Stumbling Through Grace

January 13, 2019


When I taught philosophy for the local college, the classroom was unique.  The classroom was at Cape Vincent Correctional Facility.  This is a medium security prison; think tall walls with razor wire, guards in a tower with rifles, lots and lots of bars.

Teaching philosophy in prison was a learning experience for me.  It is one thing to teach Plato to teenagers who are enjoying absolute liberty; it is another to teach Plato to folks who are experiencing the misery of no liberty.

Each semester I began the philosophy class with a lecture on the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of Jesus.  They are very similar and very philosophical.  We would explore the three poisons of life as put forward by Buddha and then explore the antitheticals of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount.  They mirror one another; teach the same truth.

One of the many, many rules of the prison is that you are not supposed to discuss your life or give personal details to the prisoners.  Near the end of one class I realized my identity had been too concealed.  A student asked me, “after all the philosophy you have read and studied can you still believe in God?”  I paused here.  To his question I said, “I love the Jesus, man.”  The prisoner nodded and thought and finally he said, “yeah, me too. I love the Jesus too.”

Of all the ideas and all the philosophers we explored, the most popular was the Buddhist teaching that “if you find the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”  This saying always caught the attention of the class.  If you find the Buddha, kill the Buddha.  After the laughter died down and the claims about finally a philosophy to live by, I would explain.  This is not a literal call to violence.  This is about confidence and certainty.  If you believe you have found ultimate truth, you need to realize how far you are from ultimate truth.  If you are convinced you are absolutely correct, then you are definitely and profoundly wrong.

This was a lightbulb moment for many.  And it was fun to see this teaching in action.  Throughout the semester, whenever one of the students got a bit too pontifical, when something was said with arrogance or far too much certainty, the other students loved to be the one to say, “if you find the Buddha,” to which the rest of the class would respond, “kill the Buddha.”

I thought of these moments in prison when I read the violence in our second passage from Mark today.  There is a lot of violence here.  Drowning, dismemberment, and gouging of eyes: not really a compliment to the lovely moment of Jesus being baptized. “This is my son, my beloved.”  The beauty of baptism is not really a fit with being “thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”  Water, forgiveness, blessing, freedom don’t quite match fire, millstones around the neck, and going to hell.

I thought of the saying about finding the Buddha because this teaching of Jesus, while very violent, is not best understood as a literal call for violence.  Jesus is using violent images, but he is not really advocating violence.  He is speaking with a bit of hyperbole.  It is as if we are better off drowning, better off disfigured and maimed than to follow the temptations so often arising in life.  He is making a wild claim to get our attention.  If you find the Buddha, kill the Buddha: that gets your attention.  Cast in the sea to drown with a millstone around your neck as a good option should get your attention.

Despite the obvious need for caution, it is not altogether clear what we are meant to attend.  Jesus begins his teaching with claims of stumbling blocks, and then claims the hand, the foot, and the eye cause us to stumble.  Yet, there is no mention of what this stumbling actually looks like.

There have been many ways of describing what the stumbling is here.  For centuries the church took the stumbling as sex.  And that has some value.  But I believe we get closer to what Jesus meant in terms of stumbling and destruction if we read this teaching with Buddhist eyes.  If look at this reading as Buddhists, it may make a lot more sense.

To interpret this teaching as a Buddhist we need to remember one of the essential teachings of the Buddha.  The essential teaching is that there are three forms of suffering in life.  There are three ways we stumble so to speak.  The three ways we suffer, stumble are these: anger, desire, and delusion.  Buddha taught that these are the poisons that ruin our lives.  Anger is a poison that causes us to suffer; desire is our ruin; and delusion causes us to destroy our lives with pride and arrogance and false certainty.

A Buddhist would look at Jesus’ teaching about the eye, the hand, and the foot and say, “of course.”  Anger, desire, and delusion.  You must cut them out, gouge them out of your heart.  If you keep anger, if you keep desire, if you keep false certainty, then you are completely ruined. It would be better if you were drowned with a millstone.  Again, if we consider desire as ruin, greed as poison, possessiveness as stumbling, and if we imagine we are better to be without them, then the call to cut them off, to gouge them out makes a bit more sense.

Thinking as a Buddhist not only helps us navigate the violence and the body parts of the teaching about stumbling, thinking as a Buddhist can also help us remember one of the great truths of baptism.  For to rid the soul of anger, desire, and delusion is in a sense to be born anew.  And if we consider the moment of Jesus’s baptism as a kind of birth where life become less and less poisoned by anger, desire and delusion, then we are close to what they both taught.

