Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's the Cracked Ones that Let Light Through

A Meditation on Discipleship and the Stormy Sea (Mark 4)


“Let us go across to the other side.”  If there’s one thing Jesus resists it’s business-as-usual, or maybe we want to say religion-as-usual.  “Let us go across to the other side.”  Jesus just refuses to stand still, to get stuck in tired devotional patterns or theological ruts.  Business-as-usual bores him.  Instead, Jesus’ God provokes imagination, inspires compassion.  Jesus’ God defies convention and suggests creativity.  The Spirit is wild.  So Jesus goes where the wind blows.  That’s his faith.  That’s what God does for Jesus.

So, sooner or later, no surprise, Jesus says to us, to you and me, something like this.  Something like: “Let us go across to the other side.”  There’s still more to see.  There’s still more to do.  There are other worlds to explore.  God provokes imagination, inspires compassion.  The Spirit is wild.  Let’s go where the wind blows. 

Here it is then.  If you’re going to take up the journey with Jesus, if you’re going to commit to this spiritual path, Jesus is going to dare you to go where he goes.  Creativity, compassion, imagination.  He’s restless.  And he looks you in the eye, Jesus does, and he says: “Let us go across to the other side.”

So make no mistake.  This little vignette from the fourth chapter of Mark is both a very, very old tale and a deeply relevant one.  It’s a story about discipleship, our discipleship, a story about following Jesus on  strange trails of grace.  What we have here is a parable of sorts, a parable about creativity and compassion, gale-force winds and furious waves.  What we have here is a parable about discipleship, compassion and fear.  All the ways faith tests us.  Because faith tests us.  You know that Spirit tests us.  Gale-force winds and furious waves.

The brilliant Buddhist writer and nun Pema Chödrön gets it just right when she says: “Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it...”  Without knowing yet.  Isn’t that us?  Without knowing yet?

We have choices.  Right?  We can play it safe.  Live out our lives within the narrow confines of self-interest, Madison Avenue and the American Dream.  But that’s not who we are.  That’s not how it rolls with Jesus and his friends.  We choose to question everything.  We dance to the restless rhythm of wind and Spirit.  We explore uncharted lands between all that we know and all that we don’t.  Isn't that us?  You and me?  “We are drawn,” says Pema Chödrön, “to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it...”  This kind of faith tests us.  Discipleship invites danger.  Gale-force winds and furious waves.

I’m thinking now of Mother Theresa and all that we now know of her doubt, her agony through the years.  I’m thinking of Martin Luther King and how he feared for his life.  Without knowing how it would all turn out.  But it’s not just them, not just the great icons of faith.  I’m thinking of every one of us whose made a dramatic course correction in our lives.  I’m thinking of every one of us who’s gotten sober or turned the corner on bitterness.  And I’m thinking of our teenage friends who’ve spent this last week exploring poverty, violence and despair in Oakland.  It hurts to look such sadness in the eyes.  To not know if it can ever change.  I’m thinking of our teenage friends.  I’m proud of them.  They had choices this week.  They might have played it safe.  But they didn’t.

“Let us go across to the other side.”  You know that the crossings in your life, the spiritual crossings are hard.  Gale-force winds and furious waves.  You know that, more often than not, spiritual life takes you into the storm, not away from it.  The Spirit tests you.  Sometimes the storm stirs madly in your own self-doubt.  Sometimes it makes you pull up the covers, defeated, and you go back to bed.  Sometimes the storm comes furiously and unseen, crazy waves of bigotry, the mean winds of a mean world.  And sometimes it looks like a recession, a foreclosure, another broken promise.  The crossings are hard.

How we face our fears—maybe that’s the question.  How we lean into the chaos—maybe that’s the point of this morning’s reading.  Because it seems that chaos is inevitable for seekers and pilgrims, for dreamers and disciples.  It seems that our crossings are always going to be hard.  And fear simply means we’re on the right path, taking on the right challenges, following the transgressive Lord of love.  Jesus. 

OK, I know all this sounds a little odd, maybe kind of glib.  But hang in there.  Because here’s a little story about fear, chaos and power of compassion.  Here’s a little story about what can happen out there on the stormy seas.


There was once a restless man who went to India, determined to purge his heart of negativity and bitterness.  He struggled mightily against anger and lust; he struggled sadly against laziness and pride.  But mostly, this restless man wanted to rid himself of fear.  He was fearful and anxious most of the time.  So he went to India.

And there, a great teacher urged him to give up the struggle.  "Let it go," the old teacher said.  "Let it go."  And the restless man listened carefully, but he took this as more of a challenge than consolation. And he strained all the more stridently to purge his heart of the fear that crippled him.  Predictably, the more he strained to overcome it all, the more fearfully he lived.  And he couldn't sleep.

At last then, the teacher sent this restless man into the nearby hills—to meditate in a tiny hut.  He shut the door at last and settled down to practice.  And when it got dark, he lit three small candles. 

Around midnight, he heard a noise in the corner of his little room, and in the darkness he saw a very large (I mean, a very large) snake.  It looked to him like a king cobra.  And it was right there, the snake, in front of him, menacing, swaying.  All night long, as you might imagine, the man stayed totally alert, keeping his eyes, his attention on the snake.  He was so very afraid that he couldn’t move, wouldn’t move.  Not even an inch.  There was just the snake and himself and all that fear. 

Well, just before dawn, the last of the three candles went out, and the man began to cry.  They surprised him, his tears, rising from a deep place, deeper than any place he'd ever known.  They came slowly at first, then generously.   

