JESUS FOLLOWS JOHN THE BAPTIST
Jesus left Nazareth to spend some time following John the Baptist, listening to his preaching and talking with other people who had become disciples of John. The Gospels indicate that some of the people who were also attracted to John the Baptist were fishermen from the Sea of Galilee. Tradition suggests that Andrew, Peter, James, John, Phillip, Nathanael, Bartholomew were all disciples of John the Baptist.
JOHN’S MESSAGE — REPENT AND SHARE
What did the followers of John the Baptist talk about, when they were camped out in the wilderness to listen to John’s preaching? We have only snippets of John’s message preserved in the Gospels and the writing of the Jewish historian Josephus. John appears to have claimed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and it would be ushered in by a Messianic figure. He believed the world had become so corrupt, only God could straighten it out, and the way to prepare for the coming of the Messiah was to repent, keep the law, practice traditional piety, be baptized and share with others who had less: “If you have two coats share one with someone who has none. If you have food, share with people who don’t have any.”
ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE TAX MAN
John Dominic Crossan maintains that John’s message was not just about personal piety but creating a more just social order. The fishermen from Galilee would have been attracted to John’s preaching because they were being squeezed hard by the administration of Herod Antipas. In a quest to raise new revenue in order to bribe the Romans to name him as the King of Israel, rather than just the Prince of Galilee and Perea, Herod had built a new capital on the Sea of Galilee, named it after the Emperor Tiberias, and then he was monopolizing the trade in fish from the Lake. Fishermen were taxed for the right to fish in the Lake and were only allowed to sell their catch to government approved processors. The fresh water tilapia, caught in the lake, were preserved by salting, packed in ceramic jars and then shipped all over the Roman Empire. One reason Peter and Andrew from Capernaum and James and John from Bethsaida were in partnership was to try to stay one step ahead of the tax collector, because Capernaum and Bethsaida were in different jurisdictions.
A measure of the desperation of the fishermen is they were willing to leave their boats, walk two or three days and camp out in the wilderness in order to hear John the Baptist. When was the last time you traveled three days, and camped out in the open in order to listen to a preacher? We can guess that when Jesus met these fishermen he got an ear full of their complaints about the government’s encroachment on their fisheries.
REVOLUTION OF LOVE
After Jesus’ vision at the time of his baptism, he sought time to be alone in the wilderness to sort out just what God wanted him to do. When news of John’s arrest reached Jesus he realized the time for his ministry had arrived. He wanted to proclaim the arrival of the Commonwealth of God a community of faith that would transform the world by sharing and caring for one another. So he went and sought out the fishermen of Galilee. They were looking for hope. They were looking for change. They were fertile ground for a revolution. But could they grasp and embrace the revolution of love?
Even today Jesus calls us to embrace the revolution and become part of the community of faith that follows his way of self-sacrificing love. So what is Jesus calling us to do? He calls us to become in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King the beloved community. He calls us to justice, to healing, to feeding, to sharing, to radical inclusion. These were all marks of the ministry of Jesus. In the stories of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes we have the vision of the beloved community, everyone regardless of their class, or their spiritual condition was included. Jesus even included women among his followers and allowed them to sit with the men in the circle of sharing. People who were considered to be outcastes by the traditional standards of the Jewish law were renamed “beloved of God.” Everyone was invited to the table, everyone was invited to bring their sins, their diseases, their wounds so they might be touched with the healing power of love and prayer. Don’t discount the power of inclusion.
THE IRRESISTIBLE REVOLUTION
Claire Woerner suggested I read a book by Shane Claiborne entitled The Irresistible Revolution, about seeking to follow the way of Jesus rather than believing things about him. Later this spring we will pick up this book at the Sharing Table. But allow me to share some of Shane’s insights.
I remember when one of my colleagues said, “Shane I am not a Christian anymore.” I was puzzled, for we had gone to theology classes together, studied scripture, prayed, and worshipped together. But I could see the intensity and sincerity in his eyes as he continued, “I gave up Christianity in order to follow Jesus.” Somehow, I knew what he meant.
