Julian of Norwich
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 11, 2018
University Baptist Church
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The war to end all wars. On the 11th day of the 11th month at 11am, armistice was signed and the people of the world decided to stop killing each other. It worked for a while. Two years ago, we got the tremendous honor of visiting the military cemetery in Normandy when the bell choir was on tour. There was a small chapel amidst the lines of white crosses. Veteran Karole Graham and I were in there imagining all those who had fallen. Taps played outside and we stood at attention on that hallowed ground. We remember veterans today and their sacrifice. We remember the unspeakable horror that is war and the moral injury that war causes. Injury that we are just trying to understand. The latest mass shooting, this time in California, was at the hands of a combat veteran—somehow infected with the madness of war. We need to address this cultural madness that normalizes the taking of life and the demonizing of supposed enemies.
This is the first sermon after the election. All that vitriol, all that pitting neighbor against neighbor.
So, this sermon is about love.
How’s that for an antidote for the endless election season?
We spend entirely too much time embattled, don’t we?
Imagine that life is not about winning or losing, but about how much we can love? How much love we can give, how much we can receive. How would this change our priorities?
Last night at her Roots Cellar concert, Ellis sang the following words: “Telling the truth is loving, even when it’s hell.”
Love is what it’s all about.
14th century mystic Julian saw this. She imagined God as in constant pursuit of her children, the object of her desire, her lover.
Julian of Norwich received a series of sixteen visions in May 1373. Julian was lying on, what was thought at the time, to be her deathbed when suddenly she saw Christ bleeding in front of her. She received insight into his sufferings and his love for us. She saw God as compassionate love. She saw that in this grace-filled God, there is no wrath. For wrath is antithetical to God. Wrath is in us, but not in God. Julian perceived God as enfolding us in love, not blaming or judging us. She called these visions “Revelations of Divine Love”. This work is perhaps the oldest book written by a woman. Famously, Julian used women's experience of motherhood to explore how God loves us, referring to Jesus as our Mother.
This is faithful to Isaiah’s vision of God as a mother who comforts her young.
Julian of Norwich used the words longing and desiring a lot. He pursuit of God was not an intellectual feat, but one born of passion. Imagine if we were as passionate about love as we are about vilifying our enemies?
Julian sought to united the fatherhood and motherhood of God highlighting divine love and divine mystery. She said that the Fatherhood of God represents power and goodness. The Motherhood of God means wisdom and lovingness. So, the idea of God as a mother as well as father is as old as the scripture.
I like the way the late Eugene Peterson translated today’s scripture reading. Remember, it is about God and God’s relationship to Jerusalem:
7 "Before she went into labor, she had the baby. Before the birth pangs hit, she delivered a son.
8 Has anyone ever heard of such a thing? Has anyone seen anything like this? A country born in a day? A nation born in a flash? But Zion was barely in labor when she had her babies!
9 Do I open the womb and not deliver the baby? Do I, the One who delivers babies, shut the womb?
10 "Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her, celebrate! And all you who have shed tears over her, join in the happy singing.
11 You newborns can satisfy yourselves at her nurturing breasts. Yes, delight yourselves and drink your fill at her ample bosom."
12 God's Message: "I'll pour robust well-being into her like a river, the glory of nations like a river in flood. You'll nurse at her breasts, nestle in her bosom, and be bounced on her knees.
13 As a mother comforts her child, so I'll comfort you. You will be comforted in Jerusalem."
God is depicted as a mother, suckling her young city of Jerusalem. Jesus even cried over Jerusalem longing to nurture that same city the way a mother hen comforts her chicks.
For what do you long?
An end to economic hardship?
Freedom from discrimination?
A return to elusive health?
Here’s the truth, God longs for that for you, too. Not the kind of longing that will grant you selfish gain, but that we will find a way to live in love with all of God’s creation.
That’s the basis for true and good religion.
Working together to express the love of God and the love of neighbor.
Divine love is the Greek word Agape. It is the unique love that comes from God. It is a love that transcends human love.
Wouldn’t you welcome some love?
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes from Julian of Norwich was the line, “All shall be well and in all things all shall be well.” This was a word given to Julian as one of her visions of Divine Love. As she was on her supposed deathbed from the black plague, in a vision Jesus told her that even though all hell is breaking loose around her, “all shall be well and in all manner of things, all shall be well.” Julian recovered and lived another 33 years. And she received insight and clarity of her purpose here on earth.
