February 24, 2013
Kathryn Henderson, Student Intern
Have you had a chance to go sledding this winter? Pretty good winter for it, right? You know the sleds that are like giant saucers — how about setting out to sea in one of them? I’m serious. That’s essentially what Irish monks in the early Middle Ages used to do. They would cast off from the people, possessions, and places they loved most in the world for an even greater love — God. They floated in tiny vessels made out of willow strips and animal hides called coracles. No sails, no rudders, no paddles. Just the wind, sea, and sky…and a whole lot of faith. They allowed themselves to be blown to their destination by the Holy Spirit. Literally. Wherever they landed they would work to do God’s will.
During Lent I recall these wandering monks because they inspire me to remember that this can be a time of holy adventure, if I will relinquish something I love dearly — my certainty about who I am and what I’m doing here — and renew my love for God, and trust that to chart my course. No sails, no rudders, no paddles. Seriously?! Ok, ok, I can do this. Who knows, maybe God is calling me to something I’d never have imagined otherwise. What will I discover as I venture out? What mysteries, surprises, and puzzles will I encounter?
This Lent I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Reading today’s scripture I’ll admit made for some choppy weather. Little whitecaps formed inside my head as I tried to dive into the truths of this text that has so many apparent contradictions and an unsettling conclusion.
Certainly Luke, the master storyteller, and legend has it, painter, creates a vivid picture. A picture full of surprises. Over here are the usually antagonistic Pharisees, worried and solicitous, concerned about Jesus and waving to him that he should flee. What is going on here? Are they being sincere, or is this another attempt to test him, or to goad him into demonstrating who he really is?
Then there is Jesus, unperturbed by their warning and unconcerned about whatever they are up to. Typically mild mannered, here he scowls as he answers them, his tone dismissive, even derisive — he can’t be bothered with the Pharisees or Herod; he has work to do. God’s work. And then Jesus describes what lies ahead, remembering the desolate history of Israel. For a moment he seems to soften, imagining God’s tender care — just like a mother hen. It’s a lovely image of the sheltering love that embraces all. And then we realize what is wrong with this picture: Jesus isn’t offering consolation; this is a lament. A cry from an anguished heart because once again, as so many times in Israel’s past, God’s saving love will be rejected, and the one who seeks to shelter his people will be put to death.
Perhaps Jesus is prophesying the destruction of the Temple, and thus the end of life as Israel knew it. Or perhaps Luke chooses those words for him after the fact. Whichever it is, Luke is clear that Jesus is the center of time and history; the fulfillment of all the prophesies in Hebrew scripture. Thus the image of the protective mother hen is bitterly ironic: only the death of Jesus can restore Israel. Wow, the waves are getting rougher. What happened to my quiet, contemplative Lenten journey? You know, a beatitude or nice miracle, say the loaves and fishes, would be good right about now.
So I keep reminding myself that this is the gift of Lent: that it is the season of mystery, of venturing into the unknown to discover more about who we are, and who God wants us to be. And, more about Jesus the human being, and our relationship with him. Throughout the weeks ahead we will be encountering these kinds of texts that can be so troubling. So I have a choice. I can play it safe, be at ease within the comfort of my meditations on beautiful passages that make perfect sense. Or I can hang onto the edges of the coracle, and keep moving where the Holy Spirit sends me. I don’t know about you all, but some days this is a choice I don’t even want to think about, let alone make.
And yet, I want to grow through this time, this is an opportunity to discover the meaning of faith and holy adventure. I want to believe I can venture further, and the only way to have that kind of faith is to live it, to follow the way of this journey, trusting that this will have meaning for my life. That means coming ashore and walking, step by sometimes excruciating step, following Jesus as he really was, not just as I might wish him to be. Listening to the tone of his voice, observing his gestures, imagining him watching others — what do you think he was seeing and hearing? And, if you dare, try to feel some of what he may have been feeling. Like, perhaps, despair as he remembers the people’s rejection of God, of himself. And reflecting on his own destiny, which he makes clear to the Pharisees is irretrievable.
