October 6, 2019
Welt, Ges Aus!!
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 15.42-47
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
Last May I went down to Princeton for a day-long training. In order to supervise seminary interns, pastors go through a series of learning exercises. Not to worry our seminarians, but it will take a great deal more than a day-long seminar to make me a highly effective supervisor.
There were a few helpful hints, though. Some forms handed out that I quickly lost. Yet, the one moment from the training that sticks with me was not a technique or a method of working with people. What really got me was goats.
As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, the leader asked each potential supervisor to describe the site and the ministry in which the intern would be involved. There were a lot of pretty classic settings. Ours are pretty classic settings: youth, pastoral care. Some were in emergent churches where interns would be put into a lot of coffee shops and conversations where ministry is non-traditional. One site was at the United Nations. I thought that was cool. But then came the best by far, goat herding.
In California folks live in homes that border canyons. In these canyons there is brush, and this brush has grown into a terrible fire hazard. In order to lower the risk of wildfires, herds of goats are brought in to . . . well . . . clear the brush, eat the brush. In the training seminar that day was a pastor who leads a church with a goat herding ministry. It’s part eco-theology; part meeting a real community need; and, what appealed to me, something really cool to do.
The summer intern at his church would shepherd a flock of goats through canyons in need of clearing. Ah, man! I want that job. I want to be that intern. Unfortunately for our interns the rest of the seminar was a bust. The training continued but I was gone, lost in thought. What would it be like to herd a flock of goats for a summer? The dry heat, the slow motion, the wayward goat, the silence.
Full disclosure, I grew up in the canyons of Southern California, so it was not hard for me to imagine the landscape and the terrain. These places are ingrained in me; in an instance I was in those canyons. As I walked them in my mind I could see the colors and dust and brush. I could see so much. Yet, what I could not imagine is what would come out of me. That amount of solitude, the walking, the vigilance: what would they bring out of me? It would bring something out of me. Would it be a good something or a bad something?
Good or bad, what a fascinating idea. I am still thinking about it. I have never herded goats, but I am completely sure that the experience would uncover a part of my heart. I know what solitude does for me. There is an opening where I can see and understand myself and life and nature and truth; there is a quality of light there.
In our busy-ness, our life compelled to keep moving, we are not likely to search the heart, know the recesses where the treasures are stored, or where the broken pieces are kept. Whether or not we know them, they are there. Sometimes they are buried beneath time or fear or patience.
These parts of us are the depth of our soul. They reach our sense of well-being or dread; they are found in our identity and our foggy memories.
Sometimes we hear about these places when people say, I need to find myself, or figure out what is going on inside. Many people seek a time of counseling simply to uncover a part of their heart not yet seen. Yet, more often than not, it is in places where we are thrust into a moment of change, or a challenge, or a relocation, and it brings things out of us.
I can see myself walking with goats in dusty, hot canyons looking for shade, looking for strays. I can see this and I can also see the possibility that some part of me would emerge. The solitude, the quiet, the slow motion would yield a moment to listen, find a memory buried too deep to be seen in a busy day. What emerges might be good; it might not be good.
We talk about this when we say things like, “this is a moment that brings out the best or the worst from people.” We can hear it when people say, “this is not me. I don’t know why I am so upset.” Something has come up, emerged from the heart. I read in a novel recently a great line. Challenge doesn’t shape a character; challenge reveals character. I like that.
In our reading today from Mark we have one of the most sorrowful, yet beautiful moments in scripture. Joseph of Arimathea comes and tends to the body of Jesus. He takes his body down from the cross and prepares it for burial in an unused tomb. There is so much silence in this story. There is a solitude and loneliness crushing down; and there is a fullness and a compassion and tenderness lifting up.
Johann Sebastian Bach captured this tension, the emptiness and the fullness, in an aria he wrote for his St. Matthew’s Passion. The lines of the aria are of course repeated over and over again as they are in any aria. Only in this one, the words of Joseph of Arimathea and their repetition, in this aria the words sung over and over embody the truth with repetition.
Joseph, standing before the body, is praying to his own heart; he is pleading with his soul. In German the words are “Welt, gest aus” – world, get out! Leib Jesum ein, let Jesus in. World get out. In other words, make room in my heart, clear out all that is wrong and unworthy and of no value. Make way for this one. Let Jesus in.
With each pass of the phrase it is as if Joseph is clearing out his heart, each repetition is like the sweep of a broom, an uprooting of a weed, an emptying of a space cluttered “with dust and sin.” World get out, world get out, world get out; let Jesus in, let Jesus in, let Jesus in.
