An Easter Homily

Easter Homily on John 20:11-18
April 7, 2015

I was wondering if we could try a little call-and-response for a minute:

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! And you say: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

(“We’re not really that kind of a congregation, and that’s okay,” or “I didn’t think we were that kind of a congregation, but maybe we are!”)

I’m not that kind of a preacher, and that’s okay too. But I wanted to try this proclamation today, because I think it’s one of the most joyous things ever said by a human being. And nobody knows what it means. And that’s okay too. In the Roman Catholic Church, the resurrection of Jesus is called one of the glorious mysteries. So maybe it’s okay that we don’t know what it means.

The only thing I can think to say is this:

A wise person once said:

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.
It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

But that’s not enough, is it? Could I leave you with that? What is this story about? I was stumped, but I figured there are really only six questions that can ever be asked or answered: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. If I can just answer those six questions right now, then I will have done a decent job up here today. So here it goes:

First of all, Who? Well, you and me of course. Who else is there?

What? It’s a story about death and resurrection, so I’m guessing this is about living and dying and something else that follows that. (You know, a lot of people who have a problem with religion—their problem stems from stories like this one. “This here is what really gets me,” they say, “it’s all this unbelievable stuff. Jesus, rising from the dead. Adam and Eve, standing in a garden talking to a snake. Water turning into wine.” People think these stories are a problem for us because we live in the scientific age. Well, I’ve got news for you: These stories were a problem for people 2000 years ago, too. Nobody could believe it back then, either. Just read the story! Now, back to our questions.)

Where? Here.

When? Now. NOW!

Why? Because. Just kidding. Love, of course. It’s always love.

How? Now this is where I get stumped again. How? How are you and me supposed to live and die and do that other thing that happens in the story. How? And then I read the story again, and what sticks out to me is this: an empty tomb.

God has come to earth. God has died. God has resurrected. What’s that supposed to be like? There should be fireworks! There should be storms and earthquakes and hail and blazing sun and angels on clouds and heaven on earth. But no. What do we get? An empty tomb.

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

We’re confronted with an emptiness, but I think that’s a beautiful message. An empty tomb, to me, means pure potential. Freedom. No-thing. Nothing. The potential for anything.

There is another symbol for this potential: An Easter Egg. An egg is a symbol of creation, of birth, of rebirth, renewal.

In the Christian tradition, you often hear a lot of “born-again” language. “Are you born again?” a girl once asked me in college. “Isn’t once enough?” I replied, much to her disdain. Luckily she laughed.
My problem with “born again” language is that most of the people I know who use that language haven’t died enough to be born again. None of us have. Or we have died and been reborn, but we’ve stopped there, as if it’s a one-time thing. We’ve stopped dying and being reborn.

I don’t know about “capital-D Death” of course. But I’m talking about the little deaths we die every day. All the time we are dying, and we are being reborn. The question is, what are we going to be reborn into? Will I die to my fun-loving self and be reborn as a curmudgeonly old man? Or will I die to my curmudgeonly self and be reborn as a fun-loving one? Will I die to my gossipy self, and be reborn into someone with more integrity? Or vice versa? Will I die to my opportunistic self and be reborn as a selfless one?

If you’re like me, and I think you are, once you’ve found your identity, before you know it, you outgrow it. You outgrow it and you let it go and you find a new one. And another one. And another one.
Seniors: You are about to say goodbye to your upper school selves. Upper-Schoolers, you’ve said good bye to your middle school selves. Lower-schoolers: you’ve said goodbye to your young childhood selves. Faculty and Staff, you’ve said good bye to all of these and more: You’ve said good bye to student-selves and father selves and mother selves, grandmother and grandfather selves, mentee selves and mentor-selves, mentally healthy selves, physically healthy selves. Luckily we get to say “hello again” to some of those as well.

