Blood on the Altar

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13: 1-3)

The great German theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have told his students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.  This is the pastor’s weekly challenge: to find the connection, the resonance, between biblical events, and the events of our own day; between the concerns of scripture, and our own concerns. Sometimes it can seem a bit of a stretch.

Other times, not so much.

Lately, the events of our own time seem to have more in common with biblical events than I for one would have thought possible. Take today’s gospel reading.

This week’s lectionary reading speaks of a mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were Galilean Jews, who were struck down at the Temple, even as they offered their sacrifices.

Last week, we learned of another mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were New Zealand Muslims, who were struck down at the Al Noor mosque, even as they offered their prayers.

There is a saying, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Sometimes it’s a bit of a forced rhyme. Not this week.

There is blood on the altar this week. And with those earlier disciples, we ask why.

Not much is known about these Galilean pilgrims, killed at the altar of the Temple. Today’s brief passage from the Gospel of Luke does not tell us much about the incident, and there don’t seem to be any other surviving contemporary accounts. Luke does tell us that the violence was incited by the Roman governor, Pilate. Which is historically plausible; it would not have been the first time that Pilate put Jews to death, nor would it be the last.

Bear in mind, that Jesus and his disciples were, themselves, Galilean Jews, and that this conversation among them took place as they too were travelling to the Temple in Jerusalem. No surprise they were thinking about this previous band of Galileans who met their deaths there. Wondering, perhaps, if the same thing could happen to them.

Jesus begins, as he so often does, with a question. Do you suppose that these Galileans were cut down in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

Let’s pause here and consider his question. What ARE the disciples thinking?

The conventional interpretation is that the disciples are, indeed, thinking this very thing. That the disciples ascribed to an ancient worldview, one that presumed that the just were always rewarded and the wicked were always punished; that victim-blaming was rampant in ancient Israel; and that Jesus was here introducing a radical new teaching, by suggesting that those who suffer are no different from us.

Well, that’s a pretty good message, to be sure. And one we still need to hear today. After all, victim-blaming is still rampant in modern society. It seems to be human nature, to find fault with the suffering; to distance ourselves from the unfortunate. We feel sympathy, sure, of course we feel sympathy for those in pain; but we also want to reassure ourselves, that it couldn’t happen to us, that it couldn’t happen here.

That’s the conventional sermon on this text, and it’s a pretty good one, but I don’t think that’s actually Jesus’ point here.

Because I just can’t imagine that the disciples were actually walking along, thinking, yeah, well, those other Galileans probably got what they deserved.  I’m guessing the disciples were laying the blame where it belonged: at Pilate’s feet.

So when Jesus asks them, do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, to have ended in this way? – I’m guessing this is really a rhetorical question, to which the disciples already knew the answer, and that they all answered: Hell, no. Pilate wouldn’t care if they were sinners or saints.

That blood on the altar? It could have been ours.

(But – could it, really? I’m just speaking for myself here now, white Protestant American that I am. Were the victims of last week’s shooting really just like me? I remember after the Charleston shooting – when a white supremacist entered an historically black church and killed nine people at a bible study – after that shooting, I remember a member of an all-white congregation telling me that she didn’t ‘feel safe’ in church anymore – and I thought, seriously?  It’s not like the Klan will be coming after you. Or me, for that matter…..  Well, let’s hold that thought. I’ll circle back around to it. Meanwhile, let’s get back to Jesus.)

Jesus asks his disciples – perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not – Do you think that these Galileans were somehow to blame for their fate? And then he answers his own question: No. No, of course not.

And I imagine the disciples nod their heads, emphatically, feeling morally superior to anyone who would suggest otherwise.

And then Jesus adds, But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Wait – what?

Jesus’ words here remind me of the kind of fear-mongering I see sometimes on Christian billboards. There used to be one on the Mass Pike that said: WHEN YOU DIE, YOU WILL SEE GOD – accompanied by a graphic of a flat-lining EKG. The message of the billboard was clear: Repent or go to hell. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found — or else.

I ask you, what kind of response is that, to a mass killing? How on earth could repentance have saved these people from death? It’s not as though Pilate cared whether they were penitent. And surely it is the murderer, not the victim, that needs to repent?

So what the hell is Jesus talking about?

Well, first off, he’s not talking about hell. At least, I don’t think so. Because he specifically says, unless you repent, you will perish in the same way as these other Galileans. In the same way . Meaning – what? At the hand of Pilate?

You see the irony here, right?

Because it’s Jesus himself, who will be the next Galilean Jew to die at Pilate’s hand. Do we imagine that Jesus suffered in this way because he was a worse sinner than other Galileans? No, of course not.

So what is he talking about, when he tells his disciples, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way?

I never could make much sense of this verse, until now. But now there is blood on the altar again, and now maybe I can begin to hear what the disciples heard in these words – not threat, or condemnation, but urgency, and lament.

