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The Three Great Untruths, or, Making Sense Out of Chaos: The Third Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 24, 2019:
Isaiah 55:1-9
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

[First section adapted from The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.]

Two authors recently wrote a book about, as they call it, “wisdom, and its opposite” and how what we think are good ideas and practices are really doing harm to younger generations, especially on college campuses. These authors had heard repeated references to the wisdom of Misoponos, a modern-day oracle who lives in a cave on the north slope of Mount Olympus, where he continues the ancient rites of the cult of Koalemos.

They flew to Athens and took a five-hour train ride to Litochoro, a town at the foot of the mountain. At sunrise the next day, they set off on a trail that Greeks have used for thousands of years to seek communion with their gods. They hiked for six hours up a steep and winding path. At noon they came to a fork in the path where a sign said MISOPONOS, with an arrow pointing to the right. The other, main path, off to the left, looked forbidding: it went straight up a narrow ravine, with an ever-present danger of rockslides.

But the path to Misoponos, in contrast, was smooth, level, and easy—a welcome change. It took the scholars through a pleasant grove of pine and fir trees, across a strong wooden pedestrian bridge over a deep ravine, and right to the mouth of a large cave.

Inside the cave they saw a strange scene. Misoponos and his assistants had installed one of those take-a-number systems that you sometimes find in sandwich shops. They took a number, paid the 100 euro fee to have a private audience with the great philosopher, performed the mandatory rituals of purification, and waited.

When their turn came, they were ushered into a dimly lit chamber at the back of the cave, where a small spring of water bubbled out from a rock wall and splashed down into a large white marble bowl somewhat reminiscent of a birdbath. Next to the bowl, Misoponos sat in a comfortable chair that appeared to be a recliner from the 1970s. They had heard that he spoke English, but were taken aback when he greeted them in perfect American English: “Come on in, guys. Tell me what you seek.”

So they began: “O Wise Oracle, we have come seeking wisdom. What are the deepest and greatest of truths?” Misoponos sat silently with his eyes closed for about two minutes. Finally, he opened his eyes and spoke.

“This is the first truth,” he said: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. So avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences.”

They were surprised. They were familiar with the exact opposite statement, which was most famously stated by Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” So they spoke up: “Excuse me, Your Holiness,” he said, “but did you really mean to say ‘weaker’? Because I’ve got quotes from many wisdom traditions saying that pain, setbacks, and even traumatic experiences can make people stronger.”

“Did I say ‘weaker’?” asked the oracle. “Wait a minute . . . is it weaker or stronger?” He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought about it, and then opened his eyes and said, “Yes, I’m right, weaker is what I meant. Bad experiences are terrible, who would want one? Did you travel all this way to have a bad experience? Of course not. And pain? So many oracles in these mountains sit on the ground twelve hours a day, and what does it get them? Circulation problems and lower-back pain. How much wisdom can you dispense when you’re thinking about your aches and pains all the time? That’s why I got this chair twenty years ago. Why shouldn’t I be comfortable?”

Now slightly irritated, he continued: “Second: Always trust your feelings. Never question them.”

One of the authors was horrified at this. Their background as a therapist taught them that feelings so often mislead us, that you can’t achieve mental health until you learn to question them and free yourself from some common distortions of reality. But having learned to control their immediate negative reactions, they both bit their tongues and said nothing.

Misoponos went on: “Third: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

They looked at each other in disbelief (as it seemed quite the blanket statement): “O Great Oracle of Koalemos,” one began, haltingly, “can you explain that one to us?”

“Some people are good,” Misoponos said slowly and loudly, as if he thought he just hadn’t been heard, “and some people are bad.” He took a deep breath. “There is so much evil in the world. Where does it come from?” He paused as if expecting his audience to answer. But they were speechless. “From evil people!” he said, clearly exasperated. “It is up to you and the rest of the good people in the world to fight them. You must be warriors for virtue and goodness. You can see how bad and wrong some people are. You must call them out! Assemble a coalition of the righteous, and shame the evil ones until they change their ways.”

One of them asked, “But don’t they think the same about us? How can we know that it is we who are right and they who are wrong?”

The great thinker responded tartly, “Don’t you remember the second truth? Trust your feelings. Do you feel that you are right? Do you feel that you are good, and they bad? Then there you go! I ‘feel’ that this interview is over. Get out.”

I adapted that story from the introduction to a new book: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. I don’t present it just because, admittedly, it’s kind of funny. And not just because I appreciate how the authors are promoting respectful dialogue and personal growth as first steps, rather than what seems more common today: the fear and/or demonization of “the other.” (Not that some people shouldn’t be feared or demonized, but it’s probably just that: some, rather than all of our opponents.)