COME TO CALCUTTA
Like me maybe you understand where Shane is coming from? So Shane in his quest to follow Jesus called Mother Teresa on the telephone and she said, “Yes, come to Calcutta.” One of Shane’s duties in Calcutta was to work in the leper colony, and he writes of that experience:
. . . I began dressing the man’s wound. He stared at me with such intensity that it felt like he was looking into my soul. Every once in a while he would slowly close his eyes.
When I as finished, he said to me that sacred word I had come to love: “Namaste” — (which means I honor the Holy One who lives in you.) I smiled with tears in my eyes and whispered. “Jesus.” He saw Jesus in me. And I saw Jesus in him. . . .
I knew that I had not just looked into the eyes of some pitiful leper in Calcutta but that I had gazed into the eyes of Jesus, and that he had not seen just some rich, do-gooder white kid from America but that he had seen the image of God in me. That is nuts. What would the world look like if we truly believed, as the apostle Paul figured out, that we no longer live, but only Jesus lives in us?
WE DON’T HAVE TO GO TO CALCUTTA
What would the world look like indeed, if we reached out to the poor and hurting to care for them as if they were Jesus in our midst? We don’t have to go to Calcutta to find people who are poor, homeless or hurting. A simple act of love, when the polar vortex drops down into Alabama and the homeless shelters fill up, what would it take to open our church as a warming center? Or we talk about unemployment, but it is almost impossible to look for a job without a computer. There are public computers at the library, but what if we set up a couple of computers here, opened our building and shared our WiFi? Not long ago I overheard someone saying, maybe we should look for some new members who have some money! But maybe God has blessed us. Maybe God has sent a few of the poor to help save the rich.
A COMMUNITY NOT A DISTRIBUTION CENTER
Again allow me to share an insight from Shane Claiborne: When the church becomes a place of brokerage rather than an organic community, she ceases to be alive. She ceases to be something we are, the living bride of Christ. The church becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get clothed and fed), but no one leaves transformed. No radical new community is formed. And Jesus did not set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven as we forgive our debtors (all economic words.) That reign did not spread through organizational establishments or structural systems. It spread like disease – through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people infected by love.
CONTAGIOUS WITH THE LOVE OF CHRIST
Can we become a people infected by the love of Jesus? Can we become a community of faith contagious with the love of Christ? That’s what Jesus meant when he announced the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The Kingdom of Heaven begins now when we embrace the way of sharing. The way of self-sacrificing love is the realization of the God in the present moment.
LEARN IN YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE WHO HE IS
Albert Schweitzer who followed Jesus with reckless abandon summarized the way of discipleship: “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”
I Have Labored in Vain
TAKING DOWN THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Taking down the Christmas tree is always a time for reflection. This year since we’ve invited you all to the Fellowship of the Grape and Hops at our house we got started on taking the tree down earlier than usual. Things are so busy for us before Christmas we don’t usually get the tree up until the kids show up maybe three of four days before Christmas, so we are in no hurry to take it down. Beth this year left the tree lights on from two days before Christmas until Epiphany. A number of years ago in Monee our lives were so shredded up that we didn’t get the Christmas tree down until just before Easter. Of course Easter came early that year, but I was tempted just to leave it up until the following Christmas – sort of have a year round Christmas tree.
EGG NOG & ROAST BEEF
I suppose it is a measure of where we still are as a family that none of the kids have asked to take any of their special ornaments to their own houses. Decorations with the names of all of our children are still on our tree. Of course most of our kids still make the attempt to come home for Christmas. After all Dad makes the eggnog (Betty Barnstead the organist in Galesburg her special recipe), roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. We tend to collect traditions and recipes over the years centered around Christmas.
