the New Testament, are not the same as the Old Testament. Yes, there is continuity, but there is also something new. And we see something new in our text this morning from Acts.
Peter would later be called before the elders of the church to explain his actions---not only eating with a despised gentile but also baptizing him. For Jewish Chriatians this was completely outrageous behavior. Gentiles were considered unclean, and although Jews and gentiles did have business dealings with one another, that was as far as the relationship went.
Now earlier in Acts Cornelius, a Gentile, had a vision from God in which he was told to send for the apostle Peter. And Peter had a dream in which foods deemed unclean in Judaism came floating down from heaven along with a command to eat. Peter was a faithful Jew, and even in his dream he would not eat. But then a voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, he acknowledged that Jews should not call on gentiles, but then he admitted that God had told him he should not call anyone profane or unclean. Peter then preached to Cornelius and his friends about Jesus, and while he was speaking our text says the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. All---no distinction made between Jew or gentile. But, of course, some of the Jews were upset, astounded that the gift of the Sprit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. This is a god-smacking moment, when people feel as if their whole world has been disrupted by something new. And they don’t like it. Peter realized this; he realized he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and so he asked his fellow believers, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing when they have received the Spirit?” No one dared say a word, and so Peter baptized Cornelius, his family and friends.
Make no mistake about it; this was an incredibly radical shift, a complete disruption of what had been the normal operating principles, and later (in chapter 11), when Peter faced his critics in the Jerusalem church, who were horrified that he had welcomed gentiles into the body of Christ, he asked them another question: If then God gave them the same gift as he gave us when we first believed in Jesus Christ, who was I that I should hinder God?”
Hinder God: sometimes we do just that, because well, we resist the change that God would bring. But how do we know if the change is of God? How do we know when and if we are hindering God? How did Peter know the embrace of the gentiles was the way to go, the way God would have him go? And the truth is: he did not fully know. He made a leap of faith, trusting in a future he could not see while hoping that future is indeed in God’s hands.
The Bible was written not when the events being described actually happened; it was not written by the people who lived through them, but rather it was written by those who were looking back and reflecting on the past in view of the present. And as the early church was growing and becoming a gentile church, Peter’s decision looked like the right one. But when it was made, who really knew?
Peter took a risk, and indeed the bible is full of risk takers, people who pushed against the religious conventions. Jesus pushed against them when he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a wounded Jew; he pushed against conventions when he healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. And Peter pushed against the conventions when he went to Cornelius’ house and baptized him. Such actions made people feel very, very uncomfortable, but these stories remind us that God often comes to us in moments of radical discomfort, when our beliefs look vulnerable, and we suddenly find ourselves asking tough questions, not so easily answered. Churches, like people, sometimes do hinder God, but we are assured that even when that happens, God does not give up on the church just as God does not give up on people. God continues to show up again and again and again---until the church and we finally get it. So we might ask ourselves now: What is God trying to tell us? Where is the new thing God is trying to do in our midst?
John 10: 11-18
If I asked you what is the most popular or common scripture read at funerals or memorial services, what would your guess be? It’s 23rd Psalm. Even the unchurched and the biblically illiterate usually know how it begins: The Lord is my shepherd. And, of course, for Christians the image of Jesus as the good shepherd is a beloved one. The Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah, often spoke of the Messiah as a shepherd. Jesus is called the great shepherd in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in 1 Peter Jesus is named the chief shepherd. And of course Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd in the beloved parable of the lost sheep, when the shepherd leaves the 99 to go searching for the one who is lost.
In today’s reading from John the image of Jesus as the shepherd is a continuation of an image that began in the first verse of chapter 10, when Jesus speaks of the gate through which the sheep enter. Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, who did not understand, and so he explicitly names himself as the gate, and then in verse 11, which is where today’s scripture began, he calls himself the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. So with all these references to shepherd, it should come as no surprise that the visual image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most frequently used depictions in art and the earliest we have of Jesus.
There are no known images of Jesus before the third century, most likely because of the Jewish prohibition against graven images of God. But as Christianity became dominated by gentiles, we see in the catacombs in Rome how the post 3rd century Christians imaged Jesus. At first they actually borrowed images from the Greek and Roman gods. After all, it made sense to use familiar images to evangelize the new faith, and so Jesus in these early images appears as a breadless youth, like a young Greek god, sometimes represented like the Roman god Hermes with a ram or lamb around his neck. Jesus was also imaged as Orpheus, playing his lute among the wild animals and at other times he looks like Apollo, the god of light and sun, truth and prophecy. Though we are accustomed to a bearded Jesus, no beard appeared until the early fifth century.
