Apocalypse III: Here be dragons

I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…. My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death.

So says the dragon, Smaug, in JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit.

Dragons have been part of the human imagination for almost as long as human have had an imagination. They cross cultural boundaries and endure across the ages, emerging in our dreams, our stories, and our art until this very day. The dragon in the myth may be slain, but the myth itself persists.

Why, then, are surprised to find the dragon lurking in the pages of our Bible?

Perhaps it is because we think of such creatures as suitable only for fairy tales and children’s stories. As the old song says, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” Sooner or later, we grow up and realize that dragons aren’t real, fairy tales aren’t true, and there are no monsters under the bed. So as much as we may enjoy watching Game of Thrones at night, it’s a bit embarrassing to find such creatures appearing here in church on Sunday morning, lurking among the pages of the book of Revelation (Rev 12:1-12).

This is a night vision, this dragon of the Apocalypse. John of Patmos dreamed a dream, told a tale, saw a vision – pick whichever words you wish, but somehow, there came into John’s imagination a great red dragon. Emerging out of the darkness of John’s subconscious, it crouches in wait before a pregnant woman, ready to devour her child at birth.

It is an ancient and powerful image, one that was internationally known in John’s day. The dragon menacing the queen of heaven is a myth that appeared in various forms in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. To a Christian reader, the mother and her child are Mary and Jesus; to a Jewish reader, they are Israel and the Messiah; more universally, they are every mother and every child; they are the present and the future.

The child is hope, and the dragon threatens to devour it.

But in John’s vision, the mother and child are not alone. The child of hope is swept up in the arms of God, the mother flees to a place of sanctuary, and the hosts of heaven wage war on the red dragon. The serpent is cast down, from heaven to earth, where it continues its battle – not against angels, but against the children of the earth.

This is the stuff of high fantasy. Apocalypse is an ancient literary genre unto itself, with no precise modern equivalent; but if I had to shelve it in a bookstore or library, I think I would put it, not in the religion section, but next to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or The Handmaid’s Tale. In saying this, I do not in any way intend to diminish its importance, or to deny its truth.  At its best, speculative fiction creates a counter-reality that can unmask the status quo. It is inherently and powerfully subversive.

How else to explain the fact that in Thailand, following the military coup, young people began signing their resistance by flashing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games? Or that, here in the US, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, groups of women took to the streets dressed in the red cloaks and white hoods of The Handmaid’s Tale? In recent years, at anti-Fascist protests around the world, you can see young people carrying signs that say “Dumbledore’s Army.”  Such is the power of myth.

So let us return to our dragon. Defeated in heaven, the red dragon falls to earth, to wage war against its inhabitants. But it does not do so directly; instead, it gives its “authority” – its power – to a great and monstrous beast that arises from the sea. This Great Beast in turn relies on another – a lesser beast from the earth – which acts as its agent and enforcer, demanding loyalty to the Great Beast. (Rev. 13:1-18)

Who, or what, is this Great Beast from the sea, this earthly incarnation of the dragon’s power? John gives us two details: first, that the Beast has seven heads, one of which has a mortal wound, yet lives; and second, that the number of the Beast is 666. These are clues to be deciphered by John’s readers; as he himself says: “this calls for wisdom.”

Here John’s vision becomes less global and more particular; for beasts, in the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition, represent specific earthly empires. In this case the beast with seven crowned heads is Rome and its seven emperors; the seventh head, with the mortal wound, refers to the Emperor Nero, who was at the time variously rumored to have committed suicide or to have survived the attempt.

As for the number of the beast: in Hebrew numerology, each letter has a number, and so each word has a corresponding number that is the sum of all its letters. The sum of the name Nero Caesar, is 666.

At this point, John’s vision becomes less high fantasy, and more political allegory; a bit less like Lord of the Rings, and more like Animal Farm.

