By the Rev. Justin Kosec
Preaching texts: Proper 28 on the RCL
“What do you think, Phoebe?”
“Well, I’m of two minds about it…”
It was her classic line. Ask Phoebe about a movie, or a complicated ethical situation, or just which pizza place was best, and she was always “of two minds” about it.
Working with Phoebe on creative projects was fantastic fun, because Phoebe could circle around a problem or a circumstance and quickly see perspectives that others would miss.
At other times, her capacity to see the value in more than one proposition left her unable to make a decision, trapped between two equally attractive options. Or she might find herself unable to identify how she truly felt about a circumstance as she found different parts of her heart in two opposing camps.
In our hymn today, “My Lord, What a Morning,” we find the Christian tradition, like Phoebe, “of two minds” about the nature and message of this hymn.
In part, the confusion is linguistic, poetic. At times the hymn’s first line has been understood as “mourning,” not its early-morning homonym. There is, of course, no difference in pronunciation between “morning” and “mourning,” but the difference in meaning is vast. The verses are exceptionally short and vague enough to make perfect sense whether one interprets the song as a paean to God at the break of dawn or a song of grief. So is this song really about a remarkable lamentation or a first-light exclamation? Well, Christians (and their hymnal editors) have been “of two minds.”
The double meaning we find here does more than simply demonstrate just some mild poetic confusion about a hymn (or elucidate the trickiness of deploying a homonym in the oral-aural atmosphere of the worship environment). I believe it also elucidates a deeper tension at the heart of the Christian faith.
We find this tension on display in today’s gospel from Mark. The disciples — those down-home bumpkins — certainly seem in awe of the buildings in Jerusalem’s city center. They marvel at their fine-cut, precision construction, or a gold edifice blaring in the hot midday sun. “My Lord, what a morning!” they seem to say: what a magnificent day to sing your praise.
Jesus does not call them foolish for seeing the Temple in this way. But he gives them a second set of eyes with which to view the Temple. After Jesus’s astonishing, revelatory announcements, the buildings are no magnificent, no less grand. But Jesus has set even these buildings — so long dedicated to God’s service and worship — as a few among many that would fall victim to the wars of humankind. We can almost hear his disciples reply, “My Lord, what a mourning!”
Jesus shows them a dual meaning in the object of their praise, and this is often how Jesus works in the gospels. When his friends see despair and poverty, Jesus sees possibility. When the religious leaders try to trap Jesus in tricky semantics, Jesus shows them the deeper meaning in the social issue. Even when Jesus dies (“My God, what a mourning!”), God uses the bleak day of death to set the stage for the sunrise Easter anthem.
Jesus taught his followers to recognize and even seek multiple perspectives; he actively constructed a followership who were “of two minds”about any particular issue. He called working-class folks and highly-educated priests; he pulled together Roman tax collectors and insurrectionist zealots.
This does not mean that Christ wanted, nor sought, to create division among the faithful. Instead, “being of two minds” enabled the first Jewish Christians to recognize the value in the witness to the Gentiles. Much earlier, being of two minds enabled prophets to criticize the nation and people they loved while casting a vision of a more Godly future. In this week’s epistle from James, the author exhorts Christians to “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” a skill that is possible only when Christians “of two minds” help challenge one another to reach for the next plateau in lovingkindness.
Being of two minds enables us to recognize sinful pitfalls in a system that otherwise seems good and desirable. It enables us to discover the Godly dignity in people we might otherwise dismiss. In a country like the United States, it allows Christians to celebrate and accelerate the virtues and ideals of their society (religious liberty, freedom of speech, the right to assemble); while speaking plainly about its faults (racial divisions, wage disparities, widening hyperpartisanship). My Lord, what a morning! What a mourning!
At times being of two minds can leave us paralyzed, caught between two equally-valid futures; or between competing visions of the world; or even between two bad options (a rock and a hard place). As you preach this morning, consider such moments in your own ministry. We often find occasion to feel “of two minds” about our most important, most challenging dimensions of our ministry because these are also the most demanding and the most complex–if there’s no simple solution to a problem, then it’s a prime example of the type where we find ourselves “of two minds.”
Accordingly, if your church has begun the work of racial reconciliation or healing, or if you have tried to move beyond food pantries to untangle the root causes of poverty in your community, then you will know that feeling of paralysis quite well. What other pressing issues in your congregation or your denomination–either past or present–have left people feeling “of two minds?”
Fortunately for the preacher, being of “two minds” need not always lead us to paralysis. Jesus cultivates “two minds” in his believers so they may begin to recognize that God’s broader work in the world always stretches us beyond what we see or understand. Crucially, we are not called to move beyond our dual-mindedness by convincing others to assent to our position or our arguments; we are not unified by homogeneity.
Instead, we are drawn together by and unified in Christ Jesus, the one who united the human mind and the divine while retaining the integrity of each.
If Jesus is our pattern, then growing into people of “two minds” is not compromise; it is a centering practice for the Christian who lives, still, within the human world. In Christian community, being of two minds often signals the force-multiplying power that God provides the church through its many, varied gifts. As you identify those issues in your community and your ministry that leave you “of two minds,” also consider: how does God call you to use multiple perspectives, manifold gifts, different ability levels, heretofore unseen considerations, or layers of meaning to address the complex issues that face the church today?
We might even find ourselves called to cultivate and foster a Christian community that can be “of two minds” about anything. It is not easy or simple to live this way. If anything, our hymn reminds us just how complicated this kind of Christian community can be, as the revelation of dramatic change—the inversion of the social order, the disruption of the way things have always been—looks like the dawn of a glorious new day to some and an occasion of deep grief to others.
But once more, the hymn calls us to remember that Christians have long adapted to even epochal shifts through the same habit of divine imagination that allows Christians to see forgiveness in bread and wine and salvation in baptismal water. In this way, being “of two minds” is the prophetic call to reexamine our assumptions about what is foundational. It is the Advent call to anticipate the Godly arrival in the dusty manger of the mundane. It is the Easter recognition that death is painful and terrible and sad; but also that mourning a death in this life is the seed of life in the morning everlasting.