The visual images we have of Jesus as the good shepherd are very comforting ones, showing him walking among the flocks or sitting down and calmly watching his sheep, or searching for the one lost lamb, and after finding it, gently cradling the animal or carrying it on his shoulder. What we never see in these images is Jesus as he is portrayed in today’s lesson--- defending his flock from attack, and laying down his life for his sheep.
The life of a shepherd was not an easy one. They lived out on the land with their flocks for long periods of time. Dirty and unkempt and usually uneducated, they were considered the lowest of the low in terms of job status. Shepherds were actually considered unclean, and were barred from certain religious rituals unless they went through rites of purification. Now the Greek word good, attached to shepherd as a description of Jesus, does not mean good in the moral or ethical sense, but rather it is the platonic ideal, the model of perfection. Jesus, in other words, is what a real shepherd is supposed to be. And as a real shepherd Jesus would lay his life down for his flock and receive it back again in the resurrection triumph, which then would open the gate to eternal life for his flock. But there is something unsettling about this imagery, because it reminds us that the flock must follow the good shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet even then, as the psalm says, you are with me.
I don’t know what you know about sheep, but they are not very bright. Some years ago, when my husband and I were hiking in the English Lake country, we learned that sheep would often climb onto a ledge from which they could not get down, and if the shepherd or the farmer could not reach the ledge, the poor animal would die of hunger and thirst as it pathetically bleated its life away. Jesus must have known how dumb sheep are, so calling his followers a flock of sheep was not a very flattering description. But then being a shepherd was not very flattering either, so maybe the point is that status is not something to be pursued----either by the shepherd or the sheep. But whatever Jesus meant to communicate by calling his followers sheep, he did mean for them to follow him, to go where he goes.
And where is it that Jesus goes that we are also supposed to go? Yes, through the valley of the shadow of death, but he also goes to other He hard places, places of discomfort, places where the outcasts hang out, places where the enemy is, places where hurt dominates and forgiveness doesn’t seem to have a chance. Jesus is often in those uncomfortable places. And those are places we are supposed to go to as well.
A few weeks ago I received an email from a colleague of mine in Wisconsin, who had just conducted a memorial service for a 19 year old, who had died of an opioid overdose. The boy had been on medication for his epilepsy, and when the heroine was injected (for the first time) by his girlfriend, who was a nursing student of all things, the combination proved lethal. The minister was at the hospital when the life support was disconnected, and as the parents were saying good bye to their son, my colleague told me it was almost more than she could bear. “It took every ounce of strength I had not to run screaming from that room. But what I witnessed later that week at the funeral was beyond anything I could have ever expected. She told me how Janet, the nursing student, was not only at the church for the service, but she also went to the parents’ house for the reception.
Now my colleague said she did not understand why the girlfriend was not in jail, but there she was sitting in the parents’ house, while sipping tea and eating sandwiches. The boy’s mother took Janet’s hands in hers and said, “You will always have a place in our home and in our hearts.” Though Janet looked surprised and even uncomfortable, the minister was beyond shock. And she later asked the mother, “How did you do that? She had a direct hand in your son’s death. Forgiving her is one thing, but inviting her into your home and your heart? I don’t get it. Help me understand.”
The mother responded, “I am trying to get through this without dying of the pain. I think we humans are all a bunch of dumb sheep, and the only way I will survive this horrific heartache is if I follow the good shepherd, who tells me that I also need to consider Janet---her pain, her guilt, her sorrow. ” The minister did not know what to say, so she simply took the mother’s hands into her own, and the two of them just sat down in silence for a very long time, because there are some things that are just beyond words, and this was one of them.
In our scripture reading for today, we hear that the good shepherd lays down his life for us, and this mother was doing something very similar---laying down her blame and her anger that the one who aided in her son’s death might have a chance at life---full and abundant life. That is what it sometimes can mean to follow the good shepherd. It is the easiest and the most natural thing in the world to follow our feelings, especially our wounded feelings. The good shepherd never asks us to deny our wounds. After all, remember that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he appeared with his wounds. Though the wounds do not magically disappear, they nonetheless do not have to overcome life with pain----when we struggle to follow the one whose pain and death were overcome by the power of love and mercy.
