Sunday, April 19, 2009

Beyond a Shadow: a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter

(This is the sermon I preached on April 19th, 2009 while serving as "guest" preacher at the U.C.C. church I attend. It is based on the assigned lectionary readings for "Easter 2B," Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31. Portions of these scriptures are quoted in the sermon using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.)

Excerpt from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

This poem was written two years after I was born. The poet, Wendell Berry, was a tobacco farmer in the midst of losing his livelihood, in the midst of a national energy crisis, in the aftermath of an unpopular war. Almost forty years later, the words seem freshly written. “Practice resurrection” the poet says. What a ridiculous, impossible thing. If you watch the news, Easter never happens. If you read the newspaper, we live in a Good Friday world.

It is true. All is tattered and broken: the health of our bodies, the health of our relationships, the health of our communities, our world. In our own families, the losses are deep: the cuts to our work hours, the wounds to our pride and self-respect, the loss of sleep over words spoken, roads not taken, choices made… the sudden grief of an unexpected death and the slow deprivations of chronic illness and aging. The shadows loom large around us. Where is the Easter in all that?
We catch ourselves looking for signs of seasonal cheer. The store displays beckon. They promise our own personal stimulus package… but how can new shoes or a foil-wrapped chocolate rabbit expand our sense of grace? In our mouths, the taste of ashes lingers. The cold metal bite of anxiety drives us away, wincing, from the longed-for feast.

Thomas was searching, too. There in Jerusalem, the feast of Passover had come to an end. So, too, had his beloved teacher’s life. Where there should have been an air of well-fed seasonal goodwill, the city was trembling with fear and mistrust. Where there should have been songs of freedom, there were women weeping and wailing their terror and their grief. The Sabbath candles had been snuffed out, and the shadows kept growing, kept reaching…

The shadows of death and destruction loomed upon all the apostles. Locked in that upper room, hiding from the soldiers and the crowds, they mourned, raged, and cowered. They wrestled with betrayal and denial—both from others, and the parts they’d played, themselves.

Yet Thomas wasn’t there. When did he leave, and why? Did he stroll down to the marketplace to pick up some take-out for the disciples’ dinner? Did he move from one shadow to another, on some secret mission?

Nobody knows where Thomas was, when Jesus first appeared to the others. One thing we do know, though: his absence doesn’t suggest a man of doubt. It suggests a man of purpose. Thomas was the only one who stepped out of that dark little room, the only one who wasn’t paralyzed with fear. Like his beloved teacher, he was an active man who refused to separate the life of the spirit from physical life’s demands. His faith was fully embodied.

So when he returned and heard the others telling wild stories, he was not convinced. He understood that grief can twist the mind and too much wine—or too little sleep—can affect the clarity of the senses. A vivid dream—a ghostly vision—these things were common enough. And so Thomas blazed back at the rest of them, huddled in their dingy corner:

The other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!”

Here is Jesus, revealed in ultimate incarnate glory. Here is our Christ, triumphantly embodied. Thomas is not there to sulk or play the fool. Thomas is there to help us reach into the story. Thomas is there to point the way. Like a glass prism, held up to catch the light and send rainbows dancing, Thomas offers his rough edges to reflect God’s glory. This sharp-edged man brings an entire gospel into focus for us, then scatters and spreads the shimmering truth.

For hundreds of years, the Church has worked to scatter the light. Faithful friends and followers have worked to drive the shadows away and bring light into even the darkest corners of human life.

During Lent, I read a book called, Saving Paradise. It’s written by two women who traveled the Holy Land, looking for the creative traces of the earliest Christians. They found carvings in the catacombs, among generations of quiet bones. They found faint hints of frescos among the crumbling ruins where sanctuaries once stood. And then they went to Italy, to a place called Ravenna. There they found churches built within three centuries of Jesus life. They expected to find raw, stark images of the crucifixion, still fresh in everyone’s minds. After all, isn’t that the central story, the focus of our faith?

