2nd Ord • 1/14/18 • 1 Sam 1:9b-18a, 20; 1 Cor 6:12-20; John 1:35-51 • Leora Weitzman
“Angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” is a new twist on the ancient image of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob is fleeing his rightfully angry brother and at dusk goes to sleep on the ground. “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” [Genesis 28:12] Angels being messengers, this is an image of communication between heaven and earth. The evangelist’s Jesus, identifying the ladder with the “Son of Man,” offers himself as our ultimate link, as he will again when he says he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Centuries later, St. Benedict adds his own spin: “Now the ladder… is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts God will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.” [RB 7:1-9]
The combined idea is that if we follow Jesus’ way, which Benedict [quoting Luke] points out is a way of humility, then our tangible, temporal lives, our very bodies, are nothing less than stairways to heaven.
This take on the body is striking. It resists a rival Greek thought system in which the body is totally separate from anything divine—at best, something to be tamed or resisted. We see glimpses of that worldview in some of Paul’s writings about the flesh and the spirit. But not today. Today, even Paul calls our bodies members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit.
What does it take to realize the glorious potential of our embodied lives as pathways to God? Paul is quite passionate about that. The essence seems to be remembering we are part of a picture bigger than our immediate personal gratification. His focus on sexual immorality reminds me of the yogic value of Brahmacarya, often translated as chastity. One modern source, seeking to clarify its relevance to contemporary society, translates it as responsible use of our energy.
Everything we do ripples out to affect others in ways that may astonish us. As members of Christ, we are not the “little islands of certainty and control” David McKee recently pointed out we like to think we are. We, and our actions, do not belong solely to ourselves. This imposes a certain responsibility on us: to act thoughtfully, in respectful relationship with others.
Let’s illustrate this with a contrast. Irresponsible use of our energy is treating others merely as things, to be used in a tunnel-vision pursuit of our own needs and agendas. This can be as simple as losing my temper and raising my voice; or taking advantage of someone’s time, resources, abilities, money, or habitat; taking advantage of any being’s powerlessness to refuse. It can mean sexual use of others; what if Paul was responding to a rash of “#MeToo” in his own community? Irresponsible use can be face to face, and it can be anonymous.
Think how dehumanized you felt the last time you reached one of those automated menus, none of whose options is why you’re calling: Press 1 to invest in property on Mars; Press 2 if you’re calling from a rotary phone; Press 3 to repeat these options. I know I feel used… not seen as a full person… shut out of the exclusive community of whoever set that up.
Responsible use of energy was modeled beautifully by the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., in his thoughtful response and gracious invitation to “Come and see” what we’re really about.
Paul wants us to take our membership in Christ seriously. If we let godly freedom make us irresponsible, we retreat into selfish little islands, losing our empathy, losing touch with each other. That’s actually a slow hell. It’s the very opposite of the Body of Christ.
Neither our pleasures nor our suffering are ours alone. There’s great hope and healing in not being islands. This past week I was very sick with flu. The first couple of days I mostly kept my misery to myself, not wanting to bother folks or worry my mother in California. Finally I did call my mom, and it completely transformed the experience for me.
First, the pent-up ball of tension in me began to melt. Second, she knew something I didn’t: there’s a prescription antiviral drug for it. (Tell your friends!) Third, I began calling friends to see who was free to pick me up some right away, since I was almost past the window where it works. Within hours, not only did I have the medication, but I was reminded of all the wonderful, loving friends I have, aware of being held, wrapped, in community. Fourth, I was able to help my mother in return with a decision or two and offer her encouragement with some big tasks she’s facing. The contact I’d been afraid would drain her energized us both.
This is how the reign of heaven works. There is no scarcity. Love multiplies when it’s shared. Or, in the words of Paula Wehmiller (a ground-breaking African American Episcopal priest who once led a retreat here): “We know who and whose we are, and we are blessed.”
Knowing who and whose we are is central to all of today’s readings. The call of the disciples is their awakening to who and whose they truly are. Even more than they are Bethsaidans or homeowners or followers of John the Baptist, they are members of Jesus’ family. They need to be with him so much that they let go of everything else. Instead of clinging to what belongs to them, they recognize that they belong to God.
Paul today says quite sharply, “Do you not know that you are not your own?”
And Hannah, even as she begs God for a son, doesn’t cling to him but promises to give him back to God. When in due course she brings a very young Samuel to live and serve in God’s house, she sings in words that foreshadow Mary’s song of praise. Listen for the echoes:
“My heart exults in our God;
My horn is exalted in God,
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies,
Because I rejoice in Your salvation.
4“The bows of the mighty are shattered,
But the feeble gird on strength.
5“Those who were full hire themselves out for bread,
But those who were hungry cease to hunger.
Even the barren gives birth to seven,
But she who has many children languishes.
6“The Most High kills and makes alive;
brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7“The Most High makes poor and rich;
brings low, and also exalts.
8“God raises the poor from the dust,
God lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are our God’s,
And God set the world on them.”
This is someone who knows she depends on God. She is not entitled. She is not under the illusion that what comes through her hands belongs to her. God gives, and God takes away. Everything belongs to God.
In the relatively affluent and stable experience shared by many in this room, it’s easy to forget that we depend on and belong to God. Being brought back to this awareness may be a hidden gift of the instability we now face in our country and world.
Pema Chӧdrӧn, a beloved teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says we in the West tend to subscribe to “rock logic.” Things are the way they are, and whether they’re good or bad, they’re stuck that way. Our options in bad times are to submit or to meet force with force, rock with rock. She invites us to entertain “water logic,” a greater sense of the fluidity of things. My experience in reaching out for help while I was sick illustrates this fluidity: how a situation can transform on a dime, on the axis of a simple shift in perspective or a softening of resistance.
The more I reflect on the times we’re living in, the more I sense that the way to come through them inwardly intact is to become adept at water logic, otherwise known as nonattachment, humility, or letting go—including letting go of assumptions. I’ve taken many things for granted, such as my health, the safety of dear people in my life, a civil society, and the health of the natural world. These things are not mine. It’s not in my power to ensure their continuation. (Help, yes; ensure, no.) I don’t possess or control them or much else, either. If I pin my inner wholeness to these kinds of things, I’m asking for trouble.
But inner wholeness does not, after all, come from what belongs to me. It comes from sharing both gifts and troubles, from knowing where I belong, where you belong, how we belong to each other and to everyone else far beyond these doors, and to God. “We know who and whose we are, and we are blessed.”
Prayers: In thanksgiving for this open, welcoming community and the opportunity to preach…
For all the people and beings who are hearing the message that they do not belong: in our country, in churches, ecosystems, workplaces, schools, power structures…
For all of us in our moments of trying to protect ourselves by excluding others, that we may remember it doesn’t work that way, that we are all one body, and that body is our ladder to heaven.