“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” is very church-y language.  Suppose we try another translation:

“Unless we change course, the Pilates of this world will get us all.”

Reading them in the context of current events, I find that  Jesus’ words now call to my mind the words of Martin Neimöller, a pastor who became part of the German religious resistance to Hitler. Neimöller, a former U-Boat commander, was originally a supporter of the Third Reich — something he would repent for the rest of his life. It was Neimöller who spoke these now-famous words:

“First they came for the socalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socalist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Today’s scripture lesson is for all the Neimöllers out there — for all of us whose grief over recent events is still mingled with relief that we were not the ones targeted.

Do we imagine that the worshippers killed in Christchurch last week were somehow deserving of their fate? No, of course not. But unless we change course, unless we transform ourselves and our culture, unless we repent — this hatred and division will destroy us all.

First they came for the black churches.
Then they came for the synagogues.
Then they came for the mosques.

So if we are still feeling perfectly safe, if we have not changed course at all, perhaps it is because we are not yet standing in solidarity with those who are in danger. Our neighbors down the road at Temple Israel have been worshipping behind locked doors, ever since the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  How have we changed our own ways, in response to these events?

There is blood on the altar, and we are all called to repent. How do we begin?

Two days ago, on the Friday following the shooting, thousands of Muslims gathered for prayer at the Al Noor mosque. Their non-Muslim neighbors gathered there too — thousands of them. The entire community literally stood behind the worshippers.

Many of the non-Muslim women in the crowd wore hijabs, headscarves. Asked why, one Christchurch woman offered this explanation:[1]

“Why am I wearing a headscarf today? Well, my primary reason was that if anybody else turns up waving a gun, I want to stand between him and anybody he might be pointing it at.

“And I don’t want him to be able to tell the difference, because there is no difference.”

 

 

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts
March 24, 2019

[1] Christchurch resident Bell Sibly, quoted in the NYT

Image: Paper links are draped over the fence at Hagley Park near one of the mosques were more than 40 people were killed in Christchurch March 15. (S. Miller/VOA)

Home by Another Way (Midrash for Three Magi)

“Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2: 11-12

*Midrash (midˊ-rash) n. from a root meaning “to study,” “to seek out” or “to investigate.” Stories elaborating on incidents in scripture, to derive a principle or provide a moral lesson.

I. GOLD

It was a foolish gesture.

But the whole idea was crazy to begin with, so the way things ended made a certain sense.A foolish end, to a fool’s errand.

We began the journey full of anticipation. We were convinced that all of history had been leading up to this moment of time – our moment of time. We were expecting a great tide to wash away all that had come before. God’s second flood.

None of us counted on the waiting. We walked, and we looked; but nothing, anywhere, had changed for the better. I’m not even sure when I stopped expecting anything. Right up until that last day, I tried to silence the thought: What if nothing happens?

Just before our roads divided, my two traveling companions and I came upon a poor family sheltering in a stable. The young woman had just given birth; the baby was sleeping in a feeding trough.

That was where we left our riches, the gifts we had brought to honor the start of the new age. We didn’t really discuss it. It just seemed the obvious thing to do. Our prettily packaged gifts looked a bit ridiculous, sitting there on that bare earth. And, to tell the truth, I felt a bit ridiculous.

Here we were, looking for signs and wonders, when most of the world was just looking for a safe place to sleep.

II. FRANKINCENSE

I am a learned man. I have read the classics. I have studied the scriptures. I have observed the heavens. I have deduced the theorems. I am a philosopher, a teacher, a scientist, a sage.  I have been called “a wise man.”

And I knew.

I read the signs, I calculated the location, I predicted the time. I set out confidently, sure of my route, secure in my analysis. The journey was long, it’s true, but I would have traveled twice as far to prove my theory. To prove that this was, indeed, The Moment.

The Messiah was coming, and I knew. I would be the first to kneel before God’s chosen one. I would be the first to deliver the good news to the child’s parents.

But when I arrived I found the good news had already come, delivered instead by some passing shepherds. Shepherds! How could they have known? How could these uneducated illiterates have preceded us to the manger? They came, not through wisdom, but through foolishness: music, heard on a hillside. While I measured the stars, they listened to the angels sing.

All my wisdom had not taught me to hear the song they heard. I learned that day, there are many paths to God.

III. MYRRH

Shall I tell you what we found?

At the end of our journey, the star led us to a child. No, not even a child: a baby. We found an infant, in its mother’s arms. We were expecting a King, but we found — a baby.

I had assumed that God’s chosen one would be a born leader, a king from birth. But as I looked at this baby, I didn’t see a king. I didn’t see a mighty warrior-to-be, or a future ruler of the nation. I saw a baby. Tiny, powerless, vulnerable, trusting; just a baby.

And yet — as I looked into the baby’s face, I saw the face of God. Not the face of God’s chosen king, but the face of God. God looked at me through the eyes of that baby.

How could I confess such blasphemy to my two companions? or to Herod?And so I returned home by another way.

