Our post-Easter topic, Jesus the Surprise: Turning the World Upside-Down has led me to many questions. First among them is what in Jesus is surprising and how did he turn the world upside-down?
We can think about this in several ways. For example, we can take today’s scripture and ask ourselves what is Jesus’ surprise in it. Let’s see: Jesus approaches an ailing man, someone who hasn’t been able to walk for 38 years and after asking if he wants to be healed, a question that the man doesn’t answer directly, Jesus says these simple words, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Can you imagine that man’s surprise? Ill for so long, but just like that upon hearing those words, he was ready to get up and go! I mean, what kind of energy was that? what an earthshattering surprise!
Of course, this is more than a healing story, as we may surmise from the passage’s ominous last line: “Now that day was a sabbath.”
Some of you may remember that this particular story was the last straw for the Jewish authorities who so wanted to catch Jesus redhanded. This very incident—that Jesus healed a man on a sabbath, which was forbidden by the law; that the man was then caught by the authorities carrying a mat on a sabbath, which was also forbidden; and that, eventually, the man was able to identify Jesus with said authorities—was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry and of his life as an itinerant healer and teacher.
The fact that Jesus took compassion on this man and healed him on a sabbath is another surprise. Jesus was well aware of the law and had said himself that he hadn’t come to change even one letter of it. And yet, he went around doing things that were overt transgressions of the law and saying, by way of explanation for his conduct that he was acting on authority from God, with whom he claimed to have a deeply intimate relationship, as like that of a son with his father.
If we think about it, all these acts are ever surprising. Jesus acted in ways that baffled his disciples, enraged the authorities, and still keep us wondering.
We are so far removed from those events and from any direct experience of them that we read and reread those powerful stories, continually trying to interpret and understand them. That’s what we do every week, not only here at St. Mark’s but in every church that gathers Sundays to worship together. We look at them from different angles and with different slants; we read what the scholars have to say about them; we reflect on them. We’ve been doing this for close to two thousand years! And we’re still going without any signs of stopping and without finding definitive answers either. This is surprising, too.
This is the story of Christian faith, of our collective faith. Peter and the other disciples but mostly Paul, as we’ve heard in today’s passage of Acts and in previous weeks, took the Jesus story to different lands seeking to share the wonder of it with as many people as they could. And they did spread the message far and wide against all odds. The message took and, after a few centuries, the small Jesus movement became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
That was quite surprising, considering that, initially the powers that be thought that this Jewish sect was risible with its self-named God who had been killed. They had respected Judaism as a philosophical religion that sought to clarify the problem of evil in the world, but this offshoot didn’t do it for them… that is until it did—big time! Big surprise.
Over its two thousand years of existence Christianity, as an institution, has gone through a large number of divisions, breakups, reformations, and more breakups, and yet it’s still here. Another big surprise!
Those of us who call ourselves Christians are part of this legacy of breakups and divisions, of religious wars, of crusades, of the Inquisition and so much more. A lot of evil has been wrought in the world in the name of Jesus. A lot of oppression and violence has been perpetrated with a Bible in hand. That is incredibly surprising given that the person that we claim to follow spoke of love and compassion and of bringing in the reign of God.
Each one of us who calls him or herself a Christian must come to terms with this horrific history, just as we must come to terms with our own personal journey of faith.
* * * * *
In one of her recent bulletins, Bishop Mariann posed a couple of questions: “Why Christian? Why the Episcopal Church?” To answer them, one has to come to terms, not only with the oftentimes-shameful history of the institutional church, but also with the fact that Jesus with his words and actions did turn the world upside-down, so much so that to this very day, we keep trying to figure out just how it is that we have to conduct ourselves to follow in his footsteps.
Today I come to you not with foolproof answers but rather to share my reflections on them with you.
There have been moments in my life when I felt completely drained of faith, unable to go on believing. The most recent one of those moments was when I moved to DC. I had been working as a priest in California for some years, and when I moved here for family reasons, my faith vanished; just like that. It got lost in the shuffle—maybe it fell from the moving van somewhere along the way beteween Pebble Beach and DC.
