Opening Words: A tale about Rabbi Ben Meir of Berdichev
“Why are you rushing so much?” asked the rabbi. “I’m rushing after my livelihood,” the man answered.
“And how do you know,” said the rabbi, “that our livelihood is running on before you, so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you need to do is stand still.”
We are here to learn, again and again, how to stand still—how to sit still; to sit still so we can stop rushing after our ‘livelihood’ and engage more fully in our ‘living;’ to sit still so we can give thanks for the blessings of life, even while acknowledging the tragedies.
To sit still is not to do nothing; it may even provide the opportunity to do the most essential thing of all – to put ‘our heart in a holy place,’ so let’s sing it in…
Reading for Meditation: Keeping Quiet, Pablo Neruda (trans. Alastair Reid.)
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Sermon: “It Was All a Big Misunderstanding”
“In a dream, a devout disciple of the master was permitted to approach the Temple in Paradise where all the great old sages who had studied the Talmud all their lives were now spending eternity. He gaze in at them, and to his amazement, they were all sitting around tables, just as they had done on earth, studying the Talmud still! The disciple watched them passionately exclaiming and arguing and reverently fingering the test. He wondered, ‘Is this really Paradise? It seems like the earth.’ But then his thoughts were interrupted by warm laughter. ‘You are mistaken. This is not Paradise. The sages are not in paradise. Paradise is in the sages.’”
This parable is like the answer Jesus is said to have given to the question the disciples asked, ‘When will God’s kingdom come?’ You remember his answer: “The kingdom of heaven is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact the kingdom of heaven is in your midst!’
Is the Kingdom something that’s going to come, in the future, after the Messiah arrives?
That’s one way of thinking, one ‘understanding.’ But it’s not the answer that Jesus is said to have given. To paraphrase, he said, “Look closely and you will see God’s kingdom in the here and now; when you see with spiritual eyes, when you hear with an ear for the poetry of it all rather than the literal meanings.”
In the Christian calendar today is Palm Sunday. Let’s briefly review the Palm Sunday story, listening to it as the poem wrapped in it so we can tie it into the human story in general and the tragic downfall of Eliot Spitzer, who joins a long, long line of men who have had to hit some bottom before they can understand themselves enough to reclaim their lives.
It’s all one big story, and we’re living it, here and now.
The Palm Sunday story begins with the Old Testament or Hebrew Scripture prophecy that predicts the arrival of a savior, the messiah, riding into the Holy City on a donkey that had never been ridden before.
From Hebrew Scripture, Zechariah 9: 9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass…he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth…(he) will set your captives free.”
Christian Scripture, Matthew 21: “And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to…the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them.’ And he will send them immediately.
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your king is coming to you humble, and mounted on an ass and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted! Hossana in the highest! And when he entered Jerusalem all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this? And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”
“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’
In Christianity “Hosanna” is the cry of praise or adoration shouted in recognition of the Messiahship of Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
The concept of the Messiah literally means ‘anointed one,’ or the one touched by God, chosen by God to be the Savior. The Latin word for messiah is Christos, the Christ.
Believing Christians assert that Jesus is the longed-for messiah, the Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, or triune God composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a concept that emerged at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the fourth century after Jesus’ death.
There is, of course, a wide variety of understandings, about the concept of the messiah, the Christ; and this variety is the source of considerable (and sometimes deadly) differences not only between believing Jews and Christians, but among groups of Christians and among various groups of Jews.
A couple approached me at a recent memorial service and asked about our beliefs, including the question, “How do you Unitarians handle Easter?”
“Very carefully,” I said, smiling, using the old saw about mating porcupines…very carefully!
Then we talked about religious mythology, the poetry of religion, which is intended to convey eternal truths and not temporal truths; the stories are meant to help reveal us to ourselves, not intended to be taken literally.
The word mythology comes from the Greek muthologia, story telling. Each of us has a story; we’re in the midst of it! We gain self-understanding by listening to the stories of others.
I’ve often quoted one of my favorite seminary professors, Harrell Beck, a Methodist minister who said, “When you understand the concept of the messiah you’ll know that it’s the person next to you.”
‘The person next to you’ is the one who shows up when you need him, even if you don’t realize it; but you have to be ready. (“When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.”)
We need one another, not because we think someone else can tell us what to think, what to believe, but to bring us back to our essential selves, to help us to ‘know ourselves more moderately.’ To gain humility; not to be humiliated, unless, as in the case of Governor Spitzer, it’s quite necessary to be humiliated in order to gain a necessary degree of humility.
I don’t know if Jesus thought of himself as the messiah; I don’t think anyone knows what Jesus thought, but I doubt that he thought of himself as the messiah in the literal sense of a divine savior; the second person of the trinity. After all, the idea of the trinity didn’t emerge for hundreds of years following the death of Jesus.
Of course I’d be interested to know what he thought about the concept of the messiah – what it meant. Like everyone else, I can only speculate.
I think he would have liked Harrell Beck’s way of expressing it: ‘the person next to you.’
I’ve had the benefit of lots of messiahs in my life — people who came into my life with humility, not trying to tell me what to think or believe, but willing to hang in there with me as I went through the process of finding my own way back when I got off the track.
The entered ‘the holy city of my psyche.’ They listened; didn’t judge. They offered their support and encouragement when I needed it; they offered criticism when I didn’t want it but came to realize only later that I needed that, too.