But shall I tell you a greater blasphemy still? Since that day, I see the face of God in the face of every baby.

 

___________
by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, 1.3.2019
permission given for use in worship
all other rights reserved

photo: Three Kings procession in the streets of Northampton, Massachusetts, 2007. Puppets by the youth members of the First Churches of Northampton.

Peace / Light

It was a forbidden, daring thing for a small child to hold a live flame.

Each year, a week or so before Christmas, the church of my childhood held a sunset caroling service. At the end of the service, we would be given candles – real candles, even for the kids – and one by one, as we left the warmth of the building, the ushers would light our wicks. We would carry our little lights into the church courtyard, where we would huddle against the cold and sing carols to the dark night sky.

It felt thrilling, like holding a tiny wild bird in my hands. But it was hard to keep that little creature alive. My sister and I always struggled to keep our candles lit in the cold evening breeze, sheltering it with our hands and bodies; but inevitably, a gust of wind would blow it out. But then some nearby adult would offer us a light from their candle, and ours would be reborn. Sometimes, most amazing of all, an adult’s candle would go out, and they would turn to us, to rekindle their flame.

During the half hour or so we spent caroling outdoors, every single candle would blow out, at least once. But at the end of the evening, the courtyard was still filled with candlelight.

Our world has been buffeted by some strong winds lately. Strong enough, at times, to snuff our hope of peace. But here is the good news: we were never meant to carry that light alone.

In this season of the longest night, we will gather again, in our houses of worship, in our homes, in our communities, to share the flame.  And again, we will know this to be true: The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

NOTE ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL PEACE LIGHT: Each year, a group of international Scouts travels to the shrine of the nativity in Bethlehem, and lights a lantern from the perpetual flame that burns there. That lantern in turn lights others. The flame is passed from person to person, across oceans and continents, kindling other candles and lamps along the way. And so it becomes a tangible sign, of our common desire for peace.

This year’s flame has now arrived in Deerfield, and will be shared at our Community Service of Lessons and Carols this Sunday, December 9, 2018, at 4pm, at the First Church of Deerfield, MA. Traditionally transported by Scouts, the flame will be presented to our church by a member of local Girl Scout Troop 12926.  If you can help harbor the flame until Christmas Eve (oil lamps, enclosed candles, or pilot lights work well), please contact me at deerfieldpastor@gmail.com. If you would like to carry the flame to your home or another community, bring a wind-proof lantern to Sunday’s service.

Peace out,
Liza

 

 

Scandal

Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones that believe — it would be better for him to have a millstone hanged around his neck, and to be cast into the sea. (Matthew 9:42)

This has been a week of painful memory for our people.

This week, 20 million people tuned in live and collectively bore witness as a woman stood before the world and shared her private memories of being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

There was pain enough, in her story, but it was just a small part of the collective pain of that day.

Because for many those who watched and listened, Dr. Ford’s testimony called to mind their own experiences of sexual abuse. For survivors throughout the country, for survivors throughout the world, this has been a week of pain remembered.

I want to start, then, by acknowledging the strain of this week. Statistics alone tell me, that there are such memories present in this room. And that every person here has at least one friend or loved one who has their own story, of rape, or trauma.

So let our first task today be, to set our firm intention: that this place might truly be a sanctuary, a place of healing and safety. We have wounds that cannot be seen. Let us treat one another gently.

The country, I know, is divided over these hearings. Whether this room is divided, I cannot say with certainty. On the surface, that division seems to be about the reliability of Dr. Ford’s testimony. Does she accurately remember, after all these years, the identity of her attacker?

Perhaps reasonable people may disagree about this. Or perhaps not.

But there is also another question, a more painful question, that divides us, a question that lies heavy on the hearts of survivors around the world. Not, “Is this story true?” but, “Does it matter?”

Does it matter, if a woman is sexually assaulted? Does it matter still, even if it happened a long time ago? Does it matter, even if she never tells the story? And, does it matter, even if she does?  Will anyone care, will there be any consequences,  DOES IT MATTER?

This isn’t really the sermon I had planned to preach this week. I had planned to riff on the first part of the weekly gospel reading [Mark 10:38-50] — the part where the disciples come across a stranger has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they tell him to stop because he’s not “one of us.” And Jesus tells them, essentially, What are you thinking? Our team doesn’t have a monopoly on grace.

It’s an easy sell, that sermon. I could have been happily and comfortably preaching about inclusivity and common mission and celebrating the good works of others. It would have been a feel-good sermon.

But the events of the week have turned my attention instead to the second part of this week’s reading. The part where Jesus says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Better to enter heaven maimed, then to go intact to hell.”

These are the kind of extreme words that tend to put people off religion. The obsession with sin, the draconian punishments – surely these are relics of a more primitive and violent time. Moreover, the very idea of a lost limb or a blind eye as a punishment for sin can feed into the terrible stigma, that can turn a physical disability or difference into a social disease. Disability is never a deserved punishment (as Jesus also taught).

