See What Blessing Sees
April 1, 2018
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque
Joan Didion has said: Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.
And perhaps that is the long and short of Easter. Things change. Change irreparably.
Easter is –and there is no getting around it—about Jesus. Whatever ancient pagan agricultural roots it has in its seasonal pagentry, it is based in large part on the memory, however distorted, of how the unexpected, cruel death of an ancient teacher, Jesus turned the lives of his student-followers upside down. However, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospel narratives are they are not legends. I have read a good deal of legend, and they are not the same thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view, they are clumsy; they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of this fellow Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.
In the story of the woman taken in adultery, we are told that Jesus bent down and scribbled in the dust with his finger. Nothing comes of it. No one ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art….nothing like it until the realistic novel came into being about a hundred plus years ago. Surely the only explanation of this passage and many others is that it happened.
Now, the words concerning Jesus consist of words about him and words alleged to be spoken by him. It is not easy to draw the line between these two kinds of words—to say, for example whether a miracle story about Jesus is not simply a naïve concretion of a parable told by Jesus—and I shall make no effort to draw it. Nor do I claim to know how many of the words put into the mouth of Jesus were actually his own. BUT, unlike many scholars, I am convinced that much, perhaps most, of Jesus’ teaching was his own.
This is a poetic conviction, an intuition, which carries no authority beyond its own persuasiveness—and is in this regard similar to the word that established it. The sayings of Jesus are, to my understanding , so full of pathos, irony, humor and a unique sympathetic passion, that the supposition that they could have been produced by the communities of followers scattered across Asia Minor in the century after Jesus lived seems to me absurd.
I do not want to deny that pious and awkward hands have from the beginning interfered with those sayings and have sometimes succeeded in twisting them almost beyond recognition. But I believe that in most instances, the attentive ear can still pick out the sound of an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice.
After a while, you begin to get the picture of a man who was a peasant, born of an unwed mother, and raised in poverty in a brutally occupied territory. You get the picture of a thoughtful young man exposed to both Greek and his own Jewish cultural traditions….a man whose experiences and thoughtfulness and anger and tenderness and frustration made him an excellent storyteller.
You get the story of a teacher who had no specific program he want to impose on people but who nudged people to think for themselves, to get to the deeper, more basic issues, and to give up all sense that he already had all the answers on a silver platter.
You see the picture of a person who wanted those whoe were different from each other…women and men, rich and poor, the sick and the healthy, Greek and Jew, quick and slow, desperate and comfortable…to meet each other, to face at table, to hear each other’s stories. The picture of a person who was seized by possibilities for a better world, which in his own rich language, he wittily called “malkut Elaha” the Empire of God, deftly calling Caesar’s role into questions.
Unlike most upstanding America citizens, Jesus appeared to do no work and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as essentially homeless, without any property of note, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, critical of authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Tho’ he was no revolutionary in the modern sense of the term, he had something of that lifestyle – a cross between a hippie and a guerilla fighter.
BUT, for those who heard him speak beside the Syrian Sea, his words were stirring. They disturbed by their incredible promise, puzzled by their impracticable demands and even frightened by the unreasonable hopes they raised. The words of Jesus were always “out in front”, never grasped, understood, fulfilled; always to be grasped, to be understood, to be fulfilled. Jesus did not give a complete and coherent system of teaching – perhaps, we Unitarian-Universalists might presume – because he did not want to impose and external pattern on the gloriously diverse patterns of this world and of our human relationships. His words, though, open vistas into the possibilities of this world – they did then, and for some of us, they do now.
He did not come to give answers. Life is not, after all, primarily a puzzle or a problem. It is primarily life and Jesus told us one way to live it. The words of Jesus urged his rag-tag band of fisher folk, outcasts and social miscreants to interpret life in the light of the hope they raised, an exploration, a quest, a probing of possibilities. Not an expression of what they knew in any concrete way, only a pointing towards something – a listening to something, they (and we, perhaps) hope to be true.
Then, in an instant, Life changes. It changed in Galilee most certainly. We are not much these days for Mel Gibson re-runs of the crucifixion, I understand that. In a mad and murderous world like ours, we have enough sudden onslaughts of meaningless horror, enough deliberate cruelty, enough agonizing despair and disappointment hidden behind the sliding doors of our day-in/day-out lives. We know the crucifixion of hopes and dreams and aspirations . We know grief, and grief has often changed us.