As I was taking Christmas ornaments off of the tree there were a couple of them I wrapped and put away with special care. There is a very old and now ratty looking cross made of purple and gold beads that has hung on Christmas Trees since before a time when I could remember. One of my very first memories of Christmas is seeing that cross illuminated by an orange light. That ornament was hanging on the tree when I opened the red fire engine, and when I tripped over the bicycle in the living room at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning, because I was too excited to sleep. Maybe you have memories like that. And then there are the two ornaments that are left from the decorations that Jeff Kenney designed and we made in Galesburg as a fund raiser with the Youth Group. Jeff Kenney was a young graphic artist who designed and silk screened a Santa and a toy, and then we cut out Styrofoam forms to glue the pictures upon. We had several more of these Youth Group ornaments at one point but they were chewed up by various dogs and cats.
HOW CHRISTMAS MIGHT CHANGE
The decorations on the Christmas tree remind me of my past, looking forward to the future and taking stock of my life. How many Christmases have I celebrated and how many more Christmases do I have left? Of course none of us knows how many more Christmases we will be on this earth. None of us knows the day or the hour or the circumstance of our deaths. We also don’t know how our jobs or our families may change that might impact our celebration of Christmas in the future.
“I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS – SOME DIDN’T COME HOME”
The song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” was so immensely popular during World War II, because it captured the feeling of so many young people who had been shipped off to war and would not be home for Christmas. My mother shared with me her memory when she was a young army nurse serving in an army hospital in Louisiana, when the news came over the radio about Pearl Harbor, and it was announced: “all leaves were canceled,” and everyone started crying, because they were sure they would be shipped overseas and they would never see home again – much less be home for Christmas. Some people like my name sake Robert Bruce didn’t see home again.
MASLOW’S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS
And so with all those memories I was taking stock of my life. The Monday Bible Study this past Monday began talking about the importance of seeking, finding, establishing meaning in our lives — the upper half of the Pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I guess that’s what was going on inside my head taking down the Christmas tree.
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
One of the factors that drives us to seek the meaning of life is our appreciation like Charlie Brown that we will not be here forever. There are trees in my yard that will be here long after I am gone. And I have come to an age, when I may be planting trees whose fruit I may never eat. But that is part of the cycle of life. Any project really worth doing requires more than one life time. So where are we going? We don’t know, but at some point we won’t be here.
On our morning walks we often use Bill Tucker’s phone to look up questions that occur to us. When we asked Siri, the virtual assistant inside Bill’s iphone, “what is the meaning of life?”
Siri replied, “All evidence to date suggests it is chocolate.”
A MEANINGFUL LIFE
Maybe the important point is rather than trying to find the meaning of life, we seek to live a meaningful life. Thinking about a meaningful life, I saw a story that might give us all a little pause. A man and his wife were sitting in the living room and he said to her, “Just so you know, I never want to live in a vegetative state dependent on some machine. If that ever happens, just pull the plug.” His wife got up and unpluged the TV.
ARE OUR LIVES MEASURED BY WHAT WE BUY?
How do we take the measure of our lives? Are we measured by our productivity? Do we have to make our numbers? Is our worth determined by what other people think or say about us? Is the length of our resumes or our list of accomplishments the measure of who we are? Or in 21st Century America have we commoditized the meaning of life? Has life become defined by what we buy? I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go! Does our work have meaning beyond affording us the opportunity to buy stuff? And what if our true life work is not how we happen to earn a living? Many people earn their take home pay performing honest work, but their real purpose is found in some avocation or volunteer work. We are all created with gifts and talents to use for the glory of God. How do we take the measure of our service to God?
HAVE I LABORED IN VAIN?
I think in our scripture Isaiah was looking back on his life and feeling discouraged. What had he done? As far as he could see he had accomplished nothing. The Jews were a conquered people living in exile and captivity in Babylon. Their nation had been laid waste. The Temple was in ruins. The prospects for the future were bleak, and Isaiah was beating up on himself: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. . . .” It was not a very good time to be a prophet in Israel. Maybe it’s never a good time to be a prophet. Isaiah was feeling like a failure.
