April 9, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Matthew 21: 1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Many of you know that I am a well-organized planner. It seems to be the only way I function. I have a lot of interests and the way I can accomplish a lot is organizing myself and starting things early. So I usually have the themes for the Sunday services selected at least a month ahead. That allows Michelle time to select fitting music, the ladies detectives at the library time to find a good children’s book, those who have signed up for the children’s ministry time to create an activity, and, time for me to read, reflect and pray about the topic. Last week’s theme was compassion, and weeks ago I planned that this Sunday would be about courage, and I started out preparing that but my reflections took a turn.
Some of you will remember the name of Joseph Campbell. Campbell taught in relative obscurity for many years until Bill Moyers discovered him, did a series on public television about Campbell’s ideas on mythology and comparative religions, and so elevated him into celebrity; most of it posthumously since Campbell died shortly after that television series.
Campbell’s book that originally caught Moyers’s attention was entitled, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The thesis of the book is that the same story appears over and over again in the entire world’s literature, including the Bible. He called that story, “The Hero’s Quest.” He said that the plot is always the same. A hero must make a solitary journey, sometimes climb a mountain to get the prize, sometimes go into a cave to slay the dragon, and sometimes journey to a Forbidden City.
Whatever the symbol for the forces that portend to undo us, -and we see all to many examples around us today -the powers of evil, the menace to take away meaning and goodness in life, the influences that seem too strong for us and threaten to overwhelm us, the hero is the person who faces those dangers, enters the struggle, prepared to give his or her life, and then comes out of it a new person, with a new life.
Campbell said that those stories are everywhere. They are a part of every culture. In Greece, it’s the Golden Fleece. In Britain, it’s the Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail. And in the Bible, it is the story of Abraham leaving Ur, the most civilized part of the world in those days, and journeying through many “dangers, toils, and snares” to a promised land. Or it is Moses, leaving the comfort and security of shepherding in Midian to go to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. Or it is David, leaving the simple life of a shepherd boy and going out to meet the giant Goliath. Or it is Jesus, who we read about today, leaving the safety of Galilee, and heading for Jerusalem.
That is the story of Palm Sunday. Jesus most likely didn’t want to go to Jerusalem. If we read all the gospels, we discover that Jesus spent his whole ministry in Galilee. We never read about him going to Jerusalem as an adult, which in itself is quite extraordinary. It would have been natural and easy to journey to Jerusalem from Galilee. In fact, it might have been expected that a good Jew would go to the Temple in Jerusalem several times in his life for the high holy days. Maybe he did, but no one wrote about it.
Then one day at Caesarea Philippi Jesus announced that the time had come for him to go to Jerusalem. His disciples immediately protested; especially Peter, who said “You are crazy to go there! Don’t go there!” Peter knew what Jerusalem meant. Jerusalem was the center of power that had been trying to do Jesus in. As long as Jesus stayed in Galilee, in his own country, among his own people, then he was relatively safe. But for him to go to Jerusalem, it would be like Moses, going to Egypt to challenge the Pharaoh. Or it would be like Abraham, leaving his ancestral home in Ur, and venturing out simply on the trust in God. Or it like David, stripping himself of the armor of Saul and going to meet the giant Goliath alone. It would be like “The Hero’s Quest.”
But that’s not all. When Jesus announced that he must go to Jerusalem, he also said, in so many words that you and I must go there too. I think that is really why Peter objected. When Jesus announced what he was going to do, Peter said, “God forbid that you should ever do this!” Peter knew that if Jesus went to Jerusalem, then he, Peter, would have to go there too. Peter had just told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go. Others may not follow you, but I will follow you.” Now he probably wished that he had qualified his statement a little bit, “I’ll follow you, maybe, under certain conditions.” But he couldn’t do that. If Jesus went to Jerusalem, then Peter must follow him there, and so must we.
Jesus rebukes Peter. Then immediately he begins using the language of “The Hero’s Quest’- to Peter, to the other disciples and to us.”If anyone would come after me, he must take up a cross and follow me.” Then this: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” That is the path of the hero, to be willing to risk losing our lives in order to find it. And here it is again; the talk about new life.
“The Hero’s Quest” is one phrase that that appears often in the spiritual reflections of the late Joseph Campbell. Another is Tat Twam Asi; a phrase translated from Sanskrit as Thou Art That. Thou Art That! This epigram captures Campbell’s generous spirit as well as his scholarly focus. As a great student of mythology Campbell not only understood the profound spiritual implications of this phrase, but as I read more about his life, it seems that he lived by this motto as well. A key question on which Campbell often reflected was, “How is it possible that suffering that is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as if it were my own, and with such force that it moves me to action?” He went on to say, “This is really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation, and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is not unknown, “he says “even in the most hard-hearted and self-interested.” And then Campbell gives examples of people coming to the aid of others, sometimes even risking their own lives. We saw this dramatically this week as we watched medical personnel continue to care for the sick and injured in Syria despite having been attacked by bombs containing nerve gas. Campbell’s explanation? Thou Art That! Campbell describes an intuitive, sub-conscious, or semi-conscious process whereby one penetrates the barrier between persons so that the other is no longer perceived as an indifferent stranger but as a person, he says “in whom I suffer, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enfold my nerves.” In his teaching, Campbell reiterates what other philosophers and theologians have come to believe, that our own true inner being actually exists in every living creature. The ground of compassion then is the realization that we are one. That though it may take an initial act of courage to begin doing for the other, givingness is really self-care since we are all one. One image that Campbell used to help us see this reality more clearly was that of a powerful cathedral organ through which the tonal resonations of a hundred separate pipes were fused into the same extraordinary music.
Though we find ourselves caught up in the specifics of our own human longings, aspirations, sufferings, and tragedies, despite differences in some of the details, all of creation, throughout all time has, does and will share those same experiences and feel the same emotions. We all share the wonder and awe in the mystery of being.
So though I planned to focus today on courage, my reflections brought me back to last week’s theme of compassion. The word, compassion is sometimes devalued as a sentimental emotion. In reality it demands much more of our character. Compassion is fundamentally a spiritual journey. It requires that we take a hero’s voyage into the reaches of people who seem different than ourselves and separate from us. Compassion is a courageous expedition, one in which we die to ourselves in order to rise to that vision that we share human nature with all other persons; that we are one with all of creation. Tat Twam Asi – Thou Art That!
The heroes, the heroines, are those who, when opportunities to give of themselves arise, do not hide in self-protection or turn away in fear. No heroes and heroines walk steadfastly toward whatever Jerusalem they have to face, and expect that new life is going to come out of it.