Animal Farm, for those unfamiliar with it, is a classic twentieth century fable by George Orwell. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rise up in revolution against the tyranny of their farmer. In this they are led by the pigs, who encourage them to build a utopian society in which all animals are equal. In time, however, the pigs themselves become as tyrannical as the farmers.

To those familiar contemporary world history, Animal Farm is clearly an allegory of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs corresponding to its leaders: Old Major is Karl Marx, Snowball is Trotsky, and the aptly named Napolean is Stalin. To those who are unfamiliar with this history, the story is still compelling, for its warning against totalitarianism rings true in any age.

And so it is with the book of Revelation. John’s contemporaries would have recognized his symbolism as referring to the particular political realities of their own time. Those of us farther removed from this setting may still find his vision compelling, for the forces of empire are active in every age. But we misinterpret the story if we read it too literally.

Let me be perfectly clear here; to come away from Revelation with a fear of the number 666 is like coming away from Animal Farm with a fear of pigs. In either case, it is to profoundly miss the point.

The purpose of John’s Apocalypse – and arguably, the purpose of Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale as well – is to unveil the true nature of the Empire’s power, and to give courage to those who refuse to bow down before it. Apocalyptic literature is, in John’s own words, “a call for the endurance of the saints.” It is a loud and clear warning to those who drift into tyranny: Here be dragons.

This is no children’s fable. Quite the opposite.

I have been thinking back, this week, on the dragons of my childhood. Pete Seeger introduced me to Puff, the Magic Dragon, who frolicked in the autumn breeze with little Jackie Paper. Disney brought me the Reluctant Dragon, who wrote poetry and shared a cup of tea with the knight who came to slay him. Meanwhile, my books about dinosaurs taught me that giant lizards were a thing of the past.

But real dragons are neither pets or playmates. Real dragons devour and destroy. Take Smaug, for example. Now, that’s a dragon. He sits on a massive pile of plunder, for which he has slaughtered thousands. He craves gold – which is to say, wealth for wealth’s sake, power for power’s sake – and he will stop at nothing to acquire it.

As a child, I was lulled into believing, there were no real dragons. But I am no longer sure of that.

Real dragons cannot be seen by human eyes, or slain by human hands. Dragons exist in our world, the “real world,” only by proxy. They enlist us, to do their damage for them – to despoil and to dominate, to torture and to kill. We cannot lay hands on racism itself, or greed itself, or tyranny itself. But they are real enough. We can choose to serve them; or we can resist.

So, my fellow Hobbits, my fellow Handmaids, my fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army, take heart. You are not alone.

I leave you with this word of encouragement from John’s revelation:

The dragon’s wrath is great, because he knows his time is short.

 

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 19, 2019

(photo: Image from the 11th century Bamberg Apocalypse. Wikimedia Commons. )

Apocalypse II: Earth Day

While the sage, Honi, was walking along the road,
he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honie asked him,
“How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

“Seventy years,” replied the man.

“Are you so healthy a man, that you expect to
live that length of time and eat its fruit?

The man answered, “I found a fruitful world
because my ancestors planted it for me.
Likewise I am planting for my children.”

(from the Babylonian Talmud, taanit 23a)

Today is Mother’s Day. I am fortunate to be the mother of two kids who like to cook. So tonight, I can look forward to a delicious supper prepared by my daughters.

But I am not only a mother, but also a daughter. My Mom died some 25 years ago. What gift can I give her? How can I honor her, on Mother’s Day?

The story of Honi and the Carob Tree suggests an answer. It is a simple tale, with a simple moral: We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants. Not a bad message, really, for Mother’s Day: We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

It is a lesson easily understood, but less easily followed.

**

Last week the United Nations released a report on the state of the planet. It summarizes the results of some 15,000 scientific and government studies, and concludes that of the earth’s 8 million species, some 1 million are in danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some of us in the room right now, will live to see this happen.

As luck, or providence, would have it, that report hit the headlines at the same time that the common church lectionary cycle turned to the Book of Revelation.  It was hard to miss the parallel between the two. The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, but, honestly, as I went back and forth between the two, between the scripture and the news, it was hard to know which was which.