The fact that Jesus suggests we inflict this punishment on ourselves is an indication that we should not think of this literally, as an actual bodily dismemberment, but figuratively, or spiritually.

But don’t let its symbolic nature fool you. These words are harsh.

Jesus is saying, better to be outwardly maimed, then to be inwardly corrupt. Better to let the whole world see how damaged we are, then to hide our sin behind a seemingly perfect façade.

Jesus is telling us to rip off the bandaid, and let everyone see just how ugly it looks underneath.

Well. Now, that’s a hard thing to do. Because the flesh below is exposed, and still tender. Because we don’t want other people to see it. We don’t want to see the looks on their faces, when they do. Sometimes this is because we want to protect them; sometimes it is because we want to protect ourselves. But sometimes, removing the cover it is the only way to heal the wound.

This week, at the Senate hearing, a bandage was ripped off, and all around the world, we flinched.

Again, let me be clear. Sexual assault is never a self-inflicted wound, but a wound inflicted by one person, on another. This does not mean it is any easier to expose it. The flesh below is still raw. And even when the wound is not our fault, we are often afraid to let other people to see its ugliness. We are afraid to see the looks on their faces, when they do. And we are afraid that they will turn away from us, in order not to see.

So let me be clear. It is the crime, that caused the wound, that is ugly.

There is a word, for the public exposure of an ugly crime. That word, is SCANDAL. We sometimes use that as a synonym for gossip, but they are not quite the same. Gossip provokes laughter. Scandal provokes horror. When we are scandalized, we are shocked to the core. Our trust is shaken.

Scandal is an ancient word, and by chance, it appears in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus speaks of “little ones who believe” — children, perhaps, or perhaps just trusting souls.  Jesus says, “whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to be drowned in the river.” At least, that’s how the saying appears, in many English translations: “to stumble.” Sometimes it is translated, “to sin.” But both of these translations get it wrong. They get the subject of the verb wrong. It’s not that the little ones do something, but that something is done to them. The verb in Greek is SKANDALISE. Jesus says: whoever scandalizes one of these trusting souls, it would be better for him to be drowned.

Jesus is not speaking here of gossip, of social improprieties or breaches of etiquette. Jesus is talking about SCANDAL – about revelation of sin so shocking that it destroys trust. And he lays the blame for that shattered trust at the feet of the perpetrator – saying, in no uncertain terms: this matters.

We live in scandalous times. There is not a week that goes by that does not bring new allegations of abuse. Abuse of power. Abuse of privilege. Abuse of trust.  Abuse of human beings.

We have grown weary of scandal. We have been so thoroughly scandalized, so accustomed to misconduct, that we are beyond being shocked. We are in danger of becoming numb. Of becoming cynical, or resigned, or indifferent.

But this matters.

If you have ever experienced sexual assault or abuse, you don’t need Jesus to tell you that. You don’t need me to tell you that.

But I have been charged to proclaim the gospel. To preach good news to the poor, and release to the captives. And so, you may not need me to tell you this, but I need to say it. We all need to say it.

This matters.

 

Rev. Liza B. Knapp
Sermon preached at the First Church of Deerfield, MA
October 7, 2018

Naming the Flock

A tourist was traveling in the Holy Land, and as he went he came upon a man walking down the road with a flock of sheep. The tourist was surprised to see that the man was walking behind the sheep, and the sheep were trotting along in front of him. So as he passed by, the tourist commented that he thought the sheep followed the shepherd, not the other way around.

The man replied, “That’s the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”

Scripture offers  two very different images of those who tend the flock. On the one hand, we have some rather famous verses from the Gospel of John (10:1-15), in which Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.” On the other hand, we have verses from the Prophet Ezekiel (34:1-16)  (which may be less familiar to us, but which certainly would have been familiar to Jesus) in which Ezekiel speaks of – well, let’s call them the Bad Shepherds. Bad Shepherds do not bring back the scattered, or seek the lost. Bad Shepherds do not feed the sheep, but instead devour them.

I’m sure you all can think of some examples of Bad Shepherds. The headlines are full of them. Coaches, clergy, police, presidents – shepherds who have preyed upon those entrusted to their care, who have profited from those they should have served, who have slaughtered those they were charged to protect.

Good Shepherds make the news from time to time as well, when they lay down their lives for the sheep. I’m sure you can think of examples here, too.

So how do you tell the good shepherds from the bad? Jesus offers us an important clue, in today’s Gospel lesson. The good shepherd, he tells us, calls his sheep by name. And the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.

Now, I have a confession to make here. I grew up in Manhattan, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. So I don’t really have much first-hand experience with livestock. But my friends who grew up in farming communities tell me that as a general rule, there are two groups of animals on the farm: the ones you name, and the ones you eat. It’s best not to let them overlap.

As long as the sheep are unnamed, they are interchangeable. One is as good as another. The sheep we slaughter this season will be replaced by another next season. We may feel some sympathy for their pain, but no real grief at their loss. But it’s harder to devour them, when you know each one by name.

And as with sheep, so with people.  Because all of this talk of sheep and shepherds is of course by way of metaphor. We are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

As long as I think of other people collectively, I can keep my emotional distance from them.  This is why we feel more intense concern for the one named child who falls down a well then we do for the thousands of unnamed children who fall into poverty.  We may feel sympathy for the plight of the poor, or the homeless, but we do not grieve deeply over it.  “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus once said, and he was right. For as long as they are simply, “the poor,” they are interchangeable, replaceable.

In the midst of the “Occupy Boston” movement, I remember reading a newspaper article in which someone was complaining that “the homeless” were stealing things from the protestors tents. As if all the city’s homeless people were there, acting of one accord. When we don’t know our neighbors by name, it is easy to make sweeping generalizations about the homeless, or the poor, or the rich, or the undocumented, or the Democrats, or the Republicans, or the Evangelicals, or the Muslims, or… well, you get the idea.

If you see one sheep, you’ve seen them all.

Unless, of course, you are a sheep.

Or just a good shepherd.

Or both.

**

My first experience in street ministry was as a seminary student with Cathedral of the Night, an open-air church in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. I had been living in Northampton for a few years, but when I started serving its streets I realized that I was finally meeting people I had been blindly passing by for years. I learned their names, and they learned mine.  Walking down Main Street took a lot longer, with so many people to greet.

That’s the interesting thing about learning someone’s name: It’s a two-way process. Whenever you ask someone their name, you begin by telling them yours. You exchange names. There’s a certain inherent vulnerability taking that step. Once you have exchanged names, you can no longer be anonymous to one another. You can no longer pass each other by on the street corner. You are now members of the same flock.

In fact, that’s the tricky thing about this whole sheep metaphor: we are all simultaneously sheep and shepherd. Jesus told his disciples, “feed my sheep.” But he also told them, “I send you out as sheep among wolves.”  As the old hymn tells us, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Yet, we are also all called to be shepherds to one another. To be our brother’s or sister’s keeper. To strengthen the sickly, to heal the diseased, to bind up the broken, to bring back the scattered, to seek the lost – even though we ourselves may be sickly, or broken, or scattered, or lost.

This is the calling of the church to embrace this mixed metaphor — to be shepherd and flock at the same time. It is, after all, what Jesus did. That’s why he is known, not only as the Good Shepherd, but also the Lamb of God.

So here then is our charge on this Good Shepherd Sunday:
Be good shepherds, and love your flock.
Be also good sheep, and love your flock.

For we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts,
April 22, 2018

Photos:
Stained Glass sheep — public domain, source unknown
Lamb — photo by Liza, shepherding by Marti

 

 

Show Me Jesus.

Today is April 15th.  It is two weeks since Easter morning.

But next year, on this same date, Easter will still be one week away. Easter, you see, is a moveable feast. It is tied to both the solar and lunar calendars, so its celebration can fall anywhere from March 22nd to April 25th. Sometimes Easter comes early. Sometimes Easter comes late.

And so it has been, from the very beginning.

For Mary Magdalene, Easter arrived early. It arrived on the morning of the third day, when she heard Jesus call her name outside the empty tomb.

But for most of the disciples, Easter didn’t come until later that evening, when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room where they were hiding.

And then, of course, there’s Thomas.

Today’s gospel reading tells us that Thomas wasn’t in the locked room with the other disciples. He wasn’t there, when Jesus appeared to them. Perhaps he was more fearful than the others, and so was avoiding their company altogether. Or perhaps he was less fearful than the others, and was braving the public streets. Or perhaps he just wanted to be alone in his grief. We don’t know; the scripture doesn’t tell us. All we know is, Thomas wasn’t there.

And so when the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas finds it impossible to believe them.  He hasn’t had the experience the others have had. “Unless I see his hands,” he says, “unless I feel his wounds, I cannot believe.” And so for seven more days, Thomas continues to mourn, even as his friends rejoice. For seven more days, Thomas is left alone in his grief.

But then, on the following Sunday, Jesus comes again. And this time, he has come for Thomas.

“Reach here,” he says to Thomas. Reach here, and see my hands. Reach here with your hand, and touch my side. And do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas, at last, is able to rejoice. Easter has finally come, for Thomas.

*  *  *

Some of the spiritual early risers among us may perhaps identify with Mary Magdalene, walking alone with Jesus in the garden, confident and reassured of his love, hearing the good news that none other has ever heard. Not me. I have always identified with Thomas – the patron saint of the late bloomers and the left behind.