Luckily, the thing about dying and being reborn is that your old selves never go away completely. They are always there, it’s just that you don’t identify with them anymore. Your old selves still reside somewhere inside you. Just the other day, my toddler-self came out when I tried to use my keycard to get into the gym for the third day in a row and it didn’t work. I threw a two-year-old tantrum right there in the parking lot. My toddler-self came out, but because I don’t identify with it any more, I could end my tantrum pretty quickly. Luckily, I also got to experience my child-self the other day, when I slid down a bunch of water slides at Great Wolf Lodge. Those old selves are there whenever we want them, (and sometimes when we don’t). But the bottom line is that they are not us. We are MORE than those selves.

Like you, I’ve been a lot of things. As a kid, I was a shy introspective artist, but then I found myself in these art classes with all of these “old” people. I wanted to be with kids my age. So then I tried to be an outgoing jock. That didn’t work for a number of reasons, but one of them was that I got very sick as a teenager. But that’s when I discovered the saxophone. And then I got a collapsed lung. And so you see, one of the scary things about identities is that they can dissolve in a split-second. I can tell you that none of them last. None of them are satisfactory. So while we can and should have identities, we should also remember that we are more than any of those identities.

But it’s even more complicated than that.

Every time I die, I think to myself: If I can only get it right this time. If I can only die and then choose the right new self, then maybe I won’t have to die again.

For example, one of my identities was this junior executive who thought he might like some success in the corporate world. But just as I was about to accept that job, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to be a teacher, the thing I had always dreamed about. And so I didn’t take that job and instead I joined a community of resistance, a group of poor teachers at a Catholic school in Massachusetts.

You might think, as I did, that I got it right that time. I died to success, and I found a new identity as this counter-cultural poor person by choice. Wasn’t that the right choice? Sure, it sounds better than the corporate dude who’s after money and success. And it might be better in a way. But it’s not substantially better. It’s just another identity, another self. And soon you outgrow it. I thought I was doing God’s work in that job, but God made me go a different way. God said to me, “You’ve got to pay your bills, Justin!” And then another set of options presented themselves—another corporate job, and this job at wonderful NCS.

The trouble is that every time I let an old self die, when the smoke—and tears—clear, there is always a new self waiting there! I crack open the egg, I break through the restrictions and then, before I know it, I realize I’ve created a new shell! What is the point of that? Why would I crack open an egg and then surround it with a new shell?

And this brings us back to the empty tomb. The point is not to get it right. It’s not that if we die right and are reborn right that we won’t have to do it all again. The point is to give up all the identifying, to give up all the attachment to identity, to give up all the ego-centeredness. The point is to not let any one identity be you.
At some point you just want to give up your old self and identify with…nothing. Sometimes you want to…

Just be, as you are, right here, right now, in this very moment. Just be.

Boy, girl, man, woman, transgender, homosexual, heterosexual, pansexual, Lower, middle, upper class, black, white, European, North American, South American, Central American, Central Asian, East Asian Pacific Rim, Pacific Islander, Mediterranean, Middle Easterner, North African, West African, Subsaharan African, South African, Latino-Latina-Mestizo-Mestiza, Lakota, Pueblo, Navajo, Cherokee, Jock, Punk, Nerd, Hipster, Emo, Prog, Dandy, Zombie, Vampire, Wizard, Witch, Muggle…

Right now you are, as we all are, having fun and working hard discovering all of these identifiers. But we shouldn’t make them into our WHOLE identity. We shouldn’t have to carry the burden of these identities with us at all times. We forget that, in the end, we are all of these things and we are none of these things. We are more than our identities. You, you are more than any of that. In the end, you are you. Nothing more need be said.

So, Who? You and me.

What? Just be.

Where? Here.

When? NOW!

Why? Because.

And How? Any way you want. It’s an empty tomb. Pure potential. Just be. And remember:

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.


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Daish or Isis?