On the one hand, I read that “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 percent of the global terrestrial area,” that habitat integrity has declined by 30% globally, that from 1990 to 2015 we cut down over twice as much forest as we planted, with a net loss of some 180 million hectares of trees.

In the other, I read that “a third of the earth was burned, and a third of the trees were burned, and the green grass was burned.”

On the one hand, I read “33 percent of global fisheries are overexploited.”
On the other, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died.”

When the daily news starts sounding like the Apocalypse, something is very wrong.

**

Around the year 100 – some three generations after Jesus was born – a follower of Jesus named John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It was there, the book of Revelation tells us, that John one day fell into a trance, and dreamed a dream – or a series of dreams – about the End of the World. His dreams are filled with cycles of seven – which in Hebrew numerology, meant cycles of completion. Seven lamps, seven seals, seven bowls, and, in today’s reading, seven trumpets, each bringing a new revelation.

The blast of the first four trumpets reveal massive environmental collapse. A third of the green earth perishes, a third of the sea creatures perish, a third of the waters are poisoned, a third of the stars are dimmed. (Revelation 8:6-13)

For John, this was a dream of unimaginable disaster. For us, it is still unimaginable, but it is no longer a dream, but a looming reality. We fell the forests, we empty the seas, we pollute our waters, even our view of the stars is dimmed by human activity; compared to the sky our ancestors saw, our own night sky is impoverished of stars.

We are living John’s dream, and it is time to wake up.

**

Now, in saying this, let me be clear: I do not necessarily mean to say, that John’s dream was a prediction of our present day crisis. I know that some see in these events the fulfillment of a prophecy, and come to the conclusion that somehow all of this is part of God’s plan, if not God’s actual doing. But the belief that God has ordained the destruction of our planet is a poor reading of scripture, not to mention a poor basis for environmental stewardship.

The first four blasts of the trumpet are followed by two more, which we skipped over in today’s reading. These bring a vision of suffering and death which will afflict the human species. For how can humans prosper, if earth perishes? But as terrible as they are, none of these events are punishments, or judgments. Judgment comes with the seventh trumpet.

The trumpet sounds, and the hosts of heaven declare:

The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God;
the time has come for judging the dead, for rewarding the saints,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev 8:15-18)

This devastation is not God’s doing. It is ours, and we are accountable for it.

The First Earth Day was in 1970; I was six years old. We were supposed to be the green generation. There was – and still is, I think – this belief that if we just teach our children about the environment, then the future of the planet will be secure. But the problem is, the world is not run by children, and children, unfortunately, turn into adults. Look at us. We knew better, but we have failed to do better; if anything, we have burdened the planet in unprecedented ways.  We currently extract around 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year – that’s twice as much as generation ago.

We have eat the fruit of the carob tree; but instead of planting another, we cut the tree down, and paved over the orchard.

I’d like to be able to point the finger here, to blame our problems on someone else, on Big Oil or Big Government or people who drive Big Cars. But the truth is, we are all complicity, because our entire way of life is built on a wrong attitude toward nature. And – as T.S. Eliot once remarked – a wrong attitude about nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude about God.

Today, both nature and scripture, both science and religion, both speak to the urgency of our condition.

For here is the conclusion, of the UN report on the environment: “Goals for conserving… nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and… may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” [emphasis mine]

To rephrase this, in the traditional language of faith: Repent, for the time is at hand.

**

About five years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was part of the church I was serving at the time. At the time he was about seventeen, so I guess he would be around 23 now. We met at a coffee shop, and talked about his life, and toward the end of the conversation I asked him, What does your generation want from the church? And he said: Hope?

The children of today can see what is happening, to the planet, and they fear for their futures. They know our climate is collapsing, they know our environment is degrading, and they are afraid. They are afraid that we can’t do anything about it. But even more than that, they are afraid we won’t do anything about it. As children protest, in the streets of London, in the streets of Greenfield, they are looking to us, for some sign of hope.