I cannot read this passage, the burial, without hearing Bach and his aria. It is woven into the words for me. When I thought of the time of the goats and the canyons and the time of silence, this is the sound track that came to mind. The slow repetition that allows the heart to yield what is best and what is broken.
About this time a year ago Kathy bought me a lovely book. The title of the book is Stone by Stone. She thought she was buying me a “how-to-book” on dry stack stone walls. I have rocks on the brain; I dream of stone walls. This was a lovely gesture to add to my day dreams. Yet, the book is not about how to build stone walls at all.
The book is about geology, the geology of New England. It took me till I was half-way through to realize this. Chapter after chapter was about tectonic shifts and the ice age and the layers and types of stone of the region. When they finally got to the modern era, to the time of the colonies, I thought, well, now they will talk about how to build stone walls. But this was not the case.
The second half of the book was about frost heave, or the force that brings the stones to the surface of farm fields every year. At first, I was disappointed. I had read so much of it waiting for chapters on how to construct a wall only to find the remainder was about the way the ground, once cleared of trees, heaves upward each spring. The ground rises and falls, but the rocks only rise. Not being much of a science guy, I almost stopped reading. But then I remembered the story of Joseph of Arimathea.
I kept reading and I am glad I did. What was described was the way each spring the farmers of New England cleared their fields of stone brought to the surface by the frost heave. Each year they hauled the rocks in precise distances creating the square walls; each year they carried stone after stone because the fields were deforested. There were no rocks where trees remained. But in the fields cleared of trees for crops, each year they had to clear the fields again before they could till the earth.
I loved this image of frost heave and the rocks that emerge. This is so close to what happens to us. The upheaval of life brings out the hard places of the heart. And we have to clear them. Imagining the field filled with stones ready to be cleared I could hear Bach and Joseph of Arimathea singing his pleading aria. World get out, let Jesus in. It was as if he were trying to clear the field of stones so Jesus could be planted in his heart, buried in his soul, to bring him to new life.
At the end of the book, Stone by Stone, the author had one last beautiful image. The forests of New England once cleared to make the fields to be planted by the colonists are returning to forests. And with the return of the trees the stones don’t rise anymore. There is no frost heave to move the trees with their roots; the stones stay below, buried.
The story of Joseph of Arimathea is not really a teaching of Jesus, or a teaching about Jesus. From Bach we might take that even the body of Jesus brings the heart to God. Maybe. Yet, what I take from this sorrowful, beautiful moment is an image of our heart. The tomb is us; the act of bringing the crucified into our heart is the way of salvation.
The next story of Mark’s gospel, the last story, is the resurrection. Mark’s depiction of the resurrection is an image of chaos and fear and confusion and flight. With the tomb and the burial and Joseph and his simple act of devotion what we have here is a voice calling us to be quiet, to listen, to walk in canyons, to clear out our heart. It is as if he wants us to stop, to sit down, to be present.
Do you know where to find your heart? Do you know the way? There are shallow paths like desire or tenacity or delight. These paths are not wrong, but they don’t take you to places of the heart where Jesus is to dwell, where the Holy Spirit abides.
What is coming out of your heart? Has your life become a place of upheaval yielding heavy stones? This is not a place of blame. A sanctuary is a place to clear the stones. This is a place where beauty lifts the stones; where forgiveness removes them; where justice places them beyond us so life can be lived, a field can be tilled and sown.
Do you have a place to walk with goats? Do you have a time, a season, a path where you can listen and wander? So often we are too busy trying to make a life we forget to live one. There will never come a time when the world will stop. This is up to us. We must pray the prayer of Joseph of Arimathea, the prayer to his own heart, world get out, welt ges aus; lieb Jesum ein, let Jesus in.
Within each of us is beauty and splendor and hope and the very image of God. We must learn the paths that lead us to the soul’s depth. Along the way we must remove the hard parts, the broken places, smooth the rough edges. Sometimes when we sing hymns I think of the many verses as removing the layers covering the beauty within us, one after another. Sometimes when we move from word to song to prayer and then back again I imagine we are preparing the heart, the house for Jesus, clearing out the shabby for the humble, the meek abiding love of God.
Don’t fear. My desire for goats is real, but I will be more than content to imagine the canyons and stay with you. But wouldn’t that be cool to have a flock of goats here. Amen.
- Lamentations 3:14 - 24
- Mark 15:42 - 47