“On the Silk Road” by John Morris

May 12, 2019

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

A few years ago the New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast published a graphic memoir about her never-ending and unsuccessful attempts to get her aging parents to focus on end-of-life issues.  The title of the book is, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? This morning, I’m afraid I’m going to ask you to focus for 15 minutes or so on death – but not so much as an “end-of-life” issue as a challenge for Christians, taking off from our readings this week.

Before I do that, I want to put in a quick plug for the new Down the Road ministry here at Seekers, which Jacqie Wallen has been championing.  Down the Road is a website for Seekers to share information, ideas, resources, plans, and feelings about our own later years, or those of our friends and families.  Downtheroad.life – check it out.  The Down the Road project was just blessed this month with “ministry” status by Stewards, and we hope it will be a source of encouragement for all in the community, and especially those of us who would really rather talk about something more pleasant, but don’t have any choice because we’re . . . well . . . getting old.

All right.  On to the sermon.

The year of feeding in the human realm had come to an end.  When we ate, it seemed tasty.  But did it taste so good now?  Even the gods with their terrific stature couldn’t stop the effect of our actions, the greatest of which was our journey from one place to another, the smallest of which was the killing of fleas.  You think any of it belongs to you? the man with the apron said.

What have I just read to you?  This is a quotation that comes near the end of the new novel by Kathryn Davis called The Silk Road.  The story is beautiful and mysterious and hard to summarize.  I don’t know if Davis would agree with my understanding of the above passage, but here it is: It seems to take place when all the human characters in the book (who are never given names, just designations like the Topologist or the Cook) have died and entered a sort of bardo or purgatory or holding place.  They know that a momentous change has happened to them, but – much like the reader – they find it nearly impossible to describe what’s occurred.  All they know is that something is over, it’s finished: and there’s “the man with the apron” there to greet them, who you might think of as an angel.  Well, with that context, let me read it again:

The year of feeding in the human realm had come to an end.  When we ate, it seemed tasty.  But did it taste so good now?  Even the gods with their terrific stature couldn’t stop the effect of our actions, the greatest of which was our journey from one place to another, the smallest of which was the killing of fleas.  You think any of it belongs to you? the man with the apron said.

I wonder if Tabitha got to experience something like this, before her journey from one place to another made an abrupt U-turn.  Did she remember it at all?  Does resurrection change you?  Or do you resume your place in the karmic wheel, completely bound to the effect of your actions?  Bound, perhaps, but remember what the man with the apron asks: You think any of it belongs to you?

Our readings this week inevitably make me meditate upon the fact of death.  And, by a coincidence not at all uncommon to those of us who read a lot, here was Kathryn Davis’s extraordinary new novel to add spice to the mix.  (If you don’t know Davis and her unique novels, learn more at https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/silk-road .) Just to get my cards out on the table: I think it’s likely, and I hold on faith, that the human spirit does survive death.  I have no idea, of course, what I’m talking about.  For starters, what I’m calling “survival” may be more like a resurrection or re-imagining by God, since I rather doubt there is a literal soul that can survive.  My beloved cat Lula died recently; I can close my eyes and recreate her in precise, sensual detail.  Does this mean she has “survived”?  Not exactly, not really; certainly not from her point of view!  But if I had the creative powers of God, my re-imagining might have very different results . . . Well, this is what the Catholics call “pious speculations,” and I won’t ask you to indulge them much further.  I just wanted to confess that, for my part, I do believe that death is not the end.  And this is a source of anxiety as much as comfort; as Hamlet said, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause . . .”  Hamlet calls death “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” and declares that it “puzzles the will, / And rather makes us bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of . . .”

According to the Christian faith, there have been a few instances of a traveler returning from the bourn, or barrier, of death.  Our Tabitha this week is one of them, and so, declares the Church, is our Savior, Jesus Christ.  It often surprises me that so many contemporary Christians, especially progressive Christians, would rather not hear this good news – would prefer, in fact, to convert Christianity into an ethical philosophy.  To pursue that thought would take me away from the main point of this sermon, but I’ll just say that I cannot understand Christian faith at all without reckoning in its confrontation with death.

Well, fine, but what’s the cash value?  Psalm 23, which is one of those Biblical passages that even atheists can quote in the King James version, tells us this: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”  Here, long before Christianity was thought of, is the bedrock promise: your faith in God will matter, even when death and evil surround you.  Now this can’t mean that no harm will come to a devout person; I have to think that the Jewish people were even more familiar, on a daily basis, than we are with the terrible slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  So there must be some other kind of intervention involved here.  God does something else about death and evil.  God doesn’t make them go away, or save us from them.  But God may change what they mean.