Actually, I think that Luke is making clear to us that Jesus is determined to live out his fate, his vocation. Jesus knows what must be done, and what it will cost. His Work is in Jerusalem, where he must challenge the status quo to bring about God’s plan for Israel. He was born for this time and place, and walking there with him is…risky. I am definitely more at ease with Jesus the teacher, the healer, and the comforter than Jesus as the incarnation of the Kingdom of God. I’m very content being the disciple of the One Who is Peace. But this man who speaks so defiantly to the Pharisees — I don’t know about you, but he’s, well…unsettling….
This is Jesus the first-century Palestinian Jew, a prophet in the apocalyptic tradition of that era. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about all of us being “Left Behind.” Jesus’ understanding of the apocalypse didn’t have anything to do with the Rapture or what contemporary culture associates with the end of the world. Instead, he believed, like many Jews of his time, that the Kingdom of God, the literal presence and reign of God throughout the earth, was imminent, and that it would be manifested through his life, death, and resurrection.
A few years ago I took a class on Moses and Jesus at Andover Newton and Hebrew College. About midway through the semester one of the rabbinical students said: “So I’m beginning to get the picture of Jesus as a kind of ‘Samurai shaman,’ traveling the countryside as an embodiment of Divine Justice.” I remember how we all laughed at that, nervously. Perhaps Luke is showing us that Jesus — the man with singular focus, a purpose beyond mortal understanding. If that’s so, then who does that make me, as his disciple? A peacemaker, a prophet, a revolutionary…?
These questions, for me, are what Lent is all about. That’s why the image of the monks in their coracles inspires me. They remind me that it’s important every now and then to cast off from the shores of daily life, the security of routines we know well — even if only for a few minutes a day, to be suspended in God’s time. And that it’s also necessary to step out of the normal limits of how we view ourselves as people of God. This holy season invites us into a respite from certainty, offering a particular kind freedom — space to reflect, to question, to not have to have the answers, to see where the question lead. To allow the Holy Spirit to blow into our hearts and minds, guiding and shaping; renewing us. This is the time when we can look at familiar things, like the metaphor of the hen and her chicks, with new eyes, and soften our gaze — allow the picture to lose some of its focus so that the deeper truths can emerge.
The danger in this is that I may discover questions that I wasn’t prepared for — and didn’t really want to consider. Have I been ignoring God’s invitation, just like Jesus says? If I only accept the parts of his story and personality that I like, aren’t I doing exactly what he accuses the people of Jerusalem of? And, most dangerous of all, am I just as stubborn, foolish, and self-centered? Hmm…maybe…this is making life at sea in a coracle look pretty good……
But, you know, what if our holy wanderings with Jesus can show us how to connect our hearts through his heart — the source of the charity that transforms fear and anger into friendship and community. The source of the courage and compassion that can rebuild a broken world.
And that’s what I think Luke is getting at here. Yes, the Temple will be destroyed, but Hope will live on. God — the living God — will be with us still. A new community and way of life will be born, and can be lived every moment we say yes. We can reject Jesus and his message just like Jerusalem of long ago. But he will still be here. He will still be here for us. Even when we try to shape him into who we think he is, or should be.
The risk is real — that by traveling with Jesus we will discover a love so deep and wide, so all encompassing, that we will find we have become… disciples. And that means being willing to challenge the status quo. Yes, it means speaking prophetically and acting justly. It means going to Zambia and Nicaragua and Dorchester. And it means opening our hearts to receive this love that surpasses human understanding, that demands we share it with others, like the residents of Waban Health Center, our families and friend, and also people we’ll meet in passing and never see again.
When we allow ourselves to rest in God’s loving embrace, we will be renewed, but we will also be challenged. And we will be given what we need to live this sometimes difficult and terrifying life of discipleship fully — just like those fearless, faith-filled monks. In case you’re wondering how their holy adventures turned out — they founded some of the great Christian monastic communities and centers of learning in Europe.
So you never know where a coracle, real or imagined, and the Holy Spirit will take you. Where do you think God may be calling you to go? Where might you venture the next few weeks? What is just beyond your known horizon that you want to explore? We all have vulnerabilities and fears — I’m not talking about overcoming them in 40 days flat. Rather, what is one question that you’d like to take this time to consider? See where that leads you. Think about what your own holy adventure might look like, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. In the midst of the uncertainty that may arise, be grateful for the encounter — with the living God, with yourself. And know that there is a love that surpasses our certainty, fears, and judgments. This is the place of rest, of true refreshment, and preparation for our lives as Easter People.