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The Hour Has Come – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

John 12:20-36

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”[1]

This one phrase from John’s Gospel encapsulates the essential sprit of what we call the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection to New Life. On this Tuesday evening in Holy Week, these words are also something like a “preview of coming attractions,” awakening our hopes and grounding our intentions as we prepare for the single, liturgical arc of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

We believe that our sincere and wholehearted participation in this liturgical drama is one of the central means by which we participate in the saving work of Christ. This is the unfolding drama of how, in his own particular life and flesh, Jesus underwent the human experiences of suffering and death and was, in defiance of all expectation, raised from death by the One he called Father. As a liturgical tradition, we do not simply re-enact or reminisce about very significant events that happened long ago in ancient Palestine. No. To see what we are doing as pious commemoration would be to keep the Crucified at a safe distance in the historical past, separate from ourselves. Rather, the unboundaried space opened to us as the assembled body of Christ invites us truly to enter the sacred, inner dynamic of the events by which we have been claimed and marked as His own forever. On a personal level, this week invites us into a more intimate, transformative encounter with the mystery of our own suffering, death, and resurrection. Each of us has undergone, and will yet undergo, countless passions, deaths, and resurrections – in churches, yes, but also in hospitals and office buildings, by bedsides and firesides, under the open sky and around kitchen tables. Though these experiences are potential fountainheads of meaning through our union with Christ, many of them go unnamed as such and so their graces remain unrealized. In the chapter from our own Rule entitled “Holy Death,” we receive this reminder: “Week by week, we are to accept every experience which requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life.”[2] This is the paschal mystery writ small, in lowercase letters, across the individual history of every child of God. The small mystery enclosed within one’s own skin is grounded afresh in the Great Mystery of Christ’s Body by reading our small print alongside the bold, capital letters of this week’s unitive liturgical action.

How can we open ourselves fully to the integrating, unifying and transfiguring work of this Holy Week? In order to be genuinely touched and transformed from within by these rites, there is one particular orientation of the heart that I believe is crucial. We see this disposition demonstrated most poignantly by Jesus, as he announces that “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.” In the midst of struggle, we see in Jesus the courage to choose vulnerability. Willingly accepted vulnerability renders us most pliable to the grace and truth of the Paschal Mystery.

I invite you to step outside the frame of our well-trodden words, and ask how liturgy disarms us in order to let more of God in. According to liturgical scholar James Farwell, Christian liturgy is marked by highly significant binaries.[3] In the push-and-pull between these binaries, a generative tension emerges that produces meaning. A simple example of this is the binary bread and wine on the one hand, and body and blood on the other hand. The elision of these two binaries in the mystical unity of the Sacrament yields a meaning that is inexhaustible, no matter how many times we encounter it.  Examples of these binaries multiply exponentially: The Cross is an emblem of shame and death that is, by Christ’s saving death upon it, a Tree of Life. Our God weeps tears and dies, but he is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world who wipes away every tear. Christ is the only one worthy, whose sacrifice is all-sufficient, yet in Him we are “little Christs” and our sacrificial participation in his worthiness makes us worthy. The juxtapositions here are meant to disturb and startle, to loosen the rust and melt the ice encasing our understandings of God and ourselves. This was, of course, Jesus’ own most distinctive and most misunderstood approach to proclaiming God’s truth. In John’s twelfth chapter, which acts as a crucial hinge in the overall structure of that gospel, we hear Jesus offer several juxtapositions:

A grain of wheat falls in to the earth and dies;

By its death, it yields a rich harvest.

 Anyone who loves his life loses it;

Anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Whoever serves me must follow me

If anyone serves me, my Father will honor him.

And finally, we are presented with the binary pair that most meaningfully expresses Jesus’ vulnerability at the most crucial hour of his own discernment:

Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’

But it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!