A military friend of mine just told me that ISIS actually called themselves “Daish.” This word means something like “to tread under foot” and it is an acronym for a phrase similar to the one “ISIS” represents. Despite retaining the connection to Islam, I would much rather refer to them this way. I regret that “ISIS” is a homophone of “Isis.” I am sure the Goddess can weather that kind of PR, but She should have to.

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There should be no “I” in “ISIS”

I’m sort of relieved to see Egypt strike back against ISIS and its recent slaughter of Christians. And I wish we would stop referring to them as “ISIS” or “ISIL.” It’s as if this “Islamic State” doesn’t know one thing about Islam: Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Parthians were all “dhimmi,” or “Protected Peoples,” all the way back to the time of Muhammad (PBUH) (see Qur’an 3:199). (Treatment of polytheists is a topic for another day, but even Hindus and Buddhists were sometimes given this status as well). ISIS has about as much right to call themselves “Islamic” as the KKK has a right to call themselves “Christian.”

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What’s In A Name?

Isn’t it funny that we refer to storms by personal names such as “Katrina” or “Octavia,” or “Neptune”? We even assign agency to them, as when we say “Neptune really caused havoc for Boston today.” We are even allowed to name systems that recur, such as “El Nino.” But if we assign a name to the whole of the weather, or to the wind, or to the sky, then we would be thought of as perverse, primitive polytheists. I don’t really see the difference! Although I suppose I haven’t seen any meteorologists making sacrifices to these gods:

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A Unified Theory?

I don’t think there will ever be a unified theory of everything in physics. This is because this everything is rooted in something that eludes theory, a spirit that is unpredictable, unmanageable, that defies formulation and theory. It is pure potentiality and creativity. When we number all of its emanated dimensions, it will just create ten more. It is not an it, and there can be no complete science of it. But there are some things that can be said…

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Irrelevant Work That Has No Value

To those who are disparaging professors:

I have been deeply disturbed over the last year or so by the small but vocal number of people—colleagues, friends, family (many of them teachers!)—who have disparaged tenured professors, basically saying in one form of another that they produce “nothing of value.”  The latest of these criticisms came from Nicholas Kristoff who, while not exclusively critiquing their output, chastised these intellectuals for not being “public” enough.  This charge may be taken as an implicit critique of their work, at least that portion of their work that does not lend itself to the 140 character tweet or the 30 second sound bite. 

The value of this kind of work cannot be measured in the moment, perhaps cannot be measure at all.  This does not mean that it has no value.  Would anyone question the importance or relevance of the 20th century revolutions in Latin American countries?  And yet many people question the practicality of studying psychology, philosophy, literature, and religious studies.  Do they not realize that it was Gustavo Gutierrez’s study of these things that, along with his experience living among the poor, led him to the creation of liberation theology, which inspired all of those revolutions?  Whether one agrees with those revolutionaries or not, you cannot doubt their relevance, nor the relevance of the intellectual work that inspired them.

Would anyone question the relevance of the American Civil Rights movement, or of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s leadership in it?  And yet how many times did I endure my father-in-law’s jokes (“What kind of food cart do you open up with a degree in philosophy?”) when I followed Dr. King as a student of religious studies at Boston University?  (For the record, the only thing my father-in-law truly respects more than my religious studies and philosophy teaching is fodder for a good joke.)

If your son or daughter wanted to study ancient languages, as a philologist does, you might not see the utilitarian value in this.  And yet would anyone deny the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought on so many millions of people?  One need not look past his influence on the music of Bob Dylan, who voraciously read Nietzsche while he writing the songs the whole world sings.

I realize these are just three examples.  If I could take any more time away from my own reading, writing, and teaching about irrelevant work that has no value, I would provide  300 examples.  For now, suffice it to say that when someone disparages the work of the academic as having no value, (s)he does not prove that the work has no value; (sh)e only proves that (s)he do not understand its value.

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What’s sad?