5/28/2018 0 Comments
Luke 24: 36-48
Some years ago, I took a trip to the sites of the Reformation, which included not only Germany but also the magnificent city of Rome, where we visited the Sistine Chapel. Because the frescoes are so magnificently beautiful and numerous, it is impossible to take it all in, so the eye must choose its visual target.
Our guide wanted us to focus on the scene of the Last Judgment, which in most chapels and churches is painted on the west wall, facing the setting sun. But Michelangelo painted it right behind the altar, above the place where the priest celebrates the mass. The Last Judgment, in other words, has pride of place, riveting your attention. Before we entered the chapel, we were told to look at one particular character, whose classic pose suggests The Thinker, later memorialized by the great French sculptor, August Rodin. Pulled toward hell by the sheer weight of a green serpent and two demons, the victim crouches in a gesture of self embrace, one hand covering his right eye. While other hell bound characters fight to save themselves from the fires, this one assents to his fate.
As we stood there, mesmerized by the sheer power of the ceiling, we heard a voice, trying to describe the scene. Our guide was annoyed, because silence is commanded in the Chapel, and so explanations have to be given either before or after the visit. But her annoyance quickly subsided, when she realized that the voice was attempting to verbally paint the scene for a blind man. "Imagine," the voice said, "the balance between perfect justice and perfect mercy, and then lunge toward justice. That is where Michelangelo paints, the guide told her blind charge. “No artist can paint that balance”, she insisted. “All art, like all theology, errs on one side or the other, either justice or mercy. Only in God does the balance lie, she said, and no one, not even the genius of Michelangelo can paint it, no one, not even the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas can think it."
The perfect balance between justice and mercy: We cannot even imagine it, let alone achieve it. Perfect Justice, perfect mercy: justice takes seriously what we have done with our lives, what we have made of the gifts we have been given, and mercy compassionately comprehends the struggle, the weakness, the ignorance, the compromise. Justice without mercy is cruel; but mercy without justice can look weak. Only in God do the two meet; only in God is the balance achieved.
One of the criticisms mainline Protestantism faces these days is its failure to take sin and judgment seriously. Many churches no longer have regular prayers of confession in their Sunday worship, because parishioners and clergy often find an emphasis on sin a turn off. After all, the Gospel is finally good news: God’s love for all people, so why talk about sin, when Jesus said that he came that we might have full and abundant life? Yes, the gospel is certainly about that promise, but it is undeniably true that people are often weighed down by burdens (feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy) that so easily get in the way of full life. Indeed, this is why Luke shows us a resurrected Christ speaking of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness frees us from sin. Yet we profoundly misunderstand sin if we reduce it to a list of bad things we have done or good things we have failed to do. Besides the commission and omission that sin is, it also the structures and systems which hold us in bondage---racism, sexism, economic oppression for which direct responsibility is often hard to assign. Go to any mental hospital or prison, and you will hear stories of sin that are reminiscent of a line from the Greek tragedian, Sophocles: “Who is the victim? Who is the slayer? Tell me, if you dare think you know.”
Just two weeks ago I was visiting someone who wondered if she were hated by God, because her life has been anything but full and abundant. And I know of another young woman, struggling under the weight of a recent schizophrenic break, after three lay offs from companies, moving elsewhere to do business more cheaply. She has struggled her whole life, given up to foster care by a 13 year old mother, and then tragically abused and taunted for being an interracial child. And yet she persisted and was doing well—until she lost her third job and then her condo and everything she owned. If she is full of self-loathing, it is not because she has sinned, but rather because she has been sinned against not only by the cruelties of systems, but also by systems, which reward profits above people.
Because human beings are often so conflicted and burdened, Jesus commanded that the Good News of forgiveness be proclaimed to the whole world. In our own country, soon after the end of the Civil War, the Universalist denomination took off with its preaching of universal salvation, meaning all will finally be saved through the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The awful carnage of the War, led some (including Abraham Lincoln) to interpret the war as the wrath of God, judging the nation for the sin of slavery. Battered and bruised by four agonizing years of battle, the country ached for Good News, and so when the Universalists declared that God loves all, forgives all and will finally save all, that theology felt like the balm of Gilead, warming the sin sick soul. And indeed by the middle of the 20th century, the hope for God’s universal salvation was embraced by many of the mainline churches. But universal salvation does not mean that judgment has no place in the gospel or in our lives. In our reading today we hear the resurrected Christ speak of both repentance and forgiveness. It is hard to forgive, when there is no repentance, as someone commented last week in our book discussion on Mother Theresa. And although God may not require our repentance to forgive---After all, Jesus from the cross, commanded, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” yet repentance remains critical for us in our lives, because without it, we remain ignorant of our true self, pulled down by the weight of sin’s power---like the man on Michelangelo’s ceiling.
