The Way of Jesus, Jesus as Way

[Sermon delivered at St. Mary’s Kerrisdale on May 11, 2020]

Readings

Ps 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; Jn 14:1-14

Preface

As some of you may know, in the summer of 2018, I was privileged to be able to walk the French Way of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. It is often just called The Camino, or Way. When you pass fellow pilgrims it is customary to greet each other with an enthusiastic ‘Buen Camino!’  The entire trail is over 750 KM, and I walked at least 700 in about 30 days. One thing I noticed as I walked was that there are at least two kinds of pilgrims: Those who were most excited about the destination, and those who were able to really appreciate each step of the journey toward the destination. The former pilgrims would wake up before dawn so they could get a head start. We would be awakened by flashing headlamps and rustling backpacks. They always seemed to be in a rush to get to the next destination. They wanted to make it to Santiago in record time. They ate quickly, they snapped hasty pictures at the sites, and moved on. The other kind of pilgrim was in no particular hurry to arrive anywhere. Often they weren’t even sure where they were going to sleep that night. Some weren’t even all that excited about getting to Santiago! They were just happy to be on the trail. This kind of pilgrim often stood transfixed before the changing scenery, the sunset, and the architecture or vaulted ceilings of the many ancient churches and cathedrals. They sat chatting on the side of the trail. They savored their food. And even though I was very eager to arrive in Santiago, I really tried to be more like the latter kind of pilgrim. I want to draw some parallels between this emphasis on Way and Destination, and our Gospel reading today where Jesus tells his disciples that HE is the Way. And that HE is One with the Father.

Introducing John 14

John 14 is a continuation of John 12 and 13, and it’s helpful to know what comes before what we’ve just read together. At the beginning of Chapter 14, Jesus says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This is because Jesus has just alluded to his impending suffering and death on the Cross. He has broken the terrible Good News. In fulfillment of Jewish scripture, Jesus has come to Jerusalem as both triumphant King, and suffering Servant. Mary of Bethany has anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her own tears. Jesus takes a cue from Mary and models his servant leadership by washing the disciples’ feet.Jesus also predicts that Peter will deny him. Jesus senses that someone will betray him. After verse 14, Jesus goes on to promise the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can feel the disciples’ resistance to the reality of Jesus’s impeding suffering and death. On the other side of the Easter shore, we know the outcome. But for the disciples, what was coming must have been unthinkable.

The Way of Jesus

Early in the Chapter, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them with the Father. John has Thomas naively, but logically, ask Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” ‘OK, so there are enough rooms in the AIRBNB for all of us, but just to be safe, can you give us a Google Map before you go?’  Jesus responds with a bold and puzzling claim: “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We might be tempted to think that Jesus is talking about the church as an exclusive club one must join in order to get to heaven when you die. I have nothing against the Church, and nothing against heaven, but personally, I find this reading to be quite narrow. It is a reading that missing the contemplative riches of Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. So let’s dig a little deeper into this I AM statement.

First, a distinctive feature of the Gospel of John are these I AM statements. I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life. These statements would have immediately triggered his Jewish audience’s understanding of God. I AM in the Torah refers to Yahweh. For Jesus to say I AM is to identify himself with God. The Path is a Person. Jesus’s ‘Way’ is not Google Map to heaven. Whereas the Torah sees the Way as a Law to follow, Jesus claims that the Way is a person we can fall in love with. Jesus is God come among his people; Immanuel—God with us. Of course in the synoptic Gospels Jesus is much more muted in his statements of divinity or Messiahship. In John Jesus’s divine identity is on full display.  Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples. But it is not a physical destination as the author has Thomas insinuate. The time-place that Jesus is preparing is the HERE-NOW of God’s indwelling presence. The Kingdom of God is within as Jesus says elsewhere. Toxic Religion is susceptible to turning the way of Jesus into an instruction manual for evacuating earth, rather than an invitation into an experience of fullness.

The Little Way of St. Therese

Yes the Christian path involves morality, ethics, and sacraments. But at its heart is a Person. Thus our own spiritual lives should always be oriented toward cultivating a deeper and deeper love for God and what God loves, Creation. But the Way is not always the heroic way of moral perfection, suffering, or the asceticism of the great saints. You may know about the Roman Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church Therese of Lisieux. She was a French Carmelite who only lived to be 24 years old. She was admitted to her monastery at a very early age, and she was barely known when she died of Tuberculosis in 1897. But her writing on the contemplative path is the work of a true spiritual master. Saint Therese called her path the Little Way. Some of great Saints, her own namesake, Teresa of Avila for example, accomplished great things. But Therese was sickly and uneducated. She couldn’t possibly achieve all that these great saints had achieved. Thus she compared herself to a little flower among the great and showy flowers of the garden of the Saints. She wrote:

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.”