TRUST ME, I AM FAITHFUL
And then God spoke to Isaiah: “I the LORD called you from the womb, from the body of your mother I named you.” I think if we listen closely we can hear God saying to each one of us. “I made you. I don’t make junk. You are precious. You are my servant. I do not measure you as the world measures. My numbers are not the world’s numbers. My thoughts are not the world’s thoughts. I did not create you to be successful as the world measures success. I have called you to faithfulness. Because you cannot see all time and space at a glance you cannot appreciate the importance of your existence. Trust me, for I am faithful.”
HOW YOU MADE THEM FEEL
No matter how humble we may be each one of us is important in the eyes of our Creator and in our relationships. Most of us will not accomplish much of lasting value in our work. We have more of an opportunity to make a lasting contribution in our avocations, our volunteer commitments, even our life together in the church, than we will at our place of employment. But the most important contributions most of us will make are in our relationships. How we touch people’s lives. African American poet Maya Angelou has captured the importance of our relationships in her famous quotation: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
If you find yourself next year putting ornaments on a Christmas tree, take time to take the measure of your life. How many Christmases have we decorated a tree, how many more Christmases do we have left? Where are we going? What are our most important relationships? How is our relationship with God doing? Trust God, for God is faithful.
Becoming the Holy One
BAPTISMAL CAVE OF JOHN’S FOLLOWERS
The early church retold and reworked the story of the baptism of Jesus. We can assume that John’s protest in our scripture over baptizing Jesus was an insert of the early church, because they found themselves in competition with the followers of John. We have found archaeological evidence that John’s followers continued to meet and baptize people long after John had been executed, and so the early church made the claim that John had deferred to Jesus, even though in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, John from prison sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus, “are you the one we are looking for, or should we look for another?”
Despite the beauty of the nativity stories the baby Jesus wasn’t lying in the manger working miracles and congratulating himself on how cool it was to be the Messiah. We have little if any information about Jesus’ early life. We can guess that his baptism was a turning point in his life. In a God moment he realized he was being called to a special ministry – perhaps to even become the one for whom John was preparing the way. In classical Greek mythology the goddess Athena leaped full grown dressed in armor from the head of Zeus (No wonder he had a headache). And some narratives about Jesus present him as if he was the Christ from the moment of his birth. But if we read carefully we can find in the scriptures evidence of his process of becoming the Holy One.
HE BECAME PERFECT THROUGH WHAT HE SUFFERED
After his baptism Jesus spent a period of time in the wilderness – forty days and forty nights paralleling Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness. During his time in the wilderness Jesus reportedly wrestled with temptations that related to how he might conduct his ministry. This time of struggle was part of the process of becoming the Holy One. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews goes even further in describing the passion of Jesus as part of his “becoming.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered and having been made perfect became the source of eternal salvation. . .
ALL CREATION IS IN A PROCESS OF BECOMING
Jesus like all the rest of us was in a process of becoming. We are indeed born with our own particular DNA. At birth we are blessed with gifts and potentials, and some of us are born with distressing disabilities and handicaps. But the circumstances of our birth our families growing up are not the final answer for any of us, for, like Jesus, we are all people who are in the process of becoming. Some philosophers and theologians have suggested that the universe, even God, is in a process of becoming. From the moment of creation in the Big Bang the universe has been unfolding, changing, transforming, driven by novelty reaching toward ever new possibilities.
EVOLUTIONARY KIND OF THEOLOGY
Our United Church of Christ “God is still speaking initiative” reflects this kind of evolutionary theology. Our faith can be informed by the scriptures but not limited by past understandings of the divine. We’re not stuck trying to believe that God created the rocks with the fossils already in them to make it look as if evolution is true. Rather we are able to embrace the scientific account of the unfolding creation of the universe. Revelation is not a once and done event, rather we remain open to the possibility as preached by Pastor John Robinson of the Pilgrim Congregation that God has yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Word.