At the River Jordan John baptized all of Judea, says Mark. All the people came to the murky, muddy waters where the River Jordan meets the Dead Sea.  They came and listened to John proclaim a washing away of sins, a forgiveness, a cleansing to begin life anew.  People came to the murky waters to find a new life of freedom.  Baptism was to be the relief from their sufferings.  They were stumbling through brokenness; they were stumbling over anger, over desire, over delusion.  In baptism they were offered a new path, a path where they could stumble through grace.

I heard a story of baptism that might help here.  My mentor told this story many years ago.  He was a pastor in a small, Massachusetts town.  It was a Congregationalist church.  One night he got a call from the clerk of session saying that he and the other elders were going to the jail; there was a problem, he said.  If the pastor wanted, he should meet them at the jail.

At the jail the pastor discovered the problem.  Five boys had decided to paint graffiti on the house of the town’s curmudgeon.  The sheriff happened to drive by as they were painting and offered to give them all a free ride to the jail.  Surprisingly, the sheriff called the clerk of session instead of calling the parents of the boys.

The story continued that the clerk went into the cell where the boys sat.  He stared at them for quite some time catching eyes of each.  Then he asked, “how many of you are baptized?”  One by one each boy raised his hands.  The clerk swore a profanity and shook his head.  “Well,” he said, “that means we have to pay for them all.”

And they did.  They paid for them all; took them home to their parents; and picked them up the next day and the elders made sure the boys did a good job painting the house they defaced after they each apologized to the town’s curmudgeon.

My mentor told this story to describe how a church needs to be a part of the lives of the children they baptize.  He loved that the clerk didn’t ask him what to do; he asked if the pastor wanted to come along.  Yet, as can happen with a good story, the part that stays with me is the question of identity.  “How many of you are baptized?”  The image of those five boys raising their hands as beloved who were not really all that loveable at that moment, this replays in my mind again and again.  I love the image of calling them out as baptized, as one promised grace.

I love this because it is one thing to love the beautiful baby in the flowing baptismal gown, it is another to love the kid in the jail cell raising his hand as he hangs his head in shame.  Our lesson today with the worms and the millstones doesn’t have an obvious connection to the beauty of baptism.  Yet, I keep hearing a question connecting them.  You promised to love the baby, will you deliver on your promise when the baby stumbles as a teen, when the beauty is not as clear in the man, in the woman?  The infants we baptized are enveloped in grace when we make our promise.  But when the water gets murky and the infant is not so easy to carry, will we offer the same grace?  Will we deliver when it is most needed?

One of the gifts I have found when I read the teachings of Jesus with the eyes of Buddha is that I see people differently.  Tich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, gave me these eyes.  He began his book Living Buddha; Living Christ with a beautiful confession.  He says, I am a Buddhist, I am devoted to Buddha, but I love Jesus.  What he loves is the way they both call us to offer compassion to people as they suffer.  He finds power in how close they are to each other and how their teachings draw us closer to each other.

What a difference this confession made to me when I began to look at people with compassion instead of discarding them.  When I came to see the anger and the greed and the arrogance ruining the soul, when I came to see this as poison, then I resisted my impulse to treat them with disdain; I considered them as suffering.

If you look to the moments where we stumble, we will see a very basic pattern.  Either we have brought the suffering on ourselves, or others have brought it to us.  And the suffering we experience when we stumble comes down to three: we suffer anger; we suffer greed; or we suffer arrogance.  Again, we can bring it on our self or we bring it to others.  We stumble and we cause others to stumble and we suffer.  This is the path of destruction, death; Jesus calls it simply darkness.

This is the truth of our destruction.  Yet it is not the only truth.  There is good news.  We bring destruction, true, but we can bring something else.  We can bring grace.  Bringing grace is not always easy.  A lesson worn into me each week as I walked to through the prison is that the people who need the most grace are the ones we want to offer the least.  The one who needs the most experiences the least.  Grace given at baptism is effortless; grace to the teen in the jail cell not as easy.

I often wonder if the wisdom of the sheriff calling the clerk session is that it was easier for him to offer grace to those knuckleheads than it would have been for the parents.

I often wonder what the church will be when we see our baptismal vows as truly beginning only after confirmation instead of ending there.

I often wonder what communities would become if neighbors had the eyes of Buddha and could see faults and failures as suffering to be met with grace instead of disdain.

May words of wonder become flesh and dwell among us.  Amen.

Bible References

  • Mark 1:9 - 11
  • Mark 9:42 - 49