Every person has value just for being who they are. And every intention and act of love is a step on the Little Way. Each of these steps is progress on the Way to God. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis I have worried that I am not doing enough. I am not volunteering, I am not a care worker or doctor. But Therese assures me:

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

Yes, Jesus healed the sick, was a master teacher and suffered on the cross for humanity; but he also quietly knelt and washed his disciples’ dirty feet. Feet that carried them on the dusty pathways of Palestine.

Father and Son are One

Ok, now back to John. Jesus said he was going to the Father to prepare a place for his disciples and that he was the Way to the Father. Philip, annoyed that Jesus wouldn’t tell Thomas how to get to this mysterious mansion then asks: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” ‘OK, so if you’re not going to tell us how to get there, at least tell us what we are looking for!’  Perhaps a bit bluntly Jesus answers: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The path leads to the Father. I am the Path. Therefore I am One with the Father. In our Trinitarian theology, Jesus is the Second person of the Trinity. God the Father is Lover, Jesus is Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love shared between them. Jesus is the Logos in John, the Word spoken by the Father from the beginning. The Father and the Son are one, they are a dynamic and mutually indwelling Cosmic Dance.

This is why we can speak of Christ as so much more than a single person in first century Palestine. There is a universal dimension to Christ that Jesus is pointing out by claiming to be One with the Father. The Apostle Paul never met Jesus. But he was in love with Christ. He is constantly saying that we are in Christ. How else could this be understood than on a cosmic scale? God spoke the World into Being, and thus all of Creation is a Word of God. Jesus is saying to Philip: Can’t you see the Father in me? Can’t you see the Father all around you?

Julian of Norwich’s Christ as Mother

Jesus used the word Abba, Father often. This is not because God is exclusively male; but because God is as intimate to us as a loving Parent who brings us into being and nurtures us to fullness. But today is of course Mother’s day, so I wanted to briefly honor a spiritual teacher who spoke of the motherhood of God and even Christ. We recently celebrated the feast of the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian, an anchorite, wrote unflinchingly of God’s Father and Motherhood. And extrapolating from Paul’s language of being IN Christ, she wrote of Jesus: “And our Savior is our Very Mother in whom we are endlessly born, and never shall come out of him.” While Jesus uses the language of journey and Fatherhood, masculine language, Julian shifts the analogy to birth and gestation of the soul within the cosmic mystery of Jesus as Christ.

The Journey and the Destination

So, in John 14 we learn that Jesus points the way to God with his very person. That human personhood, creatureliness, is fundamentally united with God the Father. If we were to read on, we would see that the Holy Spirit enables OUR fundamental unity with Father and Son. That the way up is also the way down. Down into the depths of our True Selves. That place where God is mothering us into being at each moment. Journey and destination are inextricably linked. The author of John represents Philip and Thomas as no nonsense kind of pilgrims on the Christian Way. They want to know how to get there, and what to look for when they arrive. But to me, just committing to be on the trail, is to already to be united with the destination.

On the day that I arrived in Santiago, I admit, I was excited for my long walk to be over. But I was also a little melancholy that it was all done. I was excited to stand triumphantly in front of the Cathedral at Santiago. The journey had exposed both my strengths and weaknesses. I had tried to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. But my journey didn’t come to an end when I stood facing the façade of the Cathedral. And in fact it didn’t begin with I set out from Pamplona a month earlier. The Way of Jesus is made up of the millions of tiny steps each of us take every day. The steps we take to be a little bit kinder to ourselves and others. The steps we take live a little more deeply from the place of awe and wonder. The steps we take to realize that we too are one with God.

Homily: Living Symbols

[Homily delivered Feb. 26, 2017 to Saint Margaret Cedar-Cottage Anglican Church.]

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At 4:13 AM I stumbled in the pale darkness to my choir stall. When I finally looked up through the west facing window of the chapel at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in northwestern Oregon, a glowing full moon was setting through a light haze. The monks began to chant the early morning Divine Office of Vigils, a ritual that unfolds day after day, month after month, and year after year in monasteries all over the world.

