By Joanna Shenk
Sixth Sunday of Lent — “Soul Journey: Joyful is the Dark”
This is a familiar story for our congregation. We act it out every year. There’s lots that could be said about it. What words, images or phrases come to mind for you when you think about the Palm Sunday procession story?
We could explore how it was an embodiment of political satire. Jesus entering one side of Jerusalem on a donkey (and a foal!) and Caesar entered on the other side with chariots and horses. We could talk about the fickleness of the crowd, shouting “hosanna” one day and “crucify him” the next. We could talk about the chaos that’s inevitable when a city is packed full of people for a festival celebration.
As you may guess though, I’d like to focus on something else today. I’d like to look at the context surrounding Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his clarity about what he was facing and it’s implications for soul work.
I was disappointed to miss the last two Sundays with you, but had the opportunity to read both Sheri’s sermon about the importance of rights of passage on the soul journey and Addie’s sermon on reclaiming the symbol of the cross. I was moved by their wisdom and challenge to us.
Today I am introducing the soulcraft concept of the “None Others.” If you don’t know what that means, you’re not alone. It’s a concept we wanted to introduce during this series. Plotkin defines it near the end of Soulcraft. It refers to the most profound experiences (and mysteries) of human life—death, shadow, romance, consciousness, and spirit.
I think he calls them the None Others because there’s really not anything bigger or more transformative than those experiences. He also talks about them as existential givens—we are going to interact with them at some point on our soul journey. Today I’m going to focus on the mysteries of death, shadow and spirit.
When I realized that I would be preaching on the “None Others” it felt like a daunting gift. In the last few weeks I have been mourning the death of my friend MJ Sharp and riding the waves of grief in all their power and mystery.
Plotkin writes that wrestling with the None Others is essential for cultivating a soulful relationship to life. In order to live your soul into the world, you must continuously loosen your beliefs about who you are, and wrestling with the None Others allows for this to happen.
We have talked about some of this loosening already… For example, the recognition of the shadow and the shedding of ego it calls for.
If we choose the arduous journey with the None Others, then we can look Death in the face before it comes calling. We can reach into the murky shadow that clings to us. And we can forge our own intimate relationship with the Divine.
With this in mind, let’s return to the text for today.
In Matthew 20, the chapter before the Palm process, Jesus tells his disciples what’s going to happen in Jerusalem:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the religious leaders, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the crowds to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”
Jesus knew what he was getting into. He knew that his journey into Jerusalem was an encounter with death… He knew it was a journey that would include suffering. He chose that journey. It’s a totally different story when someone does not have choice in suffering.
His calling was not to the cross specifically though, but to embody a soulful and liberating way of being human and in community. He knew that his calling was a threat to the powers that be. He knew that entering Jerusalem would mean direct confrontation with those powers. On his soul journey, during his initiation in the wilderness, he had confronted those powers within himself.
On the first Sunday of Lent Sheri talked about Jesus’ time in the wilderness where he was tempted in three ways. Traditionally Christians have referred to the tempter as the devil, but through the lens of soul work, it seems like in the wilderness Jesus could have been wrestling with his shadow.
Briefly, the first temptation was about the economic system. “You’re hungry, turn these stones into bread to provide for yourself.” Jesus says he will put his trust in God, rather than seek instant gratification. The second temptation was about political power, he was shown all the kingdoms of the world, but asserted the commitment to serve God only, not these fleeting empires. The third temptation was about idolatry (Jump from on top of the temple and show you are God by not dying as a result). Jesus rejected that divinity is only housed in a building or manifest through miraculous powers.
Having wrestled through this confrontation with his shadow, he was ready to face the external forces of economic, political and religious domination. With that backdrop, his donkey ride into the city is all the more poignant, sarcastic and hilarious. Although Jesus isn’t recorded to have said anything during the procession, I wonder if he was thinking to himself, “I am one threatening dude, coming in here on a donkey” or “Let’s just be clear leaders of the city, with all your chariots and horses and soldiers, you’re threatened by this?? Woooooow. Okay…”
By this point in his ministry he seems aware that his calling could include death. The cross was an ultimate humiliation and his movement was seen as an ultimate threat. He was ready for a confrontation and he knew how the powerful handled anything that threatened them. His soul was open to whatever was coming his way. And he knew that even death was not the end… remember, he told his discipleship that he would rise again.
When we are journeying with death, Plotkin encourages a variety of things including, visiting cemeteries, mortuaries and crematoriums, feeling and breathing the thick air of those places. He also suggests learning the traditional and sacred practices of those who prepare a body for burial.