What’s sad?
Everything looks sad to me today.
That building, that doorway is sad.
That parking lot looks sad.
That person is sad. That car is sad.
What is it about that apartment
that makes it look so sad?
It is not terribly unkept!
It could use some paint on the railing
Look!—there is a broken window pane up there.
But overall it is good. The brick looks good.
So what is it that is sad?
Am I sad? Is Pittsfield sad? Just what is it
That all around me I see sadness?

This all reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre. His philosophy is sad to me. There is something sad about a world with no God. And I know full well Sartre would not want me to feel sadness for his world. He was right about so many things, but God has accomplished so many great things in my life that it doesn’t make sense that there is no God. “No God” does not jibe with my life experience. I have accomplished things that are beyond me. There are days and hours and moments through which I would not have been able to make it without God. But what does this mean, if Sartre is right that God does not exist? I know for Freud it would have meant that I was weak and I needed to invent a God in order to fulfill my needs. I sense Sartre is different, though. Even though I can’t speak for him, I get the feeling he would be more gentle. “God doesn’t exist,” he would say, “But you choose to create a God for yourself in order to accomplish great things. Perhaps you could have also accomplished these things without God, with a different mindset.”

Again, I ask, what does this mean? Either Sartre is wrong and God exists and works in us and through us, or else Sartre is right and we can accomplish things beyond our wildest dreams.
Either God is natural or we are supernatural. And, either way, I’m floored. This is all a miracle.
And yet, today, all I see around me is sadness.

(N.B: I am fully ready to admit that “God” here might mean “God” or “gods” or “Spider-grandmother” or “Wakan Tanka.” All of it has made sense to me at one time or another. The only thing that does not make sense is that it is all luck, or that it is all from myself.

N.B: When I say “great things,” know that I am not full of myself regarding any kind of artistic or career accomplishments (the problems with this piece are proof of that!). The “great things” I am talking about, the things that are beyond my own efforts, are much more mundane: the ability to be fully present to someone, the courage to be at a crowded event, the stamina to make myself do something I have to do but do not want to do, the restraint to not erupt in anger at a certain situation, etc. You know.)

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The Reason for the Zombie Apocalypse

I know the reason for our obsession with the apocalypse. It has nothing to do with the millennium, or the supposed end of the Mayan calendar, or certain Christian groups’ obsession with the Book of Revelation and the “Left Behind” series. It doesn’t even have to do with the horrifying cannibalism-inducing LSD plaguing Miami. These are not the causes of our apocalypse-consciousness, they are the symptoms. We are obsessed with the apocalypse because of the psychological phenomenon known to many of us as projection: When we are unconscious of something about ourselves, but, knowing it to exist on some deep level, we acknowledge its existence by imagining that it exists outside ourselves. We see this when our hopelessly disorganized boss recommends that we start using a calendar, or when a friend, yelling and making a scene, informs us that we are “such an attention-whore.” Projection is what prompted Tolkien’s observation, “The treacherous are ever distrustful.”

The apocalypse is not coming; it is already here–but not for us. We are in the midst of a long string of apocalypses of other species, apocalypses orchestrated by us. They are the result of our building projects and our environmental habits. Remnants of our fellow species resurface from a state of shock, initially relieved to find their homes intact. Moments later, they experience the angst-inducing sounds of the after-effects of the apocalypse. They get up the courage to look and see if any of their neighbors have survived. Horrified, they find that where once stood a tangled grove of trees and vines is now desecrated by the pile of rubble and concrete we call a “highway.”

We are the architects of these apocalypses of our fellow species. We rarely take the points-of-view of these sentient beings, and so we are unaware of our actions as apocalypses. But there is a part of us that perceives the whole, and this part of us is ever aware of our actions and their consequences. We force this part of ourselves to remain unconscious, and so we only feel its emotional state bubbling up in our consciousness. This existential angst scares us half to death. Not knowing that it is our friends who are really in trouble, we hypothesize that it is our impending doom that must be the cause. Whether by God, alien, or zombie, we know an end is near. What we cannot imagine is that an end is here, but not for us. We are the monsters.

