Palm Sunday 2016
Psalm 1; John 18 “What is Truth?”
Pilate’s question I imagine portrayed with the staid cynicism of an actor like Al Pacino or Kevin Spacey, men who have seen quite a lot of folly and have become jaded about knowing any answers to the question on the ‘good life’.
Romans and New Yorkers share this common cynicism. All of our glamour magazines like Elle, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Esquire are filled with images of the rich and chic just hanging out looking beautiful. The glam world almost celebrates the vapid and shallow, as if to suggest that just hanging around being beautiful and indulged like a cat that is petted and well-groomed on Central Park South is an end in itself.
All those ads need a public warning label at the bottom that reads, “Using this product as designed could be dangerous for your spiritual health.”
We live in a social world tinged with “Me, me, me,” a concentrated narcissism.
Our technology trends towards myopia at the same time. I was on the C train downtown when a guy fell to his knees and then to the ground, having the symptoms of a heart attack. It took everyone on the subway about 8 seconds to unplug their music, the phone conversations, to look up from their screens in order to connect with a guy dying right in front of them. We are more connected than ever, but it is more about me than ever too. We are more in our own bubble.
David Foster Wallace spoke to our age at the commencement address at Kenyon College. “Everything in my own immediate experiences supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it is so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard wired at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or the right of YOU, on YOUR TV and YOUR monitor. Other’s communicate their thoughts to you, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
And yet, what we find as we go through our lives, as we mature, is that our real life only becomes meaningful when we find something beyond ourselves. Morally, spiritually, our lives are not just about me, me, me. And we only get to that deeper, better self after we have tried to reach for something greater and failed, sometimes miserably.
In the last week of Jesus life, this juxtaposition becomes pronounced in the Gospels. We have the figure of Jesus that exemplifies grace under pressure. The spotlight gradually zooms smaller and smaller, making the contrast sharper.
Jesus enters Jerusalem with a wide angle spot light, with a great throng around him. No doubt, the crowd is buoyed by the hopes and the passions that build in a crowd when they verge on becoming a mob. Jesus retreats from the crowds, anticipating that he faces difficult trial and draws the disciples around him.
That would be you and me, symbolically speaking, all of his would-be disciples. They celebrate the Passover meal together. We remember it in the Lord’s Supper. The circle shrinks. The spotlight zooms in. From Jesus and the whole crowd, the spotlight gets tighter to just the 12.
Jesus intends to submit himself to God’s Will. He has a sense of calling to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus is on a quest that is bigger than he is.
The disciples are left alone when they are preparing the meal together. Talking amongst themselves, they want to know who will be the greatest among them in God’s kingdom. What are my perq’s? What is my status? The perennial questions of ego. What’s in it for me? Asked as frequently and as urgently in every generation from then until now.
And we readers, who know the end of the story, we have to wince at this point. We know that when Jesus comes into his ‘glory’ it will be on Golgotha, surrounded by other slaves and revolutionaries that are being tortured to death on crosses, one to his left and one to his right. Not a great power perq, Jesus’ actual moment of ‘glory’ will be a life threatening moral challenge.
“Who will be at the left and the right of Jesus?” Jesus gives this enigmatic response to the disciples, ‘are you able to drink from the cup that I will drink? Are you able to be baptized like I will be baptized?’ And he tries to teach them, one last time, that the way of deeper fulfillment is beyond perq’s and power.
The moral quest, the spiritual quest, the most real part of you, operates on a different level. He tells them, what we all learn if we are fortunate enough to engage the deeper quest ourselves. Our lives are about serving others, empowering others, blooming those around us
The spiritual life is beyond ‘me, me, me’, something that transcends what you get out of it. “It gets YOU out of YOU”. [i] It is a transcendent pull towards something greater and when you are genuinely in it, you don’t worry about ‘me, me, me’ because you have waded into a deeper meaning, authentic moral purpose. In our real lives, the quest for spiritual authenticity is so much more profound and transformative than just being chic and alluring.
Character is where our lives are actually lived. Jesus withdraws to pray, to concentrate his will, for this difficult task ahead. He needs the ‘soul force’. He needs integrity. He asks for God’s strength in a life threatening situation (and so do you.)
When Jesus prays- the disciples, and that would be you and me, and all of us would-be disciples- fall asleep. We are unaware. We are inconsistent. We don’t get it.
So Jesus last words to the disciples before he dies, just as the Romans come to arrest him for sedition. Jesus last words to us are??… “Awake O Sleepers”. What a parting line, “Awake O Sleepers?”
We don’t get it. Judas is depicted as betraying Jesus. Ten more of the disciples flee into the night, never to be heard from for the rest of the story. And Peter, the disciple that pledged his unconditional allegiance and unwavering support, ends up denying Jesus three times, cursing Jesus. Literally everyone falls away, so the spotlight zooms in again, and is just on Jesus on the cross.
Our egos are like that, as we all discover when we have real moral challenge in our lives. We aren’t prepared enough to be worth anything. We collapse. We don’t show up. We betray our higher selves.