Grief and loss and hurt turn out to be places none of us know until we are there. We anticipate—we know—that someone close to us could die, that life could turn upside down, that love could rot from the core. “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complications, so wired that when we mourn our losses, we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. “ (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005) As we fear we will one day be not at all.
A single person goes missing for you and the whole world is empty.
When Joan Didion suddenly lost her husband a few years back, she said “It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.” She is right, of course. There is nothing unusual in this: Confronted with sudden disaster, we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the desks where the children work drawing before gunfire blasted from the doorway. Just an ordinary Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, an ordinary beautiful September day New York.
So the story, even when we do not tell it word for word nor read it from sacred pages, rings true. We can see it. The death of Jesus was so unexpected, His death was so unexpected so devastating, that years later some of his friends could not stop talking about how difficult it had been for them to let go…terrible, shock and grief.
But, eventually, they began to see that the death of their teacher was not a sign of divine displeasure but just the opposite….his spirit could not be destroyed just because he was killed. As one author whose letter is included in the New Testament put it: He was slain in the flesh, but rose up in the spirit. It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection: The Jesus who was dead is not dead any more. He has risen. He is here. According to the narrative, there was no choir of Christmas angels to proclaim it. There was no sudden explosion of a burning bush. Not a single soul was around to see it happen.
When Mary of Magdala arrived at the tomb the morning after the crucifixion, she thought at first that it must a gardener standing in the shadows. Thomas wasn’t convinced. The disciples, out fishing just as on any other day, saw someone on the beach and failed to recognize him as Jesus, until him asked them to come and join him at the charcoal fire he had started on the sand and cooked them breakfast. The way they tell it, this person…this Jesus…came back from death not in a blaze of glory, but more like a candle flame in the dark, flickering first in this place, then in that place, then in no place at all. They are not describing it as a media event. They are trying to describe it as it seemed to them. It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened and yet they tell it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are saying. They tell it as softly as a secret, as something so precious and holy and fragile and unbelievable and TRUE that to tell it in any other way would be somehow to dishonor it. To proclaim the resurrection the way they do you would have to say it: Christ is risen.” Like That
In one of the gospels, the writer tells of two men walking along the road to the village of Emmaus – grief-stricken. They had heard the women’s report about find the tomb of Jesus empty that morning, but as the account tells “It seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Then, as they trudged along with the evening approaching and sun starting to set, a stranger joins them, listens to them, tries to be kind to them in their grief…Jesus, risen, alive again…or so they came to believe…only their eyes did not recognize him. That story and those eyes are almost the most haunting of all resurrection accounts for me because they remind me so much of my own eyes…eyes that look out at the world I live in but, more often than not, see everything except what matters most.
In early spring, there is a walk I take in the morning after breakfast. It doesn’t go to Emmaus exactly, unless maybe that’s exactly where it does go, but in the literal sense it takes me some half mile or so along a completely serene stretch of forested path down behind our apartment. I don’t know any place lovelier, early in the day, no one else around, everything fresh and still. The creek jingles or gurgles. The lake surface beyond reflects the sky. There are birds – some lazy, wayward geese and grackles black as soot, vistas of green grass, trees. It is a sight to behold, and yet there is no telling how hard I have to struggle, right there in the midst of it, actually to SEE it.
What I do instead is think about things I have been doing and things I have to do. I think about people I love and people I don’ know how to love. I think about messages to write and things around the farm to get fixed and old grievances and longings and regrets. I worry and dream about the future.
[Bonhoeffer’s words are close to true for me:
thirsting for kind words and human closeness,
shaking with anger at capricious tyranny and the pettiest slurs,
bedeviled by anxiety, awaiting great events that might never occur,
fearfully powerless and worried for friends far away,
weary and empty in prayer]
That is to say, I get so lost in my own thoughts—and LOST is just the word for it, as lost as you can get in a strange town were you don’t know the way—that I have to struggle to see where I am, almost to BE where I am.
Much of the time, I might as well be walking in the dark or sitting at home with my eyes closed, eyes that do not recognize what is happening around me.
But then once in a while, by grace, I recognize at least some part of it. Every once in a while, I recognize that I am walking in green pastures that call out to me to lie down in them and beside still waters where my feet lead me. Sometimes in the way the breeze stirs a branch or a bird circles above, I recognize that even in the valley of the shadow of my own tangled thoughts, there is something holy and unutterable seeking to restore my soul. As I reach the road, I see a young man in a red-checked shirt mounted high on his bike. When I wave my hand at him, he waves his hand at me and I am hallowed by his greeting. I see a flock of wild turkeys rise at my passing and my heart rises with them.
