November 10, 2013
Texts: Luke 20:27-40
Today I want to begin by looking at our Gospel passage, at the problem presented by the Sadducees, and the solution revealed by Jesus. I think the problem is a very real and present one in our age, a narrow and concrete way of thinking. Jesus speaks, however, to our religious experience, which is so much richer and fuller, and leaves the problem behind. Then I want to look at how retreat is a way of cultivating the experience that saves us from the problem embodied by the Sadducees, and helps us enter the communion of which Jesus speaks.
Today’s Gospel reading is set in the context of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, and entering into conflict with the authorities. I think it is helpful to mention the major events which Luke recounts after Jesus arrival in Jerusalem. First, there is the cleansing of the temple. This is followed by three accounts of attempts by religious authorities to entrap Jesus, to trick him into saying something wrong: 1) By what authority do you say and do the things you do; 2) should we pay taxes? And 3), our story for today.
The Sadducees seem fairly sincere here to me—they have a problem and don’t think it can be solved, and they are pretty sure Jesus can’t solve it. The resurrection just doesn’t make any sense to them. In fact, it is ridiculous, as their problem, or question, illustrates.
But Jesus sees through their problem, his answer cuts through it, and he avoids being drawn into the absurdity of it. The essential problem is their literal, unimaginative, concrete way of thinking. This is a prevalent way of thinking in our age.
I want to turn here to the uniquely clear and helpful writing of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, from their book The Last Week. In it, they observe:
So one should not think of history as “true” and parable as “fiction” (and therefore not nearly as important). Only since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century have many people thought this way, for in the Enlightenment Western culture began to identify truth with “factuality.” Indeed, this identification is one of the central characteristics of modern Western culture. Both biblical literalists and people who reject the bible completely do this: the former insist that the truth of the Bible depends on its literal factuality, and the latter see that the bible cannot be literally and factually true and therefore don’t think it is true at all.
But parable, independently of historical factuality, can be profoundly true. Indeed, it may be that the most important truths can be expressed only in parable. (194)
But the problem may go deeper, a lot deeper, than current Western thinking, or even post Enlightenment thinking. In the retreat mission groupwe are reading Blessings of the Cosmos: Wisdom of the Heart from the Aramaic Words of Jesus, by Neil Douglas-Klotz. He points out that this literal, narrow way of thinking goes back to the very beginnings of Christianity, when the earliest Aramaic texts were first translated into Greek and Latin. He is a scholar of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Douglas-Klotz points out that
…much previous scholarship on Jesus has been based on epistemologies (that is, ways of knowing) that would have been foreign both to Jesus himself as well as to those communities that compiled all the early gospels… As I did more work on the worldview of Aramaic and Hebrew over the years, I increasingly resisted using any Latin-or Greekbased word to translate an Aramaic one. We inherit a very different cosmology and psychology through the post-Platonic use of Latin and Greek: one in which mind, body, soul, spirit, heaven, earth, past, present and future all seem to have discrete identities clearly separate from one another. Semitic languages do not construct reality in the same way. In them we find much more emphasis on a deep connection between self and self, self and nature, and self and the divine (xii and xiv).
So, what is the way to escape this narrow, literal, Western way of thinking? How do we escape this trap of rationalism? Because it is a trap, and it is narrow—it rejects a huge realm of human experience, perhaps the deepest and most meaningful and even the most real and eternal aspects of human experience. This narrow way of thinking rejects what it does not understand, and so rejects the whole realm of the unconscious, of the soul, of religious experience.
The key is the word experience. Jesus teaches what he knows from experience. In that wonderful encounter with Nicodemus, in John’s gospel, where he speaks of the need to be born again from spirit, Jesus says “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen” (John 3:11). Or, as the psalmist put it, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). We are not discussing ideas here, but experience. And this brings us to the practice of retreat.