I share it because of those three ‘untruths’ — whether you agree with them or not — simply as common reactions to, as the Buddhist formulation goes, the unsatisfactory nature of life. Basically, life is often pretty tough, and sometimes downright terrible. Life is a slog.

“We are but dust, and our days are few and brief.”

“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…”

And to help us cope or find meaning, or order in the midst of this, we have all these sorts of responses and reactions. We might want to be insulated from the blows that life deals us. Or, if we can’t do that, at least blame someone: us versus them. We want some feeling of control. Or if not control, then at least a bit of say.

The Roman and Greek paganism of the first century had something to do with this: making sacrifices to this or that god in order to stay on their good side; get the good things they offer, and avoid the bad powers they wield. But Christianity totally reverses this and preaches that God — not us — has actually made a full, and final sacrifice… to God’s self. And it’s made available to us, in baptism and eucharist. (So we should be careful when our Christian faith starts to slip into fear and favour-based pagan-like tendencies.)

And there are other reactions and reasonings too. You might recall a few months ago I mentioned another new book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler. Who, when given a terminal diagnosis, encountered friend after friend offering platitudes like the title, “everything happens for a reason,” or “maybe God needs another angel.” To which her response was something like “I’d prefer that my kids have a mother.”

And of course in the gospel today we see that sort of very human reaction to tragedy: “there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” They’re describing some incident, some news story, about devout Jews who seem to have been executed by the Roman ruler, who then goes and pours their blood on their religious sacrifices they’d been trying to make. And then there’s another news story going around, about a tower that toppled, and crushed eighteen bystanders.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks? (It’s implied that that’s what the crowd is assuming.) “Do you think that [the people crushed by the tower] were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

These stories and these questions — not much different than questions people grapple with today: why was that city flooded; why is that nation starving; why were those worshippers attacked; why am I, or why is my loved one facing a particular illness???

But into this confusion, and desperation, and (often) scapegoating (especially if we’re talking about ‘them’ — the bad people), Jesus says: “No, [‘they’ weren’t worse sinners] I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

And at first that doesn’t sound particularly reassuring… But he follows it up with this parable about a fig tree. It’s taking up space, and not yielding figs. The owner, thinking about efficiency and productivity, wants to cut it down. Start something new. But the gardener says ‘no, give it another chance.’

The worldview that Jesus presents isn’t one of “us vs. them.” But of all the world as a big collective “us,” all in need of repentance, all living in the shadow of death. And God, like the gardener in the parable, wants everyone to have that extra chance to repent: to turn from our mistakes, and flaws, and shortcomings, and crimes, and whatever else: things done and things left undone. And it’s a spectrum, of course. Some trees are worse than others. Some might have trouble producing fruit. Others might produce, say, poison fruit. But all of us have that invitation to turn from the old and turn toward the new. Unfortunately, at least in this world, some trees might not end up producing fruit. But the trees aren’t given the task of cutting down each other.

Now, the paradox, or the contradiction here is that there’s a more popular story in some of the other gospels about Jesus finding an unproductive fig tree, and he curses it, and it dies. Not a story about mercy at all. Or, with Paul, we might think about the story of the Israelites being set free from slavery in Egypt. They ate the spiritual food, the manna that God provided. They drank from the water that flowed from the rock. They followed the people that God raised up to lead them to the Promised Land. But they also made the idol of the golden calf. They also rebelled against God, and against Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam. One person might describe the story of the exodus as the story of God’s faithfulness in the long and winding journey of our lives, of people taking a leap of faith, from the familiar to something new, and unknown, and risky. But someone else might characterize it as a story of a people’s disobedience. A story about a wrathful God pouncing on people as they slip up.

It seems that we have the freedom to choose either. Just like we might associate fig trees with mercy, or with judgement. And people are going to have their own go-to image of God: as merciful, or as vengeful… or present or absent… or whatever else. And some people are going to see life as perfect, with bad things that ruin it. Or, life as hard, even brutal, but with moments and experiences of grace that make it better, and tolerable, and sometimes even quite good.

So unlike that charlatan Misoponos, in his recliner in a cave in Greece, I’m not going to present a succinct and pithy ‘truth’ or divisive ‘us versus them’ categorization. Instead, as Christians we have the person of Jesus, who lived life in its complexity, and knew tragedy and injustice, and refused to scapegoat. And as the church year comes closer and closer to the Cross, we are called to hear and wrestle with his sacrifice “for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” A sacrifice not just for the “good,” the least of the sinners. A sacrifice not just for the “worst,” the most dastardly of sinners. A sacrifice for all who can approach with humbleness of heart. And we can see every moment every lives — every interaction and event, both big and small — as opportunities to repent: to return to God.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter