Introduction to the Reading from Antigone
The great Sophocles wrote Antigone in the year 441 BCE. It won the prize at the Athenian theatre festival where it debuted, and has come down to us 2,447 years later as fresh and relevant as the year in which it was written.
The synopsis is this: young Antigone, daughter of the tragically fated King Oedipus (remember him?), lives with her sister Ismene in the kingdom of her Uncle Creon. Her two brothers, Eteokles and Polyneices, have engaged in civil war and killed one another in battle. King Creon, wishing to make an example of these insurgents, has buried one (Eteokles) with full honors, and has decreed that Polyneices should be left out to rot under the Theban sun. Anyone caught trying to make his burial will be executed by a public stoning.
Antigone knows that according to her religion, the gods demand a proper burial for all mortals or else they will never rest in the Underworld. At the cost of her own life, she must see to it that her brother is buried. In this first scene from the play, Antigone tries to get her sister, Ismene, to join her in doing the appropriate honors.
THE SERMON "What Is Victory?"
One of my favorite music CD' s is the soundtrack to the movie "The Apostle." There are a lot of great old hymns and spirituals on there, and one song is a very rhythmic, harmonized version of an old standard, recorded by a group called The Sounds of Blackness. The lyrics go,
"Victory is mine. Victory is mine. Victory today is mine. I told old Satan get thee behind, victory today is mine."
It' s wonderful. I have a secret love for songs that deal with triumphing over Satan. "Victory is Mine" is one of them, and "Satan, We' re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down" is another one, as recorded by the gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
I love the songs about beating Satan because I think of Satan as all those things in life that seem determined to defeat us: those failed life plans that tempt us to never dare dream again, those bouts of depression that we fear we may never come out of, those painful chapters in relationships that tempt us to never trust another human being again, those fears that so beset us after some random act of violence that we can barely muster the courage to go out the door, those addictions that sometime plague us and cause us to cling to sanity by the edges of our fingernails. Those things are Satan. Satan is really deep cynicism, really deep apathy, really deep self-hatred, really deep contempt, all of those things and more. Above all, Satan is that thing that keeps us from being true to ourselves. It' s a fight we all have all our lives long. It' s different for everybody, but you know the temptation to betray yourself when you see it. It comes up when you' re least ready for it. It' s that moment when you know that someone or something is offering you the chance to totally compromise your own deepest values and the hair at the back of your neck prickles because something in you knows you' re in danger. That' s Satan, which means "adversary." Get thee behind me, Satan, Jesus said. A great line. When you give in to that satan, you' d give anything to get your soul back.
The first time I remember giving into that Satan was when I was in the first grade and riding home on the school bus. Our bus got caught in construction traffic and there were men in hard hats cutting down big tree limbs. Some of the kids on the bus got bored and pulled the windows down and I saw the working men wave at us, "Hey, little kids on the bus!" And then I saw with a sense of horror that some of my peers were spitting out the window at the men. The men were horrified, and then very angry. My classmate Andy Oatway (that little bully!) looked at me threateningly. Why wasn' t I spitting, little miss goody two shoes? I knew I was in for a whaling if I didn' t join in. So I put my little face to the window and made a little spitting sound out the window, feeling just sick to my stomach the moment I did it. I was sick about it for years. I would have given anything to get my soul back. I would still give anything to know who those men are so I could apologize to them. You think it' s a small thing but a small thing can lead to bigger things. Before you know it you' re not even sure what it means to be true to yourself anymore.
Each of us has a source of personal integrity that I believe was breathed into us with our first breath. The ancient Greeks called this spirit a "daimon," a guardian spirit, essentially -- not to be confused with "demon." They believed that your daimon was something both within you and also beyond you, a literal spirit being. In the 19th century, this idea was popular with Emerson and other transcendentalists, who referred to the daimon as "your genius."
Over time, Westerners began to see the personal daemon not as a force outside the self but as part of our own own unconscious inner being. The first psychologists, notably Carl Jung, thought that one of the most important tasks of becoming a mature adult was to get to know your personal daimon and to take responsibility for it; in other words, to get in touch with the unconscious so you don' t project its shadow aspect onto others. Jung believed that within the daimon was not only a lot of important spiritual force, but your life' s very destiny. I don' t mean destiny in the sense of something thrust upon you that you can' t avoid, as the ancient Greeks believed, but destiny in the sense that an oak tree is present in the acorn: destiny as a kind of calling, a kind of vocation to live into, something that when you deny it might cause your soul great pain.
Where does the daimon come from, this guardian spirit of our lives? The poet William Wordsworth says it beautifully when he describes our birth this way:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life' s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
and not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
from God who is our home. ("Ode: Intimations of Immortality")
It' s a lovely verse. We think, "Gosh, a guardian spirit of my life that holds the mystery of my actual destiny! How romantic!"
Well, not always.
If Palm Sunday teaches us anything, it is that living into the integrity of our innermost being is not always going to be romantic or happy. This is very hard for us to accept.
Take Jesus, for history' s most famous example. He preached, ministered, healed and taught to a community of occupied people in first century Palestine. He was a superstar celebrity spiritual leader; he drew huge crowds and some people really got his message. But others really didn' t get it, and some of those others were in his own inner circle of disciples. They thought all his healing and preaching was great and all, but what they were really itching for was a revolution, an uprising. They figured, "Well here' s Master Jesus preaching all about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and he' s including everyone at the table, he' s loving strangers and untouchables and prostitutes -- this is our guy! If anyone can get all of us psyched up to make a final stand against the Roman oppressors, he has to be it! This is our warrior king!"
