A Way Out of No Way
By Rev. Dr. Wayne Menking
2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33 | Ephesians 4:25-32 | John 6:35, 41-51
In his last book, Failure of Nerve, Rabbi Ed Friedman tells the WWII story of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis when it was suddenly torpedoed and sunk in the Sea of Japan. We can imagine the terror. Amid the explosions, fires and devastations, those who survived clung to floating debris. Knowing that survival in the shark infested waters depended on staying together as much as possible they huddled as close as they could. Yet, some of the men – for whatever reasons – swam away from the safety of the group and gave themselves to death by drowning or death by sharks. Interviewing one of the survivors many years later, Friedman asked, “How do you explain that some of you responded with cool, stamina, perseverance, and courage, while others swam away to die?” Without hesitation, the survivor responded: “Those guys who swam away, they didn’t have no future!” In this terce, direct, and short response, he stated a profound truth: without a future hope, we have no power to live in the present moment, especially in the face of peril, and the threat of death! When we have been robbed of our future hope, our capacity to live in the moment, our capacity to affirm the goodness of life and the capacity to love and care for one another are significantly diminished to the point of despair.
As much as we don’t want to admit it, you and I are living in the same crisis moment as those sailors: at just about every turn we are faced with dangers and threats that confront us with the existential decision of choosing hope over despair! Do we muster the courage and strength to resist the powers of evil and death or do we just swim away?
Jurgen Moltmann, the noted German theologian who as written much on hope and the future says it directly and truthfully in his book, Spirit of Hope: Human life is in danger! We cannot deny or avoid the reality of just how vulnerable we are to the forces and powers that seek to undo life – the forces and powers of death! Regardless of those who tell us there is no such thing as climate change, we cannot avoid the truth of what is happening to our environment when at this moment, 90 some wildfires are burning across the nation, with smoke traveling from Oregon to New York, City. We cannot avoid this truth when we see lake beds and water sources drying up, when cities are wondering where their waters supplies will come from, when life giving rain forests are decimated for the sake of economic gain and production, or when we see heaps of plastic garbage scattered across our ocean’s surface. We cannot avoid the truth of the threats we are under when in the first five months of 2021, 8,500 people in the United States have been killed by gun violence, an average of 54 per day. We cannot walk or travel anywhere without the threat of a random shooter opening fire. We cannot avoid the truths of our perils, when the powers of hate and racism seem stronger than the powers of justice, or when the power of truth is not able to withstand the power of lies and outright intentional deceit that gnaw at the very fabric of our society and freedom. We know something is wrong when the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is exponentially growing across the globe. And we have yet to mention the impact of Covid-19 and all of its variants. Moltmann is right: we are situated in a culture of death where life is no longer affirmed, loved, valued, or accepted. But he is also right when he says that what is needed is a “culture of life that is stronger than the terror of death, a love for life that overcomes the destructive forces in our world today, and a confidence in the future that overcomes doubt and fatalism!” I suggest that what Moltmann calls forth is precisely at the heart and core of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: I am the bread of life; the one who partakes of this bread has life for ever. In these words – along with the other I AM sayings in John’s gospel – Jesus declares himself to be our life sustaining link to God, the source of all of life. Jesus is a once the yeast that creates a culture of life, and he is at the same time, the yeast that keeps the culture of life alive and growing – especially in the face of death! These I AM sayings take us directly back to the first verses of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. All things came into being, and without him was not one thing came into being. What has come into being was life! What is important here is that God did not create life and let it go: God created life and continues to be its sustaining power! In Jesus, we are given the direct link to that power!
Yet there is a profound and mysterious paradox here: the life giving and life sustaining power of this “bread” of which Jesus speaks, makes itself known precisely in the places where death appears to have won the day, where it has demonstrated its ability to destroy life – as in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is not a power recognizable to the wisdom of the world, as Paul reminds us in his letter to th Corinthians. It is a power that makes itself known precisely at the point where life seems to have lost its power to keep on going, where God’s life sustaining power appears to have been rendered null and void. Precisely at the point where all hope has been destroyed and the powers that be have had their way, this life-giving God makes herself known! It is the mystery we proclaim every Sunday morning in the Eucharist: Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again.
