Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said to his disciples, “You do not know what you are asking.” (Mark 10)
We are living in what some people have called the era of the Great Resignation. Having endured the effects of the pandemic as well as the bitter social divisions that have accompanied it, a lot of people are reassessing their priorities and deciding to resign from their jobs. Reports say that as many as 4.3 million people have already done so — some to seek a new career, some to find a better fit, some to stop working altogether.
So the Great Resignation is symptomatic of what we might say is also the Great Reassessment — a life-changing re-ordering of priorities with the intention of living out more fully what one truly values.
Jesus, I think, would encourage us in this undertaking, at least based on today’s gospel. There he challenges his disciples to reassess their own priorities, and to find a wider sense of purpose than what they have been operating with. The motivation for this encouragement, as you heard a moment ago, is that James and John come to him, wanting to be assured that they will sit at his right and left hand in the end times. They are thinking only in terms of prestige, importance, approval, approbation.
But Jesus tells them they need to turn their sense of priority on its head: it’s not prestige that counts, but self-sacrifice; not importance, but service; not approval, but compassion; not approbation, but faithfulness.
And I think most of us could agree with those points, at least to some degree.
But the thing is, when we look back at the pandemic and try to put our finger on exactly what has changed in our own sense of priority, it’s rather hard to do — at least it is for me. How have we changed? Thinking of the Emmaus Gathering conversations we’ve been having here at church, I myself have been trying to put into words exactly how the pandemic has affected me, and all I come up with is a kind of mental numbness.
Last night I had a dream that I was in a town where I had to get to the train station, but when I finally got there, I didn’t know where I was trying to go. That’s the way life feels right now. Maybe you have those kind of dreams too.
But then it occurs to me, that maybe the numbness is exactly the point. The pandemic has put a kind of damper on so much: social interaction, the exchange of ideas, enlivening experiences of art, and music, and good food. Maybe the resulting numbness is precisely what we do need to look at.
I realize that it makes me eager to go deeper. To get beneath the surface anxieties of these tedious days and to get more closely in touch with whatever it is in life that is longer lasting and more profoundly true.
In the Sunday morning forum I’ve been leading on “Prophets for Our Time,” we’ve been blessed to encounter some religious thinkers of the mid-twentieth century who have helped us to do exactly that.
Today, we had a look at Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian who had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement by helping to provide its theological base in the principles of non-violent resistance. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve not encountered Thurman much (if at all). He was a kind of behind-the-scenes man, something of a religious mystic.
But he was passionately devoted to the principle that the way to counter any kind of evil or hatred, is the cultivation of an interior strength through a disciplined spiritual life that is deep enough to be able to resist lapsing into anger or resentment oneself, when confronted with evil and persecution.
After Martin Luther King Jr. was almost killed by a knife attack in 1958, Thurman went to see him in the hospital. Although no record exists of their conversation, in a subsequent letter to King, Thurman wrote to the younger man that he was glad to hear that the civil rights leader was “structuring your life in a way that will deepen its channel.” Evidently, Thurman had told King in the hospital, that if he was to overcome what lay ahead, he would have to go deep.
And that, I realize, is what has changed for me during the pandemic. Underneath the mental and spiritual numbness brought on by its unexpected longevity and bitterness, I am increasingly eager to go more and more deeply into what is really at stake in life.
In a brief meditation Thurman wrote on the theme of “Radical Amazement,” he observed that “What is [often] forgotten is the fact that life moves at a deeper level than the objective and the data of our senses. We are most alive when we are brought face to face with the response of the deepest thing in us to the deepest thing in life.”
That’s what the pandemic has made me yearn for — when (as Thurman continues) “we pass through all the external aspects of our situation and need, [and] the walls of our pretensions are swept away and we are literally catapulted out of the narrow walls that shut us in. … Spirit is met by Spirit and we are whole again!”
There is so much in life that holds us captive to the superficial: our preoccupation with things, our attachment to predictability, our longing for security, our fondness for familiarity.
But if anything good will come out of these on-going months of frustration and isolation, it will be a determination to rethink, to reimagine, to reconstitute our lives: to go to that place where (as Thurman envisioned), “Spirit is met by Spirit and we are whole again.” For that kind of renewal, I know that I am ready. Amen.