They didn' t understand what Jesus' destiny really was. They didn' t get what kind of revolution he was really trying to usher in, which was not an external, military revolution but a spiritual revolution about intimate relationship with God and kinship loyalty with a new definition of "kin." Jesus knew that he was misunderstood. He absolutely knew that not only did many of his own followers misunderstand him, but the Roman authorities definitely misunderstood him. He knew, when he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem that morning, with all his fans waving palms and crying "Hosanna," that he was in big trouble. "Don' t berate her!" he said of the woman who poured the nard over his head. "She is anointing me for my burial." My God, can you imagine anything more poignant?
In very recent memory, Jesus knew, that very same road to Jerusalem had been lined with thousands of crucified Jews who dared defy the Romans (actually, their crime was to break into a granary), and so Jesus knew what he was up against. He was fenced in, strategically speaking. On one side, he had followers who were hoping him to stage a big military rebellion. On the other, the temple authorities who were furious with him for attracting negative attention and for preaching a subversive form of Judaism.
On still another side, hostile Romans were just waiting for one of his friends to betray him so they could snap him up and execute him. And yet despite danger from every side, Jesus had an interior life that was his destiny. His daimon was going to lead him not to compromise anything about himself. He wasn' t going to apologize to the temple authorities. He wasn' t going to defend himself to the Romans, either. He wasn' t going to organize his thousands of followers into a military rebellion. He was going to live into the truth of his deep being all the way to his own crucifixion.
Some Christian traditions would teach that Jesus did this to fulfill the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, or that he was fulfilling a cosmic plan to be killed so that you and I would be redeemed from sin. As they say, he died to save us from our sins.
Let me say this very simply: I don' t think so.
I don' t think so at all. I think we' re responsible for our own sins, and that Jesus was responsible for his own destiny. He chose a life of integrity and an early death rather than to apologize for who he was, or to engage in the kind of violent insurrection he didn' t believe in. It was an individual decision made on behalf of a community ethic. He died not to save from my sins, but to provide me with a luminous exemplar; the life of true integrity.
When I hear those old songs about the victory of the Cross, this is what I think of: Jesus was victorious not in the world' s definition of the word, but in the soul' s definition of the word. Socrates did this same thing, when he was on trial for being a bad influence on the Athenian youth. It' s actually a very similar story, in some important aspects. Socrates, when he was condemned to death, said (and I' m paraphrasing), "You know, my daimon always opposes me when I do something that is against my highest being. But this time, when I' m in the worst possible trouble, my daimon does not interfere. And for this reason, I am content to die. I am fine with it. There are more important things than to live a long life." Thus Socrates determined that losing his life to preserve his own integrity was not a tragedy. Again, a teacher' s individual decision made on behalf of a community ethic.
I wanted you to hear a little of the great Sophocles play, Antigone today, too, because Antigone is another character from ancient times (although unlike Jesus and Socrates, probably not an actual historical person), beloved and enigmatic still today, who also makes us throw our hands in the air and say, "My God, child, what could you be thinking? All you have to do is let your brother' s body remain unburied and obey your uncle the king and you can live a long life with many joys, and no one will blame you for it!" Just like Jesus. "For God' s sake, what could you be thinking!? Are you crazy? All you have to do is say that it' s all a big mistake, you never said you were anyone special, you have no God but Caesar, you never predicted the destruction of the Temple, and you get to go home!" Socrates, too: "Listen, just denounce your teachings, and they' ll let you off the hook! What' s the problem here? Don' t you want to live, you nutjob!?"
And I see them all lined up before me: the patient prophet from Galilee standing in his dusty sandals with great love in his eyes, the bearded Athenian philosopher calmly and nobly waiting for his cup of hemlock, and the fiercely loyal young Antigone, standing before us all with accusing eyes, asking us what price we would be willing to pay to live in accordance with our highest principles.
I look back at them and I say, "I don' t know if I could do what you did. I don' t know if I think you were incredibly dumb or incredibly brave. What I do believe is that you were incredibly true to the spirit of your life, to your own integrity. Like Antigone says, You must be as you believe.' You were as you believed. By your very being, you issue a challenge to us all. None of you are what any of us would typically think of when we hear victory is mine, victory is mine, victory today is mine' , but by your own standards, you were indeed victorious. What a challenge you issue to us. This must be why we still tell your stories today. You scare us, and you inspire us. We don' t know what makes you so clear about who you are, and what made you so willing to live into the integrity of who you are, but one thing is for sure: we need you."
I began with a favorite song, and so I will end with one. We sing this hymn often at funerals but I hum it all the time around the house, in the car, while walking in the woods. I don'
t think of it as a funeral hymn. I think of it as a song not only about God, but about my own daimon, my guardian spirit, and yours the spirit of our lives that was born with us and which contains our most divine aspect. The last verse goes, "I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. Where is death'
s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still if thou abide with me." As we sing this wonderful old song together, may you feel the presence of your own guardian spirit, your own daimon. May you feel its strength, feel its wholeness, and may you gather in the strength and the courage you need to live in accordance with its highest calling.
Special thanks to Arline Litchfield who played Antigone in our pulpit