May 10, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Something More Profound”
Scripture Reference: John 2:1-5; 19:25-27
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
His name was Chris. Nobody liked him. Chris was giving a verbatim to our group of interns. He was trying to explain a ministry event that happened to him; he needed to interpret it, as we were trained to do as chaplains. You take a psychological or sociological or anthropological theory and you hold the event up to it and see what you see. You interpret it. Then you do the same with theology and philosophy.
Chris was using an anthropological theory about childbirth, how meanings and definitions come to the child in the moment of birth. He was using this theory to understand an event that happened to him. It was a rather elaborate theory; there was a nuance and subtlety given in the moment of birth and these subtle definitions play themselves out over the course of our life and shape our identity. He was trying to show how these birth experiences could explain an event in ministry, what was happening.
When it came time to respond, I asked Chris the obvious question. “Do you have any children?”
“No,” he said.
“Have you seen birth, a child born, been in the room?”
“Well, I have got to tell you, man, I have, and it’s crazy. Not a lot of subtlety. Lot of pain and wildness, but nothing nuanced. Not sure this is a good theory.”
I was dismissive.
I have sat through a lot of verbatims in my life, written quite a few, but this is the only one that sticks with me. My memory is vibrant, I believe, because of what came after my dismissive set of questions.
The Kraken was released.
Folks really didn’t like Chris and, in this moment, they decided to let him have it. It wasn’t just that his theory was wrong, he was wrong, not a good person, arrogant and untrustworthy.
I can remember watching this unfold. There was blood in the water and the sharks were circling. It was not a good day to be Chris. Through the years I have wondered, what if I had not dismissed him?
His theory was wrong. Sure. But lots of theories are wrong. I made a good point, but that was lost in the barrage of criticism that followed. I continually struggle with the idea of being right while at the same time unleashing hatred.
Theories can do this. Not always, but sometimes, modern science speaks as if a theory is beyond question, completely right. There are certainly humble scientists who qualify all their answers with, “as best we can tell.” But then we hear someone, often times not a scientist, who will present a theory as fact. Who hasn’t heard someone declare, “But this is science,” as if nothing else need be said, no argument could oppose.
For those of us not accustomed to the long struggle to prove a theory we may be too quick to confidence with our theories. Unaccustomed to the labor science requires for proof, we can be too quick to certainty.
Once a theory is commingled with great confidence, it takes on a life of its own. Our confidence soars far beyond humility. Here no matter how wrong we may be, we are right. “It’s science!” Here there are no limits.
This is really important today, recognizing our limit. It’s important today because we are dismissing people all in the context of competing theories. We are terribly certain we are right; and, we are completely convinced our opposition is foolish. Maybe that is why the memory of Chris and his birth/identity theory is lingering with me.
It wasn’t just that his theory was wrong, he was treated as wrong; in the end it was more about dismissing him, than disagreeing with his theories.
There is a lot of energy right now wanting to discard people. We are all weary with the isolation, but some, I fear, are getting angry about the differences and divisions coming all too clear. What were differences of opinions are now differences of character.
Perhaps that is why I am drawn to the Gospel of John right now. Differences and divisions is the most important theory for understanding the Gospel of John. John was written two generations after Jesus, or fifty years after Peter and Paul. Most important, though, scholars believe the fourth gospel was written in the midst of strife. The church was dividing, splintering over differences. People had different beliefs about Jesus and the differences were so important they could not share space, share a life, share the same air with those not of the same mind. Sound familiar?
The fourth gospel was written as a kind of last call for civility, mercy for people who were supposed to love each other. Things, once tenuous, were in disarray; things joined loosely were coming undone. And we know this moment. There are moments in life where the ebb and flow in a community starts to unravel. Differences once treated with patience become grounds for disdain.
The Gospel of John was written in this moment when the ebb and flow meets the flood of disdain, the torrent of disregard. People were exchanging patience for hatred. Again, not too far from our day.
Throughout John’s gospel, we find moments where Jesus calls his disciples to remember love, stay together. The call is there because people were tempted to hate. They wanted to speak as a prophet “you are wrong about this” but to speak such without mercy “and you must go.”
To see this message in our passage today, the handing over of Mary and the adoption of the beloved disciple, we need to work through the theories of the past. And this passage has quite a history.
Jesus speaks from the cross, “woman, this is your son” and to the beloved, “this is your mother.” The earliest interpretation of what this means is: Jesus simply fulfilled the fourth commandment. He honored his mother. He did; this is true. But there is something more profound happening here. There is something more, but this early theory is important because of its simplicity. We will come back to this.