DIVERSITY – WE SEEK THE TRUTH AS GOD HAS GIVEN US THE ABILITY TO PERCEIVE THE TRUTH
Each of us seeks the truth as God has given us the ability to perceive the truth, and then marvel at the incredible diversity of creation — the incredible diversity of our community of faith. Diversity, however, isn’t easy. Wherever there are two or three members of United Church there are at least five or six opinions. And since we are so diverse and so distressingly human, it means that sometimes we disagree.
SUNDAY ASSEMBLY – CHURCH FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD
On Tuesday of this week I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR. They were reporting on a new movement called “Sunday Assembly.” Sunday Assembly is a church for people who don’t believe in God. The brainchild of two British comedians, the movement has since spread across the globe, and there are now about 30 chapters from Dublin to Sydney to New York.
Sunday Assembly appeals to more optimistic atheists — those hoping to re-create what they felt was good about religion. But demonstrating how difficult it is to maintain diversity in human community one of the founders of Sunday Assembly does acknowledge that the movement is not without its factional schisms. He says the newly formed chapter in New York has already split over how much to emphasize atheism.
We are all in a process of becoming. God isn’t finished with us yet. And that means we believe that every once in while the Holy Spirit shows up in the form of grace. Grace is when we are pulled up short by something ordinary that in that moment becomes extraordinary – bubbles, fire flies in a field of wheat in the evening light, butterflies dancing in the sunlight, the brilliance of the stars on a cold clear winter night. Grace can be experienced as awe and wonder. Occasionally grace leaps out at us from the scriptures, opening our eyes to experience truth in a new way. Sometimes grace comes in a blinding insight, or at other times like John Wesley grace is experienced as a feeling, when even against our wills we find our hearts are strangely warmed. Sometimes grace comes to us in quiet God moments. But we are all different, and so grace comes to each of us in a way peculiar to our personality and our experience.
GRACE MEDIATED THROUGH RELATIONSHIPS
Grace can be mediated to us through relationships. The experience of acceptance from others is powerful. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here that is grace. Life in community without the need to pass judgment upon others is grace – powerful grace – God’s grace. God’s grace is most beautiful when that grace is experienced in diversity and tolerance.
Donna Schaper, the Pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, a dually aligned congregation with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church with several Jewish members, writes about trying to say grace in a diverse gathering.
PLURALISM AND GRACE
At about half the dinner parties I attend, there is an awkward beginning. The glorious food is presented and plattered, tickled and drizzled. It is meant to dazzle and often does. A high percentage of my friends are foodies (sounds like United Church). In addition to their identity as foodies, they are a great mixture. Jews, Catholics, Protestants join anti-Catholics, former Jews, puzzled Protestants, all drizzled by a good dose of skepticism, garnished with a respect for pluralism. You also never know when a genuine atheist will show up, either.
OPEN OUR HEARTS TO WHAT WE DON’T KNOW AND CAN’T SEE
Enter the awkward moment. If we are lucky, the hosts will offer a word of welcome. Even better, the hosts will offer a toast and glasses will click in a pagan form of prayer. We will drink to our health or each other or to life or to the chef. Optimally, someone will offer a prayer, a gesture of appreciation to something larger than the host or each other or the farmer who made the food. Most optimal of all, the Source who is thanked will have a name that is the private property of none at the table, not the agnostic, atheist, Catholic, Jew, Muslim or Protestant. If asked to pray, I will use my favorite public prayer: “Holy Spirit, you who are beyond the captivity of any name, even Jesus, even Christ, even Allah, even Ruach, even Force, even energy, even Spirit, draw near. Open our hearts to what we don’t know and can’t see. Extend our gratitude from first seed to last seed, shore to shore, in a vast appreciation of what has been given us. And may everyone on the planet eat as well as we will tonight. Amen.”
We are in a deep shift in this magnificent 21st century. We can no longer trick ourselves into thinking that there is one cuisine or one God. Thus we must learn to pray again, if for no other reason than to banish the awkwardness of table graces.