In my earliest chapter of life I was the privileged child of parents whose unconditional love was strong enough to endure all my faults, failures and who endured by childish judgments of them.
That’s what the messiah is to me; it comes from the depths of my experience of living on this earth as long as I have, so far.
My book shelves are crowded with the messiahs who came riding into my life between the covers of books – people like Erich Fromm and Rollo May; people like Emerson and Thoreau; people who came riding into my life carrying poems — Walt Whitman came with his Leaves of Grass; messiahs like Carl Sandburg, e e cummings and Mary Oliver…a long line of messiahs keeps marching into my life, waking me up to things I needed to hear, bringing hope what hope was needed – the hope that we can connect, the hope that we can understand one another – the hope that we don’t need to keep struggling in isolation, without denying that we do, indeed, need to keep struggling through to the last chapter of life.
The founders of this great nation entered like the messiah; Washington, Adams, Jefferson.
Abraham Lincoln came, humble, mounted on a donkey – or, to use the political symbol, he came in riding an elephant! He is sometimes portrayed as a mythological hero, but it’s his very down-to-earth humanness that is the source of his ongoing inspiration – he referred to that inspiration as ‘the angels of our better nature.’ When he rode into the White House he surrounded himself with former antagonists which Doris Kerns Goodwin wrote about, referring to his cabinet as ‘A Team of Rivals.’
Lincoln was humble enough to know that he needed to be balanced by people who disagreed with him; he knew he needed those who would force him to ‘know himself more moderately.’ How wise, as well as modest.
I promised to make a brief reference to Governor Eliot Spitzer whose tragic fall is yet another reminder of clay feet, and the deadly sins of pride and lust…things that kill the human spirit or assault ‘the angels of our better nature.’
I know very little about the man. He came from privilege, got degrees from Harvard and Princeton, became Attorney General of New York and made his mark by an aggressive, self-described ‘steam roller’ approach to those who bent or broke various laws.
He was, as Edward Arlington Robinson put it in his poem Exit, ‘poisoned with praise.’
For what we owe to other days,
Before we poisoned him with praise,
May we who shrank to find him weak
Remember that he cannot speak
Proverbs 16: 18 “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
You know the story of the fall in Genesis, the first book of the Bible which is filled with little mythologies about what it means to be human.
The first and only couple to occupy Paradise, the Garden of Eden – they were the first to get caught eating the forbidden fruit, usually symbolized by the apple – sexuality, or ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’
This, of course, was before television or the press showed up for the big confession, so you have to use your imagination: picture Adam and Eve standing there for the first press conference, questioned by God.
God says, “Okay, Adam, we know that you’ve been eating the apple — the big apple! What do you have to say for yourself?”
Eve stands dutifully beside him, but she looks over at the innocent ones, the lions and tigers, elephants and giraffes and so forth; she’s clearly embarrassed and angry. He says, “I’m deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. For that I’m deeply sorry. I’ve insisted that people take responsibility for their behavior. For that reason I’m leaving Eden. I will do what I need to do to heal myself and to repair the damage that I’ve done to my relationship with Eve”
It’s an old story; the first Biblical story. It’s not about them, way back when, of course, it’s about us, here and now. It’s about what it means to be human, to assume responsibility and to fail; it’s about what some call sin and salvation, atonement and reconciliation…it’s about humility and humiliation…it’s about riding into town on a donkey and having people shout hosanna and then shout crucify him!
I’m reminded of a newspaper story that Herb Adams read at my installation, back at the beginning of our journey together.
The story was about a Southern Bible-belt preacher who had run off with the church secretary, taking some $10,000 of the congregation’s coffer with them. They were found in Las Vegas and the church had to decide what to do.
There was a closed-door meeting of the Board of Deacons, the church elders and a local reporter waited outside until the chairman of the Deacons emerged. The reporter asked if they were going to prosecute. The wise-old elder said, “No, we’re going to bring him back and make him preach it out!”
I have to confess that 23 years ago that story was, for the most part, just amusing. Now I understand that it’s my own story, that it’s every preacher’s story – that every time we climb into the pulpit we have to ‘preach it out.’
The same thing is true for Governors. Eliot Spitzer was brought back from the Mayflower Hotel, brought down from the Emperor’s Club – that club of all those afflicted with the fatal disease called hubris – now he has to preach it out. He’s off to a pretty good start.
Carl Sandburg titled a poem Primer Lesson:
Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is
not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they
walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling—
Look out how you use proud words.
The Palm Sunday story is about ‘great expectations,’ and the reality that follows. How many times has a man or woman believed their bride or groom will ‘save them?’ How many times are those ‘great expectations’ dashed on the rocks of the coming years when the faults, failures and flaws are revealed.
Great expectations lead to big disappointments; which lead to resentment and anger.
On Palm Sunday they shouted ‘hosanna,’ and a few days later they shouted ‘crucify him!’ He wasn’t the Messiah they expected; the savior they wanted and had hoped for. But that was all a big misunderstanding, like the ‘big misunderstanding’ about finding the perfect husband or wife or lover, or raising the perfect child or finding the perfect friend or minister, and then having to deal with disappointment.
What should we ‘expect?’ What does it mean to be ‘realistic’ about expectations?
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…but first it will make you very uncomfortable!”
Remember, “The sages are not in Paradise, Paradise is in the sages.”