I know most folks refer to him as “doubting Thomas” but this has always struck me as an unfair characterization. Nothing in John’s gospel suggests that Thomas was any more skeptical than the rest of the disciples. After all, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus early Easter morning, but John tells us the other disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord” that evening– not when Mary told them the good news, but when they saw Jesus for themselves.  Thomas was no different from the other disciples in this regard. If Thomas was slow to believe, it was for the simple reason, that he missed Jesus’ visit.

And imagine how that must have felt — to be the one left out of the miracle.

*  *  *

A few years ago I got a phone call from a friend whose mother had recently died of cancer. My friend had just turned thirty, and most of her peers had not yet experienced such a loss, and so she called me long distance, to talk about her grief.

I remember her saying, “I don’t even know how to think about my mother now. I can’t picture my mother because I don’t know where she is. I can’t imagine that her someplace else, like in heaven. It just feels like she’s gone.” And she went on to say, “You know, I’ve heard other people talk about how could feel their parent’s presence even after they died, or how their parent had come to them in their dreams, but that hasn’t happened to me. All I feel is her absence, and all those stories just make me feel more alone.”

Having lost my own Mom to cancer at about the same age, I understood how she felt. Soon after my Mom’s death, I remember receiving a letter from one of my Mom’s oldest and dearest friends – the kind of family friend you call “aunt” even though she’s not really your aunt. And in the letter, my Aunt Alice told me of an experience she had the night my Mom died. She said, she felt my as if my Mom’s spirit had come to her, saying a last goodbye.

I know that this experience comforted her, and I am sure she thought it would be a comfort to me as well, but all I remember thinking was, Why didn’t my Mom come to me? I’m her child, why didn’t she come to comfort me? Alice may have felt my Mom’s presence, but all I could feel was her absence.  I didn’t want hear about my Mom, I wanted to hear from my Mom. I didn’t want to be told; I wanted to be shown.

I sometimes imagine that this is how Thomas felt, when the disciples joyfully told him that Jesus had appeared to them. That they had seen the Lord, and that Thomas had missed it all. Guess Jesus didn’t have time to wait for you, Thomas.  Sorry you didn’t get to see him yourself, but we’ll tell you all about.

But Thomas didn’t want to be told; he wanted to be shown.

*  *  *

Some years ago, I met a man – let’s call him “Henry.” Henry has no job, and no address; when I met him, he had already been living on the streets for several years. And I do mean, on the streets; he refuses to stay in a shelter. Even among the city’s homeless population, he remains apart — an outsider among outsiders.

I did not learn all the details of Henry’s history, but he shared enough for me to understand some of the barriers that keep him from re-entering society; they are real, and they are formidable. Henry does not have an easy life. But one of the things that troubles him most is that he feels himself to be an outsider, even in church. He is still a regular church-goer, in spite of all the other changes in his life. And while his fellow congregants tolerate his presence in worship, they keep him at arm’s length.

I asked him once, if you could get your congregation to really listen to you, what would you want to say to them? Henry answered in six words:

“Why don’t you show me Jesus?”

*  *  *

Sometimes it isn’t enough to be told of Christ’s love. Sometimes, we need to be shown. The Church, after all, isn’t called to be Christ’s biographer, or press secretary, or PR firm. The church is called to be the body of Christ. To show up, and to say “Reach out, and take my hand.”

I know this is not easy to do. To open up our hands is to expose our own wounds. But this is precisely what Christ asks of us. For as our morning meditation* reminds us,

“Christ has no human body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours… are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak.”

 

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Thomas is still out there—in the pews, on the street—waiting for Christ’s touch. But here is the good news: It’s not too late.

Easter, you see, is a moveable feast.  It goes where it is needed.

 

 

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, April 15, 2018, for The First Church of Deerfield, MA

*Meditation: Rev. Mark Guy Pearse (1888), adapted by Sarah Eliza Rowntree (1892); sometimes apocryphally attributed to St. Teresa.

Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio.

 

 

 

 

Easter Fools.

Happy—- April Fool’s Day.

It’s not every year that Easter falls on April Fool’s day, but there is always something a bit foolish about it.

For fool’s we must be, to believe this outlandish tale. Empty tombs? Resurrected bodies? Nonsense.

It sounds like an elaborate hoax. You can just imagine the hidden camera waiting near the tomb for the moment when Jesus whips off his gardener costume and reveals the prank at Mary Magdalene’s expense. You can imagine the other disciples emerging from their hiding places, saying “OMG Mary, you should have seen your face!”

Truth be told, as a kid I was never a big fan of April Fool’s Day. I didn’t like the idea of being set up. I didn’t like being tricked. I didn’t like people laughing at me.

Neither, apparently, did the men who followed Jesus. When the women returned from the tomb with tales of resurrection, they dismissed their witness as mere silliness. They weren’t going to fall for it. It was clearly too good to be true. Like those phone messages I get all the time telling me I’ve won a free vacation cruise. Who falls for that?

Fools, that’s who.

But which part, I wonder, did they find more unbelievable? That Jesus was now alive? Or that he had died in the first place? Was believing in a resurrected messiah any more ridiculous than believing in a crucified one? Fool me once…

In the catacombs of Rome, there is an ancient piece of graffiti that shows a young man worshipping a crucified, donkey headed figure. The Greek inscription says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Whoever this Alexamenos was, his buddies clearly found his religion hysterical.

Well, they were right. If we think this story is anything other than ridiculous, we are probably missing the point. The apostle Paul admits as much:

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others, but to those whom God has called, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

But notice that the foolishness Paul refers to here is not the resurrection, but the crucifixion. The stumbling block to faith in Christ was not the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, but rather the way that he died in the first place. What sort of messiah gets nailed to a cross?

The job of the messiah was to restore the nation, to vanquish its enemies, to free it from occupation. To make Israel great again. Getting executed was a pretty poor start to that project. Who follows a messiah like that?

Fools, that’s who.

To make things even more ridiculous, some of his followers had now begun to preach that Jesus himself was somehow God, in human form. The supreme creator of the universe, nailed to a cross. Who wants a God like that?

Fools, that’s who.

But really, the foolishness began even before the crucifixion. Jesus had been spouting foolishness from the moment he began to preach. “Blessed are the poor,” for example. That’s just silly. You start off saying blessed are the poor, and right away people expect a punchline – “How blessed are they Johnny?”

Then there was that nonsense about forgiving people not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Who does that? Or that nutty thing Jesus said about turning the other cheek. Only a fool would let down their guard, after they’ve been punched.

Yet, in every generation, in every nation, in every faith, there have been folks who believed this sort of foolishness. Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai. Saint Francis of Assisi took the blessedness of poverty so seriously that he once stripped naked in public and walked away without his clothing. Talk about embarrassing. That is the stuff of nightmares. But it is also the stuff of sainthood.

Every saint is a fool, one way or another.

Before I continue, I need to pause here a moment for lesson in basic logic. The proposition that “every saint is a fool” does not imply that the converse is true as well.

Not every fool is a saint.

The mere fact that you have appeared on America’s Funniest Home Videos does not qualify you for sainthood. There are as many varieties of foolishness there are human beings, and many of them have nothing to do with saintliness.

Jesus tells this story, of a foolish man who found himself with a surplus of grain. Rather than share it, he built himself a huge barn, so that he might story up a supply to last him all his days. No sooner was the project finished, than the man died in his sleep.

Lord, what fools these mortal be, Shakespeare wrote. Foolishness is our lot in life. It runs in the family. So maybe the only real question, then, is: What kind of fool do you want to be?

Many, many years ago, when I was going through a pretty severe crisis of faith, I sought guidance from my childhood pastor, John MacNab. John had baptized me as an infant and confirmed me as a teenager, and now as a young adult I was hoping that perhaps he could tell me something that could dispel the panic of uncertainty I was feeling.

I asked him bluntly, “What if it’s just not true?”

“What if what isn’t true?” he asked.

“God, Jesus, any of it,” I answered.

“Well,” he replied, “then it sure was a great story.”

I remember finding this a distinctly un-reassuring answer at the time. At the time, I suppose I was hoping for some sort of logical proof or conclusive evidence to secure my faith. But John was expressing what Martin Luther also taught: that faith is ultimately not about certainty, but about love. Perhaps John was a fool. But he was a holy fool.

If you look up the phrase gospel truth, you will find one of its definitions to be “unquestionable fact.” But I don’t buy that. Everything about the gospel is in fact highly questionable. Its claims are outrageous and ridiculous, and nothing can prove them otherwise. So what is the gospel truth?  The gospel truth is the truth that makes us free.

Free to be foolish, in the eyes of the world. Free to love your enemies. Free to respond to violence with peace. Free to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, free to lay down your life, free to speak truth to power, free to embrace the outcast, free to befriend the sinner. Free to love, and do as you will.

Mary Magdalene could offer no proof, of her encounter with Jesus in the garden, and the rest of the disciples were unpersuaded. But she testified to what she knew: that Jesus had called her by name.  For Mary, that was the gospel truth.

This my friends is the gospel truth I share with you today: that God loves you, however foolish that may seem. And nothing can put an end to that.

Christ is risen.

Happy April Fool’s Day.

Easter Prayer (John 20:15)

You rise to walk among us, God,
not as an angel,
unsoiled and untouchable,
but as a gardener,
hands in the soil,
feet on the ground —
and we are amazed to find you
so down to earth.

Help us to bloom.

For we know what we are,
but what we shall be
is yet to appear.

Prune us where we need pruning,
so that we may bear sweeter fruit.

We pray today for those among us
who have lost all hope of spring –

we who have stopped believing
that the drought will end,
or the war will end,
or the pain will end,
or the injustice will end,
or the fever will break,
or the depression will lift,
or the demons will let us go,
or the stone will ever roll away.

Prove us wrong again,
as you did on Easter morning.