‘All shall be well’ was Kim’s mantra when she was going through breast cancer surgery two years ago. She even put it to music. Our UBC Chorale sang it that Christmas and this Friday night, we get to hear the University of Wisconsin River Falls Women’s Choir sing it right here in this very room at their concert. ‘All shall be well and in all things all shall be well.’ This is not a Pollyanna ignoring of the reality of disease, but it is a recognition that a loving God has our back and will reveal to us truth even amidst hardship. We’ll see people come forward as expressions of Divine Love, which we did. We’ll receive support and solidarity and understanding. We’ll focus our best energy on what heals us, not on what makes us more sick.
I feel like singing to our nation, “you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’.”
I contend that there is enough hatred out there. As Fred Rogers reminded us, we need to focus on the helpers, on the ones who encourage the better angels of our nature to come forward.
And they are there.
Jennifer Hildebrandt wrote recently that she had been going on walks with intention. She began noticing the people living on the streets and in parks. Not the people who were in more public camps, but the scattered ones. She began speaking with them and then started bringing them blankets and food. She started asking others and now she has her own personal mission supported by others to make a difference for people down on their luck.
There are people who stand for health care.
There are people who worked to re-establish voting rights for felons.
There are the ordinary people who have sought out the Migrant caravan and offered them food, shelter, provisions, even legal help.
There are the people who drove folks to the polls regardless of political party.
The task of the church is to remember the divine love that restores us to sanity.
I am encouraged by the words of Ari Mahler. He was a nurse who treated the shooter of the Tree of Life Synagogue. Below is something he posted on Facebook on November 3, 2018. See if his words are not an expression of Divine Love:
I am The Jewish Nurse.
Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one that people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, "Death to all Jews," as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life.
To be honest, I’m nervous about sharing this. I just know I feel alone right now, and the irony of the world talking about me doesn’t seem fair without the chance to speak for myself.
When I was a kid, being labeled “The Jewish (anything)”, undoubtedly had derogatory connotations attached to it. That's why it feels so awkward to me that people suddenly look at it as an endearing term. As an adult, deflecting my religion by saying “I’m not that religious,” makes it easier for people to accept I’m Jewish – especially when I tell them my father is a rabbi. “I’m not that religious,” is like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you,” and like clockwork, people don’t look at me as awkwardly as they did a few seconds beforehand.
I experienced anti-Semitism a lot as a kid. It’s hard for me to say if it was always a product of genuine hatred, or if kids with their own problems found a reason to single me out from others. Sure, there were a few Jewish kids at my school, but no one else had a father who was a Rabbi. I found drawings on desks of my family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on my locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, “Die Jew. Love, Hitler.” It was a different time back then, where bullying was not monitored like it is now. I was weak, too. Rather than tell anyone, I hid behind fear. Telling on the people who did this would only lead to consequences far worse.
Regardless, the fact that this shooting took place doesn’t shock me. To be honest, it’s only a matter of time before the next one happens. History refutes hope that things will change. My heart yearns for change, but today's climate doesn't foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility. Even before this shooting took place, there’s no real evidence supporting otherwise. The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the U.S. population, yet 60% of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.
So now, here I am, The Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers. I’ve watched them talk about me on CNN, Fox News, Anderson Cooper, PBS, and the local news stations. I’ve read articles mentioning me in the NY Times and the Washington Post. The fact that I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything, is newsworthy to people because I’m Jewish. Even more so because my dad’s a Rabbi.
To be honest, I didn't see evil when I looked into Robert Bower's eyes. I saw something else. I can’t go into details of our interactions because of HIPAA. I can tell you that as his nurse, or anyone's nurse, my care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you're not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you're lying on my stretcher. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.
I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?
Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.
Ari Mahler, RN.
My friends, the work of the church is to remind us that we come from Divine Love. Divine Love brought us here and divine love reminds us of the spark of humanity and goodness in all people. This does not erase the awful things that people do, but it does remind us that we are all part of the human family, the broken, madness-creating, creative, quirky human family. Our task is to remind us all of the Divine love that wants us to do right by each other. As we embody that love and express that love, we are truly God’s children. May it be so.