I am not saying there isn’t room for human building, human projects, human creativity. But until we operate from the mind set that “I and the land are one,” we will always overstep our bounds. As has been pointed out ad infinitum, and has fallen on deaf ears in perpetuum, the biblical charge to have “dominion over the earth,” refers to stewardship, not domination. Once we start behaving in an earth-centric way, I guarantee the apocalypse will no longer hold sway. Sorry, Hollywood!

And we don’t have to wait for the entire world to change its ways for this transformation to occur.  As soon as I started car-pooling, recycling, and behaving in an earth-conscious way, almost all of my anxieties about the environment disappeared.  It’s about our own personal relationship with the universe.  Heal your world, and the world at large will follow.

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Religion is a Game

Religion is a game.  I do not mean this in any kind of a reductionist or derogatory sense (e.g., “Catholicism is just a game—play by the rules (the Ten Commandments, the sacraments) and you win.”)  I mean it in a deep sense; religions are systems that, if understood and interpreted correctly within context, can provide us with the means of personal development and transformation.  There are tools, rules of discipline, and boons of hope and encouragement.  Some of these elements can even be transferred to other religions, just as elements of some games can be added to other games.  But we cannot just borrow the pleasant things from each religion, no more than we should adopt just the self-sacrificing practices.  We need to adopt one of them games wholeheartedly (customizing it within reason), or else create a balanced and complete mixture of needed elements from many religions, or we can create our own religion— which would be reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Just as Wittgenstein illuminated language as a “game” that we play, so too is religion.  Languages are games that are very different in their look, their sound, their feel, and their rules, but they are all games that, when played, generate meaning for their players, meaning within the games themselves and meaning in relation to the world “out there” to which they refer.  No language can perfectly refer to the world out there, but the inner coherence of the whole allows it to refer to the world as a whole in some useful and meaningful way.  Religions, too, are games.  Each has its own look, sound, and feel; each generates meaning within itself for its players; each generates meaning in relation to some reality “out there,” whether natural or supernatural.  Just as with languages, people can have more than one religion.  But, just as with languages, people must keep the games somewhat separate.  One can intermittently insert a word or phrase or even borrow a grammatical idea; however, just as one can only speak one language at a time, so too can one play only one religion at a time.

This insight into religion as game came to me when I attended an Episcopal mass in the St. Joseph of Arimethea chapel in the belly of the Washington National Cathedral.  I had been to mass at the cathedral and had never been much moved by it.  However, a friend of mine invited me to attend the mass in the chapel one Sunday to hear her sermon.  This mass moved me greatly, and for many reasons:  It was in the crypt of the Cathedral, a crypt containing two special people (the bodies of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan).  It was just the kind of place early Christians practiced their rituals in secret.  It was candlelit, dark but warm, circular, with amphitheatre-like steps leading down from all sides into the alter area.  The backdrop was a massive fresco of Joseph retrieving Jesus’ body, the whole thing glowing in its golden palette.  It was underneath the Cathedral, in the belly, the ground, inside of Mother Earth.  Emerging from the mass into the crisp spring air was like being reborn again from the womb, similar to the experience Native Americans create with their sweatlodge ritual.

One can imagine the ambience, the feeling, the meaning of such an experience, and even the reasons why it might have been preferable to the magnificent, awesome, light-filled, airy experience of the main nave.  But none of those reasons, none of that meaning, none of the specialness of that crypt would have been possible without the existence of the gigantic structure on top of it.  The chapel simply could not exist without the cathedral.  Nor the cathedral without the chapel.  They are integral parts of the game I was playing, the game called Christianity, in which I preferred to play the apophatic, underground, contemplative rebel.

