Lent II, Holy Wisdom
March 8, 2020
John 3: ff.
The season of Lent is a time for self-reflection and examination … as if we only need to do that for six weeks out of the year and not all fifty two. But we really get serious about it during this season. And in our thoughtful reflection we may be nudged by God’s Spirit to think in fresh ways which are meaningful and life-giving.
An image I came across in these Lenten days was from something Flannery O’Connor had said. Flannery O’Connor was a mid-20th century writer from Georgia with a complex Catholic piety. She wrote sometimes dark, and occasionally humorous stories about people like the grandmother who was trying to convince the escaped convict that he was a good man as he was about to murder her; or the story about the Bible salesman who had his wooden leg stolen. People read her stories and were trying to figure out the meaning of them. Flannery, who thrived in mystery and complexity responded to those who wanted to nail down one meaning. She said: ‘People talk about meaning of a story as if it were like a string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme or meaning the way you pick the right thread in the chicken feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens.’
That image of the one string that can be pulled to open the feed sack is powerfully rich as we hear the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3. If there is one verse in all of scripture which Christians identify as the string that opens our spiritual feed sack it’s John 3:16…you know it…’For God so loved the world that God gave the only Beloved One, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ John 3:16, the renowned verse written on cardboard and held up at sporting events, political rallies, and rock concerts for all to see. It’s the string that opens the spiritual feed sack. But, in keeping with the spirit of Flannery O’Connor’s comment, it’s more complicated than that.
As an military chaplain I experienced some of that
complexity. I served for some months as the senior chaplain at an Air Force
base in central Asia. During my time there the tent chapel…80’ long and 20’
feet wide…served as a place of worship for Catholic and protestant
Christians, as well as Latter Day Saint and Muslim personnel. The LDS lay-leader kept the padlocked foot locker containing their mysterious and spiritually meaningful items in the back of the chapel. The Muslim service people and civilian contractors would use the chapel for their daily prayer.
One day I received a call from the Base Commander asking me to come to his office. I went to his office to meet with him, a young woman, and her supervising sergeant. The young woman had requested that she be able to have a bonfire on Halloween because she was Wiccan. The Commander couldn’t grant permission for that because of safety and security reasons. We agreed that she could come to the chapel on Halloween and light candles in lieu of the bonfire. She did that in the place we call the sanctuary…a safe place for all no matter what they believe or don’t believe. I accommodated her spirituality, and that of other non- Christian’s not because of any personal feelings but because the single reason there are chaplains in the military is because of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution which states that every citizen has a right to free expression of religion in time of peace and in time of war. The bottom line is that the framers of the Constitution knew that not everyone’s spiritual feed sack had the same string and that fact needed to be respected by our nation.
That presses me, a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth and the light, and who is fed and nourished by Word and Sacrament, to go beyond an attitude of acceptance and accommodation of other spiritualties. It presses me to believe that difference is good.
Twice monthly our theological book group meets here at Holy Wisdom. The book we recently finished reading is Sister Kathleen Duffy’s book ‘Teilhard’s Mysticism.’ I really appreciated reading and discussing that book because over the years I’ve attempted to read Teilhard and have barely been able to finish a chapter let alone an entire book. Teilhard’s mysticism stretches and presses my spiritual boundaries. His expansive understanding of God is mindboggling. He writes about the world evolving into complexification and unity. Duffy writes that a succinct way of saying that is: union differentiates! In God we are together in unity but we are different. And difference is good. We all don’t need to have the same string to our feed sack. John 3:16 opens mine but, as the slogan of my home state of Nebraska says,’It’s not for everybody.’
As if we needed more spiritual stretching this morning, I’ll close with a quote from Richard Rohr’s book ‘The Universal Christ,’ another book the book group is reading. Rohr writes in the introduction to his compelling book: ‘The essential function of religion is to radically connect us with everything. (Re-ligio = to religament or reconnect.) It is to see the world and ourselves in wholeness, and not just in parts.’ He goes on to write about the universality of Christ connecting the whole of creation and celebrating the differences. He’s someone who would agree with Teilhard that not everyone’s spiritual feed sack is opened with the same string!
May God bless us in our Lenten journey, and in all of our life passages as we thrive in God’s love through Jesus Christ. And maybe we will be guided to view and treat others who are spiritually fed by God in a different way with that same love that is ours through Christ.