Jesus as Wisdom Teacher for the Second Half of Life

Sermon by Rev’D Barb Messner, 24/2/19

In the recent survey about the Soup Supper Lenten Studies, it seemed that a book study might be agreeable, and the choice suggested by a couple of people was Falling Upward by Richard Rohr.

I’ve agreed to lead that study, because I find Richard Rohr a powerful influence on my theology, spirituality, and self-understanding.

This sermon introduces the study by considering our readings through the lens of some of the themes of Falling Upward.

My wise boss and CPE supervisor Les Underwood gave me Rohr’s book as a farewell present when I could no longer sustain my aged care chaplaincy at Regency Park on top of parish work here last year.

The book was what I needed, as it encourages meaning making in the second half of life, and I was very aware of my own ageing and of my depleted ability to keep pushing “onward and upward”.

Falling upward seemed like a promising paradox. I felt I was falling, losing some part of my identity, and it was encouraging to think that there might be a positive trajectory in my spiritual life.

That is the message of the Beatitudes that precede our gospel today in Luke chapter 6 – that what the world sees as loss, fall or failure may in fact open us to a new sense of connection to God’s love and the mutual love of others, which is a blessing.

By contrast, what the world sees as fortunate in riches plenty, laughter and acclaim can lead to spiritual poverty, a disconnection from God and others.

Rohr says heaven and hell are here and now, depending on how connected or disconnected we are to God.

Even while suffering we can rejoice, and “our reward is great in heaven”, as Luke says, if we experience God’s love and grace. On the dark side, we are in the abyss, wailing and gnashing teeth, when we are alienated from God, ourselves and others, yet by worldly terms we might be fortunate, beautiful, rich, or famous.

Unfortunately, we have seen too many of this world’s idols drawn into that hell of spiritual disconnection, by distortions in the values of our society, and the pressure of public idolatry.

On the other hand, if the kingdom of heaven is both here and now and not yet, then Paul’s apparent opposites can coexist in our lives, as well as promising a later transformation.

If the passage from 1 Corinthians 15 is seen through a both/and lens rather than an either/or lens, then we are both “perishable” and “imperishable”, both “in dishonour” and “in glory”, both “in weakness” and “in power”, both “physical” and “spiritual”, both “a living being” and “a life-giving spirit”, both “bearing the image of the man of dust” and “the image of the man of heaven”.

Surely that’s what incarnation is about? Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, not either human or divine. Through him we are heirs to the same holistic state, both in this life and beyond. Through him we also experience the transformation that is a guiding pattern of the universe, from death to resurrection, in this life and beyond, falling upward.

In our discussion of Luke’s Beatitudes at Bridgewater last week, we noticed the balance of blessing and woes, 4 of each, and all involving a deliberate paradox, another balance of positive and negative. We decided that perhaps we all experience both hidden blessings that appear out of apparent disaster, and apparent good fortune that can lead to estrangement from ourselves, others and God. Like the list of apparent opposites In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the greater wisdom lies in “both/and” thinking, rather than the one dimensional perception of either one or the other. This is what Rohr calls “non-dual” thinking.

That theme is particularly applicable to the gospel today, and to most of the wisdom teaching of Jesus in Luke chapter 6. Today we heard all those apparent paradoxes that we are asked to attempt: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Are these four impossible things to do before breakfast? Perhaps these selfless actions that cancel out negativity are only possible for those with second half of life wisdom, for people who have experienced their own falling and failing and can forgive others theirs.

This mature, unitive thinking doesn’t say defensively: “It’s them or me,” but instead sees “both them and me”, with God holding us together. Jesus balances the negatives with the positives, teaching an accepting mutuality of relationship: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” “Either/or” thinking is always a process of judging: we try to shore up our sense of identity by defining ourselves in opposition to others. “Either you are right or I am right. We can’t both be right.”

By contrast, the mature spiritual person can embrace ambiguity, diversity, paradox and polarities, and respect those with opposing opinions, without trying to prove them wrong. “Both/and” thinking enables us not to judge or condemn, but to forgive and give, knowing that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Awareness of the grace of God is necessary to the wideness of this gift of generosity. We see it in the lovely reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. They resented him, they thought about killing him, they sold him into slavery, but there is no vengefulness in his actions towards them.

Certainly, he tests whether they have changed, in the scenario of the hidden cup in Benjamin’s luggage, and he is delighted when all the brothers return to support Benjamin, and Judah demonstrates his selflessness by offering to become a slave in Benjamin’s place to spare their father grief.

In today’s reading we see the welcome embrace and forgiveness offered by a man who senses the grace of God in everything, misfortune and good fortune. “Come closer to me,” Joseph says, and he urges them to forgive themselves: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

At the end of the passage, “he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” On the other side of a fall which his own pride helped produce, Joseph’s unconditional love for his once treacherous brothers leads to reconciliation and relationship. Joseph certainly fell upward, and so eventually did they, acting selflessly and finding a haven in famine and the love of a now-powerful and protective brother, who forgives the hurts of the past.

By contrast, the psalmist wants a bit both ways, and I’m not sure that’s what non-dual thinking is about. We are advised not to vie with the wicked, or be vexed at their prosperity, but the psalmist still rejoices in the hope that God will “get them in the end”. Maybe God doesn’t “get” anybody, because God is surely the model for Jesus’ wisdom teaching in the gospel today, not to judge or to condemn but to forgive and to give. That’s what grace means. Let me conclude with a paragraph from Rohr’s writing on this theme, to give you a taste of what is to come in the studies: “Jesus touched and healed anybody who desired it and asked for it, and there were no other prerequisites for his healings. Check it out yourself. Why would Jesus’ love be so unconditional while he was in this world, and suddenly become totally conditional after death? Is it the same Jesus? Or does Jesus change his policy after his resurrection?

The belief in heaven and hell is meant to maintain freedom on all sides, with God being the most free of all, to forgive and include, to heal and to bless even God’s seeming “enemies.” How could Jesus ask us to bless, forgive, and heal our enemies, … unless God is doing it first and always?

Jesus told us to love our enemies because he saw his Father doing it all the time, and all spirituality is merely the “imitation of God” (Ephesians 5:1).”

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