What they found caught them by surprise. Stepping in, beyond the heavy doors and shadowy arches, they found high-ceiling rooms ablaze with colour. Glass mosaics decorated every surface, catching and refracting the light so that the images seemed to shimmer, lit from within. Where they expected suffering martyrs, they found parades of women and men, large as life, their clothes sparkling like jewels, arranged in adoration. Where they expected stations of the cross, they found the flung-open gates of paradise, with lambs leaping on vibrant green hillsides and birds perched joyfully in the trees. Jesus and the saints were shown alive and whole with arms wide open, ready for a welcoming embrace. The only cross was an empty one, floating high and far away in a sapphire sky studded with blazing golden stars. “He is not here” the shining pictures seemed to say, “Blessed are you who see, and believe!”

The two women traveled farther. They climbed high mountains and made their way to remote valleys, seeking the crucified Christ. All they found were images of Jesus radiant and alive, often in the midst of paradise. Their confusion grew. They sought out scholars and ancient writings to see what the early Christians told each other about their faith. What they found were people like us, struggling to make sense of God’s relationship with humanity. They argued about big things and little things, just as the church does now: was Jesus really God, or really a man, or was he somehow both? And for communion, what should we eat: milk and honey, fish and bread? Maybe some fruit and cheese?

They actually put a lot of thought into that communion feast, because communion was what mattered most. Nourishment mattered. Pleasure and Beauty mattered. In a world of persistent injustice and suffering, a world that needed God’s life-changing grace, they did not dwell on the ugliness and evil of the crucifixion. It made no sense to focus on something they already knew. Instead, they depicted the beauty of paradise, so people could come and experience a life of hope and possibility—so they could perceive a new way to be. And they shared a feast. Because God was embodied—and creation renewed—every single time people shared such earthly blessings. Communion was literally heaven on earth.

In some places, the sharing of goods brought great wealth to the church—and because they were focused on building God’s kingdom, they did not hoard their treasures, but scattered them like seeds in a garden, knowing they’d take root and add to the abundance of paradise. They helped war refugees, widows and orphans. They started schools and soup kitchens, some that served thousands of people each day. They cared for the sick, for local people in poverty and needy travelers.

In the year 372, when a famine hit the Syrian city of Edessa, the church organized hospitals and systems to gather and share out food so that the whole city could be fed. Ephrem, one of the church leaders, not only organized these drives, but also wrote poems and songs to encourage a new ethic of care. His creative works became widely popular. Even today, the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers Ephrem as “The Songbird of Paradise.”

“Even Christ had need of human care,” he proclaimed. “Our need for everything binds us with a love of everything.”
“One person falls sick—and so another can visit and help;
One person starves—and so another can provide food and give life;
One person does something foolish—
but they can be instructed by another and thereby grow.
In this way the world can recover:
Tens of thousands of hidden ways are to be found,
Ready to assist us.”

Even in Jerusalem, which at that time was a broken-down backwater of the Roman empire, this ethic of care was lived out with powerful results. In spite of the destruction of war, the burden of high taxes, widespread poverty and dilapidated buildings, the church worked to mirror paradise and build heaven on earth. In the Book of Acts we read:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.


“There was not a needy person among them.” What makes the church in Jerusalem different from the place we live now? We, too, know war and taxes and poverty. We, too, struggle with buildings that have decayed. What would it take to focus our vision and scatter the light of heaven in this time, in this place? We already have been touched by beauty—the hand-polished, smooth-worn wood, the joyful sounds of organ and song, the fragrant offerings of flowers, the radiant coloured glass that catches the sun. We cannot fall prey to the lie that beauty should soothe us, make us sleepy and comfortable. This beauty should stir up our hearts! Beauty should make us hungry for more: the beauty of peace, the beauty of compassion, the beauty of healing, the beauty of justice. Heaven has touched us, not to calm us down, but to help us rise up, with Christ, from the dead!

Now Easter has come. Now Jesus lives again in our midst. Now we, too, must reach out with boldness and touch the marks of earthly suffering. Now we, too must practice resurrection. Unlock the doors of that safe, musty little room! Step out of the shadows of despair and doubt! Come out of the tomb! Christ has risen. Our beloved teacher has opened the gates of paradise and prepared a common feast. Go, and do likewise!

1 comment:

Songbird said...

Amen!
(Give me a call and let me know how the day went, okay?)