GRACE EXPERIENCED AS FORGIVENESS
Grace is something more than a pro forma prayer to offer up before eating. Grace in its deepest moments is experienced as forgiveness. United Church of Christ Pastor Amy Jo Jones shares a story about communion, forgiveness and grace.
He had two warrants out for his arrest in two different states before it was discovered that he had an inoperable tumor and was admitted to hospice.
He had never even heard of communion, let alone received it. A communion table was created in his home, using a broken-back chair and a white bar towel. Each time I said the words of consecration, he was nervous, interrupting, asking for a cigarette. His wife responded, “No, honey, you can’t smoke in front of God.” Communion with cigarette breaks. How can we not smile?
Grace arrives, unannounced, and intervenes where it is needed most. All that his wife wanted was that he would receive Jesus before he died. He did. He made peace with everyone in his life. He experienced the mystery of the sacrament. He understood the life-giving words.
A BROKEN SOUL BEING MADE WHOLE
What became important to him was that his family knew his sorrow, his awareness of mistakes, and his love for them — a broken soul being made whole with the grace of Christ. He experienced the mystery and smiled. He asked for a second helping.
ASK FOR A SECOND HELPING
All of us, like Jesus, like the dying man, are in the process of becoming. If we are open to grace, we can be healed and forgiven too. And if we ask for a second helping of grace, like Jesus, we can even become one of God’s holy ones.
Tales of a Jewish Mystic
The Gospel of John has been my least favorite gospel. The tradition behind John seems to squeeze the humanity out of Jesus, and the substitutionary atonement theology that grew out of the fourth gospel created a religion that focused on individualized salvation, rather than following the way of Jesus. And then someone left for me a copy of John Shelby Spong’s most recent book the Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. Spong reported in his book that he had avoided John’s Gospel for years for reasons similar to why I had disliked it. But then Bishop Spong after wrestling with the text for several years came to a new appreciation of the Fourth Gospel. In “Tales of Jewish Mystic” Spong argues that the Gospel of John is an attempt to understand the person of Jesus through the eyes of late First Century Jewish mysticism. What this means is we cannot in anyway consider the Fourth Gospel to be biographical or historical, instead the whole narrative is a mystical metaphor. One of the keys to understanding this extended metaphor is found in the prologue in the first chapter of John.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” For many years scholars took these opening sentences of the Fourth Gospel as evidence of the influence of Greek philosophy upon the composition of the Gospel of John. And while some Greek influence may be involved, John Shelby Spong argues that “the word of God” was primarily an image from Jewish mysticism. In the Beginning God spoke and creation occurred. God brought the worlds into being through vocalized thought – Word. For Jewish mystics the Word became the active creative principle of life – God’s own consciousness. Jesus for the community that created the Fourth Gospel represented the essence of the Word in human form the one who shows the way to God consciousness — the one who embodies love.
John Shelby Spong tries to explain this mystical understanding of Jesus:
God was light, embracing all who could open their eyes to see. God was life, the same life which was flowing through the universe, but which came to self-consciousness only in human beings – indeed only in those who were willing to risk entering or being born into a new dimension of humanity. God, for John, was love, that life-giving power that embraces all those who are willing to accept the vulnerability that love always brings. This means that for John, Jesus was not one who had come and then departed and who would someday come again. Jesus was rather a God presence inviting all to enter who he was and is, to be born of the spirit – born, that is, to new dimensions of what it means to be human – and to participate thereby in the eternity of God. There is thus no idea in this gospel of a second coming of the person of Jesus. There is rather the new awakening to life, an awakening that makes it possible for those born into that spiritual dimension to be the bearers of the meaning of Christ in every generation. The second coming was thus nothing more or less than the coming, or perhaps even the dawning realization, of the ever-permeating spirit.