As Harry Emerson Fosdick once put it, “The beginning of worth-while living is a confrontation with ourselves.”[ii] Or as Saint Augustine put it so pointedly, “I have become a problem unto myself”. It is only after we engage in a serious moral struggle that we come to reflect on our failure. Immanuel Kant once observed, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
We would-be disciples invariably come up short from lack of preparation, lack of character, aware of our weakness and our failure. Here, we are in sharp contrast with Jesus. Jesus seems to be ever-more centered in God, ever more focused on character strength and we fall away. We give up. We scatter in fear. We dissolve into the anonymous mob that will eventually clamor “Crucify him, Crucify him.”
In the genuine story of redemption, we have to “go down to go up. We have to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.”[iii] Alice in Wonderland had to become small in order to enter Wonderland and we have to give up the illusions we have of ourselves and the self-deception that we practice to stumble towards the path of authenticity. We cannot avoid going through a prolonged internal struggle with our character if we are lucky enough to live into adulthood.
And the fortunate among us come through that process, and find a calling, a vocation. We’ve been summoned to service. We’ve been summoned to our higher selves. Sometimes that calling is deeply personal but most of the time the zeitgeist, the Spirit of our Times, finds us. We don’t usually have to go looking far away to find the biggest moral challenge of our lives, the moral challenges of our era become personally manifest for us.
I think of an earlier era that is rapidly coming to a close that of the greatest generation. They didn’t go looking for a war then, the threat of fascism became so great that we couldn’t avoid it, even across the ocean. Our whole country came together in a way that was unprecedented and has never been repeated. Sacrifices were made by everyone and a great deal of tragedy and suffering was endured together. They answered a calling. And so many of them answered that calling, they didn’t think it was a big deal.
The Second World War was probably the least morally ambiguous war in the history of warfare, but it was fraught with moral ambiguity. All wars are. Even in the resistance in France and Denmark, in Sweden and Norway, people had to daily suspended judgement about moral means to achieve a moral end. We only had choices between various shades of gray. The moral challenge was difficult at the time.
The era had unprecedented social challenges. Until that time, it was beyond our imagination that such a thing as the Holocaust could take place. It produced in us existential questions that got to the core of what it meant to be human, what are the fundamental moral rights that every human being should be accorded, what the free society would be.
And we, as a people, assumed unprecedented responsibility in human history with the invention of the Atom bomb. We opened the Promethean era and became the first generation with the technical ability to destroy all life on the planet earth. We knew at the time, that we were assuming moral responsibility for the use of a power that was actually beyond our moral imagination. We tried to do the right thing, a least violent solution to a world-wide violent war, and we knew our actions would be morally ambiguous at best. Finally, the war came to an end.
Our entire country had been shaken. They had personal stories of dramatic transformation, loss, tragedy. The day after the war ended, Command Performance [iv]came over the radio, the variety show that went out to the troops and people all across our country listened to it routinely. On that day, they collected brief snippets from all of the celebrities of the era: Frank Sinatra, Marlene Deitrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis.
Bing Crosby hosted the show. Bing said, “What can you say at a time like this? You can’t just throw your hat in the air. That is for run of the mill holidays. I guess all anybody can say is ‘thank God it’s over’.
Then one our countries leading sopranos sang Ave Maria. After she was done, Bing Crosby said, “Today… our deep down feeling is one of humility.”
Vulnerable, humane, trying to do the best you can in an ambiguous and difficult situation of challenge. Grateful to be alive. Seeking a way to honor those that died. Hoping for redemption. Trying to envision what our society should become after such great sacrifices were made, such inhumanity had been endured. We came away changed, grateful, humble.
But when we look back on our lives, it is these moments that we remember, because the moral challenges that beckon forth our higher self are the times that we are the most spiritually alive. We are aware of how beautiful and awe filled our life really is, in the midst of tragedy, aware of our limitations. We are growing as our character is being revealed. This was our time, our challenge.
What is the Truth? Asks Pilate. It is the same question that is posed to you by your neighbors, your colleagues, your relatives. Perhaps a bit jaded and cynical, but they also want to know because they are vaguely aware that they are missing something themselves. And they don’t really want to believe that perq’s and power is all there is? They hope that there is something more. They know it, even if they have wasted a lot of their lives pretending that the moral quest is not important.
What is your Truth? God asks you. What have you learned through the moral struggles in your life? What do you know having wrestled with yourself, having run up against your own limitations through your failures?
How is God beckoning you to find your higher self? Where are you called to empower? Who are you called to bloom?
May you rise to the challenge of your time. May God fill you with strength of character. May you wade into a deeper pool of meaning. Amen.
[i] The quote is directly from Brooks and I can’t find it (intro on pps. 10-13). The insight is straight out of the mainstream of Christian tradition. David’s contribution is that he speaks, as do I week after week, to the incredulous and secular that live in Metropolitan New York.
[ii] From Brooks, p. 10.
[iii] The suggestive phrase is from Brooks, p. 13. It stands in the great theological tradition that began with St. Augustine, goes through Martin Luther, to Reinhold Niebuhr.
[iv] This is the introduction to David Brook’s book, almost verbatim. I’ve just changed it around for the purposes of oratory but all of the ideas are his.