Sunday, April 17, 2011

"The Great Bright Dream Of Procreating And Perishing

Archibald MacLeish rewrote the story of Job as a modern play in verse.
He called it J.B.
After J. B.’s children are all killed in a single night,
the stunned father is looking for the meaning in his tragedy.
He says: If I knew! If I knew why!
What I can’t bear is . . . the blindness . . .
Meaninglessness . . . the numb blow
Fallen in the stumbling night.

The disciples must have felt that way on Good Friday.
For them, the crucifixion was an unmitigated disaster.
There was no meaning in it – just catastrophe.
It was the death of the messiah, with his mission,
as they understood it, utterly defeated.

It’s hard for us to hear the Passion Story
the way they experienced it
because the meaning of Jesus’ death has been
drummed into us since Sunday School 101.

Jesus suffered on our behalf.
He suffered so we wouldn’t have to.
Jesus took the bullet.

A simple, clear, heroic meaning.
There is definitely something to that interpretation.
If that interpretation brings you closer to Christ,
I wouldn’t want to interfere with it.
In fact, I believe, with a few corrections,
there’s a lot of truth in it.

But the idea that Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to
is not to be found in the Gospels.
It did not become the Christian party line
until a thousand years later.
Jesus didn’t say “I am going to the cross so you won’t have to.”
He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
That’s different.

We can’t see the death of Jesus through the disciples’ eyes
if we start out with the interpretation before the event
and skip the moment of meaningless disaster.
We have to start where they did, saying with J. B.
If I knew! If I knew why!
What I can’t bear is . . . the blindness . . .
Meaninglessness . . . the numb blow
Fallen in the stumbling night.

The New Testament authors struggled for decades
to find meaning in the Passion.
They did not come up with just one answer.
There are stammering starts at several different answers.
Theologians ever since have continued to try to make sense of it.

The Passion can mean one thing to you
and something else to me.
None of us has a lock on the Holy Mystery of salvation.

Today’s Epistle lesson gives us one way to understand it.
St. Paul gives us a poem that captures the whole life,
death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul had heard the words of Jesus quoted,
“Take up your cross and follow me.”
So he said,
“Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Do as he did – and what was that?

“Though he was in the form of God,
he did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave
being born in human likeness.”

Religions usually involve a lot of escapism.
Life is hard.
Human beings are vulnerable.

We get sick.
We get in trouble.
We die – and we don’t like that.

We’d rather be like God.
We want out of this hard life.
We want to be hunky dory day in and day out.
We don’t like being human.
We want to be gods -- above it all.

But what happens when the God we want to be like
chooses to be human?
What if God does not hang on to his safe cushy perch
above the changes and the chances of this life
– but chooses instead “to live and die as one of us.”

Then the way to godliness isn’t to run away from life.
It isn’t to be spiritual with a blissy smile.
It’s to live this life, as it is, with all its ups and downs,
all its joys and sorrow, all is victories and defeats.
It’s to live a human life and die a human death.

But that’s not the end of the story.
Paul says that because Jesus plunged into humanity,
God exalted him to the highest heaven.
The Christian way is not salvation from suffering,
but salvation through suffering.

Elsewhere Paul wrote,
“Just as the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives;
so too does the encouragement we receive through Christ.”
And in another letter,
“(I want) . . . to partake of his sufferings by being molded
toward the pattern of his death,
striving toward the goal of resurrection from the dead.”

Some theologians say that means that God makes us suffer
because it’s good for us.
I don’t believe that.
I believe life is just the way it is.

Buddha said that life is made up of
“10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows
inextricably woven together”
so you can’t have one without the other.
The question is: what do we do with that?
Jesus chose to live into it all the way
right through disgrace, defeat, suffering, and death.

That is the way of salvation.
That is the way to union with God
– not by avoiding real life, but by living it.
The cross didn’t just happen in 30 A.D.
The cross happens today.
The cross happens in our lives each day
– sometimes in big ways; sometimes in small ways.

The cross means that this life with all its joys and sorrows
is not an illusion to be seen through.
It is not a fallen, degraded realm to be despised.
It is the path to God.

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, old pastor Ames
is nearing death, looking forward to heaven,
but also looking back on his mortal life. He says:

“I know all this is all a mere apparition
compared to what awaits us,
but it is only lovelier for that.
There is a human beauty to it.

And I can’t believe that when we have been changed
and put on incorruptibility that we will forget
our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence,
the great bright dream of procreating and perishing
that meant the whole world to us.

In eternity, this world will be Troy . . . and all that has passed here
will be the epic of the universe,
the song they sing in the streets.”

How we understand the Cross of Christ
is desperately important
because it is our cross too.

Paul says that if we bear it with faith, if we bear it with hope,
if we bear our cross with courage and with compassion
for those who suffer around us,
then it becomes the gateway to heaven.
This mixed life of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows
is our true sacrament.