God then in the Fourth Gospel is not an external being outside of time and space. God is a presence, a consciousness that permeates all of reality including human beings. Human beings are special, because at least in our known Universe, we are the only creatures who have attained a level of self-consciousness (or as Mark Twain was fond of saying, “we are the only animal that blushes or needs to.”) Through Christ we humans have been invited to aspire to God consciousness by embracing the spirit of love, a love that has the courage to even give our lives away, as our most important purpose. Indeed once we have pushed beyond our fear of death, our fear of the loss of self we pass through the portal into God consciousness and eternal life.
Now I recognize that for those of us who do not have a mystical nature, the Tales of a Jewish Mystic seem like non-sense. Like Sergeant Joe Friday from “Dragnet” we want to say, “just the facts Ma’am just the facts.” But if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge a reality beyond material reality, then mysticism is an unwholesome distraction. For mysticism seeks the reality and meaning of what lies beyond the material facts.
Mysticism is difficult to explain, because it seeks the direct experience of the divine. For those who do not want to acknowledge a reality beyond the material world, then mysticism is an unexplainable mystery. But like the Gospel of John we can still tell stories.
There is a story credited to the 13th century sufi mystic known as Mulla Nasruddin: Once, a man found Mulla Nasruddin searching for something on the ground outside his house. On being asked, Nasruddin replied that he was looking for his key. The man also joined in the search and in due course asked Mulla Nasruddin: ”Where exactly did you drop it?”
Mulla answered: ”In my house.”
”Then why are you looking here?” the man asked.
”There is more light here than in my house,” replied Mulla
Characters like Mulla Nasruddin in our Christian tradition have been called “Holy Fools,” like St. Simeon in the Orthodox tradition. More recently a group of mystics have called themselves “the Holy Rascals.” One of these Holy Rascals, who has spoken in Huntsville, is Rabbi Rami Shapiro who teaches at Middle Tennessee State University. Rabbi Rami has a whole book of stories gathered from the mystical Hasidic tradition. Allow me to share with you a story about the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Rabbi from Poland, who is considered the founder of the Hasidic movement. (Since Poland’s boundaries have changed so often, it was actually in the Ukraine.)
A delegation of sages from a distant town visited the Baal Shem Tov on a matter of great urgency. He listened to their plight and then opened a copy of the Torah that was lying on the table before him. He looked at the text of a moment, closed the book, and then proceeded to tell his visitors not only how to handle their situation but also exactly what would transpire over the new few months to resolve their problem.
Over those months the events transpired just as the Baal Shem had predicted. The sages returned to the Baal Shem Tov to thank him for his insight and counsel. One among them asked, “Tell me, Master, is it by opening the Torah and looking inside of it that you can perceive what is to happen and how best to respond to it?”
The Baal Shem Tov said: “We are taught that God created the world with light, and that this light illumined the world from one end to the other. Here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, were all present in the immediacy of that light. And God saw that the world was not worthy of this light, that access to it by the unscrupulous would cause global disaster, so God hid the light for the righteous ones to come, those few who could use I properly. Where did God hide this light? In the Torah. When a person peers into the Torah with only the pure desire to see the light of God for its own sake and with no selfish motive, then a path is lit up, and past and future, time and space, are open in the moment. The righteous ones see the world as God sees the world: a creation of light.
Most mystics in the Jewish and Christian traditions are attracted to the image of light. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” So reads the Tales of a Jewish Mystic.
Most mystics are also attracted to silence. As Rabbi Rami says, “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or say as well in another; and the more languages you learn, the more nuanced your understanding of life becomes. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”
Another contemporary Jewish mystic is Lawrence Kushner the author of the book we have been discussing in the Monday Bible Study and at the Sharing Table on Thursdays. I think Rabbi Kushner speaks a truth that helps tie together the mystical experience of light and silence. “The letters of the Name of God in Hebrew are yod, hay, vav, and hay. They are frequently mispronounced as “Yaveh.” But in truth they are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury.
“This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.”
Whether we are of a mystical temperament or not, we can all breathe. We can breathe and relax. And if we can pay attention long enough and follow our breath, our breathing can lead us into God’s holy presence.