This is how we create access-points to religious meaning.  I recognize that the same meditative state can be entered through Roman Catholic rosary beads, Islamic prayer beads, Tibetan meditation beads.  It is the repetitive motion and chanting that creates the space needed for contemplation.  But I cannot just hand my kid a string of glass beads and tell her to rub them until she is awakened.  We need the context of the “Hail Mary’s,” of the immaculate conception, of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, of Mary’s assumption into heaven.  Or the context of the ninety-nine names of Allah.  Or of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  The access points are not easily identified in thin-air (although I am quite sure the Divine leads people to such invisible access points quite often).  It is helpful to have signposts.  It is helpful to know where the game is being played.

Again, in Christianity:  There is one level of meaning that is created in a Methodist church that breaks bread together, somewhat informally, one Sunday a month.  There is another level of meaning created by the weekly ritual of the Episcopal mass, culminating in the breaking and sharing of bread by all.  There is still another level of meaning created by the Roman Catholic mass that demands that only those who have attended a year-long First Communion class may partake of the bread at the end of mass.  And still another level of meaning for one who has grown up the Catholic way and who is therefore touched and humbled by the liberal sharing of bread at the Methodist service.  Meaning, meaning, and more meaning, all created by these games we play.

Students have been fond of asking me, “Why do you choose to be Catholic?  How can you choose to be Catholic, when you have learned about and practiced all of these great religions?  How can you settle for Catholicism when you at the same time affirm the truth of these other religions and even practice Buddhist meditation, Hindu Yoga, Native American sweatlodge?”  My answer is always this:  All of these religions are games.  Each of them has its own inner logic, and each of them approaches the truth.  None of them is perfect, just like no language can perfectly describe the world.  Each of them provides a road map to the truth, but you need to pick one.  “Why can’t we just pick and choose what you like from each of them, like you do?” they ask.

My reply is that I do not just pick and choose what I like.  I do select practices and beliefs from other traditions that augment my spirituality, but I believe that we should still pick one main thing to follow, one main game to play.  Why?  Because this will help to protect us from picking just the things that are easy, just the things that are agreeable.  It will also protect some of us from focusing too much on the self-denying things, from overdosing on an ascetic path in an attempt to reach our goal (too) quickly.  I do not yet trust myself to select a balanced set of practices, rituals, and beliefs!  Each religion is a different road map to the same place.  Each has different mountains to climb and valleys to rest in and rivers to cross.  We cannot just take the valleys from each religion, and leave out the mountains.  We need to play the whole game.  So, being forced to choose one game out of many, I chose the one that was the most comfortable, the one that I grew up with.  I do liberally borrow from the other games.  And I do recognize that they are all “just” games.  But not so much “just.”  The reality which they approximate, which they imitate, is not “just” anything.  It is all.

I encourage everyone to explore all the different games we can play, to make a commitment to one of them, and to customize this game in the ways that are most helpful to one’s spiritual, psychological, and physical health.  Play this game with all of your heart, mind, body and soul.  But, at the end of the day, know that it is just a game.  Shake hands with your teammates and with your opponents, for they are opponents no longer.  The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, as a Zen master once said.

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“When you are art gone forth wholly from the creature [human], and have become nothing to all that is nature and creature, then you are in that eternal one, which is God himself, and then you will perceive and feel the highest virtue of love. Also, that I said whoever findes it finds nothing and all things; that is also true, for he finds a supernatural, supersensual Abyss, having no ground, where there is no place to live in; and he finds also nothing that is like it, and therefore it may be compared to nothing, for it is deeper than anything, and is as nothing to all things, for it is not comprehensible; and because it is nothing, it is free from all things, and it is that only Good, which a man cannot express or utter what it is. But that I lastly said, he that finds it, finds all things, is also true; it has been the beginning of all things, and it rules all things. If you find it, you come into that ground from whence all things proceed, and wherein they subsist, and you are in it a king over all the works of God.” -Jakob Boehme, The Way to Christ, 1623

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