This month-long immersive retreat in 2014, inspired the questions that would become my PhD dissertation research, which I completed over a six month period in 2015 and 2016. I am now in writing the dissertation, and should be done in the next 2, 3, 4 or 5 months. I wanted to better understand the relationship between the 1,500 year old monastic tradition, contemporary environmental discourses and the land. And I wanted to better describe for the emerging Spiritual Ecology literature the ways that theological ideas and spiritual symbols populate monastic spirituality of place and creation.

Exodus 24:12-18

In the readings this morning, we are gifted several land-based symbols. God says to Moses in Exodus: “Come up to me on the mountain.” Liberated from Egypt, God is now eager to build a relationship with his people and Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the Law mirrors our own spiritual journeys. A thick cloud covered the mountain for six days before Moses was finally called into God’s presence, like so much of my own spiritual life, lived in darkness, with small rays of light.

Matthew 17:1-19

In the Gospel reading, Jesus too ascends a “high mountain.” There, his disciples witness one of the most perplexing scenes in the New Testament: The Transfiguration. Jesus’s face and garments shone like the sun. And then, certainly conscious of the Hebrew text, the writer says that a bright cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice say: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Christ, who was fully human and fully God, was revealing in his very person to Peter, James and John his fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And presence of the symbols of mountain and cloud were bound up in the authenticity of Jesus’s claims to messianic authority.

2 Peter 1:16-21

Even though it’s not clear that the Apostle Peter is the author of our second reading, the message is clear: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Reading Exodus and Matthew, it might feel simple to slip into an easy allegorical hermeneutic, to see everything as a symbol; but the writer of 2 Peter is clear: Stop trying to turn everything into a myth! This reminds me of the quote from Catholic writer Flannery O’Conner who said of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”

img_6579With these texts in mind, especially questions of religious symbols and religious realities, I want to talk a little bit about my research with monastic communities, and then return to these texts at the end. Monasticism, like Christianity as a whole is steeped in symbols. For example, the Abbas and Ammas of the early monastic tradition experienced the desert as a symbol of purification and sanctification. Saint Anthony fled to the desert to live a life of solitude, spiritual warfare and strict asceticism. The silence and nakedness of the desert landscape was as it were a habitat for the silence and simplicity that led the Desert Fathers and Mothers through the wilderness of their own sin to the simplicity of God’s presence. As Saint Jerome wrote, “The desert loves to strip bare.”

The motifs of the Desert-wilderness and the Paradise-garden are like two poles in Biblical land-based motifs. Pulling the people of Israel between them. Adam and Eve were created in a garden, but driven to the wilderness. The people of Israel were enslaved in the lush Nile Delta, but liberated into a harsh desert. The prophets promised the return of the garden if Israel would flee the wilderness of their idolatry. Christ suffered and resurrected in a garden after spending 40 days in the wilderness. The cloister garden at the center of the medieval monastery embodied also this eschatological liminality between earth and heaven, wilderness and garden.

Mountains too were and continue to be powerful symbols of the spiritual life. From Mount Sinai to Mount Tabor, John of the Cross and the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, each drawing on the metaphors of ascent and obscurity.

But do you need a desert to practice desert spirituality?

Do you need the fecundity of a spring time garden to understand the resurrection?

I would argue that we do.

For my PhD research, I conducted 50 interviews, some seated and some walking, with monks at four monasteries in the American West. My first stop was to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The community was established in 1958 by monks from Italy. The Hermitage is located on 880 acres in the Ventana Wilderness of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Coastal Live Oak dominate the erosive, fire adapted chaparral ecology, and the narrow steep canyons shelter the southernmost reaches of Coastal Redwood. The monks make their living by hosting retreatants and run a small fruitcake and granola business.

The second monastery I visited was New Clairvaux Trappist Abbey, which is located on 600 acres of prime farmland in California’s Central Valley and was founded in 1955. It is located in orchard country, and they grow walnuts and prunes, and recently started a vineyard. They are flanked on one side by Deer Creek, and enjoy a lush tree covered cloister that is shared with flocks of turkey vultures and wild turkeys that are more abundant than the monks themselves. They recently restored a 12th century Cistercian Chapter house as part of an attempt to draw more pilgrims to the site.