Retreat is fundamental to the Church of the Saviour. (Elaborate: ’47, ’53, foundation, Gordon’s comments at 30th anniversary…) One of the brilliant things about the C of S model is its wholeness, reflected in the holding up of the journey inward, the life of prayer, including retreat; the journey outward, mission, work to which we are called; and the journey together, in community. Our focus today is the journey inward, and specifically the practice of retreat. I want to read here some prophetic words about retreat from Richard Rohr, from an article in Sojourners a few years back:
“The church often does not really encourage an inner life. It substitutes belief systems and belonging systems and moral systems for interior journeys toward God… Initiation in most cultures was done largely through two methods: extended solitude and silence, and ritualized suffering. That was the cauldron of transformation… Many cultures, in a wide variety of times and places, came to the inescapable conclusion: there was no other way… We have substituted an intellectual life for a symbolic life, a largely mental life for a life of inner meaning, a nice Christian club for the call to a journey that (mature people) could actually respect. We can live without success, but the soul cannot live without meaning.” (“Boys Don’t Cry,” Sojourners Magazine, July 2010)
Silent retreat is, essentially, an intense weekend of prayer. Not prayer for this or that, but prayer as opening to God, to the experience of the divine, in whatever form that comes. It is a time for expecting an encounter with the living God. And this opening is largely achieved through becoming quiet and still.
God is not an idea, but a reality at the essence of being. At the burning bush, Moses asks, “’If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” (Exodus 3:13-14) The Psalmist echoes this when he writes, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). God mysteriously manifests in stillness. When Jesus sees the disciples getting carried away with the work of their new ministry, he says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). The invitation is not to study, not to pray even in a recognizable way, but rest a while, just be.
Abbe Henri de Tourville gives us more explicit instructions about practicing this kind of silence, or stillness. He counsels:
Avoid all strain and effort,
try to be quiet and passive,
breathe in the grace of God
as you breathe in the air,
By this deliberate calm and quietude
you will gain more than you can conceive.
We need to practice this stillness now, more than ever. We are exposed to more stimulation than ever before, with the proliferation of electronic devices and the explosion of entertainment media, and this stimulation is apparently addictive. It is even true that we no longer move slowly, at nature’s pace. I have often been struck by the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking and talking about 7 miles with this stranger who is finally revealed as Jesus. Immediately after he departed, they got up and walked back, talking the whole way about everything they had experienced. What if they had driven? Could this have happened? Or been listening to music through their headphones? Or interrupted by a call? In my life a significant number of major breakthroughs and memorable conversations have come on long walks talking with a friend.
Kayla recently posted a beautiful reflection on this subject on “Inward Outward:”
Jesus walked a lot, and not only during the last week of his life. The four gospels are peppered with accounts of him walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water…. This gave him time to see things. If he had been moving more quickly–even to reach more people–these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them. Sometimes he had a destination, sometimes he did not. For many who followed him around, he was the destination…. While many of his present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it. (An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor)
Pace matters. Slowing down is essential to the spiritual life, even slowing down to stillness, which is the essence of retreat. And nature matters, too, the setting. It is the great instructor on pace, on slowing down. It is the teaching tool of so many of Jesus parables, especially about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Because of our cultural alienation from silence, it bears mentioning that silence is not easy for us. Coming into the presence of silence is coming into the presence of the I AM, the Holy, the Transcendent. And in this presence reality, including our sin—our failures, our shortcomings, our betrayals—is revealed. Retreat is not always easy. But the revealing presence we enter into is Love. Love receives us, Love marked by Mercy and Forgiveness… There is the initial horror of knowing our sin as we have never known it before, but God invites us beyond this, into his or her presence, just as we are. This is the only way to be at rest, to be home—fully known, even what we fear to know ourselves, and fully loved. Nothing to hide. No deception. No secrets. No fear…. Gradually, loved in this way, we begin to love in this way, we begin to fulfill Jesus’ desire that we “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This is why retreatis not isolating, but connecting. The love we receive is the kind of love we cannot help but share. The presence we cultivate on retreat becomes presence to others, which is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem to tell the good news. He invites us to experience the presence of the living God, our shared experience with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our participation in this timeless, holy, transcendent, spiritual reality is good news beyond compare. It is initiation into the fullness and richness of life. And retreat, in one form or another, is an essential way to experience this.
This deeper realm of experience needs constant reinforcement. Not because it is not real, but because it is profoundly counter cultural. And do we practice, with daily prayer time, with scripture reading and study, with retreats at least once a year, and with the support of a faith community. And this practice brings us ever more deeply into communion with “the God of the living, to whom all things are alive,” and so into a communion which transcends time and place and even death. May it be so. Amen