James Cone is an African American scholar and theologian (now deceased) who wrote a book titled, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Weaving stories of black slaves, their blues music, and the terrifying stories of lynchings, he articulates the power of hope they found in the cross and resurrection. It was not a romantic or spiritualized hope. It was a hope that they knew in the moment and in the terrifying experience of their slavery; it was a hope that gave them the power to live, in spite of the dehumanizing conditions in which they existed. It was a hope that came from feeding on the bread of life. Cone writes:
That God could “make a way out of no way” in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the Gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life – that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible through God’s “amazing grace” and the gift of faith, grounded in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power – white power – with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.
One might say that for the black slaves – and for those who today suffer the brutalities of racism and endless dehumanization – Jesus declaration that he is the bread of life, the true vine, the resurrection and the life might be rendered, I am the way out of no way!
In his book of daily meditations, Gift and Task, Walter Brueggemann shares the brief vignette of talking with Hans Walter Wolff, the noted University of Heidelberg Old Testament theologian about what it was like to live in the atrocities of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Wolff was at that time a young pastor in the Confessing Church of Germany, that segment of the German church that refused to acquiesce and become nationalized under Hitler’s regime. Brueggemann asked him what resources the church had at its disposal to sustain its resistance to what was happening. He recalls that without hesitation Wolff responded: “We prayed and sang hymns, and we wrote many letters to each other.” Ponder for a moment, the significance of those words. In the face of and under the threat of one of the most evil authoritarian regimes in history, this resisting and confessing Christian community found its power to resist and hold forth in prayer, in singing hymns, and in their constant communication with each other through letter writing. It is safe to surmise and imagine that their prayers were not shallow or “lightweight,” but filled with gravitas, emanating from their profound awareness of the evil and power they were up against and the prevailing threats of hostility and death that met them at every turn, and emanating from their awareness of their own frailty and what they needed to stand in this moment. We can also imagine that most of their prayers were not formal or “canned,” but rather spontaneous and spoken from the depths of their heart and pain, yet prayers filled with hope! We can rightly surmise that their hope was precisely the same as those of the black slaves: Christ’s death on a cross manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the sufferings of their life – that transcendent presence in the suffering that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering. They understood the power of the bread of life – that the cross of Jesus signaled the way out of no way!
But we dare not think that this way out of no way grants immediate security, protection, or immunity from the dangers we face. Hope that the perils and threats of this moment do not have the final say over our life does not mean that we will not suffer. Hope for a future did not remove the immediate perils faced by the sailors as they clung to debris for life. For black slaves, finding hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus did not mean the removal of their life conditions. Nor did it remove the constant and daily fear of the lynching tree for those living in the era of Jim Crow. It does not remove the fear of African Americans when they walk down a street today. Hope did not remove the threats and perils faced by the Confessing Church of Germany when they resisted Hitler – Bonhoeffer is the example! Hope does not give us immunity from the dangers and perils imposed upon us by a deteriorating environment, gun violence, or Covid! Yet just as all who have gone before us faced the powers of evil and death, we know and believe that it is precisely in this place of this suffering and threat of death that God’s liberating and life-giving presence is among us – hidden though it may be. James Cone gives a great illustration of the power of this faith. He tells the story of a black preacher who was about to be lynched. Like many lynchings it was a spectacle. A huge crowd gathered to cheer on the executioners – not unlike Jesus’ own crucifixion. But suddenly, in the face of the horror he was about to experience, this preacher broke out with spirited prayer and preaching. The white crowd was at first silent, but his spirit caught hold of them and soon they were taken up, responding to the preacher’s words and prayers with ALLELUIAs and AMENs. To use Warner Bailey’s words from last week: in this moment, the white crowd and executioners had the position, but the preacher had the power! It was a power that came from holding on to this bread of life, this belief and trust that what was about to happen to him did not have the final say over his life – nor over the lives of those who were about to kill him. That is our faith and hope: Christ died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!
Like the Black Slaves and German Christians who huddled together in resistance, we dare not underestimate the culture of death and the powers that threaten our life. They are real and powerful, and their devastations are a threat to life – our life. Yet in the face of these powers and like the preacher about to be lynched, we sing a very different song from the song of the world! It is a song of life and hope that we sing with the sure and certain hope Jurgen Moltmann’s words articulate so well:
In the eternal yes of the living God, we affirm our fragile and vulnerable humanity in spite of death; in the eternal love of God, we love life and resist its devastations; in the ungraspable nearness of God we trust in what is saving, even if the dangers are growing.
May it be so among us.
And now, to the one Holy and Triune God who is the source of all life and hope be all honor, praise, and glory. Now and forever. Amen.