Thirdly, I stayed at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, which was also founded in 1955, in the foothills of the Coastal Range in Western Oregon. When they arrived, they found that the previous owner had clear cut the property and run. They replanted, and today the 1,300 acre property is covered by Douglas fir forests, mostly planted by the monks. Though they began as grain and sheep farmers, today the monastery makes its living through a wine storage warehouse, a bookbindery, a fruitcake business, and a sustainable forestry operation.

For my last stop, I headed to the high pinyon-juniper deserts of New Mexico. At the end of a 13 mile muddy dirt road, surrounded by the Chama River Wilderness, an adobe chapel stands in humble relief against steep painted cliffs. Founded in 1964, Christ in the Desert Abbey is the fastest growing in the Order, with over 40 monks in various stages of formation. The monks primarily live from their bookstore and hospitality, but also grow commercial hops which they sell to homebrewers.

In my interviews, the monastic values of Silence, Solitude and Beauty were consistently described as being upheld and populated by the land. The land was not just a setting for a way of life, but elements which participated in the spiritual practices of contemplative life. To use a monastic term, the land incarnates, gives flesh, to their prayer life.

Thus, the monks live in a world that is steeped in religious symbols through their daily practice of lectio divina, and the chanting of the Psalms. As one monk of Christ in the Desert put it:

“Any monk who has spent his life chanting the Divine Office cannot have any experience and not have it reflect, or give utterance in the Psalmody. The psalmody is a great template to place on the world for understanding it, and its language becomes your own.”

In this mode, the land becomes rich with symbol: a tree growing out of a rock teaches perseverance, a distant train whistle reminds one to pray, a little flower recalls Saint Therese of Lisieux, a swaying Douglas fir tree points to the wood of the cross, a gash in a tree symbolizes Christ’s wounds. In each case, the elements of the land act as symbol within a system of religious symbology. One monk of Christ in the Desert, who wore a cowboy hat most of the time related:

“When the moon rises over that mesa and you see this glowing light halo. It echoes what I read in the Psalms. In the Jewish tradition the Passover takes place at the full moon, their agricultural feasts are linked to the lunar calendar. When they sing their praises, ‘like the sunlight on the top of the temple,’ ‘like the moon at the Passover Feast.’ ‘Like the rising of incense at evening prayer.’ They’re all describing unbelievable beauty. I look up and I’m like that’s what they were talking about.”

The land populates familiar Psalms, scriptures and stories with its elements and thus enriches the monastic experience of both text and land.

Theologically speaking, God’s presence in the land is a kind of real presence that does not just point to, but participates in God. This gives an embodied or in their words, incarnational, quality to their experience of the land. As another example, one monk went for a long walk on a spring day, but a sudden snow storm picked up and he almost lost his way. He related that from then on Psalm 111 that states “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” took on a whole new meaning.

In addition, the monks often spoke of their experiences on the land in terms of flashes of insight, or moments of clarity that transcended any specific location or symbolic meaning. One monk called these experiences “charged moments” where a tree or vista one sees frequently, suddenly awakens to God’s presence.

The monks at each community, in their own ways, have sunken deep roots into the lands they live on and care for. Each, in the Benedictine tradition, strive to be “Lovers of the place” as the Trappist adage goes. When I asked one monk if this meant that the landscape was sacred, he paused and said, “I would only say that it is loved.”

I am arguing in my dissertation that monastic perception of landscape can be characterized as what an embodied semiotics. By this I simply mean that symbols and embodied experience reinforce each other in the landscape, and without embodied experience symbols are in danger of losing their meaning.

The motifs of desert and wilderness, the symbols of water, cloud, mountain, doves, bread and wine, the agricultural allegories of Jesus, and the garden, are in this reading, reinforced by consistent contact with these elements and activities in real life.

On the last Sunday before Lent, as we move into the pinnacle of the Christian calendar, it is no coincidence that the resurrection of the body of Jesus is celebrated during the resurrection of the body of the earth. But does this mean that Jesus’s resurrection can be read as just a symbol, an archetype, a metaphor for the undefeated message of Jesus? Certainly Peter and the other Apostles would say no. They did not give up their own lives as martyrs for a metaphor.

For a long time I struggled with believing in the resurrection as a historical reality. But when I began to realize the connection between the land and the paschal mystery, it was the symbols in the land itself that drew me to the possibility of Christ’s resurrection. And that in turn reinforced my ability to see Christ in the entire cosmic reality of death and rebirth active and continual in every part of the universe.

As Peter warns his readers: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” For how can we truly believe in the return of the Beloved Son, if we have never been up early enough to see the return of the star we call sun?

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