We are the grownups now. We have eaten the carob fruit. It is time to plant some seeds of hope.

The story of Honi and the carob tree is a simple one. Its lesson is easily understood, but less easily followed.

We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants.

We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

May it be so.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 12, 2019

Desolate Trees in the Sandy Desert of Deadvlei Hiking Trail. These trees perished when the local climate changed some thousand years ago. (Photo by Marcel Novais;  Wikimedia Commons)

 

Apocalypse I: ending with a comma

Spring in New England is lambing season; they arrive just in time for Easter, all fuzzy, gentle, and innocent as… well, lambs.  And with all these lambs popping up in our fields, it seems seasonally appropriate that they pop up in our Easter celebrations — not only in our children’s Easter baskets, but also in our Eastertide readings. Every year, in May, the liturgical calendar marks Good Shepherd Sunday, with verses from the Gospel of John, about the tender shepherd, who calls his sheep by name.

This, however, is not that Sunday.

Today, Jesus appears as the Lamb of God, but not as the sweet and cuddly lamb of our Easter baskets. No, this is a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb, before whom the people cry out in fear, “Save us from the wrath of the lamb!” It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or some sort of B grade horror film. I’ve never seen an Easter card with a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb on it, and no one would give a child one to play with.

Happy Easter – welcome to the Apocalypse.

***

The book of Revelation – or, to call it by its Greek name, the Apocalypse — is arguably the weirdest book of the New Testament, and certainly the most violent. Those of us in the mainline churches, who like to think of our faith as rational and peace loving, tend to find Revelation disturbing, if not downright embarrassing.  It comes up in the common cycle of scripture readings only every third year, and even then the readings are highly selective; we skip over the most outlandish sections. Meanwhile, in other branches of the Christian family tree, the entire Book of Revelation is embraced as, literally, the final word on their faith – a reliable guide to the end times.

This divergence of opinion is not new. The book of Revelation has been controversial from its beginning. It barely squeaked into the canon; when the church begin drawing up lists of the “official” Christian scripture, there was fairly wide consensus about the Gospels and the Letters, but the church leaders of the day were sharply divided over the Revelation.

So what sort of book is this strange, last chapter of the Bible?

Well, for starters, it is emphatically not a Gospel. The four canonical gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are testimonies to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as variously remembered and passed on by his Apostles. The gospels claim their authority from this Apostolic witness.

The author of the book of Revelation, however, makes no such claim of Apostolic authority. He tells us his name is John, but John was a common name, and nowhere does he claim to be the Apostle John. We know only this – that he was a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, that he was exiled to the island of Patmos, and that while there, he saw visions, which he believed were sent by God. It was these visions that impelled him to write his Apocalypsis – a Greek word which means, revelation.

So how are we to read such a book?

Certainly not in the same way we would read a gospel story, or one of Paul’s letters. Dreams and visions have a language and narrative logic of their own. The shape of our dreams is informed  by our experiences and our traditions – our external and internal landscapes, if you will – but also by wells of meaning and creativity beyond the grasp of our conscious minds.  John had a vision, of a heavenly throne, surrounded by winged creatures, and of a sealed scroll – a secret, waiting to be revealed. He is told that the only one able to open the scroll is the Lion of Judah; but when he appears, he is no lion, but a slaughtered lamb – not the predator, but the prey. Yet somehow, in the way of dreams, he can be both of those things. The one who conquered, is somehow the same one who was slaughtered.

Clearly, this is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not, literally, a seven-eyed lamb, any more than he is, literally, a lion. But there are truths best seen in the non-literal world; in the world of dreams, or of poetry, or of imagination; in the world of symbols and signs, of art and archetype.

