Preached on May 31, 2015 (Holy Trinity Year B), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle
Some time ago I was visiting a close relative and his family in Minnesota, and I witnessed a little conversation that intrigued me. His daughter, about six years old I believe, turned to him and said this:
“Daddy, I hate you. You’re the parent I hate.”
Naturally, I was riveted. I couldn’t wait to find out what he would say in response to this. And here is what he said:
“I know, honey. I know. And bedtime is still 7:30.”
This was in my view a perfect response, a delight to witness, and the whole thing was an elegant little dialogue that all humans participate in at one point or another. Sometimes we are the child, sometimes the parent, sometimes the person a few feet away who can’t wait to find out what will happen next: we worry that the parent might accept the rejection at face value, and be destroyed by it. Worse yet, we worry what would become of the child if she realized this about her parent, if she discovered that her parent could not only break, but stay broken. We wonder how she would be able to live in this world, knowing that the people she needs most might shatter—and stay shattered—when they’re confronted with her ferocity—her natural, delightful, sometimes terrible ferocity.
And the observer—it was me this time—what about him? I sometimes reflect on the effect that this parent, my relative, had on me … his calm strength, his affable, unflappable response to his daughter. I wonder what it tells me about our clan, and therefore about me myself. If someone as dear to me as his daughter is to him were to reject me in such a chilling way, I wonder how I would respond.
I might feel shattered … in some sense, destroyed. But I hope that that would not be the end of the story, the end of my relationship with someone who is upset with me.
I hope that I would somehow survive that destruction.
The stories we hear as we open the scriptures this morning are, in their own odd ways, stories of destruction, and how the people involved survived that destruction. We watch as Jesus encounters Nicodemus, one of the religious professionals, in the dark of night. Nicodemus had his reasons for approaching Jesus in the night: perhaps it would have been shameful or scandalous for him to be seen talking to such a controversial figure. Perhaps he still felt ambivalent about Jesus, and didn’t want to risk his reputation on a daytime debate out in the open. In any case, he found Jesus in the night, and Jesus was there for him, willing to talk.
Night: in John’s Gospel, night is a symbol of the darkness of evil, the bleak emptiness of ignorance, the dreadful absence of God’s glory, the triumph of the destructive forces of what John called “the world”—the threatening environment that surrounded the community following Jesus as the one light that the darkness cannot overcome, the one light that can survive the destruction of night.
In the middle of that night, Nicodemus engages Jesus in the debating style common at the time: he begins with a salutation filled with careful flattery: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God”—that’s his opening salvo. This is a feint, not entirely sincere. He’s beckoning Jesus to join the fray with him. Later, Nicodemus feigns ignorance. He asks a question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” This is a form of false modesty, an absurd, literal response designed to get Jesus to say more, perhaps to trap him. There might even be a dash of contempt in it. Nicodemus is interested in Jesus, and possibly open to what Jesus has to say, but he is no fool.
But neither is Jesus, whose responses reveal that he too is familiar with this form of debate, and fluent in it. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” he asks Nicodemus. In my hearing, there is a faint trace of sarcasm in his voice. It’s almost like a fencing match, the way they trade questions. He and Jesus don’t trust each other—yet. Will they survive their attempts to destroy one another, their attempts to test the mettle of their adversary? Will they learn and be assured that the other person can be trusted? Could they become friends? Their nighttime encounter might even carry a faint echo of the story of Jacob wrestling with God in the night, a wrestling match that left them both weakened, but bonded them together permanently in close relationship.
Well, we do meet Nicodemus again. He appears much later in the story, after Jesus died, silently and faithfully making provision for the burial. So it seems that the friendship of Nicodemus and Jesus survived its own destruction.