Some years ago I had a lesson in mercy, forgiveness and years later repentance. I was working at a big medical center, where a 38 year old neurosurgeon, a mother of two young children, married to another surgeon, came to die. Stricken with a brain tumor, which she courageously battled for two years, she was facing inevitable defeat, when her husband, who saw the defeat coming, panicked and ran. He could not remain, he said, and watch the love of his life die. God forgive me, he insisted, I cannot and will not do it. And so he left, and Pamela came with their children to the hospital and medical school, where her father was a recently retired professor of medicine. “I will die broken hearted,” she said, “but I will not die embittered. That will be my spiritual victory. To understand all is to forgive all? I understand why he ran, she said. He battled death as his great enemy, and whenever the battle was lost with one of his patients, he would fight depression. Pamela did die broken hearted, hoping against hope, her husband would come to her side at the end. He did not. Nothing could prevail against his terror and his rebellion against the cruelty of fate, and there he remained, frozen solid like the block of ice in Dante's hell, which encased Satan.
Twelve years after his wife’s death---long after I had left my job there--- he returned to face his children and his in-laws. Late one afternoon he came to the office of pastoral care to see my colleague and friend, a priest, also a professor of medical ethics at the medical school. The shadows danced on the walls, and as Jeff entered the office, he looked more like an apparition than a man, the priest thought.
"I didn't come to seek forgiveness," Jeff insisted, “because if I had to do it all over again, I know I would run. I am not an evil man, he insisted, but I am a weak and a cowardly one. Most cowards and weaklings live a lifetime guarding themselves from that knowledge, but I have no such luxury. Pamela was the love of my life, and I abandoned her, because I did not have the guts to stay. And I've remained away these years, because I have not had the courage to face my children with what I have done."
Imagine living with that guilt, with that knowledge of yourself. He's right; most of us do manage to defend ourselves from such awful truth. If this isn't judgment, I don't know what is. Michelangelo's image of the poor agonized thinker, pulled down into hell while offering no resistance, because he knows what he has done and that he would do all over again, pales in comparison.
How does judgment square with forgiveness, justice and mercy? Life, like art and theology, errs on one side or the other: justice or mercy. Choose on which side you will err as Michelangelo did, but dare to hope that in Jesus Christ the opposition is overcome and perfect justice meets perfect mercy so that all manner of things shall finally be made well---if not on this earth, then in a time beyond our seeing or knowing.
5/28/2018 0 Comments
John 20: 19-29
Well, here I am, the Sunday after Easter, though I tried very hard to argue with the Lord, suggesting to him that I should be sent here on Easter, rather than on Low Sunday, when church attendance is well, low. Lord, I said, it would be far more amusing if I showed up on Easter, when least expected. I’d come in right after the people have sung the joyous resurrection hymn: Christ the Lord is Risen Today. Have you seen him? I would ask. Have you touched the wound in his side and felt the imprint of the nails in his hands? Unless you see for yourselves, how can you believe? But the Lord would hear none of it. “Thomas, he said, you may be a most engaging character, but I think you enjoy far too much riling people up. You are going to the Unionville Church the Sunday after Easter.
So here I am, Thomas, Doubrting Thomas, the disciple who likes to rile people up, but only because I want people to think. Religion, after all, is not only a matter of the heart; it also concerns the head. Religion is also about how we think and what we think. I want people to understand that doubt can be the handmaiden of faith---not faith’s enemy. Doubt can help us to think, to ask questions, deep, penetrating questions.
And I have always loved the questions more than the answers. That is the way I am made, the way my mind works, and Jesus understood that about me, which is why he never tried to make me into someone I was not. He knew I am one of those people for whom questions never go away. We can begin with the most basic question of all: Why? Why is there a world? Why is there suffering? Why do some people do wicked things, while others do the good? Where does that goodness and wickedness come from? The questions go on and on; they never go away, because they can never be fully answered, at least while we live on this earth. You find an answer to one question, and it only leads you deeper into another question, and so on and so on.
