Last Sunday I went to church at All Saints, Pasadena, and heard Wilma Jakobsen tell the following Zen story from the pulpit:
One day, while walking through the wilderness, a man encountered a vicious tiger. He ran for his life, and the tiger gave chase. The man came to the edge of a cliff, and the tiger was almost upon him. Having no choice, he held on to a vine with both hands and climbed down.
Halfway down the cliff, the man looked up and saw the tiger at the top, baring its fangs. He looked down and saw another tiger at the bottom, waiting for his arrival and roaring at him. He was caught between the two.
Two rats, one white and one black, showed up on the vine above him. As if he didn't have enough to worry about, they started gnawing on the vine.
He knew that as the rats kept gnawing, they would reach a point when the vine would no longer be able to support his weight. It would break and he would fall. He tried to shoo the rats away, but they kept coming back.
At that moment, he noticed a strawberry growing on the face of the cliff, not far away from him. It looked plump and ripe. Holding onto the vine with one hand and reaching out with the other, he plucked it.
With a tiger above, another below, and two rats continuing to gnaw on his vine, the man tasted the strawberry and found it absolutely delicious.
According to the Zen masters who interpret this story, every element in it is symbolic. The tiger at the top represents the past: try as you might like to, you can’t go back and redo or undo what you’ve done. The tiger at the bottom represents the future: all the dangers and possibilities that lie ahead of you are unfathomable. The vine represents life in the material world, and the rats who gnaw at it represent the passage of time: the repeating cycles of day and night weaken us and bring us closer to death. Do what we might to avoid doing so, we all will ultimately have to face the tiger awaiting us down below.
And then there’s that strawberry. As one commentator puts it, “The strawberry represents the astounding beauty, bliss, energy and vitality of the present moment. It is always there, always available for those who have the ability to see it and experience it.”
This is, of course, a story about living in the present moment. Most of us live somewhere else. We live in the past, endlessly revisiting things we cannot change. We live in the future, worrying about things we cannot control. We fail to reach for the strawberry either because we’re clinging desperately to material life or because we are so preoccupied with the tigers and rats that we have lost our appetite for life. But the wisdom of this story suggests that the grace and abundance of reality are always available to us if we can keep ourselves focused on and present to what’s actually around us in the here and now.
Now before you go write your bishop that the dean was telling pagan stories in the chapel on Awards Night, I would remind you that tonight we are also nearing the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and that, in particular, we are still in what Karl Barth called “the significant pause” between Ascension and Pentecost. In the logic of our liturgical calendar, Jesus has ascended to heaven but the Spirit has not yet come. We live, as a praying Christian community, between the already and the not yet. We are like the man on the vine hanging between the two tigers. The Ascension has already happened. Jesus is gone. We are alone in the world. He has told us we won’t be left on our own, but we live only on that promise. Pentecost is coming, but it hasn’t yet arrived. We are out there hanging, left somewhere between promise and fulfillment.
A Zen master might say that our life is always perched somewhere between past and future. As a Christian, I’d put it this way: our life in this world is always situated between Ascension and Pentecost, in transit between the promise and its fulfillment. Jesus has told us that the Comforter will come, but she’s not here yet. To be a person of Biblical faith is always to be someone who is waiting on God to fulfill God’s promises. And as we do that we have two choices. We can choose to believe the promise and organize our lives around it. Or we can decide to doubt the promise and try to find some alternative way to make our way through life. Choosing to believe exposes us to risk. Deciding to doubt makes one cling to the past.
Now when I talk about belief and doubt, I don’t use those terms in quite the way our larger culture does. At least to me, to be a Christian person does not mean that you have literally to subscribe to a confessional faith statement about the literal veracity of credal and biblical propositions. (Now you can start calling your bishops.) And to have doubts about any or all of it has always been a viable faith option, especially for us Episcopalians. So I don’t mean to equate belief with credulity and doubt with skepticism. For me, the tension between belief and doubt has more to do with the contrasting life options of action and resignation.
A believing person commits her or his life to the proposition that Jesus and God are trustworthy. A doubting person is not quite ready to do so. In this “mean time” which we all inhabit, the believing person acts as if the Spirit has already come. The doubter hedges his bets and looks for cover. Because she knows she is ultimately secure, the believer is able to take on the pains and burdens of all God’s creatures. Because he’s worried about his ultimate safety, the doubter never quite makes it out of the house. And again, I’ve met rationalistic skeptics who lived like believers and orthodox Trinitarians who were moral and political cowards. So this is not about what you think. It’s about whom you trust. The real sheep/goat question in Christianity, then, has to do with how you live in this significant pause between Ascension and Pentecost. Are you going to live in the present as if Pentecost has already come, or are you going always to look distractedly with one eye toward the past with nostalgia and the other toward the future with anxiety?
And this is where tonight’s Gospel becomes relevant. Peter complains to Jesus about the unfairness of the two destinies of himself and the Beloved Disciple. Why do I have to die and he doesn’t? When Jesus says to Peter, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me," he is summing up the Ascension-Pentecost Gospel in its simplest terms. What do you care about the past or the future? What matters is your faithfulness in the present moment. Follow me!
Tonight is our annual Awards Night, and we might think of it as a way-station on the journey between the twin tigers of matriculation and graduation. (Who the rats signify in your own ecclesiastical process I’ll leave it up for you to decide.) You can’t go back and be the person you were before this whole process began. You don’t know where your life and vocation are going to take you. But you do have within your reach the strawberry of the present moment. All of us hang somewhere on that cliffhanging vine, and all of us stand, at least metaphorically, somewhere between Ascension and Pentecost. God has promised us something greater that we can quite imagine or understand, but it’s not quite real for us yet. Are we going to live into that promise and act as Jesus would act in the circumstances we face? Or are we going to run for some kind of personal and philosophical cover? Are we going to live in the present moment and grasp the strawberry of Gospel life? Or will we cling to a vine which is unraveling even as we speak? That is the question this Zen story, this Gospel, and this liturgical moment ask of us and we can only answer it in the terms on which Jesus poses it, not really as question but command: “Follow me.”
All of us live our lives between the past and the future, nostalgia and hope, promise and fulfillment. The Bible is our sacred book because it makes the case that God is trustworthy. Those of us who gather around this table have been called into a community of people who have heard those promises and have staked our lives on the reality that they will be fulfilled. None of us knows what awaits us, but we do know that we can never go back. The here and now, the present moment, the actual circumstances of our life and world–these are the gifts that God has given us to await the Spirit’s coming. Reality is all there is, and it is enough. Forget about those tigers and rats. Eat the strawberry. In doing so you’ll find that what you hope for and stake your life on, even now, is coming to be. Amen.