Year B, Proper 20: After the Ecstasy the Laundry--Thomas Merton at 4th and Walnut
A Sermon Preached at the cathedral Church of St Mark
Year B Proper 20: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
One of the persistent themes of Mark’s gospel is the constant misapprehension on the part of the disciples about the identity of Jesus. They can never quite wrap their minds around what Jesus is up and who he really is. Whether it’s thinking of the messiah as a kind of military victor who will lead the Israelites to political triumph over the occupying Imperial Roman powers or seeing Jesus as another instance of wonder-worker and healer, the disciples in Mark are a little like the Three Stooges or the Keystone Cops. They fail to recognize Jesus’ true identity and try again and again to understand him on the basis of received knowledge and according to existing categories.
One of the reasons why Jesus tells people after a healing or act of power not to tell anyone else, is because he knows all too well the human propensity for taking that one little act (or not so little act!) as the full and final revelation of his identity. Yes, Jesus heals, but he is not simply a healer. His healings are the manifestation of the transformative power of God who offers much more than physical cure. Yes, he can multiply bread and fishes to feed thousands, but he is much more than a Galilean lunch truck. Don’t pretend to know who I am too quickly, Jesus says, for who I am will only be revealed in my walk to and through the cross. Only then, will the pieces start to fall into place, and only then will you realize who I am and what I’ve been up to all along.
The dispute between James and John is another instance of this persistent misrecognition of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Remember, James and John were just days before atop Mt. Tabor with Peter where Jesus was revealed in raiment white and shining. Flanked by Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets), Jesus’ true identity the son of God is revealed to Peter, James, and John. They see who Jesus is, of course, but they also get a glimpse of who they are called to be—bearers of Christ’s light in the world called to make his life their own as they wander down off the mountain and into the marketplace.
So what do James and John do with this experience? What effect does it have on their lives? In one way you could say that it seems to not have had very much effect at all. After the voice in the cloud and seeing Jesus as-he-is in his fully divine and fully human glory, they fall back into old patterns of competition, comparison, and sibling rivalry. The mountain top remains on the mountain top—a place apart from the messy realities of daily life in the marketplace.
The great adventure of the Christian life is to bring these two realms together—to see and live from the mountaintop in the midst of the market place, to know stillness in the midst of activity, for Sunday morning to be present on Tuesday afternoon. Jack Kornfield wrote a book called After the Ecstasy the Laundry in which he brought together stories and vignettes from the world’s great religious traditions that demonstrated the challenge of living the mountaintop in the midst of daily life. The annals of the various spiritual traditions are filled to overflowing with examples of people who have great moments of insight, experiences of union with God, only to fall back into the same old patterns of behavior when the ecstasy fades.
The life of Thomas Merton is a wonderful example of this kind of slow integration to which we are invited. Following his conversion, Merton decided to devote himself entirely to God and went off to a Trappist monastery. These were the days before Vatican II and Brother Louis (as he was known) endured great hardships and austerities in his pursuit of holiness. His best-selling book about these years—The Seven Storey Mountain—presents a stark picture of escape from the world, the ascent to God, the arduous climbing of the ladder to holiness. One day, years later, he found himself in downtown Louisville at the corner of Fourth and Walnut running errands for his brother monks at Gethsemane. In an instant, his sense of separateness from the world, from other people, from his own humanity fell away and he realized his solidarity in Christ with all of creation. The mountaintop reared its head “like shining from shook foil” in the midst of a bustling commercial street corner. He writes,
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . .
This experience of seeing things as they really are—God in all things and all things in God—is one aspect of what Jesus is getting at in his teaching about the little child. Arguments about who is greatest always have the self-centered ego at the center of the story. It’s about our efforts and our achievements, rather than what God is doing in and through us in the unique circumstances of our lives. John’s way of living out the Gospel is different from James’ and to compare the two is irrelevant The key is openness, receptivity, surrender, and letting go of our particular idea and agenda and letting God live God’s life in and through us. “Comparisons are odious,” as Cervantes writes in Don Quixote, and they are responsible, in large measure, for the mountaintop never making an appearance in the marketplace. We miss the gift, the sacrament that is the present moment by comparing to the past or ruminating about how it could be better. Shoulda, woulda, coulda….
That’s one way to read the image of the child. God knows as well as we do that children are (ahem) a handful, and I would hate to think of what the world would look like if it were run by five-year olds! Lord of Flies springs immediately to mind. This story is not about some saccharine and sentimental idealization of the innocence of childhood. Rather, the child is a sacrament of all that is helpless, all that is dependent, all that must rely on someone else to get even a glass of blessed orange juice. Such is our true standing before God, and why poverty of spirit is the first of the beatitudes. When we learn to surrender to love, to back-float on the ocean of divine mercy that is available at the heart of each moment, wherever we happen to find ourselves, we begin to see, and be, in a new way.
The little ones, the ones we’ve never noticed before leap into our vision. The doors of our perception are cleansed and we see things are they truly are—infinite as William Blake writes. And not just things, but people as well. We become places of welcome for others regardless of who they are or where they’ve come from. We start to behold people for the miracle that each human person truly is. We see the “secret beauty of their hearts” as Merton calls it. Experiencing ourselves as loved no matter what it dawns on us that this same staggering reality might just possibly be true about others as well.
That image of Jesus taking the child in his arms is the real situation of each one of us right now. We are held, caressed, by the arms of love in every moment. All that is required to live from that love and be that love for others is to stop struggling and allow ourselves to fall into the ever-lasting arms of God, to accept our acceptance. When that happens, when that yielding becomes the habitual place from which we live, then arguments about who is the greatest, or comparing ourselves to others largely fall away. More importantly, we begin to see that God’s presence isn’t confined to special places, or particular moments. Mountain kisses marketplace and God is all in all. Right here and right now in the midst of our daily life we are offered this great gift of transformation. We don’t have to run off to a monastery. All we need to do is “draw near to God” as James says. Or perhaps, allow ourselves to be drawn near by God whose only desire is to love us into loving. God, of course, is already near, very near—nearer than thought, breath, even consciousness itself.
The integration of mountaintop and marketplace, which we so dearly seek and which the world so badly needs begins with welcome in all its senses. My prayer for us this week is that we know and allow ourselves to be welcomed without exception to the banquet of divine love, to accept the calculus-shattering reality of our acceptance by God. My prayer is that we come to know that others, even the ones we can’t stand, are welcomed as well. My prayer is that we come to know that our entire lives, not just our buildings, or our worship services, are to be places of welcome, instances of God’s welcome happening through us. My prayer is that in coming to know God’s welcome of us, we slowly become places of welcome for others, instruments of God’s grace where people can recognize their true identity as a beloved child of God—to see themselves as God seems them: “pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”