And then there’s the other story we heard today, from the Hebrew Bible—the calling of Isaiah the prophet, a calling that nearly destroyed him, complete with a theophany, a dramatic revelation of God’s majesty. This vision terrifies and discourages Isaiah, who almost can’t bear the thought that he had seen the LORD, and therefore the LORD had seen Isaiah, too, with all his flaws and sins and weaknesses. I invite you to hear once again a faint echo of Jacob’s nighttime wrestling match with God: Isaiah is bowled over by the experience, but like Jacob he pulls himself together and appreciates the power and gift of this encounter. He isn’t quite ready to be God’s prophet though, until his lips are burned—more destruction!—and his identity, now caught up fully with God, is sealed beyond Isaiah’s own ability to break it.
Isaiah survived that destruction.
Again and again we hear this story, a story of destruction and survival that leaves the people involved stronger and bonded irrevocably together in a fierce intimacy that is both life-giving and terrible. It’s an intimacy made terrible by grief and loss: Nicodemus at the grave of his friend. It’s an intimacy made terrible by great sacrifice: the prophet burning with God’s Word must enter the dangerous fray and live the challenging life of a truth-teller, an agitator for justice: in rabbinic literature there is a tradition that says Isaiah died a martyr’s death. And then we hear Paul—another truth-teller, another martyr—name this dreadful intimacy in his letter to the Romans, telling us that we are adopted children, not slaves, which sounds nice enough until we realize that Paul means we are joined horribly to the destruction and survival of Christ, fused forever into the passion of the Spirit, crying out forever to Abba, Father!—a cry of praise and thanksgiving, but also fear and lament, and maybe even (like Nicodemus) a cry that sometimes carries a dash of contempt, a touch of resentment that intimacy with God must be so costly. I hate you, Daddy. Love hurts.
We pray to this Holy Trinity, fused as we are by Baptism into terrible intimacy with the Holy Three. And we see in the life of the Trinity that same story once again: destruction and survival, intimacy made fierce and strong by suffering. We see that even the Holy Trinity itself was destroyed by the life and death of the Word as a feeble human being ... and the Holy Trinity survived that destruction. We sing a hymn on Palm Sunday that has the angels looking “down with sad and wondering eyes” at the passion of Christ, and then we find the Source of All Being seated on a sapphire throne, waiting for the return of the Word, which can’t happen before the “last and fiercest strife.”
But the Holy Three survived that destruction.
And now the Holy Three know that about one another. And we know that about the Holy Three. We can trust and rely upon God not because God is beyond human suffering in a serene, hermetically sealed heaven of constant bliss, but because the Holy Three have invited all of our messy suffering into their intimate company, into their wondrous life, and the Holy Three survive, with us pulled in with them, all of us together receiving a life that carries terrible risk and wretched grief, but is for us all a life worth grieving.
When my friends die I expect my heart will be wrenched open yet again, with all the ridiculous hot pain of grief, as it has been before. But these are friendships worth grieving. The parent is a parent worth their salt. I can trust you, my beloved companion in this fragile and gorgeous and scary world: I can trust you, because I know you and I together, we can survive the destruction.
We may not ever be able to fathom the depth of our bond.
I got permission from my relative to share his story about his daughter, and this request got him reflecting. He said to me, “There certainly have been many occasions when I’ve not behaved so admirably. It’s all about moods and triggers. For some reason, verbal ragings aren’t a trigger for me. Irrational resistance to reason? It drives me wild. As the years go by, it is not the [disciplinary problems, like bedtime enforcement] that [create] the most visceral, painful reactions [in my children]; but [it’s] when they feel ignored. When they call me out for not paying attention, [for] being self-absorbed, that's not a nice feeling.”
“That’s not a nice feeling.” I smiled at his characteristic understatement. And I felt inside myself a flash of deep gladness at the thought of this parent and his children, for I know in the depth of my being that those children will never, ever lose their good and just father, not even after his death. He is theirs forever…
… and he will not be destroyed.
Biblical Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17
I reflected extensively on the idea of ‘surviving destruction,’ a concept from attachment theory, as described in “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama”, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.