Holding It Together with Jesus
“How are you holding it all together?” If I had a dollar (with inflation) for every time I’ve been asked that question, I could hire someone to hold it all! The question itself is based on the assumption that I am – that any of us are able to – “hold it all together”. Or even, for that matter, that doing so is a goal to be sought.
One of my favorite books, written by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, is entitled “When Things Fall Apart: Heart advice for Difficult Times”. With humor and wisdom, Pema writes about the year she spent learning how to “lean into the sharp points”: letting go of the sharp dualities we draw between “us and them, this and that, good and bad” and developing a “fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others” . This week, I found myself turning once again to this book. And to the book of Jeremiah.
Biblical commentator Kathleen O’Connor writes about the way the Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah, “sears the soul, challenges the conscience and promises hope to the wounded in body and spirit”. Wow! That’s a pretty great book review! The book of Jeremiah was certainly written at an interesting time: the Israelites had returned after their exile, only to find that things are a bit of a mess.
And, as humans do, the Hebrew people have pretty different ideas for dealing the messiness – some want to blame the leadership, the kings, who lead the people “astray”; some question their relationship with God, after the fall of his chosen city of Judah, something that they thought could never ever happen. Jeremiah, as I think I’ve preached before, was himself a “survivor” – he’d lost a great deal in his life, and knew what it meant to rebuild, to restore a life in God. O’Conner describes his book as “a conversation among many communal voices that explore, attempt to come to grips with and move beyond the national tragedy that had destroyed so much of the community’s life”. So, who was going to clean up the mess? Who was going to hold it all together? God, that’s who; God promised to “gather the remnant of God’s flock”. Then, and now.
To be clear: this doesn’t mean that we ourselves don’t have plenty of work to do, that we can just put our feet up and blithely proclaim, “God’s got this! God’s in charge, pass the remote and hand me another beer.” By no means! But it is essential to remember, as we work and strive for justice, equality and peace in our corner of God’s world, that God is there – beneath us, around us, behind us, before us – holding us while we labor in the vineyard. To keep us from despair and panic; so that we don’t react with fear and anger. It helps to know that we will be “made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power”, and “prepared to endure everything with patience”.
Those words were written, either by Paul while he was in prison, or by a student of Paul’s in his “style”, years after his death; written to the divided and diverse people of Colossae, a place where Paul had never even been. During that time of the writing, some had come to believe in the power of the stars, and even the power of certain foods, to rule their lives. Now, while heavenly bodies and nutrition do have a certain influence on our earthly life, I agree with the Apostle on this point: only Jesus, only his compassion and love, only his forgiveness, and his power to teach us to do the same, only these things can save us. Jesus holds all things together, even – especially – in difficult times.
In this portion of Luke 23, the verb for “save” is used three times; “save yourself!” everyone says to our Lord as he hangs from the cross. Jesus, in his way, turns this meaning around; he makes saving not about himself, but about forgiving others. That’s the kind of King Jesus is. At a time when he himself was being accused, persecuted, mocked, and executed by everyone – Jesus affirms his truly royal character by forgiving. And by making a New Creation – a paradise, where even the criminal, the one who recognizes Jesus’ innocence in this story, will be welcome. I find it inspiring that our reading today starts at the place in the Passion Reading where we all stand up together on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Does your body remember that feeling? The feeling of standing up with Jesus, to witness his suffering, and to share in his empathy for others?
There is a practice in Buddhism, called Tonglen, in which one connects, through breathing, with the suffering of ourselves and others, cultivating our ability for compassion. The practice includes “breathing out” the joy and relief we want everyone to experience. We practice by focusing on and “breathing in” the pain and anger and suffering we perceive in our own hearts, in people we know, or even in people we have never met. Such a practice is not easy at first: it calls us to spend time with difficult feelings. Pema says it “goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together . . . wanting things on our own terms, wanting everything to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others”. And it changes the focus; it changes the energy from the “stuckness and misery” that millions experience, to an attitude of possibility and compassion.
Can we do that? Can we stand together, at the foot of the cross, and breathe in the tightness in our chest, the injustice of Jesus’ death, the hopelessness of those hanging there with him, and breathe out forgiveness and love and hope, for ourselves, and for the whole world? With God’s help – with God’s tender holding – I believe that we can.
On Thursday, Shannon and I went on a field trip out to Red Barn Ranch, the teaching farm where Rachel Schindler, our gardening intern lives and works when she’s not here with us. It was a cold and sunny afternoon, and the farm was pretty quiet. The harvest was complete; only a scattered number of abandoned tomatoes and squash lay about, framed by a sturdy array of persistent chard and kale still defying the frost. As we stood in the middle of the 9 acres of farmland, with Mt. Rainier looking over us in the distance, I felt truly held by God. I realized that, as our labors go on, season after season, God’s abiding love, God’s creating Spirit is always there, sustaining and guiding us, even when things may seem bleak.
( 10:30 sermon In that Spirit, I’d like to close by sharing with you a song and video by a contemporary Christian band called Casting Crowns. Its called “Just be Held”, and I invite you, while you listen to it, to breathe – in and out – remembering that our God, with our helping hands, is able to turn things around.)
(After Video) While we work in the vineyard, God is creating a paradise, a reign of peace and joy and thanksgiving, where everyone is welcome. Thanks be to God! And AMEN.