John’s vision is full of images and phrases from his Jewish faith tradition – the winged creatures around the throne are found in the prophet Ezekiel, the Lion of Judah is a phrase from the book of Genesis, the lamb to the slaughter is an image from the prophet Isaiah. The God of his ancestors has visited John in his dreams, thereby revealing himself to John as God not only of the past, but of the present, and the future – the one who was, and is, and is to come.

***

It is that God-who-is-to-come that calls to John, that haunts his dreams. For from where John is standing, God has unfinished business.

For where was the promised kingdom of heaven? The Roman Empire was no realm of God. The righteous still perished, while the wicked prospered.

These are the first secrets revealed, when the scroll’s first four seals are broken. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – which is simply to say, the four horsemen ‘revealed’  — embody the injustice and suffering of this world: warfare, civil strife, economic exploitation, an death.  None of these is new. None of these is yet to come. They are the terrible reality of our human past and our human present. They were the reality of John’s world as well as of our own, the reality we hide from, the reality we push away from our conscious minds, as perhaps John did. But they emerged in his dreams, taking on the shape of monsters and mythic creatures.

When the fifth seal is broken, it reveals the company of the martyrs, those who have died in witness to their faith, those who have suffered for speaking the truth, those who have been punished for their righteousness. And they cry out the question of all those who thirst for justice: How long? O Lord, how long?

This is the cry of John’s heart as well.

This dream, this revelation, came to John in the midst of a crisis of faith: For he believed God’s messiah had come in Christ; yet the four horsemen continued to ravage the earth.  Suffering continued, with no end in sight.

No wonder John dreamed of the End Times.

John needed to know, that the horsemen would not ride forever; he needed to know, that dead would be avenged; he needed to know, that justice would prevail.  He needed to know, that the future still belonged to God.

As do we.

***

There is a deep irony in the fact that this book was the last admitted to the official Canon, before the church sealed it shut. For its very existence points beyond the traditions of the faith, beyond the teachings of the elders, beyond the infallibility of scripture, even. The book itself warns that nothing may be added to its words; but the book itself is an addition, a divine addendum, an acknowledgement of truth yet to break forth. The Bible ends, not with a period, but with a comma.

The very possibility of revelation — of dreams yet to be dreamed, of deeds yet to be accomplished, of surprises yet to come — is deeply hopeful.  For like John, we live in an unfinished world, and so we need an unfinished gospel.

John’s dreams may not be our dreams, but perhaps their presence among these holy writings can give us permission, and courage, to dream our own dreams, and hear the word that God is still speaking, to us.

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
May 5, 2019
The First Church of Deerfield, MA
Lead photo shows Jacob sheep lambs (from JacobSheepSociety.com),
who grow up to look like this (from WashingtonPost.com)

 

Easter 2019

Jesus was dead, to begin with.

Okay, so I actually just stole that opening line from Charles Dickens. It’s the first line of a “Christmas Carol” – “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” But it works just as well, for Jesus:

Jesus was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The fact of Jesus’ death is probably the only aspect of his life upon on which there is universal agreement among historians. So we begin there. Jesus was dead, to begin with.

And unlike Marley, he left no great fortune behind him. His net worth was zero. His followers had deserted him. By any reasonable measure of worldly success, Jesus was not a success.

He was dead, to begin with; and then, there was the manner of his death – not a peaceful rest at the end of a long and successful life, not even a heroic death in battle, but a shameful death. He was a criminal, condemned and crucified.  Crucifixion was a sentence designed to strip its victims of their humanity. Such a death was hardly the stuff of legends.

In fact there was a belief among some of the people at the time that those who were crucified were not only dead, but cursed; abandoned by God. Certainly those who performed the crucifixion intended to create that impression. Lynch mobs in every era claim they are hanging the devil on the tree.

In other words, Jesus was not only dead; he was dead wrong. His crucifixion proved it.

This Jesus was no Son of God – that title belonged to Caesar. Jesus was just another failed messiah, another would-be revolutionary, another heretic gone astray. Jesus would be barely a footnote in the history of the Empire; after all, history is written by the victors. Jesus was dead, and as far as the world was concerned, that settled the matter. End of story.

