Harrowing Of Hell
February 9, 2014

The Light Behind the Light

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

A common confession I hear (and I’m not looking at anyone in particular) goes something like this, “Why am I so judgmental? It is something I hate about myself. I always find myself judging others, or even myself, and it gets in the way of my life.” That is the confession. I don’t know if it fits any of you, but I bring it up because it fits me. Judgment is something I wrestle with. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians gives us some perspective on this topic. 

Our competency around judgment has to do with our training. We are trained to be judgmental. It is why we review our homework before turning it in. It is why we get grades in school. It is why we keep score. It is why we workout and weigh ourselves on the scale. We are formed to be critical thinkers and people of achievement and that serves us well in many aspects of life. It is what makes a neonatologist excellent. It is what makes an accountant accurate. It is what makes this choir sound so amazing! And yet, when judgment is habitually applied to all facets of our life then we have a spiritual problem.

Now to wrap our minds around this issue it helps to become acquainted with what I call the paradox of the object or the paradox of the thing we see. Basically the rule of this paradox of the thing we see is the more closely we look at the object, the better able we are to see the backlighting that brings the object into focus. In other words, the more well acquainted we are with the object we are looking at, the more insight we have to the power source that gives the object its value in the first place. And here is the take away (I’ll give it to you early even though we’ll hit it again): when we focus on the backlight as the thing itself, judgment falls away and joy wins the day.

Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, helps towards this end, so we’ll start there. After exploring Paul, we’ll wander into a punishing example of what it means to miss the point of this paradox. Then we’ll witness an example of how the paradox of the object itself can work as modeled in the life of a man named Howard Hanchey.  Finally, we’ll end with a vignette from Jesus’ life.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian’s he begins to unfold the paradox by locating himself within it. He starts this way, paraphrased, “I came to you not to proclaim the wisdom of a god in some lofty place. For I don’t know that god, I only know this man, Jesus, and that he died. And yet, knowing this causes me fear and trembling. For my words, and any wisdom you may think they contain, come not from me or my logic, but from the power of God.  God is the source behind the source of my words. God is the light behind the light.  God is the thing itself, behind all things you may see or hear coming from me. And this causes me to tremble.” With these words Paul sets himself within the paradox as the object backlit by God.

Now Paul knows where he is and whom he is talking to. Corinth is a huge port city in what is present day Greece. It sat at the intersection of the Roman Empire and was full of all sorts of people from all over the world who found their identity and status in their religion. The modus operandi of these Corinth religions was secrecy and exclusivity. These cults were big money, run by smart, charismatic leaders. Imagine, if you will, LA with a thousand cults like Scientology all run by their own Tom Cruise. That was Corinth.

Now here is the genius of Paul, he locates himself within this paradox as a conduit through which the power of God moves. This, he claims, is an open secret available to everyone through the person of Jesus. Paul is not above it.  He has not transcended it. He has not achieved it. Nor does he control it. He is like everyone else in that it is by the power of God that we live and move and have our being; and by this power we have the capacity to do infinitely more than he could ever ask or imagine.

That is the offer on the table through Jesus, then and now, and when we buy into it judgment takes a back seat to joy. There are no secrets. There is no exclusion. There are just two basic facts: there was a man named Jesus Christ and he died. No mystery, no myth, no secret. Jesus is just a guy, who also happens to be God. He is the thing and the thing behind the thing itself. Another title for this paradox of the object is the paradox of the incarnation. When we look closely at Jesus, we see God.

This is Good News Paul proclaims, and he takes it further by saying, if we look at this person, together; and follow this person, together; and trust this person, together; and seek to model our lives after this person, together all the world will know the power of God, and we will be able to do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine. When we have trained our eyes to see the power of God behind all things, judgment turns to joy. And the habit of joy can be applied to all aspects of life, from the ICU, to the P&L, to having dinner with your daughter – which brings me to last Tuesday night, at around nine o’clock. Margaret, my fourteen year old, and I just arrived home from a late soccer practice. She was eating dinner and I was saying good night to Desmond.  When I came down to sit with her I noticed she was drinking milk out of one of the very lovely highball glasses I was given at the annual meeting.  Three were stored in the dining room, but one was in the kitchen for access.  The cupboard, mind you, is full of glasses and cups and tumblers.  I looked askance at Margaret, then asked, “What are you doing using that glass?”  “Oh, it was just the one I grabbed,” she replied.  I’m thinking, “Come on, really? You just happened to grab the leaded, crystal tumbler for your milk?”  Then she followed up, before I could say anything, with, “if you don’t want someone to use it you shouldn’t put it in the kitchen cupboard.”  After a deep breath, I agreed.  She was right and my head didn’t explode. I calmly took the empty glass, washed it, and put it in the dining room. And there you have it, exhibit A, how to miss the point of the paradox of the incarnation.

Those glasses mean a lot to me. They are a symbol the generosity and commitment and abundance of this community; and an outward and visible sign of our deep, collective commitment to keep this place fit for another 100 years. We did it for the message of Paul, and the person of Jesus. And we did it for future generations, like my daughter; a truth lost in the fog of judgment as I gazed upon the thing rather than the light which illuminated it. I missed an opportunity to celebrate this with my daughter.

Howard Hanchey would not have let that happen. He was a professor of mine at Seminary.  I can’t remember what class he taught, but I remember his class always met after lunch. He used to start every class with, “Isn’t God good?” And then, “How about that lunch today? I loved those meatballs” or “I loved those tater tots or I loved those peas.” And I’d think, “Really? Come on Howard, nobody liked the peas.” And while I was judging the peas, Howard was celebrating the light behind the thing itself. Howard Hanchey enjoyed being a Christian.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The only fun of being a Christian is that a person is not left alone with their inner light, but is called to recognize an outer light,” the light behind the light.  Howard Hanchey was in the habit of recognizing the outer light as it traveled from one meal to the next. So how do we live our lives more focused on the outer light rather than the inner voice? How do we move from judgment to joy?   

We start like Paul suggests by looking at the guy in front of the God. We do this until the habits of his life become the guiding principles of our own. We do this by knowing his story and making it our own story.

Now today we have some good Jesus teachings in the Gospel, but for the sake of seeing the man in front of God, let’s consider a snap shot from his life. One that came up this week in the Senior Minyan is the story mistakenly remembered as the time Jesus told his mother and brothers and sisters to go home.  It is a story repeated in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus is in Capernaum.  He is teaching in a house.  The room is jam-packed. Someone says, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are here and want to talk to you.” To which Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?  Those who do the will of God.”  Rejection of family?  No.  This is a story about inclusion; it is about the equality of all children of God; it is about the joy that backlights all relationships, at all times, whether familial, or familiar, or random. Judgment draws distinction, joy does not. Joy provokes love.

It doesn’t matter who you are standing next to, the backlight is the backlight is the backlight. And here is the take away: when we focus on the backlight as the thing itself judgment falls away and joy wins the day.  It’s worth pondering if you feel like you have more judgment in your life than joy.