I find it interesting that Jesus gets at this practice later in the book of Matthew, in chapter 26. Do you remember the story of the woman who anointed his feet with perfume and the disciples were aghast? Do you remember what he said? He said, “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”
Jesus was in touch with his mortality. Whether or not he knew how his human life would end, he was not denying death it’s place. He knew he would die. When I think about that too long, it almost blows my mind: There was this person who we say was God and even God was not trying to live forever in a human body. If anyone could defy death… be ageless, you know, the fountain of youth… it would have been that guy. And he didn’t. I would say that is a deep challenge to our society in it’s scrambling to keep from dying at any cost.
Plotkin writes, “ask death to be your ally, to remind you, especially at time of difficult choices, what is important in the face of your mortality. Imagine death as ever present, accompanying you everywhere just out of sight behind your left shoulder.”
I can only imagine that my friend, MJ, felt that as he worked in DR Congo, documenting the death that was happening due to conflict perpetuated by resource extraction. (You know, our smart phones.) He took into account that his life might be threatened, and even ended, but he was willing to take that risk. I’m sure that death was his ally as he built relationships with militia generals and negotiated for the release of child soldiers. He and other peacemakers in Congo helped 100’s of militia members to stop fighting and return to their families.
DR Congo provided a most interesting and complex challenge for MJ. There were so many layers and factors and obstacles, and he thrived on that kind of impossible task. He was so brilliant that he needed something of that magnitude to really apply himself. I think he also wanted to see if his commitment to peacemaking, born out of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, could actually bear up under the weight of the violence in Congo.
“Should you suffer the loss of a loved one,” Plotkin writes, “permit the force of that death to transform you with its weight, fulling feeling and expressing the immense grief, allowing it to irrevocably alter the world and your place in it.”
This has been my experience grieving MJ. It has been a mysterious process. The waves of grief have rolled through in all kinds of different ways, and they continue to roll. I’m grateful that it is possible for me to attend his memorial in Hesston, Kansas next weekend along with other close friends.
The last time MJ and I had an extended conversation was in 2011. Although we didn’t use soulcraft terms, we were talking about shadow work. I shared about some of the stripping away that had happened for me. He shared his fear that if he went into his shadow he’d never get back out. Although there was a connection between us, we realized we were at different places on our journeys. We went our separate ways but were still in overlapping circles of friends.
As I’ve been mourning his death, I’ve realized that a big part of it for me is the sadness that we never got to have another conversation about soul journey. I think I always just expected that we would come back around to each other. I thought we’d have opportunity to share what happened for us since those conversations in 2011 and honor the transformation.
It is so tragic that his life was cut short both in terms of the courageous peacemaking work he was doing externally and the courageous peacemaking work that must have been happening within him.
At the same time, I do think that our spirits are eternal and I am grateful for the connection in that realm, mystery and all.
I started writing a letter to MJ soon after I found out about his disappearance. Before his body was found I wrote:
“In these days since I found out about your disappearance, I’ve felt this strong connection to you as I’ve sent love across the great divide. I believe that you can feel that love. The message I keep sending is that you are deeply loved and you’re not alone. And even if your body is taken from you and us, you’re still not alone and we are still connected.”
At the end of the chapter on the None Others Plotkin writes about spirit and it’s transcendence beyond body or ego. Our relationship with spirit as soulful adults is not necessarily contained within any particular tradition and is something we co-create with the Divine.
He includes the Rilke poem that we have been using for our Call to Worship during Lent. “Rilke wrote of God as being in conversation with us from the very beginning of our existence and as wanting, perhaps needing, certain things from us.”
God speaks to each of us as She makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country called life.
Give me your hand.
What does the Divine need or want from us?
That we go to the limits of our longing.
Flare up like flame.
Make big shadows.
Let everything happen to us.
That we don’t let ourselves lose the Divine.
That we give the Divine our hand.
We are co-creating with the Divine. We embody the Divine. As soulful people we are journeying with the Divine in this life and beyond this life. As soulful people we are deeply rooted, dancing with our shadow and willing to take the risks required of our call.
Sometimes that looks like courageous peacemaking in places of armed conflict. Sometimes that looks like a silly procession mocking the established order. Sometimes that looks like facing our shadow. Sometimes that looks like a journey of separation, transition and reincorporation. Sometimes that looks like reclaiming the symbol of the cross. Sometimes that looks like corporal death.
In all of this, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of the Divine.
When we are in our souls we are bearers of the Divine.
May it be so. Amen.