As I understand Easter, to the extent that Easter can be understood, it is not about something happening to the corpse of Jesus, but about the continuing experience of Jesus among his followers after his death.
And it is not just about experiencing him as one might experience a ghost, but experiencing a divine reality who is one with God and who invites allegiance and loyalty. To believe that Jesus is risen and alive in the world is to believe that there is no place or person or thing in the world through which we ourselves may not be made more alive; and wherever we ARE made more alive, whenever we ARE made more brave and strong and beautiful, we may be sure that something like Jesus is present with us, even tho’ more often than not our eyes do not see it so.
Were the skeletal remains of Jesus to be indisputably identified, it would not matter to me. To think that the central meaning of Easter depends upon something spectacular happening to Jesus’ corpse misses the point of the Easter message and risks trivializing the story. To link Easter primarily to our hope for an afterlife, as if our post-death existence depends upon God having transformed the corpse of Jesus, is to reduce the story to a domesticated yearning for our survival beyond death.
Rather, what mattered for his early followers was that they continued to know him as a living figure of the present after his death – not just during the forty days of appearances that the author of Acts mentions (Acts 1.3), but in the years and decades (and centuries) ever since. And to affirm, as Christians do, that the living presence of Jesus calls one to commit oneself to Jesus’ picture of God’s dream for the world. It means to stand against the powers that killed him and to stand for the vision of God’s kingdom that he proclaimed.
The lords of this world – a collusion of religious authorities with Roman imperial authority – said “No” to Jesus and executed him. Easter is the reverse: Easter means that God has vindicated Jesus, said “Yes” to Jesus and his vision over against the rulers of his world.
What kept the disciples from recognizing the stranger for who he was, of course, was that they thought he was dead and gone, and when he asked them what they had been talking about, that is what they told him in words as full of pathos as any in the world: We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel, they said, but by then their hope was as dead as they believed he was himself. They had gone to the tomb to see if he was alive as some believed but had found no trace of him.
Like me on my walk, they were so lost in their sad and tangled thoughts that they did not recognize him any more than you and I would recognize him or do recognize the truth or meaning or the divine as we walk through the world….because, like theirs, our eyes are too accustomed to darkness, and our faith is not strong enough to believe in the reality of light even if it were to blaze up before us.
If we are to live at all, we must live in a world that is crowded with both miracles and crucifixions; there is no escaping either one. It would be easier, of course, if it were only one or the other; if we could know ourselves doomed in a malevolent universe where we might as well curse, and drown our sorrows as best we can, or else secure within a wonder the complexity of which we might not comprehend, but the goodness of which we could trust. Instead, we find ourselves always in a situation of profound ambiguity, of glory and brutality, of suffering and beauty at the same instant. The lilacs bloom and the children die in complete disregard of one another; only we, the fragile vessels of an insatiable longing for coherence and meaning, are sundered by the paradox. In this eternal tension, we must learn to practice believing even when we cannot see.
Resurrection, the experience of belief, when it comes, is one of the miraculous moments of life, but like all genuine miracles, there is nothing unnatural about it. It is not the undoing of death, but the triumph of life even in the face of death; it is the human spirit asserting its possibilities yet again in a world shattered by suffering, and in hearts broken by betrayal. It is our deliberate decision to rise again; to rebuild the connections of community out of nothing but our own capacity for good will; it is the choice to do justice and to love mercy even where those two commodities are held in derision and contempt. Real resurrection, the kind that brings forth new life and new possibility, is not something that happens to us, it is something that we do – out of a sheer, stubborn conviction that we can, and must. It is a practice, a way of being in the world, that sees the fullness of destruction and will not accept it as the last word of human possibility. To practice resurrection, we must be willing to grieve – grieve for lost love, and for the children; weep for the ordinary people of Syria, crushed once by tyranny and again by civil war; grieve for the lives of soldiers, everywhere and on all sides, laid down in the service of their friends and their nations. To practice resurrection is to bear the sorrow of all the suffering of humanity, and humanity’s capacity to inflict suffering, and then to gather once more our determination that indeed the earth might be fair, and all her people one, and reach out one more time to make it so.