So where to begin my story of Easter and its aftermath? Not with the questions, and not even with the doubt, but I shall begin with the fear. Fear is stronger than doubt, and let me tell you this, we were all afraid---afraid that the Jewish leaders would betray us to the Romans and make of us rebels against Rome. And we knew what Rome did to rebels. So yes, we were afraid and for good reason. But you can limit fear with reason, and that’s what annoyed me so much that day about the other disciples---they weren’t thinking, only emoting. There they were, huddled in a room in a house known to the Jewish authorities, sitting there, shivering with fear, waiting to be arrested. The doors were securely locked, as if locked doors could stop Roman soldiers. “Look,” I said, this is ridiculous, just sitting here waiting to be arrested. We should all go home. It’s over; he’s dead. We’ve got to defeat our enemies by scattering, by returning to our old lives. They won’t bother us if we go fishing. Let’s go back to what we knew before he ever came into our lives.
Peter stood up and eye balled me, straight on. We can’t go back, he said. There is no going back, because everything has changed. Everything is different, because we have known him, because we have heard his words and tried for a while to live his truth. You are right about that, Peter, I said. Everything is different now. He is dead. We have to make our own way.
Peter and I never got along. He never used his head; he was all heart, and the heart is no infallible guide. It is, as the Psalms say, deceitful above everything else. When Peter and I would argue about such matters, Jesus would never interfere. He would listen to us exchange our barbs, knowing that no resolution would ever come, and Jesus never tried to provide a resolution. But one time he did ask me if I thought the mind was an infallible guide. Surely you know me better than that, I said. Nothing is infalliable when it comes to human beings, but I do find that my head is a more reliable guide than my heart. And so for you, Thomas, Jesus said, it is. But it may not be so for everyone. And that is all he would say on the matter.
So when Peter first told me the story of the empty tomb, I concluded that it proved nothing----only that the body was not there! And Mary Magdalene’s story about seeing Jesus, I thought it all hysteria. And I was disgusted, so disgusted and angry that I left the house. I went home. Home: Where else do you go when your heart is broken, but home. I had not been home for a very long time, but when I walked through the door and saw my family, no one asked me for an explanation. They just looked at me, and I realized that although they did not understand all I had been through, they accepted and loved me. Maybe that’s what home is: the place that accepts and loves you even when they do not understand you. I went to bed that night and slept as I had not slept in days.
Early the next morning, Peter and John came breathlessly running to my house. Pounding frantically at the door, they commanded me to open it. Have there been more arrests? I nervously asked. No arrests, they said. We come with great news. We have seen Jesus! We have seen the Lord! At that moment I felt such anger welling up in me. When are you going to stop this nonsense? I yelled. When are you going to face the hard cold facts? He is dead! Don’t you understand? He is dead. We saw him nailed to the cross, and if we had not all been such craven cowards, we would have seen him die. But, did we not see him laid in the tomb? He is dead, I tell you. He is dead. Shut up, Peter shouted, and his hand swung through the air so quickly that I was sure I was about to be hit. But instead, his hand found its place over my mouth, and very calmly he said, “He is alive, I tell you. We saw him. We all saw him.” My anger began to cool; there was such conviction in his voice that I began to wonder. Unless I see the mark of the nails on his hands; unless I touch the wound in his side, I will not believe, I calmly said.
A week later I returned to the house. The doors were all shut, and suddenly with no warning, there he was. Jesus was among us. Peace be with you, he said. Looking me in the eyes, he gave a command, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe. I don’t think I ever touched him, at least I don’t remember doing so. I just looked at him and said, My Lord and my God! He looked at me and asked, Have you believed because you have seen me? And when I did not answer, he simply said, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.
It is true, I only believed because I saw. I needed proof; that’s just who I am and how I am, the same way that Peter was the way he was, and you are who you are. Oh, we change and we grow, but we are ourselves. And so you skeptics out there, you doubters, you, who are full of questions, just know that God has a place for you in the story. You are needed; your questions are needed and so are your doubts. And one last thought: Jesus came to me not when I was alone, but when I was in the company of others. You see, faith is never simply a private affair. The church is needed, because it reminds us that we are interdependent. We need one another to help each other be witnesses, and we need one another to help each other believe.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!