Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

Sunday 21st April, 2024

From Quaker Advices & Queries #12:

Let us reach for the meaning deep within vocal ministry, recognising that even if it’s not God’s word for ourself, it may be so for others.

Amen. 

—————————————————-

Pulitzer prize-winner John Berryman was deeply troubled, deeply faithful and deeply doubtful in equal measure. Here’s an extract from his long poem ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’:

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case
to establish their initiatory faith…

I love this description of wrestling with and articulating doubt. Rather than say ‘this can’t be!’ the poem asks ‘how can this be?’. John Berryman finds a way to make sense of the seemingly impossible by trusting that the experience of others is true and valid even when it doesn’t match his, and the truth of his own experience speaks to that of all those who ‘believe but have not seen’.

In today’s Gospel reading, though the resurrection is still to come, Jesus too is finding the right words to prepare the disciples for the unprecedented, preposterous possibility that he will both die and live: that instead of life and death being an either/or state of affairs, it can be both.

He says ‘I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.’ (Jn10:17-18)

That phrase ‘to lay down’ one’s life reveals an extraordinary example of agency and freedom of choice under extraordinary circumstances.

To lay something – anything – down indicates intentional action. This may require resignation, understanding, stubbornness, commitment, faith, trust, courage and so on – attributes that that wouldn’t necessarily be signalled if Jesus had, at this point, used the words ‘I am going to die’. He knows that he is going to be as much an agent of his own death as those who will crucify him, and that it will be on his terms not theirs. This gives him rare power, though it’s a power the disciples (and we) won’t and don’t fully comprehend until after the resurrection.

The idea of ‘laying down’ evokes for me a whole range of things, from giving up or relinquishing something replaceable – an object, a role, a responsibility – to sacrificing something apparently irreplaceable – an ideal, or a long-held aspiration or, indeed, a life. My inner ear hears a resonance between ‘laying down’ and ‘lying down’: the latter implies a getting up again and, for me, that somehow softens the violence of the death that Jesus is anticipating.

To ‘lay down a concern’ is an expression familiar to Quaker meetings. (Perhaps it’s used in other faith traditions too, I don’t know.) This might mean discerning that, for example, advocacy on an issue has come to a natural end for now. There’s an implication that to lay something down also offers an opportunity to take it up again if circumstances change. To resurrect it, if you will.

Perhaps recognising what is, or could be, laid down temporarily in daily life opens a window into the mystery of the resurrection. John Berryman’s poem suggests that overcoming doubt with trust, and paying attention to the experience of others, might be a start, as is the ability to distinguish between the important and the urgent.

For example the immediate needs of a troubled friend can offer an opportunity to slow down and ‘attend to what love requires of us, which may not be great busyness’ (Quaker A&Q #28).

A principled activist or whistleblower who speaks truth to power lays down their life for as long as it takes – witness Alan Bates and the post office.

And of course there are those who follow Jesus’s example to the end and beyond – as the recent anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death reminded us.

This morning’s reading from the letter of John leads us further into this territory of love in action.

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for each other…let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.’ (1 Jn 3:16 &18)

During weekly litanies, the Mucknell community prays for those ‘who have been taken to the limits of endurance by love’. I think of a dear friend of long-standing who remains very damaged by a series of strokes eighteen months ago. Her husband’s life has willingly been put on hold since then – laid down for her, if you like – and one thing I’m learning from accompanying their journey is that in fact there are no limits to love.

The experience of my friends is personal and particular, of course. And so is each of ours, and of everyone everywhere in this chaotic, clumsy, frightening, springtime Eastertide world with its seemingly impossible possibilities of resurrection and new life.

This reflection started with a poem, and another brings it to a close. These lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem ‘The Weighing’ speak to ending as beginning; to loving ‘not in word and speech but in truth and action’:.

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.
[………………….]
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

From the example of Jesus and the disciples, we know that what is given in love and truth will cost us.

We trust that the pearl of great price is worth it.

As we wonder what we’ll next be asked to give, as individuals and as communities and as nations, let us pray for the strength to give it.

Amen

Virginia

Image: JESUS MAFA. The good shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48288 [retrieved April 28, 2024]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact)