Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sermon: "The Zen of Glory"

"The Zen of Glory"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Second Sunday after Pentecost
7 June 2015

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4.13-18
Mark 3.20-35

Jesus faces what seems like a never-ending slew of challenges in his ministry.  Demons, disease, and widespread destitution; dimwitted disciples, dastardly religious demagogues and corrupt political dictators; even doubt, despair, and death.  But here, near the beginning of his ministry, he faces what I imagine might have been the most difficult ordeal of all.

His family - his mother, his brothers and his sisters - have come.  Not to listen to him, or to join his movement.  Not to show their unconditional love and support.   They’ve come to take him away.  Actually, the word St. Mark uses is much harsher.  They’ve come to “restrain” him.  

There’s a certain level of force in the word “restrain” that goes beyond merely trying to gently persuade Jesus to come home.  When Mark says Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” have come, in ancient parlance this could have referred to his cousins and other relatives as well.  So in my mind I see a small gang of folks, down from that ol’ Podunk town Nazareth,  darkening the door of the house where Jesus is speaking to a sold-out standing-room-only crowd, with big cousin Bubba ready to full-nelson his little relation, toss him over his shoulder, and if necessary, drag him back to his carpenter’s bench.  

Even if you come from a broken family, we all have a sense that this is not how families are suppose to act towards each other.  I’m blessed with extremely supportive parents.  But as a parent myself, I’ve learned through experience that even when you have no clue what it is your daughter just drew for you, the right answer is always “that’s beautiful honey, thanks a lot!”  

And look, my guess is that Jesus’ family is probably acting with the best of intentions.  After all, they’ve heard the local and regional banter.  “He’s gone out of his mind!” people are saying.  Maybe Mary’s worried Jesus took the whole “Son of God” thing a little too far and needs a little more time at home before he’s ready.  Maybe she was hoping that those scribes Jesus is arguing with, the bigwigs from Jerusalem, would write her son a sterling letter of recommendation so he could start his climb towards becoming the High Priest, and now he’s ruining his best shot to get his message out.  Maybe, given his increasing popularity, they’re all just afraid Jesus is going to get himself crucified by the Romans.  

But no matter how well-meaning parents can be in trying to protect or guide their children, I can’t imagine it’s easy for Jesus.  Here he is, doing his thing.  Proclaiming the Gospel.  Driving out demons.  Healing the sick.  Packing out his church.  And at his moment of greatest triumph, instead of proud parents and siblings cheering him on…they show up with chains.

Ancient writers didn’t go into a lot of details about characters’ internal monologues.  But I imagine that if we had an X-ray machine on Jesus’ heart, the picture wouldn’t be pretty.  Even without the details, we can just hear it breaking.

Which is why its really crucial that we follow carefully what Jesus does next.  If I were in Jesus’ shoes, I would have thrown in the towel.  I don’t think my spirit could have continued on in the face of such shame and disapproval from my family.  I’d either give up, or get really angry and start tossing some f-bomb grenades or I don’t know what.  

But thankfully, I’m not Jesus in this story, and I’m guessing neither are any of us.  If we’re honest, more often than not, we’re in the position of Jesus’ family.  We are not the heroes, but the ones with reputations to protect and restraints at the ready.  We’re the ones who feel threatened and afraid, and in that state, are quick to try to take control of other people - and most often, it’s the ones closest to us that we target.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait.  While inside his heart is shattered and everything in him is ready to break down, somehow, Jesus manages to stay present.  Somehow, Jesus manages to respond with skill and with wisdom.  Somehow, Jesus maintains his Gospel Mindfulness, and like a true spiritual Bruce Lee, takes an impossible situation, and improvises something quite extraordinary.

In my mind, I picture Jesus closing his eyes and inhaling deeply.  Even though the crowd is pressed in all around him, time suddenly slows and the noises fade away.  The pain inside doesn’t disappear - it burns like a crown of thorns - but Jesus digs deep and finds something else, a wellspring of wisdom to drawn upon.  He exhales and opens his eyes.

I see him raise his head above the sea of faces to look his family in the eye.  And then, slowly raises his hands in a wide embrace, and looks from side to side at all of those around him.  The whole place is suddenly still, listening expectantly.  “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” he whispers.  “Here they are.  Anyone who does the will of God, that one is my mother, and my brother and my sister.”  

With a simple, koan-like statement, Jesus has reframed the entire conversation.  What is so remarkable to me is that, in the face of the violence of restraint and the heartbreak of betrayal, Jesus does not strike out against his family.  Instead, Jesus expands their notion of what family is.  As if to say, “remember who I am.  Remember that all of these are precious to me.  Remember that it is not I who am a part of your family, but you who are a part of their family.”

And maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I love that our little portion of scripture this week doesn’t really resolve.  Because it leaves the story open.  It leaves us with the possibility that Jesus’ gesture of inclusion, his open arms which gently break apart the restraints brought by his family, is also an invitation to his family.  As if Jesus were saying, “put down the chains.  Come in.  We’ll make room for you too.  It’s a little crazy in here.  But it’s a really good place to be.”


A few weeks ago, on the Feast of Pentecost, we talked about how in scripture, the name “Satan” means Accuser, and that into the midst of a world that is divided by this Accuser’s lies and betrayals, God sends the Holy Spirit, who is called “The Advocate,” to restore relationships.  For Jesus, the Accuser comes wearing the face of his family, seeking to distract him and restrain him from his mission of restoration and reconciliation.  But Jesus breathes deeply, drawing on the energy of the Spirit living in his heart, the Spirit given at his baptism, when God says, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  And Jesus is able to speak with words of Advocacy that transforms accusation into possibility.