On such a day as this, it seems that the earth mourns with us, gray as the ashes of the holy books, chilled as the hearts of those who have lost their loved ones, cheerless as the ruined cities of all the ages of human aggression and violence. Yet the earth has another message for us, if our spirits are open to it; look closely, and you will see the green spears of plants struggling up through the soil to the sun and air; look up, and you will see the swelling at the tips of branches. The thing that we must not forget is that it all comes with pain. The chick must struggle out of the shell; mothers cry and bleed to give the little creatures birth, and some die of it; the sprout must heave itself through the mud; the leaf bursts with tearing from the bud, and there is no new life that does not have its cost in suffering.
And so it is with our ideals, the hope of human kinship and the dream of freedom; if we hold them truly, we do not hold them without cost. And yet this thing happens within us; this holy, miraculous moment when we choose resurrection and redemption, when we choose life with all its pain, when we choose to move forward in history despite the cruelty and the bloody ages of oppression, despite the arrogance of power and the craven acquiescence of those who follow it. When we choose the common good over private gain, when we choose liberty over conformity, when we make one more attempt to establish the claims of equal justice, we are practicing resurrection. When we work for an inclusive community and seek to wage peace, we are practicing resurrection. It will not bring our lost loved ones back; it will not restore the treasures of history from the flames; it cannot promise that good will triumph in any permanent sense. All that the practice of resurrection can do is to keep the struggle going; to make a world in which evil and violence and stupidity and shame do not triumph either.
The man Jesus died a long time ago, and no longer lives. His poor tortured body was thrown into a pit and is no more. But the Easter event first imagined by his friends in their grief has never ceased. Imagination… illuminating the facts. And I believe that the reason why Easter is not JUST a spring festival and not JUST an agricultural celebration, why Easter is more than Just and extraordinary event that took place some two thousand years ago and then was over and done with is that, even as I speak these words and you listen to them, the ancient teacher is still in the mix.
In this dark world where you and I see so little because of our unrecognizing eyes, I imagine that he, whose eye is on the sparrow, sees each of us, kneeling in the dark earth, bodies opening into the golden world. And, I imagine that because he sees us, not even in the darkness of death are we lost to him or to each other. Whether we recognize him or not, or believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again he comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we’re following.
Spring helps Easter thoughts along. I know that. And all the signs of new life: dyed eggs, the green shoots, tulips by the path and young lambs. But when Easter is passed and the bonnets and all their frills are stashed, I believe, I imagine that even though he has been dead a long, long time, that whenever in your life you experience a kindness, a joy, a falling apart or a coming together…who can ever guess how or when or where—the Risen One offers us, just as he did those dim-eyed fellows at Emmaus, the bread of life, offers us a new hope, a new vision of light that not even the dark world can overcome.
That is the word that… without lilies and daffodils or bonnets, bright lights and lollipops…that is the word is whispered to us like a secret in the dark, the saving and holy word that flickers before us like a red-checked shirt atop a old Schwinn bike.
Is it enough?
Everything in the world begins with a yes.
In the beginning there is only Yes,
infinitesimal, infinite, invisible
seed sprouting in the swirling dark,
the slow integration, expanding,
extending, the sudden explosion
into light—baby, blossom, universe,
all beginnings are the same—and Yes
to a world begun before words where
nothing separates this from that, and
Yes to the senses alive before language,
bird song, leaf shadow, skin touching
skin, (from Sarah Rossiter)
Is that mere witness of possibility sufficient to nourish the human spirit into purpose and courage and something approaching joy?
And, does it matter? The earth does not ask whether April is enough; it merely comes, every year, sometimes sodden and gray, sometimes pulling flowers out of its sleeves when we are not looking. What else should it do? What else can we do, but bear the weight of our sorrow, and turn again to the practice of resurrection?
Let Easter be our teacher. Let it prophesy to us the fierce truth of springtime, the facing into pain that is the only path to new life; and the rising again, the stubbornness of life and the human spirit, that is faith.
“So may we know
that is not just
but for this day—
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead—
but this day,
From Jan Richardson
So shall we come at last to the heart of Easter, where each of us must choose, again and again, the practice of resurrection; hope over despair, peace over violence, truth over lies, kinship and compassion over the ancient impulse toward crucifixion. There we shall walk through the door and see , if we have the courage for it, what blessing sees.
Out of the dusk a shadow, then, a spark. Out of the cloud a silence, then, a lark.
Out of the heart a rapture, then, a pain. Out of the dead, cold ashes, life again.
John Banniser Tabb
May it be so. Amen.