The next theory of our passage needs the story at Cana that we read. Mary asks Jesus to provide the celebration with wine, work a miracle. Jesus dismisses her. On the cross, he does not dismiss her, but honors her. The next theory was that Mary could not participate in the miraculous (changing of water to wine; she was dismissed) because she was of the earth; she could participate in the crucifixion because the cross was about the earth, or suffering. Early church commentators considered these two stories of Mary to be a kind of Christological image; Jesus was both very God and very human (wine and body). Not bad. But not the best perhaps.
The next theory is similar in that the people in the story of adoption are symbols, symbols of the church. In the book of Acts we have the image of the church as Peter and Paul. Peter symbolizes the tradition of the Jewish synagogue and Jewish believer; Paul is the gospel given to the Gentiles and the need for the Gentile to be accepted. The book of Acts is built around these images of the church. Through the centuries Mary, in our reading, has been imagined as the Jewish tradition, the source of life; the beloved disciple is the new believer, the Gentile church. Jesus joins them together to form a symbol of the church.
I like this. This is good for us today. We are all about finding images of the church beyond patriarchy. Mary and the beloved are a more inclusive image than Peter and Paul. And they are not being cast as people in charge, a hierarchy, but people in the midst of suffering. So this is, in my opinion, a helpful path to ponder. This is a profound theory of the church.
But I believe there is something more profound than symbols here. Yes, Mary is a symbol of motherhood. And the beloved is a symbol for all disciples. True. Yet, when you have a crisis, when things are falling apart, the subtle symbols, no matter how powerful, are easily laid aside. No. There is something very simple here, very true. It’s in the exchange, the adoption.
This was not Mary’s son; Mary was not the beloved’s mother. Yet, according to John, in this moment they became such. This was their life going forward.
Remember when John wrote his gospel, we believe, the church was in great turmoil. Divisions, strife, anger, bitterness over Jesus. And the people who were supposed to love one another, these people were so angry with one another they were willing to discard, hate each other.
This is why the adoption of Mary and the beloved is so important here. This was John’s last attempt to say, remember who you are. You are all bound together, adopted, ingrafted in love. This is your son; this is your mother. Live compassion; fight the temptation to hate. This is John’s last call to the community: don’t dismiss, discard one another. This is your son; this is your mother. Our lives are intertwined like a mother and a son.
This is more than a theory. This a way to live. To live our faith is to live treating each other as a beloved, a mother, a son. The is the rock upon which we build our life. This is the call of Jesus from the cross.
Preaching the Gospel of John is risky business. The ethic coming out of this exchange, the ethic of adoption, a life lived forward where we love another and resist the temptation to discard, this ethic is not easy today.
In normal times, the ebb and flow of our differences are taxing, frustrating. Yet, today this ebb and flow has been lost. Things are upside down. I am concerned that in the upheaval and the exhaustion and the isolation, we could easily fall to the temptation of hatred and derision. We could cast aside the ethic of adoption. We could hate.
Please do not half understand me and take this as a call to tolerate bad behavior or crippling fear. We very much need to disagree with one another. You can love and still call out bad behavior.
When you bring guns to a protest, it is now an insurrection. When you call the police on your neighbors because you hear too many voices, fear has won. And when your theory is beyond dispute and all who oppose you are worthy of hate, then we left Jesus a ways back.
The next month will be a storm of challenges taxing our patience. Mostly, though, the profound differences that divide our life and nation will start to pull us apart. And in this undoing, we will be tempted to hate.
The image of Jesus on the cross, his last instruction before death, needs to guide us more than ever. This is your son; this is your mother. Be bound together with love; resist hatred. We need to hear these words and live them.
We hear a lot of other words right now. We have talking heads and article after article proclaiming, we are right, we are brilliant, we have the answers and others who disagree are evil and they need to be discarded. Again and again I hear people wishing harm on those who do not agree with their theory of what is happening to us. Right now disagreeing is not enough; there is a desire to disdain, to hate.
Nobody liked Chris. He was not an easy person to enjoy and he didn’t fit and probably other stuff I didn’t know. But I can’t forget the torrent of hate he received. And what bothers me is how easily it was unleashed.
I am not calling you to enjoy or accept opposing views or conspiracy theories. I am certainly not calling you to approve or condone reckless or menacing behavior. But we must resist the temptation to hate. This is your son; this is your mother. And they lived that way to this day. When you feel the temptation to disdain, remember the call of Jesus. Remember the ethic of adoption. Jesus calls us to love; we are not called to hate. Amen.
- John 2:1 - 5
- John 19:25 - 27