Sunday, October 6, 2013

We Are Dust, Yet Golden

A Meditation on Mark 8:27-37
Sunday, October 6, 2013


Always with Jesus, these questions.  What are people saying about me? he asks, kind of curious.  And then the big follow-up, the one we knew was coming: But what do I mean to you?  Who do you say that I am?  Always with Jesus, these questions.  Wanting us, wanting his disciples to wrestle with faith and conviction.  Wanting us to get real with what it costs to follow.  Always, these questions.  Resisting easy answers, even Peter’s theologically astute answer.  Jesus insisting on creative tension for the good of the cause.

You see, if you choose to follow Jesus, if you choose to take him seriously as a friend or teacher or even a cosmic christ, you’d best be prepared for his questions.  The Jesus we meet in the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Jesus we meet in the Bible, leads with his questions and teaches with his riddles.  For Jesus, our Jesus, spiritual maturity is a journey, not an SAT test.  And his questions are the signposts, the channel markers, the blazing of a great trail forward.  But you and I, we can’t be lazy.  We’ve got to get our hiking shoes on.  The whole point is to get on this trail and follow.

The bewildering riddle at the heart of this morning’s teaching—it’s probably at the heart of Mark’s gospel itself—is this bit about losing life and finding it at the same time.  Faith's not supposed to be easy.  It’s really not a quick fix for a bad day.  This is a koan, a riddle that you live with over a lifetime.  It’s a question Jesus asks, again and again and again.  Jesus isn’t much interested in Peter’s easy answers; he challenges Peter to live and to love in the uneasy, but always merciful light of God’s grace.  No easy answers, just a whole lot of grace.

And you know, the challenge is the same for every last one of us: to go deep, to let go, to trust our falling and our failing and our growing to God.  It’s the same challenge (believe me) for long-time believers and new and curious seekers.  Whether you’ve been on this trail for decades or you’re just setting out.  Whether you know your Bible backwards and forwards, or you’re just now finding your way back.  The Jesus we meet in the Bible resists conformity and knee-jerk fundamentalism.  He couldn’t care less how many verses you’ve memorized.  And he’s remarkably squeamish around easy answers and quick-fix theology.  And that goes, by the way, for the conservatives and the liberals among us.  Because you know, you liberals, that we’ve got our easy answers too.  Right?  But for Jesus, our Jesus, discipleship develops in practice: in learning to pray, and in learning to forgive, and in learning to practice communion and gratitude wherever we are.   For Jesus, our Jesus, courage comes with time, with losing our way again and again, and then finding our true center, not just once, not just twice, but over and over and over.  Spiritual maturity is a journey.  The challenge is always the same: to go deep, to let go, and to trust our falling and our failing and our growing to God.


Several weeks back, I set aside a week to finish up some work on the Christian curriculum we’re using in classes this fall.  To get the work done, I flew across the country and drove deep into the Maine woods, to a cabin my dad built himself, years ago, on the shores of a quiet and beautiful lake.  And it just may be that the latter half of September is the most spectacular time of the year on that lake, in that part of the world really.  The way the September sun sets, a little earlier every night, shimmering like diamonds on the surface of the lake.  The way the first leaves turn from summer green to the great symphonic colors of fall.  The way the loons sing to one another, deep into the dark night, a mystical melody that goes back millions of years.

There’s something about the turning of seasons, I find, that invites in me the kind of letting go Jesus describes in the gospels.  Does that make any sense to you?  There’s something about the passing of summer, the coming of autumn, the chilling of night, the promise of winter: that calls me to go deeper, to trust that going deeper and letting go is really all there is.  And that it’s good.  That it’s all very good.

Just this week, I stumbled across a lovely meditation by a contemporary mystic, a California contemplative named Marv Hiles.  I want to read for you what Marv has to say about going deep and this turning of seasons and what it means for us spiritually:

“As change continues and summer’s one-time independence fades in the exquisite October light, we discover we belong to Something More.  The full-blown yang of summer gives way to the embryonic yin of young autumn that will, in time, surrender its fullness to the winter solstice, come December.  The Eternal Rhythm.  Warmth lingers in the air, but cool nights speak the truth of the inevitable.  It is wisdom (Marv writes) to yield to the cold and not hold back as the season deepens...We gather with others, remembering that we are dust, yet golden.”

