April 9 2023 “Where the Whale Takes Us”
I recently had a strange dream. I was in a rushing river, being carried along very fast, and the river poured over a vast cliff in a waterfall and plunged into the ocean. Opening my eyes underwater I was terrified to see a huge whale approaching me, and it swallowed me. I was amazed in this dream to discover that once the whale swallowed me, I was in a kind of translucent golden vessel that I could see out of, and I had this feeling that it could take me places I would never be able to go on my own. So I asked if she would take me to the source—to the place where Indigenous wisdom and Christian faith met, that place where they and all the great spiritual traditions came from, where they are united. When I got there, Christ was there, smiling, and he handed me a chalice. The chalice was not filled with wine or blood but with water. He told me to come back every day to drink from the source. And the dream ended.
I woke feeling awed, as if I had been given a very strange and precious gift. In my Epiphany sermon to you from January 8, I had shared with you that my intention this year is to seek to integrate Christian wisdom, earth-based wisdom, and my personal experience, to connect deeply with God in all things and also to transcend what remains of colonialism in our religion and practice and thinking. This dream felt like a direct answer to my prayer, not through ideas, but experience.
What does all this have to do with Easter, you may ask?
In our Christian tradition we have another story of a person swallowed by a whale for three days, our friend Jonah. In the Newer Testament Jonah’s experience is compared to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And of course this is the central cipher of our faith and of Holy Week, this great power of Jesus’ love, his surrender into an awful death, and coming out the other side—changed, but not ended.
We all wish the crucifixion part did not have to happen. None of us wants to be swallowed by the whale. It is terrifying. It is an innate part of being alive to want to cling to life. But little deaths, little losses, and big losses and endings happen all the time. And every single one of us will die, none of us knows when.
But there is a miracle that happens through death that cannot happen any other way. Heidi said that last night too. The only requirement for resurrection is that first you have to be dead. There is a miracle of spring that cannot happen until after winter. There is a magic about the fact of finally offering one’s body as a gift to the earth after having taken from and being nourished by the earth one’s whole life. This miracle is resurrection, and it does not mean resuscitation. It does not mean a return to the way things were. It means life that continues in beautiful and new forms, in ways that are both similar and different from what came before. Mary Magdalene in the garden did not at first recognize Jesus, her beloved, whom she knew so very well. The disciples on the road to Emmaus spoke with Jesus for hours without knowing who he was, except that their hearts were burning within them. Resurrection is what happens when we finally accept the pain and loss that come to us all throughout life and finally in our death, and when we humbly ask to be part of the Christ mystery. In my dream, I was facing the limits of how I had experienced the Christian tradition, and asking for a deeper mystery, a holy mystery, that is included in Christian faith and yet transcends it.
Ironically, what I was asking for is at the very heart of Christian faith. In baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s death and resurrection—into the death of the old self, and reborn in a life centered not on self but on love. We are swallowed by the whale and spit out in a new place, taken to the source where all spiritual nourishment comes from.
We are standing at a pivotal time in the history of St. John’s, of Christian faith, and indeed of humanity and of life on this planet. As Galadriel said in the Lord of the Rings, much that once was is lost. I am the mother of a teenager, and I can see that in my daughter’s generation, many of the ways we have practiced Christian faith do not speak to them at all. Some of you who have kids or grandkids or friends can see this is true as well. Some of the ways we have practiced faith at St John’s are not working either. Some of the same people have faithfully led their ministries not for two years but for thirty years. But it seems the next generation is not interested in engaging all the same things in the same way, even though the next generation is full of wisdom and life and joy and fire.
In some ways, we are underwater and the whale is approaching. No matter what we want or don’t want, some things will come to an end. We are all being asked to risk living into the fullness of our baptisms. To die and rise again with Christ.
It turns out resurrection, including resurrection of the Way of Jesus, is already all around us. But it’s hard to recognize, especially if we are anxiously looking for the return of what once was. The past was beautiful, and valuable, and meaningful, and we worked so hard at it. We loved it. And nothing can ever take that away from us. But everything in this world has a life cycle. For whatever reason, our Creator did not design a world in which things live forever. Part of the cost of resurrection is to fully accept that which has died. It is to recognize that once we are in the belly of the whale, we can be taken places we would never be able to go on our own.
There is a chalice of living water, a spring gushing up to eternal life as Jesus said of the Spirit, that can arise in the heart of every one of you. No one owns this. Some of us are so thirsty we cling hard to anything that gives us even a modicum of joy. But we do not need to cling to a few drops of water when a Niagara Falls-sized stream is available to us.
What will help us to pivot, to make this beautiful turn toward an Easter that is full of joy and life and laughter, toward a chalice of living water that will never run dry? What will help us experience the Christ who transcends the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Church and Christian faith as we know it? How can we embody Christ, the fully divine image of God that is our birthright and our DNA?
My friends, I believe what we most need now are two things: acceptance and imagination. If you are not ready to accept what has been lost, I encourage you to make time every day to just sit with the sun as it sets. Watch the beauty of the sun slipping over the horizon, surrendering its light until the morning. Let your acceptance be like that: a letting go, a laying down, a graceful release of what has been that is clearly at the end of its life. Feel your grief, let the tears flow and be held by the overwhelming compassion of the God who is not over and outside you but beneath and within you, coming up through your roots in the ground. What makes it possible to accept the sunset is that we know there will be a beautiful sunrise, even if we do not know what the new day will bring.
And what of imagination?
We have explored much about what has been wrong in this world and with Christian faith also. Now, it is time to release the inner artist, the playful child, the creative person who loves building or quilting or gardening or poetry or being an entrepreneur. We are made in the image of the Creator, and our vocation as human beings is to co-create with God. It is time to surrender our stranglehold on correct ways of seeing things and instead connect with the natural world, dream, have visions, experiment, imagine, and play. It is time to invite the wisdom of earth-centered spirituality and elephants and rocks. It is time to listen from the heart to the voices of those who have been silenced for too long, to LGBTQ people and People of Color and the non-verbal communication of animals and plants, the four directions and Indigenous traditions. It is time to put it all into conversation with European Christianity and allow the Holy Spirit to speak a new word to us, to light a new fire within us.
This imagination and play is not shirking our responsibility as mature human beings tasked with the survival of this planet. In fact it is the only way we will get there. Imagination is how the impossible becomes possible.
The next two years at St. John’s are all about this imagination and play. In case you haven’t noticed, it has already begun. You do not need my permission to imagine new ways of expressing Christ’s love. Rena is not the poster child that will make it all happen. You and the Holy Spirit are. So go for it. In fact one example of this new life is the Wild Church experiment we are starting on Saturday April 29 you can read about in your bulletin. This new life will likely move at plant speed. If you stare at it, nothing will happen in the moment. But if you come back week after week and tenderly water the shoots, make space for them, not try to do too much but lovingly care for the new expressions arising among us, we may soon have a garden run riot, bearing fruit and growing in ways we could never have predicted. We need a world in which diverse life forms flourish together and nourish one another, in which one kind of life does not crowd out all the rest. We need a world in which profound kindness and gentle respect are the dominant relational dynamic toward each other, where we are less concerned with protecting our own programs or getting offended and more concerned with dropping keys everywhere for those who are in cages. Let go. Play. Give your life. Be born anew. Drink living water. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Happy Easter.