Leora Weitzman’s Homily from May 7, 2023

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies 2 Comments

 5th Sunday in Easter • Acts 7:55–60 • 1 Peter 2:2–10 • John 14:1–14 • May 7, 2023 • Pluralism Sunday

There’s a tree in the woods near me that I call the many-hearted tree. Since she has many forks about shoulder height, no matter what direction you approach from, you have the impression of a pair of arms raised in welcome, ready to enfold you where a heart would be.

I was just passing by her the other day when I noticed the echo of today’s Gospel: “In my Abba-God’s house there are many dwelling places.” The word for dwelling places here is related to the word John uses to speak of dwelling or abiding in God, for example in the passage about the vine: “Whoever dwells in me bears much fruit…Dwell in my love…just as I dwell in my Abba’s love.”

Because of this, scholar Gail O’Day argues that in promising to prepare and bring us to a “dwelling place,” Jesus is referring, not to a heavenly location, but to a relationship. The words, “you know the way to the place,” are about finding the next stage of relationship with the Holy One. Philip is being overly literal in wanting directions through space. Local culture did sometimes use “the way” to refer to a way of life; the Psalmist rejects “the way of the wicked” and asks God to “teach me your way” instead.

So what is the “way” to dwelling with the Holy One? When Jesus says, “I am the way?”, what does that mean?

This is one of several “I am” statements in John—statements that intentionally echo the words Moses heard on Mount Sinai. The original words, “I am who am,” bring out the essential mystery of What or Who God is. Jesus’ earlier “I am” statements in the Gospel of John suggest glimpses, fragments of this mystery: bread and light, resurrection and gate, shepherd and vine.

Functionally, these words describe nourishing and giving insight, reviving and drawing into community, guiding and making fruitful. Gospel stories show each of these things being done by Jesus, whom John calls the Word. These actions also belong to the Speaker of that Word, the Holy One we do not see but sometimes sense when we receive nourishment or insight, feel revived or drawn into community, or find our efforts guided or enhanced by a loving Power.

Jesus’ life, then, speaks the essence of the Holy One as he embodies these actions. Perhaps telling the disciples that they, that we, know the way into deeper relationship with the Holy One, and then declaring himself to embody that Way, implies that the Way is for us to share nourishment and insight, for us to restore aliveness and draw people into community, for us to offer guidance and collaborate toward fruition.

There’s an essential twist to this. Jesus doesn’t just do these good things when they’re safe. He keeps doing them even at the risk of his life. His final self-offering may be the very way he “prepares a place” for his followers, showing how to dwell faithfully in his Abba-God, who in turn, dwelling in him, remains true to humankind no matter the cost. This acceptance of risk is not incidental to his mission and teaching. In all four gospels, he prods disciples to let go of what was familiar and promised security. In the synoptic gospels, the rich young man is asked to give away his wealth; in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is urged to go through birth all over again.

This is where it gets uncomfortable for me, with my strong instinct to keep my head down and avoid conflict, risk, or change. But the dynamic of losing one’s life to find it is the central trope of our Easter faith, summed up in the movement from crucifixion to resurrection and in Paul’s famous hymn about Christ’s self-emptying. There’s nowhere to hide from this teaching. Though the Way, the truth, and the life of Jesus is not self-sacrifice or self-destruction for its own sake, self-risk in the service of love is at its center. The underlying spiritual truth is a paradox: that to gain what we most desire, to dwell in our true home, to feel at home with Ultimate Reality, we must accept a letting go profound enough to stir deep resistance and apprehension.

As central as this paradox is to the Christian faith, on this Pluralism Sunday, it’s fitting to acknowledge the significant role it plays in other traditions. The very name Taoism refers to a “Way,” illustrated by the surprising power of water, which attains its goals not by forcing through obstacles but by yielding, seeking the lowest places, engaging with the shape and nature of things as they are. Buddhism teaches the wisdom of releasing what we are attached to. A key principle (one of the “niyamas”) in yoga is Ishvara Pranidhana, surrender to the Divine. Islam teaches peaceful submission to God, a teaching again embedded in its very name. And the Jewish prophets warn against hoarding or abusing power while promising that if we loosen our grasp and entrust our safety to God, we will find water in the desert, new life from dry bones.

These are all forms of the paradox that we are filled by empyting ourselves, that we succeed by relinquishing control, that we gain by letting go—although what we gain, the “pearl of great price,” may be on a different level from what we lose. This cornerstone of spiritual life defies common sense, cultural assumptions, and our most basic instincts, to all of which it understandably appears as a stumbling block. The inconvenience of this truth and the resistance it provokes make necessary the world’s spiritual traditions, communities, and teachers.

In our own tradition, our primary Teacher so fully embodies this universal Way as to be one with it, pouring himself out to nourish and give insight, revive and draw into community, guide and make fruitful. For John, the most mystical of the Gospel writers, Ultimate Reality exists both outside and inside time and the world, both as eternal Speaker of the Word that is the Way and as the cosmic Word spoken in time, who dwells in his eternal Abba and invites us to dwell in him, so that all may be one in a wreath of mutual indwelling.

For this Gospel narrator, the words “No one comes to the Abba except through me” are spoken by the cosmic Word, who has just said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What if “no one comes except through me” is about coming through the Way—meaning that no one enters the longed-for dwelling place except through the narrow door of letting go into the Divine? What if God, like my tree, embraces travelers coming through this narrow Way from many directions?

A year or so ago, some official agency cut down the many-hearted tree. Now I can stand where she stood, lifted taller by the energy still rising through her stump. Standing and dwelling in her energy, I can, we can, take the risk of opening arms wide in welcome, so that those who take the reciprocal risk of approaching can feel the tree enfold them in the abundant heart of God.

Let us turn to God in prayer.

For the love and generosity to serve your wish that all may be one, we pray,
Risen Savior, hear our prayer.

For all those touched by or involved in gun violence, we pray,
Risen Savior, hear our prayer.

For the courage and wisdom to let go into God, we pray,
Risen Savior, hear our prayer.

For all who do not have a physical dwelling place, we pray,
Risen Savior, hear our prayer.

God of the Easter mystery, we sense our deepest dwelling place in You. Continue to lead us in the Way of your love so that all may be one. We ask this through Jesus dwelling in us.

Mindful of each other’s comfort, let us offer one another a sign of peace.

Comments 2

  1. Dear Ms. Weitzman, thank you for your beautiful and meaningful homily. It gave me another perspective on (no one comes to the Father except through me). It is my understanding from Richard Rohr that Christ refers to the life we all are a part of. I find your interpretation just as inclusive. I found your description of the many hearted tree very moving and an image of God’s presence. Thank you for all of that, I really value your homilies.

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