29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Almost 35 years ago, my wife, Alison, and I packed up the kids and all our gear, and went on a camping trip to Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. As it turned out, this excursion ended up in the “best laid plans” file. We were rained off the mountain by the northwestern tailings of Hurricane Hugo. All night, my son and I tried to keep the tent from floating away, and Alison and our daughter took refuge in the car. After a day at a Knoxville, TN motel, basking in the sun and drying out the gear, we headed north and landed at a campground in Bardstown, Kentucky. Bardstown is the nearest town to the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a place made famous by the life and writings of Thomas Merton. One of the most vivid memories of our visit to the abbey was the inscription on the arch over the gate into the cloister: it reads “GOD ALONE”…GOD ALONE. These words have kept returning to me over the last few weeks as I have pondered today’s well known passage from Matthew. You might ask what this 2-word phrase has to do with the drama of Jesus and the Pharisees over a Roman coin. I’ve asked myself the same question, but the words GOD ALONE won’t go away. So, I’m asking you to be patient and bear with me as I think out loud for a while and see where it gets us.
The commentaries on this gospel story that I have read in the past weeks tend to focus on the contrast between the world of the Emperor and the world of God. There are many ways to draw the differences between these two worlds, but, at the risk of over-simplification, they tend to set up the Emperor’s world as bad, unholy, unjust, impermanent, and to set up God’s world as good, holy, just, eternal. Obviously, we should choose God’s world. As a psychologist and apprentice contemplative, I’m easily attracted to a more interiorized way of drawing the distinction. I might talk about the false/ego/emperor self and true/christic/god self, and wonder about to which self we offer the most tribute. It’s a very tempting, familiar path. It’s hard to resist. But this morning, for once, I’m not going to yield to that temptation…because the words “God Alone” keep ringing in my ears. Those words push us toward a wholly different way of looking at the either/or of the world of the emperor vs. the world of God. They push us toward a non-dual way of thinking and living–toward unity– while also pushing us toward paradox and contradiction. Clear as mud? Let’s see if I can settle the water.
The bold yet obvious claim I want to make is that there is only one world. Ultimately, there isn’t the emperor’s world on the one hand and God’s world on the other. Ultimately, there is no dualism. There is only God, God alone. As the great 20th century Vedanta master, Dayananda Saraswati, was fond of saying, “There is only the One, without a second.” There is God, and all is in God; all is a manifestation of the infinite giving that is God. That means everything. It means Jesus and the Pharisees. It means the Emperor, his minions, and their hegemony over Palestine. It means today’s Palestinians and Israelis. It means you and me and all those we love; AND it means all those we hate, dislike, or are indifferent to. Everyone and everything is included. Everyone and everything belongs. All of us, and all things, are, in each moment, loved into being by the infinite love that is God. We are all in this together without distinction because we ultimately ARE one another… in God alone. Knowing this and living it is to take incarnation seriously to heart.
So, that’s the unity bit. It has to be said, and said over and over again. We need to be reminded, because it is so easy to forget. It is a view, an attitude, that does not quickly and easily arise in our hearts and minds. It may be our second thought, but rarely is it our first thought. And…AND, it is not the whole story. There is, after all, the distinctiveness, the uniqueness of each person and each thing. Each of us is a unique, never-before-created, expression of the One Love that is both our source and our destiny. As we will soon recite in our eucharistic rite, we are, indeed, One Body, and yet…AND YET, each of us–and each and every created thing–is a unique cell in this one One Body.
This is the paradox, the contradiction that is ever present in our daily lives. We have faith in our unity, in our communion. And sometimes, in special moments–in truly sacramental moments– we experience the reality of that communion. And yet, we know and experience our uniqueness. That is the reality of our life on the ground. It’s as plain as the color of our eyes, the sounds of our voices, the quirky ways some of us interpret scripture—all the differences that engender the attractions and aversions that we suffer every moment of every day.
I don’t have an answer, a resolution, to this contradiction, that can be expressed in words. I don’t think anyone does. There is no recipe. There is no formula. There is no knowing ahead of time. The only resolution is in our actual living…living with ourselves and with one another… stepping forward into the groundless space of the next moment, despite our desires and our fears; stepping forward, open and receptive to what has never happened before. This path is, as St. Paul tells us today, the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope. It is the only true, authentic path we have, and it is created anew by each step we take. I pray that the Spirit helps us all find it. I pray that the Spirit helps us all hold to it.