Texts: John 11:32-44
Bhagavad Gita 11:31-33
Tell me who are You in such a fierce form? My salutations to You, O best of gods, be merciful! I wish to understand You, the primal Being, because I do not know Your mission.
The Supreme Lord said: I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist.
Therefore, get up and attain glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a prosperous kingdom. All these (warriors) have already been destroyed by Me. You are only an instrument, O Arjuna.
Years ago, when I first read the Bhagavad Gita, I remember feeling vaguely confused by it. I only recently realized that my dislike of the experience of reading the Bhagavad Gita, stemmed from my failure to think on my own about it — and to uncritically buy up the retail interpretation of the story.
The story in question is about an epic battle and the conversation that the commander of the army has with Krishna, his divine advisor. On the eve of the battle, Arjuna, the mortal Captain, expresses worries about leading the fight in which so many will most certainly die. He will be in combat against friends and even family. Nevertheless, Krishna informs him that he must do his duty and go to battle, without regard to who he fights, or who or how many get killed. There are larger issues at stake here than his own troubled conscience or even well-being.
There is something about loyalty to a cause beyond oneself that got me by the tenterhooks when I read it as a twenty-two year old. I was an idealist and the religious language draped around the call to do one’s duty made it difficult to think other options. But I was also a pacifist; the call to duty, could never be a call to war. Duty always referred to higher aims. And so my experience of the Hindu scriptures quickly ended in confusion.
I realize now that it may not have made much sense becuase I did not understand that the Bhagavad Gita is a part of a larger epic story. A story, I have learned ending in a scene of total desolation. The countryside is ruined, smoke from the burning funeral pyres clouding out the sun and stinging the eyes, and the cries of keening widows tearing apart what heart there is left.
All of this is on my mind as I am reading a book by the Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, who grew up in India and with this story. He reflects how, as a high school student he asked his Sanskrit teacher if it would be permissible for him to say that the divine Krishna got away with an incomplete and unconvincing argument against Arjuna. His teacher said in reply: “Maybe you could say that, but you must say it with adequate respect.” He writes that only many years later did he take the liberty of defending Arjuna’s position. We know, in this post 9/11 world, just what it means to question the truth of a duty from the perspective of the common good. Those who wanted to explore a different course in the pursuit of justice for the attackers involved in the 9/11 suicide flights were denounced straight-away.
Sen wrote in that essay which he did eventually find the courage to write:
The Bhagavad Gita [and Krishna’s philosophy] was spectacularly praised in the early nineteenth century by Wilhelm von Humboldt as “the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known tongue.” In a poem in [the] Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot summarizes Krishna’s view in the form of an admonishment: “And do not think of the fruit of action. / Fare forward. Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers.”
How often it is that when duty to one’s clan or country is invoked, all finer senses of responsibility to fare well together are abandoned.
I mention all of this because our reading from the gospel holds a similar tension. There are those who want to take the raising part of the story of Jesus and Martha and Lazarus as the whole point of the story and simply say, in effect — fare forward. The banner of resurrection is raised and all finer senses of responsibility to life now and to joy in it, are abandoned.
But if we pay attention to the context of the story, we might see that the gospel writer uses resurrection in a different way — not as a call to fare forward, no matter the injustices because in the end all that matters happens at resurrection time, but as a call to fare well, and to see Jesus’ activity as being about a continual discovery of life. In other words, the word resurrection is loaded from the other end: it simply defines the experience of life as we fare well, as we adventure into the common task of living together well.
The story begins with Martha. Her friendship with Jesus leads her to a place of trust in him, a trust that contrasts with some of the others gathered there who know Jesus, but have not placed their trust in him. Her trust is coupled with a loyalty that is significant because Jesus does unconventional things. She does not, however, deny him when others snigger at him behind his back.
So in the full story, we are immediately presented with a difference between friendship as an idea that anyone may claim to know about, and the friend, who is in fact the one upon whom you trust when the chips are down. Right off, we sense the deeper level of the story has to do more with this distinction than the one between life and death that will come later. If we see this, then we see that the distinction Jesus uses between life and death does not refer to physiological functioning, but instead to a distinction between love as an idea that anyone may claim to know about, and love as a relationship that elevates life from wretchedness to beauty.
Martha’s pouring out of her grief on Jesus reminds us that we are talking about three dear friends. That we’re talking about love as the claim upon us to do right by the other — to seek ways to fare well together, and not simply to use love as a tool to fare forward, damn the consequences.
I will not ever profess to know what happens to us when we die. The cosmos is too utterly large for that question to be adequately answered. And I do not think that scriptures answer it either. The Gospel does attest that Jesus continually reminded people that his God is not a god of the dead, but of the living; that a God of love, as he understood God to be, was about the kind of love that works to create communities of flourishing for all. And so Jesus invites his hearers to see their duty in a new light — to turn around — to be born again — to repent — the language is various — but to put aside the notion that religion is about later and to be in love now — to be connected now with life — to see our duty now in terms faring well, and not just faring forward.
All Saints Day may be about naming the dead of our small circle — but let us never forget why we name the names of the dead. We name the dead because by doing it we place our mortal lives in context of the great whole of which we and our kin and loved ones are but a small part. Our mortality, when duty-bound to fare forward no matter the sacrifice — becomes a burden that eventually cracks us and turns us into unloving, ungrateful wretches. But when we can accept it, as part of the great and mysterious expanse that God encompasses and holds, we transcend our pains and our losses, our joys and our success and find ourselves in love again with life.
Let me finish this morning with a story that illustrates what I mean about faring well, even as mortals who know beyond a shred of doubt that we too will someday join that great cloud of witnesses.
Last week, I showed the children a flower vase that had been made from a spent shell found in Sarajevo after the conflict in the Balkans. I came across this story, as I was researching that vase. It happened about a decade ago, in Sarajevo.
A reporter was covering the then conflict when he saw a small girl shot by a sniper.
He rushed to a man who had picked up the child, and helped them both into his car.
Racing to the hospital, the man holding the bleeding child said: Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.
A moment or two later: Hurry, my friend, my child is still breathing.
A moment later: Hurry my friend, my child is still warm.
Finally: Hurry. O God, my child is getting cold.
When they got to the hospital, the little girl was pronounced dead. As the two men were washing the blood off their hands, the man turned to the reporter and said: This is a terrible task for me. I must go and tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.
The reporter was amazed. He looked at the grieving man and said: I thought she was your child.
The man looked back and said: No, but aren’t they all our children?
We may, as we name the beloved saints of our community rest content — we have done our duty.
But let us instead reverse the order of those words — and name the saints of the beloved community — they are ours, but only as part of something so much greater. We do not simply barge through life, confident that Jesus’ duty is to restore it all at some point when it comes crashing to an end. May we instead gracefully voyage through life and find our glory by naming them all as our children. Fare well, then and let us go in love. Amen.