In this moment, we see a tension at play in Jesus himself. There is the very real, very human desire to protect himself and avoid suffering. And there is the equally real conviction that his most authentic, personal response to the divine initiative is to embrace the mysterious and generative power at work in the very midst of suffering vulnerability. We live in a culture that avoids vulnerability at almost all costs, yet suffers dramatically from the attendant feelings of disconnection, isolation, and unworthiness that are the obvious symptoms of our obsession with invulnerability. Jesus models an entirely different path through life and into the glory that God intends. He soberly acknowledges his options. Shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?Jesus seems to see in this choice a false craving for an inauthentic self-preservation that would deny his reason for being. Instead, he makes an impossibly risky and deeply vulnerable choice that rings with truth. His consent to the hour that has come, with all of its dreadful implications and inevitable consequences, is followed by a cry of deep trust in God and a surrender of control. It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!

Brené Brown is a professor of social work whose life’s research centers around the experience of vulnerability in the search for human connection. She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.[4] Brown’s work has powerful implications for our personal appropriation of the mystery of Christ. Allow yourself to hear these words of hers against the backdrop of Jesus’ lifelong embrace of human vulnerability, culminating in the self-offering of his final week. Brown writes:

Vulnerability isn’t good or bad: It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.

Our rejection of vulnerability often stems from our associating it with dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment – emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead. What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.[5]

In her research, Brown discovered that in individuals whose lives were dominated by a strong sense of shame and unworthiness, vulnerability had become a risk too excruciating to bear. They took pains to avoid any experience that might leave them unprotected, exposed to judgment, rejection, or exclusion. If avoidance were impossible, they would numb these experiences heavily with food, alcohol, or other behaviors. But from her data their also emerged another, distinct group of people that Brown called “the whole-hearted.” Over and over, these people described taking emotional risks with no guarantees of acceptance, love, success or inclusion on the other side, simply because they believed such risks were necessary in order to live meaningful lives. They were not afraid to come out of the shadows to walk in the light, even if the light left them feeling exposed and revealed a path radically different than the one they had planned for themselves. What enabled them to take such risks, even in the face of great struggle and pain, was a profound sense that they were worthy of love and belonging. Brown’s greatest professional and personal epiphany was, in her words, the realization that “our capacity for whole-heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted.”

In the words of Jesus: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”

Jesus shows us what wholeheartedness looks like, and died to convince us that we are worthy of it. To undergo the Paschal Mystery from within rather than as a spectator in the bleachers, we can bring the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure that are woven through our daily experiences into prayerful and conscious conversation with God. We can allow the Passion writ small in the events of our daily life to be glorified and redeemed by the Passion writ bold and large in the life of Christ by showing up this week in our human fullness, consenting to wait in the shadow of the cross as readily as the dawning light of Easter. We can consent to undergo “the hour that has come,” just as it is and just as we are. We can allow the generative but often uncomfortable tension of all those binaries that mark our liturgies wash over and into us. We can unload the back-log of difficult or dark emotions that we have been waiting to process until a more convenient time by consenting simply to feel them in the company of Jesus – and because a more convenient time may never come. While vulnerability is not the same as “letting it all hang out” or emotional exposure for its own sake, this monastic chapel is a safe space and this week provides a safe context and a gentle community of pilgrims with whom we can consent to come a little undone. We can give ourselves permission to weep if we feel so moved, to let our spirits fall into the earth and die, and to surrender our control with a cry of total trust: “Father, glorify your name!”

[1] John 12: 24.

[2]The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Chapter 48, “Holy Death,” p. 96.

[3] The Rev. Dr. James Farwell, February 2017, in a lecture presented to SSJE.

[4]Brené Brown. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. 2012.p. 34.

[5]Brené Brown. Ibid. pgs. 33-34.

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2 Comments

  1. Polly Chatfield on April 17, 2017 at 10:24

    Thank you, Keith, for this beautifully crafted and deeply thoughtful sermon. There are months of meditation in it.

  2. Ruth West on April 15, 2017 at 18:53

    Thank you, Br. Keith, for this eye-opening sermon.
    I have always thought of vulnerability as a negative thing, but this has certainly given me a new view of this word. I believe it means openness. Willingness. Thanks for the input of Brown on this subject. Christ’s yielding to the will of His Father, even though it was not something he craved, is proof positive that he was open and willing.
    I feel this sermon will have a transforming effect on the way I live. Thank you very much.

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