The man in the hut cried not in despair, but from tenderness.  You know those tears.  Tender tears.  At last, at long last, he felt the longing, the aching of all the animals, all the people, all the beings in the world; he felt something of their alienation and struggle.  To that point, all his meditation, all his prayer had been nothing but further separation and struggle.  He'd prayed for a way out, hoping to rise above ordinary suffering, to exorcise his fear and anxiety. 

But just before dawn, something shifted within.  The pilgrim accepted—really, really accepted—who he really was.  He accepted that he was angry and jealous, that he resisted and struggled, and that he was often afraid.  Very afraid. 

He also accepted that he was precious, precious beyond measure—wise and foolish, rich and poor, totally unfathomable and precious.  It was all true.  All of it.  Tears rose from deep inside.  And he wept.

And he felt so much gratitude that there, in the darkness, just before dawn, he stood up, walked toward the snake, and bowed there.  A deep, loving bow.  And then, right there, he fell into a deep sleep, in the hut, on the floor. 

When the man awoke, the snake was gone.  He never really knew if it was his imagination or if it had really been there in his hut; and, the truth is, it didn’t seem to matter.  Think about it.  Tenderness saved the pilgrim's soul.  Somehow, through the dark night, he discovered compassion in his own heart: the kind of compassion that embraced everything in his life—even and especially his fear.  Can you imagine?  Compassion meant even the willingness to bow before his fear.  To love his fearful self.  The struggle was over.  And the world around him finally got through.  Grace got through.


Faith is a gift because it allows us to embrace every bit of who we are with tenderness and compassion.  Even our fear.  Especially our fear.  Along the way, we come face to face with all kinds of worry: we worry about divesting ourselves of spiritual certainties; we worry about risking difficult relationships with old adversaries; we worry about leaving old careers behind to pursue new opportunities in peacemaking; we worry about what happens when friends see our vulnerability, our weakness, our heartbreak. 

But faith meets even this, even our anxiety, with tenderness and compassion.  In India, that restless man comes to weep for all his years of struggle and to bow at last before the menacing snake in his hut.  And in his weeping, in his bowing, the long struggle comes to an end.  He is at home and at peace in his own skin, in his own story, in the gift that is his life.  I think this has everything to do with the kind of church we want to be here, in this place.  We want to be the kind of church where all kinds of people, from all walks of life, can meet anxiety and heartbreak with tenderness and compassion.  Let this be a sanctuary where every one of us can pray through the dark night, expecting to find light, grace, tenderness in the morning.  Let this be a place where we mean it when we sing it: With God all things are possible.


Every week for a couple years now, I’ve been reading one of the great Riverside sermons of William Sloane Coffin, one of the 20th century’s truly great prophets and preachers.  They’re published in two thick volumes—and I enjoy Coffin’s eloquence, humor and his willingness to say just about anything.  At any time.  This spring, I’ve read into the first few months of 1983, just weeks after Coffin’s young son died suddenly and tragically in a car wreck.  In his preaching, he wrestles with the senselessness of it all and the pain he bears in his core.  But he persists, through it all, he persists and searches for good news.  For gospel.  For some kind of light in the darkness.

What do you do in the midst of so much pain?  What do you do with all the fear, all the despair, the great gale life sends your way?  On February 27, 1983, at Riverside Church in Manhattan, William Sloan Coffin said this: “Self-surrender is the proper attitude to life in general,” he said, “simply because life finally can’t be earned or grasped with fists clenched, it can only be received with palms open...You have to remember,” he said to his congregation, “that the secret is to abandon self-control for self-surrender; you have then to fall in love with God, with Jesus, and with life; you really have to be a little crazy, a ‘fool for Christ’s sake,’ as St. Paul puts it.  After all,” he concluded that day, “’It’s the cracked ones that let the light through.’”   

That last line: that’s where I want to linger just a bit.  “It’s the cracked ones that let the light through.”  The gospel is good news for the brokenhearted, good news for the lost at sea, good news for the sometimes intimidated and often frightened dreamers of the kingdom of God.  And why is that?  Because “it’s the cracked ones that let the light through.”  Because it’s the broken pots that bear the sweetest treasure.  The gospel is good news for the brokenhearted—because our broken hearts let the light through.  Because our vulnerability reveals the only true source of justice and grace. 

I guarantee you.   Jesus’s restless.  Sooner or later, he looks you in the eye, Jesus does, and he says: “Let us go across to the other side.”  It’s time to cross over.  It’s time to leave all that bitterness behind.  It’s time to pack up your friends and spend a few days helping out in Oakland.  It’s time to turn it all over and give up drinking for good.  It’s time to lay down every weapon and study war no more.  “Let us go across to the other side.”  And you’re going to wonder if you have what it takes—if you have enough courage—if you have enough smarts—if God loves you enough to see you through.  You’re going to feel like the storm’s about to sink your little boat. 

When you do, when you feel that way, I want you to remember the little man in India bowing before his fear and bringing all that tenderness to bear on his life.  Tenderness, compassion.  You can do that.  You can love yourself like that. 

And I want you to remember William Sloan Coffin grieving for his son in 1983.  “The secret,” he said then, “is to abandon self-control for self-surrender.”  Self-surrender.  Your calling and mine.  The joy we find in giving ourselves away.  The peace we discover in weeping, in caring, in loving without hesitation.  After all,” said Coffin, “after all, ‘It’s the cracked ones that let the light through.’”  That’s really all you need to remember.  It’s the cracked ones that let the light through.  Amen.