Isn’t that lovely and true?  “The full-blown yang of summer gives way to the embryonic yin of young autumn that will, in time, surrender its fullness to the winter solstice, come December.”  The turning of time, the circling round of seasons is our invitation to let go, to go deep, to turn over our frailty, our vulnerability, our humanity to God.  Because we are dust.  And because we are golden.

What kind of suffering is real and present for you this fall?  How is it that your glorious summer is giving way (somehow) to cooler nights and the coming of winter?  Some of us are suffering with our adult children whose decisions seem destructive and strangely beyond our control.  Some of us are suffering around immense grief, the loss of a lover or the diminishment of our health and energy.  Still others are suffering injustices of one sort or another: a government shutdown by zealots, an ecosystem under attack, programs for the poor stripped of funding and support.

I’m reminded this morning that this word “suffer” has a couple of different meanings.  Or maybe different dimensions.  One is obviously to undergo pain.  Another, interestingly, is to allow.  When Jesus says, in the old English translations of the gospels: “Suffer the little children to come to me”—he’s insisting that the disciples ALLOW the children access, that they allow the children to come as they are and to find joy and comfort in his friendship.  “Suffer the little children to come to me.”

Could it be, then, that Jesus is insisting—in the reading we’ve heard this morning—that we allow the cycles of life to turn freely?  That we allow ourselves to be emptied of summer, so that autumn might arrive in all its glory and then winter in its frost and darkness?  “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  It’s a koan, a riddle.  And so too our very existence.  The contradictions in our lives.  The beauty and the suffering, the passing of time and the timelessness of grace.

Spirituality, you see, is not for cowards.  Allowing life to move along as life inevitably does means opening ourselves to the losses ahead, maintaining a kind of mindfulness in the presence of sadness and death, keeping our souls awake to the unending cycle of summer sun, autumn wind, winter death and spring’s rebirth.  Allow for that, Jesus says.  Empty your lives of control.  Let the circle be unbroken.  And let the easy answers go.  A deeper truth will be revealed.  A deeper joy is waiting.


Putting my new curriculum together this fall, I’ve gone back to the earliest experiences of Christian baptism in the ancient church.  It turns out that believers often trained for as many as two years, before they were baptized.  They trained in prayer and meditation.  And they trained in service to their community.  And they trained in nonviolence.  And only then, after two years of training, they joined other believers around an old font, something like the one you see on the cover of our bulletin this morning.  That one dates as far back as the first or second century of the Christian movement itself.

Baptism back then had everything to do with going deep.  With losing life in one sense to find life in a larger way.  And the symbolism of this font, this ancient baptistery, tells that story.

What you see there in the picture is an old, old rock, carved out in the shape of a cross, an unmistakably provocative symbol of Christian discipleship and belief.  In those first generations, to join the church, to dedicate your life to Jesus, you stepped into that old cross, into the cold waters of that old baptistery.

What does Jesus say in the passage we’ve read here this morning?  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Those first Christians stepped mindfully into the great mystery of Jesus’ teaching: into the cross itself, into the koan that says we find life in losing it and we lose life by anxiously saving it.  It’s a riddle, that teaching, even a paradox.  And those first Christians found life, meaning, power in the paradox.  Suffering wasn’t to be feared, but welcomed.  Powerlessness wasn’t weakness at all, but the glory of God.  So those first Christians stepped boldly into the old font and took up their cross.  With Jesus.  In solidarity with Jesus.


We live in a world that’s not much impressed with suffering, not much enamored by powerlessness.  Turn on your TV tonight for just an hour—and you’ll see all kinds of advertising designed to relieve your suffering and overcome your powerlessness.  The newest pharmaceuticals will make you strong again.  The newest cars will make you king of the road again.  The newest smart phone will make you popular and happy, at least until the next one comes out.

Jesus won’t be on TV tonight.  At least not in the Cialis commercials and the BMW spots and the Verizon ads.  Jesus is waiting for you, instead, in the chill of an October evening, in the darkening skies and the grieving muscle of your heart.  Jesus is waiting for you and me, instead, in the turning of the seasons and the aging of our bodies and the strange, holy promise of springtime.

Go deep, Jesus says.  Let go.  And let love and only love save you.