I said earlier that we should pay attention to how Jesus responds to this heartbreaking challenge, because like Jesus, we live in the world that the Accuser has made, where his lies roar around us like a raging lion, tempting us to coercion and control.  But like Jesus, we have been given the Spirit of the Advocate.  And like Jesus, we’re going to need a stronger center, a source of Advocacy, if we want to be agents of new creation, and act with freedom in the midst of fear.

I think we can find that center, this Gospel Mindfulness, in our first reading today, from 2 Corinthians 4.  In particular, I’m thinking of that beautiful bit where St. Paul reminds us that “we do not lose heart; for even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.”  If we want to act with freedom in the present, we need to remember the end for which we strive.  And that end, according to St. Paul, is glory.

Now, I’m not talking about the cheap glory that the Accuser peddles to us.  And, you know the kind.  Cheap glory, the kind that Martin Luther railed against so long ago, is something human beings achieve for themselves - usually by taking it from someone else.  Cheap glory leads us to respond to a friend’s celebration of an achievement with one-up-manship (“that’s great, now let me tell you what I did…”).  Cheap glory tempts us to troll one another’s Facebook sites, hacking apart one another’s passions and offerings in the name of appearing right and intelligent and informed.  Cheap glory leads families to try to restrain their children and their kin for fear of reputation, under the pretext of protecting, and it leads societies to act paternalistically towards those we deem unworthy (“black lives matter?  Don’t all lives matter?”).

Cheap glory is the Accuser’s promise, dangled before our faces, leading us to mangle the true glory and beauty of the mother and brothers and sisters that Jesus is giving to us.

But Jesus has come to share a more costly, splendorous glory.  I think CS Lewis nailed it, commenting on this same reading from 2 Corinthians, in one of my favorite passages of all time: 

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, 
to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to 
may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, 
you would be strongly tempted to worship, 
or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, 
if at all, only in a nightmare. 

All day long we are, in some degree helping each other 
to one or the other of these destinations. 
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, 
it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, 
that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, 
all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. 
There are no ordinary people. 
You have never talked to a mere mortal. 
Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, 
and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. 
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - 
immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Or, put another way, in the words of St. Iraneus, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  God’s glory is sharing life with God’s children.  By the Spirit of the Advocate, of encouragement, of believing in God’s destiny for each and every human being who is the unique expression of God’s creative love, we are given the blessed opportunity, as Lewis notes, of helping one another to this destination of glory.

And see, that’s the center I think Jesus goes to.  If this story were a martial arts form, I’d call it “the Zen of Glory.”  Deeper than the heartbreak of betrayal, more powerful than the fear that impels his family to bring their restraints, is the glory of God, which is a human being fully alive.  It is remaining mindful of God’s promise, and believing God’s Word to be true - that God desires God’s children to be fully alive - that we can draw on the power of the Advocate in the midst of the Accuser’s chaos.

Put into a form of practice, the Zen of Glory might look something like this:

When you find yourself 
in the midst of a difficult relational situation, 
or preparing for one, 

try praying/repeating the following mantra
as a way of grounding yourself
in a Gospel mindfulness:

"The glory of God is a human being fully alive;
The glory of God is (person X with whom I'm in conflict) fully alive;
the glory of God is (your name) fully alive"

Use it as a sign of your intention
to speak with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate,
and reject all forms of violence and division
promoted by Satan, the Accuser.  

Before the sermon, we listened to the song "Glory" by John Legend and Common.  Because in so many ways, we of the white church need to re-learn this Zen of Glory from our brothers and sisters in the black church.  Like Jesus' family, we've sought to restrain their voices and their lives because of the uncomfortable picture of the glory of God that they've held before us.  But no disciple of Jesus in this century has demonstrated more powerfully what it means to be grounded in God's true glory - of human beings fully alive - in the midst of the rage and violence of the Accuser than Dr. King and his followers.  As Common raps, "one son died/his spirit is revisitin' us;" we in the white church who more often than not carry shackles of Accusation rather than that spirit of Advocacy, have much to learn from those who have lived the belief that "even Jesus got his crown in front of a crowd."  The Beloved Community is not something we invented.    

But that’s just it, in the end.  The Good News, the Promise of practicing the Zen of Glory, is that in Jesus, this Beloved Community has already begun.  It is not dependent upon our always acting rightly in difficult situations.  It is not something we have to expand ourselves.  It’s not open for discussion or debate.  It simply is the family that we all belong to in Christ.  It is the purpose and the glory for which God created in the first place.  

The Beloved Community is not a matter of opinion or vote, and it is not something the Accuser can ever take away.  It is something that we get to Advocate for, and to live into, and to receive.  It is a possibility hovering ever before us, encouraging us to take a deep breath in the midst of conflict, to open our eyes to the humanity of our fellow human beings, and to whisper into a world of cheap glory, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  

This week, you are invited to take up the practice of the Zen of Glory.  May it be for you a source of drawing on the Advocate’s energy of freedom and possibility.  May it help you remain focused in the midst of the Accuser’s temptations to restrain and control and compete.  

Above all else, may it ground you in Gospel Mindfulness - that when we were yet sinners, coming at Jesus to restrain and to silence, Jesus said, “come join my family, and learn to live the will of God, which is that every human being be fully alive.”  This week, when the glory comes, let it be not just our family’s, or theirs - but ours.  All of ours.  

In the name of Jesus, Amen. 

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