When I think of this, it returns me to my core belief: Death – and suffering, and grief, and shattered hope – is not the end.  We do not know how the story ends.  Jesus gives us several reasons to think that the ending involves resurrection, and the defeat of the Empire of the Powers and Principalities, and the beginning of the endless Reign of God, whether on Earth or in Heaven.  These startling, apocalyptic images (and there were a few more in our reading from Revelations this week) all seem to point to a mode of being we can barely conceive of.

Let’s hold that thought and go back to the question that the man in the apron asks, in The Silk Road: You think any of it belongs to you?  Jacqie and I recently taught a School for Christian Growth class called “The 12 Steps for Everyone.”  We tried to use our experience of working the 12 Steps in the context of recovery from alcoholism and addiction to suggest how just about anyone could find a valuable spiritual path there.  The Seekers who took the class really rose to the occasion, I thought.  Not only were they willing to share deeply and vulnerably almost from the start, but they offered insights into the spiritual meaning of the 12 Steps that were truly illuminating.  One of these insights that came up a lot was the idea, first introduced by Jacqie, that addiction and attachment, in the Buddhist sense and egoistic sense, are very similar.  It’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but the love of money.  To quote the AA Promises: It’s not financial insecurity that will leave you, but the fear of financial insecurity.  And of course we have the Psalm: It’s not that death and evil have vanished, but that I will fear no evil.  It’s our attachment to outcomes, to results, to our imagined destinies, to what AA calls “the wreckage of the future,” that gets us all bound up.  Perhaps this is what God can deliver us from – if we were really able, 100 percent, to believe that none of it belongs to us.  That would truly be a new mode of being.

I said earlier that, for me, Christianity is more than an ethical philosophy.  But it is that too, and it’s a pretty sorry Christian who claims to believe in Jesus but doesn’t try to do what Jesus told us to do.  You can see that theme clearly in the Gospel passage for this week, where Jesus all but breaks bad on his questioners, basically saying, Will you please stop asking me for words and pay attention to what I’m doing?  The reading is framed very starkly: Jesus declares that his sheep, his followers, are the ones who believe in his works.  Period.  That is surely a lesson for us as well: Our works, whether we do or do not live an ethical life, are what will reveal us as followers of Jesus – or not.

But then Jesus takes an unexpected turn in this passage, as he says of his followers, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”  So here we are again: first ethics, and then the Christian confrontation with death.  I’m aware that scholars may debate whether Jesus “really” said this, or anything else you may care to single out in the Gospels.  But that ignores the point that his followers, both in the immediate aftermath of his death and resurrection, and then throughout the next two millennia, didn’t have much doubt that he really said it, and really meant it.  Paul seems to hit it exactly right when he says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”  This is far from a settled theological point, and I’m not trying to provoke any arguments, but this morning I’m standing in the more or less traditional Christian place which assumes that faith in God can and will do something about death and evil.  Or to put it even more simply, or simple-mindedly, God wins.  There’s a happy ending to this whole absurd and tragic tale of human life on Earth.

What could that happy ending possibly look like?  It might start out very mysteriously, like the post-mortem waiting room where the characters in The Silk Road find themselves.  Something that was dead is going to come alive again, that much seems clear.  And it will turn out to be “eternal,” perhaps in both senses of the word: “eternal” in the sense of being outside time, of having no beginning nor end, and also “eternal” in the experiential sense of infinite duration, of never ending.

I can see Katie and a few other of my tolerant friends and loved ones beginning to look eagerly around for a waiter who could deliver me a nice cup of hemlock and get the philosophy over with.  Fair enough.  Maybe the defeat of death and evil will be more like the dream I had this week.  I dreamt that Katie and I brought Lula to a big house with a lot of other cats, and I think other animals as well.  Lula in this dream was her final, sad, thin, sick self.  We put her down in the midst of the other cats, and a cat who I instantly recognized as the Great Mother Cat, the feminine presence in charge here, came over to Lula and began grooming her, licking her and stroking her.  Lula loved it.  She was finally home.  Just as in waking life, Katie and I had brought her to the bourn of death – but the dream continued this journey for her, and so I leave her in the loving care of the Great Mother Cat, in hopes that the two of us will meet again.  And all of us.  Happy Mother’s Day.  Amen.

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