Gracious Gardener,
we are the flowers of your heart;
shine on us,
that we your people
may at last become
beautiful.

The Stories We Remember

Jesus entered a city on edge.

On Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims, faithful Jews from all over Israel. They were there for the celebration of the Passover. They were gathering in Jerusalem, just as families will be gathering in their homes later this week, to hear again the story of their deliverance. The Passover Seder may have been different then, but the Passover story was the same: how God heard the cry of a suffering and enslaved people, and led them, with many signs and wonders, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, into the freedom that was their birthright.

That’s a mighty dangerous story to tell to an enslaved and colonized people. No telling what sort of ideas they might get.

On Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was also crowded with Roman soldiers, keeping a close eye on the crowds. They knew that Passover could be a particularly troublesome time in this occupied city. Crowds could get out of hand. A strong show of force would be needed to keep things under control. Any sign of unrest, and the Empire’s response would be swift and brutal. The High Priests knew this, and did their best to keep the celebration peaceful and orderly, for fear of retribution.

It was fine for the people to celebrate the Exodus of long ago, to tell the ancient story of deliverance. The danger was, that they might apply it to the present day. That the people might decide, not merely to tell it, but to live it. For who was Pharaoh, now?

Yet this had been God’s command to the people of Israel: that they tell this story every year – so that their children, and their children’s children, might remember it. Consider that word: re-member. It is the opposite of dis-member.  When we re-member a story, we give it hands and feet, arms and legs. We embody it.

Which was exactly what the Priests and the Soldiers were afraid of.

Their concern would be shared, centuries later, by American slaveholders, many of whom forbid their slaves to read the Bible for themselves. The white preachers offered an enslaved people a carefully censored scripture of obscure verses from minor epistles, urging obedience to masters. But meanwhile, out in the hush arbors, far from the masters’ eyes, stories of the Exodus spread like wildfire. When Harriet Tubman began to smuggle her people to freedom, they named her Moses.

Such is the power, of a story remembered.

So it is no wonder, that Jerusalem was on edge, on that Passover long ago.

And now, into this troubled mix comes Jesus, and right away, they can see he’s trouble. He  rides into town on a donkey, openly mocking the imperial procession with its display of military might. It’s a piece of guerrilla street theater. Jesus is acting out a scene from scripture, a verse from the prophet Hezekiah: Shout O daughter Jerusalem, for behold, your King comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. The people recognize the story, and they join in, playing their part – until the line between past and present begins to blur, and the story is no longer an historical reenactment, but an act of non-violent civil disobedience.

Years ago I saw a stage production of Crime and Punishment, in which the lead actor strode on stage, picked up one of the footlights, and turned it around, so that it illuminated the audience members. Suddenly we weren’t just watching the play, we were in it.

I imagine that Palm Sunday was something like that. Jesus broke through that fourth wall, the invisible barrier between stage and spectator, past and present, religion and real life. Suddenly the people weren’t just telling the story; they were living it.

Such is the is power of a story remembered.

For the past few days, my Facebook feed has been filled with photographs — images of processions filling the streets of cities and towns all around this country, of protest marches led by young people of all genders and races. And among these images, I found this thoughtful posting, reflecting upon the youthful determination of the student protesters:

“Conservative parents in the 90s burned copies of the early Harry Potter books because they feared the influence of fictional wizardry and magic. They should have looked deeper. Their children are smart enough to know the difference between the fantasy of magic and the reality of bravery in a world with pervasive darkness. Through J.K. Rowling, they have seen “their” school be attacked by and defended from far more frightening forces than lawmakers and ministers. They have learned that evil doesn’t live in one villain, but is spread into others and sometimes feels like it’s screaming across the sky. But you don’t give up. You don’t run. You don’t hide. You pick up the sword of Gryffindor — whatever that is in your life — and you wield it with all your strength until every last flailing lashing venomous reptile lays at your feet. That’s perhaps Ms. Rowling’s most important and lasting legacy. Not magic, but persistent courage and perseverant action. This is the Harry Potter generation, and they’re picking up their swords.”

Such is the power, even now, of the stories we tell.

What story will you remember, this Holy Week?

Embed from Getty Images

 

SERMON by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, March 25, 2018.

IMAGES:

Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1846). Christ Entering Jerusalem, from the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

David Silverman, Getty Images (2010). A Palestinian boy carries palm branches for sale to Christian pilgrims, past Israeli police guarding the traditional Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City of Jerusalem, March 28, 2010.

Palm Sunday Prayer

It is easy to sing praises,
when the palm branches wave and spring is in the air.
It is easy to speak out,
when it costs us nothing and earns us applause.
It is easy to march
when the sun is shining and the police are friendly.
And it is easy to fall away, when the seasons change.O God of the broken, God of the cross, God of the scattered stones:
Give us courage enough to stand with You until the bitter end;
and hope enough to rise in the morning, when You begin again.
   (NB: Did I write this? Possibly.  If you know otherwise, please tell me.)