I was taken by surprise. I didn’t know what to think. I tried and tried to recapture the feeling, to remember how it felt to have faith, but I just couldn’t. In an effort to understand what was happening, I looked for fellow travelers in the road of lost faith. I read up on Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her constant and utterly dark absence of faith and felt relieved to be in such good company: she is now a saint!
That, in turn, brought to mind a novella I read in college, many years ago, by Miguel de Unamuno. It’s the story of a priest who was in the process to be canonized because he had been one of the holiest and kindest men in a small town in Spain, but he had held a terrible secret: he did not believe in life after death! GASP!
* * * * *
Life went on, I really felt neither guilt nor sorrow about my lack of faith, and it was okay. I had my hands full between family obligations and my life-long profession as a simultaneous interpreter.
I didn’t miss church either. As a matter of fact, if I was being honest with myself, I had to acknowledge that the inkling of faithlessness had been there for a while—from the years in seminary to the time working in my church in Carmel I agonized trying to write sermons that would do justice to my quavering faith but without scandalizing the listeners. What would happen if someone came to me asking questions about faith and I didn’t have a competent answer? So when I moved to DC, in a way I was relieved that I would not be going to church anymore and exposing others to my lack of faith.
That is not the end of the story. It is just a chapter in my faith journey. One that is only mine, as everyone else has their own to travel. As many of you know, I finally made my way back to church thanks to St. Mark’s Monday evening meditation group. During my absence of faith, or should I say, during my absence of religious faith, I never lost my sense of optimism in life, that deeper sense of awe that keeps us connected to one another and to life itself. I have come to realize that what I sensed as lack of faith, was really my brain’s reaction to trying to force myself into believing things that my rational mind can’t understand or explain, for I have always felt a deep connection with nature and other people that goes beyond religious pieties.
Coming to St. Mark’s has been such a gift for me because in this sacred space that we share I am able, even as a priest, to express my doubt as much as my faith. And I have been able to do that in many ways—teaching, preaching, but also in the best way I know how—through mysticism and contemplation. For me, centering prayer is the best way to deal with the unknown—that which we cannot fathom or explain but which gives meaning to our mortal life.
I confess: feeling that hankering toward active priestly ministry again came as a total surprise!
I am reminded of James W. Fowler, the beloved ethicist and practical theologian, who defined for us the stages of faith. Dr. Fowler wrote that “faith is a coat against [the] nakedness of [darkness and aloneness that we feel]. For most of us, most of the time faith functions so as to screen off the abyss of mystery that surrounds us. But we all at certain times call upon faith to provide nerve to stand in the presence of the abyss—naked, stripped of life supports, trusting only in the being, the mercy and the power of the Other in the darkness. Faith helps us form a dependable “life space”, an ultimate enviornment.”
Faith cannot exist without doubt. In our humanness, in our mortality, doubt is the inseparable companion of faith. From the dawn of our collective history to Jesus’ time and down to our days, people have been struggling with the same questions about life, death and meaning. How we answer them depends on our culture, our background, our personal situation and a host of other factors. People seek religion to find like-minded individuals with whom to share that basic human need to find meaning in life. But faith is also a process through which we each go in stages—from the most primitive fantasy to a sense of universal compassion, each at our own pace. If I have learned anything in my spiritual travels, it is that faith is not static. It moves and flows as it wills, just like the Spirit moves and flows within us and without.
If I were to answer bishop Mariann’s question, “why Christian?,”my answer would be, because it is my heritage: I have been steeped in Christian teachings since I can remember, but mostly because I love the Jesus’ story and the gospel stories about Jesus; because every time I read one of them, I am energized, trying to find out what it means for me. Also, because Jesus keeps surprising me until this day, still continuing to turn the world upside-down with his questions and with what he asks from me.
And why Episcopalian? Well, because it is in this form of Christianity with its emphasis on liturgy, the work of the people, rather than on set docrines and beliefs, this small but powerful denomination of mostly open-minded and open-hearted people, where I have been able to find a spiritual home where I can minister, ask questions without easy answers, and still be faithful to who I am.