And indeed, that is how the story would have ended, were it not for Easter morning. Instead, it is how the story begins. Jesus was dead – to begin with.

**

You have already heard what comes next — how his lifeless body was laid in a tomb behind a great stone; how the women came in the morning, to find the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. (Luke 24: 1-12)

The image of that empty tomb is so startling to us, that we sometimes can’t move past it. The idea of a dead body brought to life is so astonishing, so disturbing, really, that we either are transfixed by the miracle or turned off by it. This is not the sort of hope we are accustomed to embracing. It seems too good to be true.

And although we are here on Easter Sunday, I know that most of us probably cannot quite wrap our heads around the reality of this event. That’s okay.  Let us proceed with the story; let us continue, as if, the tomb were empty. As if, Jesus was risen indeed. And let us ask ourselves: what does this resurrection mean?

Well, for those who were close to Jesus, the resurrection meant joy and thanksgiving: the one they lost was restored to them. For Peter, who had denied him, it meant forgiveness, and a second chance. For them, this personal, intimate aspect of resurrection would have been enough to make Easter holy.

But unlike the rest of the apostles, Paul never knew Jesus before his death. When Jesus died, Paul did not grieve. Indeed, he may well have celebrated. Paul – or Saul, as he was known at the time – was a fierce opponent of the Jesus movement, an agent of orthodoxy. In the years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul’s mission was to find those who still followed him, to round them up and bring them, as he supposed, to justice. Jesus’ crucifixion had snuffed the flame of rebellion, but there were still some embers scattered about, and it was Paul’s job to stomp them out.

When Paul finally encounter Jesus himself, it was not in the flesh, but as a vision, a dazzling light that stopped him in his tracks. Paul was travelling on the road to Damascus, when he experienced a sudden moment of absolute, blinding clarity in which he heard a voice ask: Saul, why are you persecuting me? — a question to which Paul suddenly found he had no answer.

Paul’s experience of resurrection came long after Easter morning; it did not involve an empty tomb; but a stone was rolled away nonetheless. The miracle of the resurrection was, for Paul, not so much a miracle of resuscitation, as it was a miracle of revelation. The truth that had been hidden, became suddenly plain, as he saw God in the face of the persecuted.

A remarkable thing happened, after that moment on the road to Damascus. Paul joined the very movement he had tried to destroy. He loved the people whom he had formerly despised; he told the stories which he had formerly suppressed; he bore the punishments he had formerly inflicted, and he bore them without fear or shame. For, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans (8: 31-39) : If God is for us, who is against us?  It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?

**

There was a time, in human history, when disputes could be legally settled by combat. The plaintiff and defendant would take arms, or choose a champion, and the two would battle it out in order to determine which party was in the right. Justice was determined by strength, and truth was determined by violence. The conqueror was justified by his own conquest.

Jesus lived in such a time. His own people may been people of the law, but the final arbiter of all dispute was the empire. Caesar was the ultimate judge, because Caesar had conquered. In such a time, there can meaningful distinction between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong. The only relevant distinction is between the weak and the powerful, the conqueror and the conquered, the winners and the losers, the dead and the living.

In such a world, winning is everything; and Jesus lost. For he was no conqueror.  Just another voice in the wilderness, silenced by the powers that be.

Jesus was dead, to begin with. But not forever. Because history may be written by the victors; but the truth belongs to God.

We need this story of Easter today, because we need to know that truth is still truth, and that love is still love, and that God is still God, no matter who is on the throne.  We need to know that the oppressed matter, that the persecuted are beloved.  We need to resist the temptation to become conquerors ourselves, just to prove our point. For we are more than conquerors. We are the children of the resurrection.

We are not afraid.

For we are convinced, wrote Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.

Jesus was dead, to begin with.

But we know how the story ends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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.

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.